The Story of How an Indie Rocker Learned to
Love Like Rap Music
I'd like to get something out in the open right away. I am completely clueless when it comes to rap music. I don't know East Coast from West Coast, I'm not really sure if Outkast is a band or just one dude, and I sure as hell don't know what all this nonsense about someone's milkshake is either. See, I'm more into indie bands as well as some older ones that aren't overly mainstream. You know, the kind of music that PitchforkMedia loves to write about. The fact that so many millions people are even into Rap music, or Hip-Hop (they are the same thing, right?) has always been a bit of a mystery to me. When I hear a rapper, I immediately feel like an adult is speaking to me in a Charlie Brown cartoon going, "mwa mwa-mwa mwa mwa" while other adults throw in random "mwa"s at odd times, until a certain moment occurs when everyone starts singing and putting their hands in the air. I admit that this is probably an unfair over generalization of an entire genre of music and that my opinion is one fueled by ignorance, but hey, some people don't get the music that I like either. I'm still perplexed every time my roommate tells me she thinks Pavement sounds like they never bothered to tune their guitars. Man, what a square.
Anyway, when all this hoopla about DJ Dangermouse's remix of Jay-Z's Black album and the Beatle's White album hit the Internet, I really wasn't all that interested. The Beatles, after all are one the world's most beloved bands, and Jay-Z...well I'm pretty sure that he's a rapper of some sort. But why would anyone want to ruin all those wonderful drug induced Lennon McCartney melodies? I didn't even want to imagine something obscuring Clapton's gently weeping guitar on George's most classic track. And Ringo, Ringo actually wrote a song on that album! Hey it was bad enough as it was. Why make it any worse?
But, people who know me know that if there's one thing I like to do, it's download free music. The fact that it was royally pissing off the record companies as well as Michael Jackson's Beatle-catalog-owning-but-still-broke ass, well that just sweetened the deal. So what did I think? Let's just say I needed to prepare some space on my hard drive for that new Wilco disc that's coming out in June, so the Grey album didn't exactly make the cut. But, the story doesn't end there. I then read a New York Times article about a web site called "The Jay-Z Construction Set" which compiled all of the materials you needed to remix your own version of Jay-Z. It had the acappella version of the Black album, Dangermouse's Grey Album, sample beats, and various remixes that other DJ's had already made. I fired up Shareaza, my file-sharing weapon of choice, and dreamed of internet stardom.
First I needed some sample material. Albums with colors in their names were definitely the way to go, so I started to make a list. How about REM's "Green?" Nah, not ironic enough. King Crimson's "Red?" No way! Everyone hates that prog rock shit. What about Weezer's "Blue Album?" It's really just named "Weezer", but everyone calls it by it's jacket color to distinguish it from the other one they released with the same name. With rap-esque lyrics like, "What's with these homies dissin' my girl?", it practically remixed itself. Paydirt. "Jay-Zeezer" was born.
Now I'm not a DJ. In fact I'm very suspicious of the whole lot of them. Perhaps it stems from me being bitter about lugging around 2 guitars, an amplifier and a goddamn Rhodes electric piano in the back of my Civic for years, while they walk into a club with a handful of albums and get paid 20 times more than the drink tickets we used play for. But, I do admit that it takes certain talent to remix a song. And having never done it before, I figured this was probably going to amuse me for a few hours, get a few laughs from my friends and then I'd be back to planning my trip to Coachella. Instead, something completely unexpected happened. No, not the part where I found out that I had no idea what the fuck I was doing. The part where I realized that I actually liked to listen to Jay-Z rap. I couldn't believe it. Sure, it didn't happen right away. There were still some "mwa mwa-mwa"s in the beginning. But in order to make any sense out of the song and remix it over Weezer, I really needed to listen to the words and their rhythms, and how they landed on certain beats yet flowed across others. That may sound obvious, but it's not when you take away the rest of the song. Just check out the acappella version of the Black album and you'll see for yourself. The more I listened, the more I liked. I heard clever rhymes popping out, and staggered phrases falling into perfect cadences. There were amusing pop culture references and lyrics filled with cynicism. Were these not some of the same qualities that I loved about Steve Malkamus' vocals? (Holy shit! Did I actually just say that?) This could be the beginning of a whole new me.
I especially liked how every song was like a little story and I started to learn about Jay-Z's life. Prior to this whole endeavor, the only thing I really knew about him was that when a friend of mine wanted to go out and dance, I was told to take them to see the guy with the big hair from the Roots spin at Fluid, here in Philly. My friend then proceeded to complain all night that the music was too "underground" and he would rather hear some Jay-Z. Immediately, I realized that if ?uestlove from the Roots = cool, then Jay-Z must = not cool. But nonetheless, I was now Jay-Z's pupil. Apparently his real name is Shawn Carter. (Don't look at me like I'm an idiot for not knowing that either. Do you know Black Francis' real name?) He grew up in the projects and rose to mega stardom in '96. He made a career out of rapping about his prior life as a street thug, but has put that all behind now him and is ready to "Get his grown man on". I learned all that in the first two songs! Most surprisingly of all is the fact that this is Jay-Z's last album and that he is retiring from the music business. (What??? Jay-Z, "Say it ain't so". I just started getting to know you. You can't leave now. Look what happened to the Pixies when they called it quits. We'll never hear from them again will we?) The album continues to play like an autobiography with some other random songs thrown in the middle. Jay-Z "Threat"ening to "kill you, commit suicide and kill you again..." if they "Destroy his sweater" is a particular favorite remix moment of mine, but the true highlight comes when he gives us a glimmer of hope by telling us that despite having given us all he's got, he knows that he can't resist the "Allure" of the game and that he might come back for an "Encore". (I knew it! They all come back. Husker Du I'm looking in your direction). So even though we may not have heard the last from Jay-Z, the album then draws to a close with an all star "shout out", to everyone who's helped him on his way to the top. It almost brought a tear to my eye as I mixed in "The workers are going home" over and over again while Jay-Z and his crew left the building for the last time.
"Jay-Zeezer" may not cause quite the same stir that the Gray album did. In fact, I may never get around to finishing more than the five or six songs that I've already done. Maybe I'll move on to "Ice-T-Rex" or the "Beastie Dead Boys." But one thing is for sure, the whole process has given me a new found appreciation for Rap music. I will no longer cringe when I'm at Tattooed Mom's and someone passes over that Clash CD and plays a Jay-Z song. In fact, next time I'm there, I may even play one. Who knows, someday I may even start listening to Limp Bizkit and all those rap-rock bands. Nah... that stuff's still crap.