Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Hip-Hop Video Games: Jet Set Radio Series

Does anyone remember this game?

Jet Set Radio (known in the U.S. as Jet Grind Radio) came out in the summer of 2000. It was a game where you were given the power to tag a city up. Rolling on jet-powered skates
and blasting headphones, your character backpacked as many cans of spray paint as he or she could in order to make a street rep in the city of Tokyo-to.

Its linage to the real tagging experience was cool, plus it had a soundtrack that any hip-hop head would appreciate. Featuring hip-hop group Jurassic Five and DJ Mixmaster Ice, the game gets some hip-hop cool points from me. What also gives this game more hip-hop credibility is how well-connected the plot was to the actual culture of graffiti. The graphics for the game itself were on point, and the artwork used to cover the city was pretty decent. You could tell the developers of this game did their homework.

My only problem with the game was that it was a bit too easy. One click here, one click there, and voila, you've just went wildstyle! Plus, the characters weren't very personable -- in fact they were pre-packaged. Graffiti is all about personalization, and this game wasn't cutting it at all, from the characters to the tags.

At least until Jet Set Radio Future came. Released in the beginning of 2002 for the XBox, this game suddenly went on mega-steroids. The plot fast-forwards into 2024 -- although the characters looked the same -- and the "new" characters carry on the tradition of tagging Tokyo-to with the finest artwork.

The only difference is the police have beefed up their arsenal, which makes it tougher to tag when drama awaits. And the game is especially tougher with the additions of controls on the Xbox controllers versus the old Dreamcast controllers, making you focus on the strokes, the timing and the size. The graphics were much better, plus you got to make your own tags AND use them in the game (because its nothing like seeing you own tags on the TV screen)!

To keep all things hip-hop on this blog, the soundtrack for this game wasn't as good as the first one; it was just too techno for me. But I would still enjoy this game because there's seriously nothing like seeing your own tags (although you would probably never do it in real life) on the TV screen.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Beyond Hip-Hop: Video Games

The new video game DJ Hero gives you the power to DJ on your video game console.

I don't know if you've been sleeping under a rock, but if you haven't then you'll know that hip-hop music, art, dance and all the other hip-hop artistic elements have been brought to commercial light and penetrated into mainstream society in several ways. From commercials to training programs to video games, hip-hop has had its ties to just about everything. One thing that has become popular with mainstream society is the line of hip-hop video games. And when I say video games, I'm including computer software too -- for all you techies!

I can think of several games that have included guest hip-hop artists, hip-hop beatmakers, DDR games and most recently DJ Hero. I will get into the most notable hip-hop games individually, but one thing that conflicts these products with the culture is its inability to keep it real.

For years software and gaming developers have tried to simulate the hip-hop culture with technology. Their main problem has been how to keep the games true to the culture while simultaneously making it fun and understandable. That's a problem that almost all outlets of commercial society run into when dealing with hip-hop, but recently there have been some decent games out that provide the best experience with hip-hop, both with the teaching and the fun elements.

Deconstructing the DJ: Blending It All Together

Mick Boogie mixing it up in Cleveland

A good DJ knows how to keep the party going, right? What better way to show it than by blending all the cool tunes together? There's nothing like being at a party and hearing two of your favorite songs combined! Screw the scratching and fancy turntabl-ism; those are nothing without mixing the right cuts at the right times. That's the art of blending.

Now there are many ways to blend multiple songs and tunes together. One pioneering thing Grandmaster Flash started was adding the
beat machine to his turntable set. He would play a combination of snare and bass drums while a record is playing, which went unnoticed by the crowd. If anything, nine times out of ten, most people think it's a remix or something.

Another thing people enjoy the most about DJs is the blending of two records; not just scratching two of the same records and playing one after another, but also blending them together to play simultaneously. It may seem very easy, especially with games like DJ Hero in our possession, but it takes a lot of practice and knowledge about audio mixing before you can truly learning the feel of the turntables. You have to know -- or at least have the ear for -- pitches, tempos and volumes on any two or more tracks (and it can be songs, samples, voice tracks, beats, or whatever) they want to mix. Then you need to know how to manipulate each track so they line up. Finally -- and the most basic thing to know first -- is the timing. Nothing's worse than adding a song that is a second and a half off of the other cut!

