Dead Precedents: The Lost Tapes

Music

 

Editor’s Note: Early this year, Dr. Roy Christopher published Dead Precedents: How Hip-Hop Defines the Future (Repeater Books, 2019). Dead Precedents, taking its cue from afro-futurist tendencies, seeks to track the congruent trajectory of the growth of hip-hop and the 21st century as such with the former being the blueprint of the latter. The following essay is the B-Side to Christopher's examination, providing an introduction to the book as well as novel examples to supplement his analysis.

 

 

Several years ago, on one of my online profiles under books, I listed only Donald Goines and Philip K. Dick. If you don’t know them, Donald Goines wrote about himself and his associates and their struggles as street hustlers, pimps, players, and dope fiends. Philip K. Dick wrote about the brittleness of reality, its wavy, funhouse perceptions through drugs and dreams. Goines wrote 16 books in five years and Dick wrote 44 in 30 years. Both were heavy users of mind-altering substances, heroin and amphetamines respectively, and both helped redefine the genres in which they wrote. They interrogated the nature of human identity, one through the inner city and the other through inner space.

 

While I am certainly a fan of both authors, I posted them together on my profile as a kind of gag. I thought their juxtaposition was weird enough to spark questions if you were familiar with their work, and if you weren’t, it wouldn’t matter. I had no idea that I would be writing about the overlapping layers of their legacies so many years later.

 

To retrofit a description, one could say that Goines’ books are gangster-rap literature. They’re referenced in rap songs by everyone from Tupac and Ice-T to Ludacris and Nas. In many instances, Dick’s work could be called proto-cyberpunk. The Philip K. Dick Award was launched the year after he died, and two of the first three were awarded to the premiere novels of cyberpunk: Software by Rudy Rucker in 1983 and Neuromancer by William Gibson in 1985.

 

When cyberpunk and hip-hop were both entering their Golden Age, I was in high school. One day, I was walking up my friend Thomas Durdin’s driveway and by the volume of the AC/DC sample that forms the backbone of Boogie Down Productions’ “Dope Beat,” I knew his mom wasn’t home. Along with the decibel level, I was also struck by how the uncanny pairing of Australian hard rock and New York street slang sounded. It was gritty. It was brash. It rocked. De La Soul’s 1996 record, Stakes is High, opens with the question, “Where were you when you first heard Criminal Minded?” That moment was a door opening to a new world. I didn’t realize it then, but that new world was the 21st century, and hip-hop was its blueprint.

 

I distinctly remember that the label on the record spinning around on Thomas’ turntable incorrectly named the song “Hope Beats,” an interesting mistake given that DJ Scott La Rock was killed just months after the record came out, prompting KRS-One to start the Stop the Violence movement. Where Criminal Minded is often cited as a forerunner of gangster rap, KRS-One was thereafter dedicated to peace. I’d heard hip-hop before, but the unfamiliar familiarity of the “Back in Black” guitar samples in that song make that particular day stick in my head.

 

Long before hip-hop went digital, mixtapes — those floppy discs of the boombox and car stereo — facilitated the spread of underground music. The first time I heard hip-hop, it was on such a tape with hisses and pops being as much a part of the experience of those mixes as the scratching and rapping. We didn’t even know what to call it, but we stayed up late to listen. We copied and traded those tapes until they were barely listenable. As soon as I figured out how, I started making my own. We watched hip-hop go from those scratchy mixtapes to compact discs to shiny-suit videos on MTV, from Fab 5 Freddy to Public Enemy to P. Diddy, from Run-DMC to N.W.A. to Notorious B.I.G. Others lost interest along the way. I never did.

 

A lot of people all over the world heard those early tapes and were impacted as well. Having spread from New York City to parts unknown, hip-hop became a global phenomenon. Every school has aspiring emcees, rapping to beats banged out on lunchroom tables. Every city has kids rhyming on the corner, trying to outdo each other with adept attacks and clever comebacks. The cipher circles the planet. In a lot of places, hip-hop culture is American culture.

