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Aretha Franklin’s Hip-Hop Legacy in Five Songs

In a career that spanned more than six decades, Aretha Franklin’s voice helped define the sound of soul music as the Detroit-raised singer brought the spiritual energy of her church choir upbringing to the pop charts. Digging through a discography that totaled more than forty studio albums, hip-hop producers going back to the genre’s golden era that began in the mid-Eighties have also expanded Franklin’s influence by frequently sampling her voice (and the backing tracks she sang over) and repurposing fragments of her music into the basis of rap songs.

Sometimes the combination is sweet and harmonious, like producer Ayatollah basing Mos Def’s “Ms. Fat Booty” around Franklin’s wistful “One Step Ahead.” But when an artist is sampled as often as Franklin, another layer of insight emerges when you catch glimpses into how various producers experience and appreciate the same songs. Why did Dr. Dre choose a particular sample to bolster the menace of a track, when J Dilla used the same part to further a laid-back, spacey vibe? Why were the Wu-Tang Clan and Kanye West prompted down different conceptual lanes by the same Franklin song?

In respect of Franklin’s passing, at the age of 76, here’s a deep dive into five of her most-sampled songs that spotlight the way hip-hop producers have embraced her music and helped further her legacy.

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“Call Me”

Legend has it Franklin was moved to write “Call Me” after she overheard two lovers twittering away on Park Avenue before signing off with the words, “I love you, call me.” This sentiment was turned into a tender ballad that combines Franklin’s voice and piano-playing with nostalgic layers of strings, anchored by the Muscle Shoals rhythm section.

“Call Me” was originally released on 1970’s This Girl’s in Love With You — and 34 years later Kanye West harnessed the track’s piano lines and melody for Slum Village’s “Selfish.” A hook warbled by John Legend nods to Franklin’s lyrics, as he sings, “I’m calling, yeah, maybe I’m selfish.” The romantic integrity of the sample source is sort of maintained as Elzhi and T3 kick odes to various women they’ve met along their travels — although Ye heads in a crasser direction with a guest verse that features him bragging about paying for a conquest’s breast job.

In 2007, one of Kanye’s disciples, Big Sean, revisited “Call Me” for the first installment in his breakthrough Finally Famous mixtape series. B. Wright is credited as the producer behind the beat: The sample focuses on Franklin singing those overheard words, complete with the sort of sped-up, chipmunk soul-style treatment that you might expect Ye to have been behind — but Sean’s abrasive lyrics are like a middle finger to those who doubted him. This idea of “Call Me” inspiring an MC to write about their rise to success was also embraced by Brooklyn’s Joey Bada$$, who rhymed over Chuck Strangers’s melancholic interpretation of the song’s strings on “Reign.” The production prompts home-borough brags like, “It’s no biggie, I spread love the Brooklyn way/But when push come to shove I’m ’bout that Crooklyn wave.”

Taking “Call Me” in an altogether more rugged direction, Method Man rounded up his fellow Wu-Tang Clan members Raekwon and Masta Killa to spit archetypal Nineties rap brags on “Spazzola.” The track pairs tough kicks and snares with little more than a repeated section of Franklin’s piano-playing from the start of “Call Me,” which was looped up by Meth’s fellow Clan member Inspectah Deck.

“Rock Steady”

Released in 1971, “Rock Steady” is an upbeat, spunky soul track. “Let’s call this song exactly what it is/It’s a funky and low-down feeling,” warbles Franklin as she steps into a funk state of mind. The beat she’s singing over comes courtesy of Bernard Purdie — a drummer whose rhythms have proved a bountiful source for hip-hop sample diggers, along with Massive Attack, Beck, and the Prodigy reusing songs from his 1972 album Heavy Soul Singer. Considering this pedigree, it’s no surprise “Rock Steady” has been heartily mined by a long and regal list of hip-hop producers.