After you get all that down pat, you have to know the other type of timing -- when to throw that blend in! It basically has to blend in with the crowd, you can't just throw in a blended cut when the crowd just wants to hear top 40 music. A dance club or party, or at least a spot where a DJ is appreciated is the best place to showcase those blending skills. You also want to watch what you mix - the last thing you want to do is mix songs with beefing artists, or a slow jam with a get-crunk song. It gives the crowd mixed feelings and wouldn't know whether to slow grind or fight.

All in all, DJing is about knowing your craft and knowing your crowd. It's cool to say, "hey I took "Electric Feel" by MGMT and mixed it with "Passing Me By" by Pharcyde," but will the crowd be as hyped as you? I think not.

One DJ that mastered the art of blending is DJ AM. He, along with drummer Travis Barker, made a series of mixes called Fix Your Face involving two ultimate instruments: the drums and the turntables. Not only did the mix sound awesome, but it took DJing and turntabl-ism to a whole new level! Another DJ who has mastered the art of blending is Mick Boogie. His best mix had to be Unbelievable and Dillagence, both being tributes to two gifted hip-hop artists (Biggie and J Dilla). Click their names for the mix tapes and see for yourself!

Photo from the cover of Fix Your Face Vol.2 by DJ AM and Travis Barker

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Deconstructing the DJ: Forms of Scratch

OK, so remember when I told you about how Grand Wizard Theodore brought in the scratching technique (as well as the needle drop) into the art of DJing? After his discovery came the entire art of turntablism. And within turntablism, one of the playing techniques you have to know is the scratch.

There are over a dozen techniques within scratching, which is basically the art of moving a record back and forth on a turntable. I won't go into all of them, but I can get into the most widely used and innovative scratches in the history of hip-hop.

The first scratching technique is the Transformer scratch. The transformer scratch is where the record is moved (in whatever motion the DJ prefers) while the crossfader is rapidly tapped open and closed. Doing this will make the music go in and out of play, allowing the sound to resemble that of a Transformer (like the 80s cartoon it was named after).

Another scratching techniques is the Crab scratch. This technique is more for show than an actual technical sound creator because it exists when the DJ taps the crossfader open and closed with each finger while moving the record by hand. The motion made in this scratch will make the hand moving the crossfader resemble a crab. It does however provide an increase in sound or an easy fade out of a song, allowing the DJ to implement other techniques a lot quicker.

A third well-known scratching technique is the Flare. This is similar to how you would scratch using the Transformer technique, but the sound comes off as a flare (like you're throwing the sound out to the dance floor). To do a flare, a DJ clicks the crossfader twice while bringing the record forward (on the first click) then backward (on the second click). This technique also embodies the Chirp and the Orbit scratches.

The last technique is the Scribble scratch. Basically the DJ vibrates the record (or moves the record back and forth very rapidly) so that it makes a sound like someone is scribbling on a notepad. It gives one of the most distinct sounds in turntablism and, if done with the perfect record, will get the party amped.

All of these techniques combined can make party-goers go nuts, especially if the DJ does the right scratch with the right record. It is this form of DJing art that people in and out of the hip-hop community look forward to whenever they see a DJ around.

A good series of videos to watch on scratching is from DJ Qbert. If you start with one of the videos featuring him from the above techniques, you will be able to see his other demonstrations of the many forms of scratching.

Monday, November 2, 2009

The Basics: Deconstructing the DJ

"My contribution to this whole thing is that I was the first DJ to take an inanimate object called the turntable and play it like it was an instrument" - Grandmaster Flash, a hip-hop pioneer

Whereas the emcee uses his or her own words to identify themselves, DJing is basically the artistic element in hip-hop involving a turntable. Artists spin records in such a way that expresses their musical taste and can also express their views on a political or social issue. An advantage DJs have over emcees is that DJs can tell a story without saying a word; their stories are instead told through the records they play, samples used and many other techniques.

In the beginning stages of Ding, DJs used to just play disco records. What set them aside from disco clubs -- aside from having these spin sessions at a house or block party -- was that they would cut and blend two records together during a song's break. Everyone who attended the party waited for the break to come so they could hear the mixture of the bongos and drums flow together and dance the night away. Much credit for cutting and blending goes to Grandmaster Flash. During the mid 70s he took his family's turntables and would find as many ways possible to creatively repeat a certain line by James Brown or any other record with a break beat.

