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Louder Than A Bomb

By John Vanderslice, Pitchfork

Since 1988, when my brother and I dropped Public Enemy's Nation of Millions on our Technics turntable, rap has nourished and inspired my own music and creative life. Rap's focus on lyrics, its tendency toward narrative and story, and its culture of wordplay and verbal invention has encouraged writers to push the boundaries of what's been said in song. Generally speaking, rap has also given a free pass to marginal and dangerous ideas, bringing radical politics back into popular music. Rap has given the world a lot of damn good music:

1. "I don't rhyme for the sake of riddling."

Artist: Public Enemy

Album: It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back

Song: "Don't Believe the Hype"

"Remember there's a need to get alarmed

Again I said I was a timebomb...

Rock the hard jams - treat it like a seminar

Teach the bourgeois, and rock the boulevard."

The rapper as teacher, revolutionary and entertainer... my soft suburban ass had never heard such words before. It changed my life, changed the way I felt about music. Understand, I was a rabid prog fan. Also understand that after the opening twitches of "Bring the Noise," Tales of Topographic Oceans was deemed irrelevant and entirely unlistenable. It changed everything.

2. "What, where, why, or when will all be explained like instructions to a game."

Artist: Boogie Down Productions

Album: By All Means Necessary

Song: "My Philosophy"

Vocal: KRS-One

"Boogie Down Productions is made up of teachers

The lecture is conducted from the mic into the speaker

Who gets weaker? The king or the teacher?

It's not about a salary, it's all about reality."

This list could easily have been Top 10 KRS-One Moments from "My Philosophy." Laurence Krisna Parker is a fascinating writer: surprising, unnerving, and funny as shit.

3. "Straight out the fucking dungeons of rap."

Artist: Nas

Album: Illmatic

Song: "N.Y. State of Mind"

"I'm taking rappers to a new plateau, through rap slow

My rhyming is a vitamin, hell without a capsule

The smooth criminal on beat breaks

Never put me in your box if your shit eats tapes.

Illmatic is a towering masterpiece, chronicling Nas' life as dealer turned rhyme-pusher, a survivor of NY's crack-era mean streets, where "each block is like a maze full of black rats trapped."

4. "I'm ready to put the world on a milk carton."

Artist: Prince Paul

Album: Prince Among Thieves

Song: "What U Got (The Demo)"

Rapper: Sha

"So who mad? You grab and ransom

And I'ma pierce his soul and touch the heart of his grandson

Cause my lyrics are like being food poisoning injected through the ear

Fuck what you heard, this is what you need to hear.

If you aren't familiar with Prince Paul's ambitious concept record about a rapper who has to sell crack to pay for studio time, I highly recommend tracking it down. After two decades of obligatory bravura in rap, it's hard for today's thug to make convincing claims of superiority, but here the supremacy of our narrator is both cross-generational (the heart of his grandson!) and likely to cause serious illness.

5. Neve vs. Mackie

Artist: Talib Kweli and Hi-Tek (Reflection Eternal)

Album: Train of Thought

Song: "Too Late"

"My sound fat like a Neve while you thin like a Mackie."

The things you find in these songs! It took me a while to pull this lyric out; Kweli is dense, rapid-fire, and at times, esoteric. Neve was, along with Helios and API, one of the premier recording consoles of the 1970s, rightfully known for its superb low end; Mackie is a mass-produced consumer board. Score one for Talib.

6. "So wear a vest on your chest and the rest stand still"

Artist: Paris

Album: Sleeping with the Enemy

Song: "Bush Killa"

"Cause all I wanna see is motherfucking brains hanging

Another level when it's me and devils gangbanging

So don't be telling me to get the non-violent spirit

Cause when I'm violent is the only time the devils hear it

Paris' sprawling, messy Bush-assassination fantasy had a huge impact on me. Paris struggles in these songs between Old Testament-style vengeance and the need to mobilize a real political revolution. This record is a pure product of the late 60s East Bay: crossing Oakland's Black Panthers with Berkeley's Free Speech/Anti-War Movement to create a confusing, contradictory, and compelling narrative. If Bush, Inc. re-invades Iraq, Paris will once again make perfect sense.

7. "Woop-Woop! That's the sound of da police! Woop-Woop! That's the sound of the beast!"

Artist: KRS-One

Album: Return of the Boom Bap

Song: "Sound of Da Police"

"Overseer, overseer, overseer

Officer, officer, officer, officer!

Yeah, officer from overseer

You need a little clarity?

Check the similarity!

The overseer rode around the plantation

The officer is off patrolling all the nation

The overseer could stop you what you're doing

The officer will pull you over just when he's pursuing

The overseer had the right to get ill

And if you fought back, the overseer had the right to kill

The officer has the right to arrest

And if you fight back they put a hole in your chest

(Woop!) They both ride horses

After 400 years, I've got no choices."

KRS-One spews those first two lines in a staccato storm, until the seam between overseer and officer is gone. The power of making an interesting point (they both ride horses!) under the swelling crunch of DJ Premier's beats is tremendous.

8. "I'm stubborn as a thousand born-agains avoiding questions"

Artist: Aesop Rock

Album: Labor Days

Song: "Daylight"

"Life's not a bitch, life is a beautiful woman

Your only call her a bitch because she won't let you get that pussy

Maybe she didn't feel y'all shared any similar interests

Or maybe you're just an asshole who couldn't sweet talk the princess."

Aesop Rock's lyrics are thoroughly surreal, packed with inscrutable phrases and absurd metaphors. But his overarching theme is always about self-transformation and overcoming.

9. "Listen to this, plus my Roland?"

Artist: Public Enemy

Album: It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back

Song: "Caught, Can We Get a Witness?"

"I found this mineral that I call a beat

I paid zero

I packed my load 'cause it's better than gold

People don't ask the price 'cause it's sold"

Chuck D's fascinating meditation on copyright violation was written at a time when sampling and home recording were forcing revisions in US law. Chuck was already suspicious and hostile of its enforcement: "Caught, Can We Get a Witness?" likens recorded tracks and beats to natural resources, and makes the point that sampling records may fall under fair use. Unfortunately, US copyright law has gotten a whole lot worse since '88!

The Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1998, a gift to the RIAA and other industry lobby groups, has severely undermined fair-use provisions. With the passing of the Sonny Bono Copyright Extension Act, which primarily benefits film, music and publishing industries, Congress has overstepped its constitutional authority to issue copyrights and patents "for limited times" to "promote the progress of science and useful arts." As Chuck says: "I rebel with a raised fist." Yeah, me too.

10. "Bleeding heavily, part of me leaving steadily."

Artist: Prince Paul

Album: Prince Among Thieves

Song: "Pain"

Vocal: Breeze

Our hero, Tariq, has just been shot by his best friend (and rival) Tru:

"Getting me, wetting me, crimson drenched

In my mind son, I find some hymns entrenched

A lot of mournful faint humming

Tomorrow's dawn, I swear that shit ain't coming."

Tariq is a struggling musician torn between commerce and art, a double bind that leaves him shot in the alley. But music is still there, and the "mournful faint humming" of childhood hymns provides the soundtrack to his death.

There's so much I forgot to make room for: De La Soul, Ice Cube, Eminem, The Coup, Blackalicious, NWA, Black Star, Aceyalone, Wu-Tang, Tribe Called Quest, the list goes on...

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