Going back to hip-hop’s golden age, Public Enemy were serial samplers of “Rock Steady.” The group’s in-house production unit, the Bomb Squad, reused a snippet of the track as a way to build up their trademark walls of noise: Grabbed from the mid-section of the song, Franklin’s holler of “Rock!” becomes a prompt for a breakdown section on the heavyweight “Miuzi Weighs a Ton,” while a similar trick is used in the mix of the chaotic anti-crack anthem “Night of the Living Baseheads.”

Dr. Dre picked up on Franklin’s iconic vocal, too, using it as part of the texture of the brooding “Rat-Tat-Tat-Tat-Tat” from The Chronic. Also paying attention to this section of “Rock Steady” was J Dilla, the iconic Detroit producer. But whereas the Bomb Squad favored a funky cacophony, and Dre was all about conjuring up a feeling of menace, in Dilla’s hands Franklin’s cry is saturated in dubby echo effects on the woozy space funk of 1996’s “Rockhuh!” It’s a trick the now-deceased Detroit producer repeats on “Feel This Shit.” Venturing southward, Outkast’s in-house wax scratcher, Mr. DJ, chose to cut up the phrase on the group’s sultry ATLiens track “Jazzy Belle.”

Skipping back to the start of the song, Long Island duo EPMD turned the swaggering introductory groove of “Rock Steady” into the basis of 1988’s “I’m Housin’.” Over Cornell Dupree’s rhythm guitar and Bernard Purdie’s drum lines, Erick Sermon and Parrish Smith boast about supping down bottles of lowbrow Cisco wine. It’s a vibe Wale updated for 2011’s “Lacefrontin,” with the sample assisting the song’s live-jam feel.

“I Get High”

https://youtu.be/R29XGl2WZQo

Back in 1995, Smoothe da Hustler and his brother Trigga tha Gambler helped put Brownsville on the rap map with their hit “Broken Language.” The duo followed it up with “My Crew Can’t Go for That,” a track that wound up on Eddie Murphy’s Nutty Professor soundtrack and features a funky-but-ghostly wail from the very beginning of Franklin’s “I Get High.” Hooked up by the underrated beatmaker DR Period, this smart sample murmurs throughout the track — and gives credence to the idea that there’s often sample gold dust to be found in the first few seconds of a song.

The rest of Franklin’s “I Get High,” which was included on 1976’s Curtis Mayfield–produced Sparkle soundtrack, unfurls as a potent funk experience infused with snatches of luminous synths and dramatic strings. These melodic flourishes caught the ear of producer Ayatollah, who followed up his Franklin sample on Mos Def’s “Ms. Fat Booty” by using parts of “I Get High” to serve up a chunky, motivational backdrop for Talib Kweli and Mos to rhyme over on “Joy.” Similarly soulful strings from the song assisted Princess Superstar’s courting of Kool Keith on their kooky rapped tryst “Keith N Me,” while Justus League beatmaker 9th Wonder used Franklin singing “sister girl” as a recurring motif on L.E.G.A.C.Y.’s “Sista Girl.”

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“Respect”

“Respect” was originally written and released by Otis Redding in 1965. But when Franklin recorded her take of the track two years later, her jubilant and determined singing, coupled with an infectious sax-spiked backing, turned “Respect” into an anthem for the feminist movement as well as earning her a couple of Grammy awards. Since then, it’s been enshrined as Franklin’s signature song — and the track has also inspired a rich run of rap songs: Old-school rapper Kool Moe Dee flipped the lyrical concept and employed the song’s memorable riff for 1987’s “No Respect,” a blast of drum machine–powered rap hooked around the idea that “money can’t buy respect.” Chuck D and Flavor Flav also tapped into Franklin’s lyrics when they added the line “R-E-S-P-E-C-T/My sister’s not my enemy” to the pro-feminist “Revolutionary Generation” from the incendiary Fear of a Black Planet.