But it was during the mid '70s, a DJ by the name of Grand Wizzard Theodore discovered the "scratch" -- when a DJ would move the record back and forth to make a scratchy sound while keeping it in rhythm with the record, which was not being scratched. Once the scratch grew popular among the rest of the DJ's, many techniques formed out of it, most replicating sounds and motions of animals, cartoon characters, TV personas and political figures. This particular art -- the experimentation of music through multiple turntables -- is now known as turntablism, where all forms of expressing one’s self with a turntable is fair game.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

The Entertainer

Although the three aforementioned rappers described can entertain a crowd, nothing moves any and every crowd like the entertainer. This person will do anything for a round of applause and some money. It doesn't matter if he or she has to battle, state a social or political issue or talk about selling drugs -- this person would do all three just for attention. They may even do a little more (i.e. publicity stunts, pre-packaged style mix tapes, and more) with teary eyes focused on fame.

Entertainers must have the talent to survive in hip-hop, as well as in the music industry, making songs that will please every person in and out of the hip-hop culture. They even go as far as doing things against their own community values and morals to keep things fresh for themselves. These people always get a bad rep in the hip-hop community for "selling out" for money, however there are some entertainers that cross over into the commercialized world and still manage to keep it real in the hip-hop community.

Some entertainers include:
  • Jay-Z
  • Lil Wayne
  • Kanye West.

In conclusion, there are plenty of ways the emcees and entertainers I have named throughout this week (plus any other emcee in hip-hop) can go under several categories simultaneously. The ones who can intertwine with different combinations of types of rappers are usually the greatest rappers in hip-hop.

One of the most prominent rappers that comes to mind is Rakim of Eric B. & Rakim. He can take out any battle rapper from the 80s and now, plus he has the ability to make the crowd think about their social surroundings (with or without the grittiness), AND make money as an entertainer... all at once.

Another emcee who can be called the "combo emcee" (I term I've coined -- completely unofficial) is LL Cool J. He is the only emcee that's proved throughout his rap career that he can get all the ladies, put other emcees out of their lyrical misery and simultaneously make money. Just because the entertainers and combo emcees became financially stable from their talent, that does not mean the other emcees haven't found a similar kind of success.

If anything, all of the mentioned artists are prominent figures in the hiphop community because of their talent and respect for the culture of hip-hop. They have all become successful in expressing their ways and becoming the voice of the urban community through the poetry in motion that we call rapping.

Friday, October 30, 2009

The Battle Rapper

As for the battle rappers, their main focus isn't a political or social statement... well, in their content anyway. Lyrically, the battle rapper will move you through the most creative lines written and through freestyle. The way they keep the hip-hop community rotating properly is the constant flow of new ways to diss the next man -- it's a real creative way to say that person can't rap or to deliver a punchline that'll knock him or her into next week. A battle rapper is always polishing their skills and looking for a challenger of the lyrical kind.

Bottom line: the flow of lyrics is always creative and fresh, the attitude is always confident and the punchline is always strong. Each and every battle rapper will tell you they are the best. Although most of these kinds of rappers become commercial, they can always get the most respect from their community. And if they don't, they'll battle their way to it.

Some prominent battle rappers:

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Gangsta Rapper

Whereas a conscious rapper may want you to think about the issues and take a stance against them (whatever they may be), a gangsta rapper simply creates issues -- instead of just having the audience think about revolution, a gangsta rapper will make you want to actually do something. This can go one or two ways -- by painting the rawest picture imaginable or just plain ultimatum-style. These people are a lot more aggressive with their content, as well as with their lyricism and image.

The image as well as the content isn't what's especially important to a gangsta rapper. The purpose of a gangsta rapper isn't to brag about selling drugs and killing people; if that were the case they wouldn't be rapping about it, but out doing it.

The purpose of a gangsta rapper is to tell the story of what it's like in the streets from the street's perspective. He or she will become the voice of a drug dealer or gang member and paint vivid pictures of how to survive in the hood.

Why do they do what they do? It isn't to waste air. They are so raw, not only because they are the voice of killers and drugdealers, but because they want to invoke the same feeling of the hate and oppression the streets face every day.

Some gangsta rappers:
  • NWA
  • Immortal Technique
  • Joell Ortiz
  • Styles P.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The Conscious Rapper

This guy or gal has the ability to move a crowd in a way different than an MC.

If you love political and social issues dangling out of a record, then you would love a conscious rapper. A conscious rapper values his or message more than anything else. Yes, a conscious rapper wants people to be active in the community, but not without knowing why there is a problem.

These people highlight things like racism, sexism, homophobia, family problems, economic problems, classism and a host of other "isms" in the world. They want you to know about these issues and think about them.

