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.