 

Though their roots go back much further, the subcultures of hip-hop and cyberpunk emerged in the mass mind during the 1980s. Sometimes they’re both self-consciously of the era, but digging through their artifacts and narratives, one can see the seeds of our times sprouting. If we take hip-hop as a community of practice, then its cultural practices inform the new century in new ways. “I didn’t see a subculture,” Rammellzee once said, “I saw a culture in development.”

 

The aim of Dead Precedents was to illustrate how hip-hop culture defines 21st century culture. With its infinitely recombinant and revisable history, the music represents futures without pasts. In the book, I talk about many artists, practices, and records that exemplify this spirit: Criminal Minded by Boogie Down Productions, Grandmaster Flash’s early quick-mixing and mixer-hacking, the cyberfunk of Afrika Bambaataa and the Soulsonic Force, the sample-heavy apocalypso of Public Enemy, the off-world grooves of Shabazz Palaces, and everything about Rammellzee, among others. There are several examples that should’ve had more ink in the book, but for whatever reason I just didn’t get the chance to discuss them as much. In what follows, I aim to cover a few of them. Cartographers of the future, Dead Precedents could have been all about them.

 

 

The B-Sides

 

dälek: My first attempt at describing dälek’s sound involved something about a cross between Public Enemy and My Bloody Valentine, but they are so much more than that. Their records are a mix of angry and intricate lyrics, booming beats, dreamy feedback drones, and nightmare non-notes, all perfect examples of how unique and powerful hip-hop can be. By turns noisy, militant, and majestic, dälek stay pushing ahead with unwavering purpose. Noise and beats often burying the vocals in the mix, it’s a united front; as much a wall-of-sound as it is words-of-wisdom.

 

 

 

 

Antipop Consortium: One of the most forward-sounding acts in hip-hop, APC’s entire catalog sounds like it’s from the far-flung future. When they threw down the progressive hip-hop gauntlet on 2002’s Arrhythmia (Warp Records) they didn’t expect to have to reunite several years later to pick it up—but they did. Their 2009 return Fluorescent Black (Big Dada) answers every challenge presented on Arrhythmia and then some. It’s weird, it’s word, and it’s war. The lyrics are abstract but tight and the beats are quirky but banging—and the whole package will stomp a mudhole in your ass. Again.

 

 

 

 

Danny Brown: Drug use is an aspect of cyberpunk that I barely mention in Dead Precedents, but Detroit’s Danny Brown has it covered. Well worthy of both its nominal forebears, his 2016 record, Atrocity Exhibition, is rap at its artistic peak.

 

 

 

 

 

Clipping: Clipping brings together the sounds of the streets with the storytelling of the stage. Their three members include a soundtrack composer, a performance studies Ph.D., and a member of the Hamilton cast. Splendor & Misery (Sub Pop, 2016) and the follow-up single, “The Deep,” were both nominated for Hugo awards, and the latter has been expanded into a book thanks to help from An Unkindness of Ghosts (Akashic Books, 2017) author, Rivers Solomon.

 

 

 

 

 

Cannibal Ox: As soon as you hear the opening tones of “Iron Galaxy” off of their 2001 debut record, The Cold Vein, you know you’re on another planet. The Cold Vein is the record that spawned the Definitive Jux label, the label that birthed and furthered the careers of RJD2, Aesop Rock, Cage, Rob Sonic, and label-head El-P (previously of Company Flow and later of Run the Jewels). Cann Ox’s story might be one of peaking too early, but it was a peak to aspire to.

 

 

 

 

 

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Roy Christopher

Roy Christopher marshals the middle between Mathers and McLuhan. He holds a Ph.D. in Communication Studies from the University of Texas at Austin and is currently a Professor of Communication at the Savannah College of Art and Design. As a child, he solved the Rubik’s Cube competitively.