Some conscious artists:
  • Mos Def
  • Invincible
  • Talib Kweli
  • Common

Monday, October 26, 2009

The Basics: Exploring the Emcee

Ever since "Rapper's Delight" by the Sugarhill Gang (a song that no, was not the first hip-hop song, but was performed by Debbbie Harry's bodyguards by what became the legendary supergroup) took over the airwaves, skating rinks and barbecue outings in 1979, the whole world follows the most popular artistic element in the hip-hop culture: the emcee.

Basically speaking, there are several different ways to classify an emcee which honestly depends on your personal taste. But as for me, I arrange my emcees like this:
  1. The Conscious Rapper
  2. The Gangsta Rapper
  3. The Battle Rapper
  4. The Entertainer
Everyone who is breathing knows rapping (another name given by the media for what emcees do) comes from the art of poetry, what else is new? Indeed, much credit is due to poets, especially poets from the Black Arts Movement who not only gave the Gift of Gab to the boys in the street, but a voice for the voiceless in a more liberating way. Artists like Amiri Baraka and The Last Poets paved the way for a new band of art to come forth, and throughout this week I'll be diving into discussion about all the different types of emcees that have since immersed.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Sampling Beyond Beats

DJ Premier digging in the crates. DJ Premier is one of the greatest DJs and producers in hip-hop.

If there were no James Brown, there would be no "Fight the Power". If there were no Michael Jackson, there would be no "Hey Lover". If there were no Chaka Khan, there would be no "Through the Wire".

The hip-hop community gets that.

Sampling is a musical technique that hip-hoppers have mastered over the years of turntablism, from simple breakbeats for a party to skits from a kung-fu flick. Whatever record a DJ can find, cut and/or blend is up for grabs in hip-hop music. Beyond "Fight the Power" by Public Enemy, which had 12 sampled songs in it, the entire album Fear of a Black Planet has over 60 sampled songs! And one of Michael Jackson's greatest albums of all time Thriller was used by several hip-hop artists, including LL Cool J, Camp Lo, and Nas.

It is through sampling, as well as the rebellious nature of the cultures, that rock music connects to hiphop music. Everyone can recall the Run-DMC/Aerosmith classic collaboration "Walk This Way" in 1986. What some people may not know is that Aerosmith did that song first in 1975, and Jam Master Jay and Rick Rubin wanted to remake the song. So of course, like any good DJ should do, JMJ took the record to a whole new level, a level that the hip-hop community can't touch to this day.

Another big contribution rock music gave to hip-hop, along with disco, is the breakbeat. Breakbeats are the part of a record that consists mainly of drums, bongos, and guitar and piano solos. The name has been adopted by the hip-hop community because of the breakers, who DJ Kool Herc (a hip-hop founding father and pioneer) says best, "waits for the breaks so their inner self can go wild". The great thing hip-hop DJs do is that the breakbeats are cut, blended, and/or repeated so the mix keeps going. Perfect songs that include breakbeats include James Brown's "Funky Drummer", Incredible Bongo Band's "Apache", and Billy Squier's "The Big Beat".

The hip-hop community is well aware of how much they sample classic music. If it isn't stated in the rhymes, DJs always give subtle props to their sources, even through mixes. One prime example is the song "Classic" by Nas, KRS-One, Rakim, and Kanye West, and produced by DJ Premier. The first thing you hear is the infamous sample drop "And now for my next number, I like to return to the classic" from The Heller's Life Story. Although there are a slew of drops that give credibility to what precedes hip-hop, one group stands out to me the most as a group that uses samples as a theme to who they are (which is really what samples, breaks, etc should be used for) - Wu Tang Clan. Almost any Wu Tang Clan song has a skit from different classic kung fu movies, including Shogun Assassin, Five Deadly Venoms, and more. This group used beats that were hardcore and could get anyone hype, and almost ready to try out karate or something.

But like most of the breaks used, as well hip-hop in general, the art behind it wasn't solely intended as a way to make music sound, just as bebop was intentionally improv. Both of these styles of music were created and mastered by Black musicians as ways to rebel against the mainstream way of making "good" music, not to mention a form of "broken expression" from inequality and oppression. During the 30s people weren't trying to hear cut-up riffs and artists performing improv. But once people listened, bebop became popular in mainstream jazz and in the clubs. Now the DJs use their turntables, like jazz musicians used their horns and drums in the 30s, to express themselves through mending their "broken expression" from oppression that continues to this day.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

How the West was won... again.

In the beginning of West Coast hip-hop music, you had the thuggish sounds of N.W.A., Snoop Dogg, and Death Row. But there was always the conscious side of the West Coast, like Del the Funky Homosapien, Pharcyde, and Wordsmith. With the West booming with plenty artists like Blu, Pac Div, and New Boyz (who isn’t trying to jerk in the club?), people must wonder if there is a new movement coming out of Cali.

It’s no secret that the West always brings some new flavor to hip-hop. Way back when -- even though breaking did start in New York -- b-boys from California brought popping and locking into mainstream culture. While rapping about partying and conditions in the ghetto on the East, the West took it to another level with its tough street demeanor, and yet still kept it conscious. Now the whole auto-tune movement is calming down (hopefully), and while rappers continue to spit about being vicious on the mic and overcoming adversity, the West takes rap to another level yet again, just living and getting by.

Over the past five years, there has been a slow build-up of artists coming out of the Bay Area and L.A. bringing a cool but conscious style of hip hop music, and top hip-hop blogs like Okayplayer, illRoots, and 2dopeboyz are feeling. They don’t necessarily sound like a Death Row movement, although they contain an edginess that disturbs the conservative type. Nor do they come totally conscious like the Pharcyde, although they do bring lines that make you think.

Basically, they are in a style of their own. The production, led by Trackademicks, is phenomenal. It is very electronic, reminiscent of the 80s hip hop scene, as well as soulful. One group out of the West that, in my opinion, owns this style is J*DaVey. Vocalist Miss Jack Davey is Erykah Badu with a mohawk; her voice smothers a beat about as much as the CD it lays in. Producer Brook D’Leaurean provides smooth, fast, and electrical tunes all at once.

A few mixes to enjoy include:

L.A.U.S.D. – Various Artists
U-N-I – A Love Supreme
Trackademicks – The (re)mixtape Vol. 2

Photo Credit:
Pac Div's MySpace

Monday, September 28, 2009

Hip-Hop 101: An Introduction...

This isn’t something that started when Grand Wizard Theodore started scratching records on his turntable. Nor did it begin when Melle Mel and the rest of the Furious Five spit “The Message” over Grandmaster Flash’s beat. It didn't start when Crazy Legs and the Rock Steady Crew were breakdancing in the movie "Flashdance." And it sure as hell didn’t start when TAKI 183 bombed all of New York City with his graffiti tags.

Hip-hop is far beyond all that.

Most people like to see hip-hop as an art, including some so-called hip-hop artists like Ludacris, Jay-Z (who also sees hip-hop as pure entertainment - but that’s another story) and 50 Cent. It’s easy to call hip-hop an art form when the gifts that most of these cats possess - like MCing, DJing, breaking and tagging - reap the benefit of different forms of art. When you hear productions by people like DJ Premier, Dr. Dre and the late J Dilla, it's undeniable that the songs are the modern-day version of beautiful in the same way beauty is found in one of Beethoven’s pieces. We know that Rakim is as lyrically gifted as a million poets put together. But it's impossible to understand these things UNLESS we remember why these artists do what they do and where they got the skills to do these things.

We all know the saying “nothing is new under the sun.” This is the easiest and quickest way to explain the origins of hiphop. People can easily connect MCing to poetry, but hip-hop artists in specific get their spunk from the Amiri Baraka and the poets from the Black Arts Movement. This movement glorified the empowerment of the Black community by resorting back to African roots and explicitly voicing opinions on racism during that time era.

DJing, although a lot of the techniques behind it came from accidents and experimentation, originated through extending the best parts of a song. All of the cutting, blending, sampling, scratching and so on came as ways to express oneself without physically saying a word.

Breaking was never anything new, and originated from various forms of dance. Many of these forms have African and Latin origins (i.e. capoeira, mambo, etc.), but some breakers go so far as to include things like karate into their moves.

And unless you never paid attention in history class, graffiti's origins from hieroglyphics is obvious.

This is just a basic outline that shows hip-hop is not just an artistic outlet for the oppressed and for minority groups. Its roots show that as long as you brush up on your history, you can see that even hip-hop's origins were outlets for the oppressed. So to further define hip-hop as a lifestyle and a culture I must say that hip-hop is that voice of the poor that says “despite our condition we’re still having fun and we’re proud of who we are.”