Hip-hop’s famed Roxanne wars of the 1980s — wherein a bunch of rappers strung out what would now be called a meme into a series of dis songs — also includes choice samples from “Respect.” The Real Roxanne’s “Respect” gets its thrust from producer Howie Tee tapping into the opening refrain of Franklin’s song, while Doctor Ice — whose group UTFO kick-started the trend with “Roxanne, Roxanne” — used a similar sonic trick on 1989’s “Just a Little Bit (Oh Doctor, Doctor).”

The chorus to “Respect” is etched in the minds of music lovers across the world — and it’s naturally found its way into hip-hop hooks. Pioneering Latino rap group Lighter Shade of Brown struck upon the idea with 1990’s punchy “Paquito Soul,” which pairs Franklin singing “just a little bit” with other vocal grabs. Building on this idea, De La Soul drafted R&B duo Zhané to re-sing the line on their sultry, static-warmed Stakes Is High album cut “4 More.”

“Young, Gifted and Black”

The title track to Franklin’s 1972 album is a gospel-tinged cover of Nina Simone’s “To Be Young, Gifted and Black.” Franklin emotes through the song’s uplifting lyrics with raw emotion, accompanied in the main by her own piano-playing. In the hands of hip-hop producers, the song’s sample history has become a tale of two piano riffs.

Back in the early-1990s, producers like DJ Premier and Pete Rock would often open and close album tracks with short snippets of beats to set the mood. Gang Starr’s “92 Interlude” is one of the most memorable examples of the trend: It’s twenty seconds of a beguiling piano loop and the bare snap of a beat that almost comes off like a click track. It’s a piano loop DJ Premier noticed halfway through “Young, Gifted and Black,” nestled between Franklin singing “When you feeling real low” and, “Here’s a great truth you should remember and know/That you’re young, gifted, and black.” Later that year, Premier fleshed the sample out into a full track for Heavy D, who rapped over the riff on “Yes Y’All” from his Blue Funk album.

While DJ Premier was dropping the needle halfway through “Young, Gifted and Black,” Lupe Fiasco was charmed by the way Franklin’s piano opens the song. Those notes are used as the melodic basis of “Cold World,” an unreleased track from the Chicago rapper’s vault. Similarly inspired by Franklin’s playing, Rapsody’s “Laila’s Wisdom” leans heavily on both the introductory and mid-section original piano lines to give the song its soul factor. Lyrically, Rapsody also rhymes as if she’s channeling the determined and uplifting spirit of many of Franklin’s songs. “Keep that style you got soulful/The best of the best gon’ fear you/Sky’s the limit, see, I told you,” she raps in words that now seem especially poignant in the shadow of Franklin’s passing.

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Rapper Tim Dog May Have Faked His Death

Back in February, we brought you the unfortunate news that famed early ’90s rapper Timothy “Tim Dog” Blair died due to a diabetic seizure at the age of 46. On a much lighter note, it looks now like that might not be true.

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Last week, Desoto County, Mississippi put out an arrest warrant for the supposedly dead Tim Dog, citing no evidence proving his death. Prosecutor Steven Jubera, who convicted Tim Dog of grand larceny last year, believes Tim Dog may have faked his death to get out of paying back the many women he defrauded out of thousands of dollars after meeting them on online dating websites.

Among the victims was Esther Pilgrim, a Mississippi resident whose swindling by Tim Dog was the subject of last year’s two hour “Dateline NBC” special. She told Memphis CBS affiliate WREG that she’s demanding proof of Tim Dog’s death, adding “I need a death certificate showing that’s he’s dead because as far as I’m concerned, he’s alive.” A private investigator turned up no death certificate and an address that was active through April.

But skepticism regarding Tim Dog’s death isn’t solely stemming from the people he owes money to. Tim Dog’s former Ultramagnetic MCs collaborator Ced Gee refused an invitation to speak at Tim Dog’s funeral after his family couldn’t produce a death certificate, and believes the subsequent funeral never happened.

Speculation regarding Tim Dog’s death began in early April on an edition of Conspiracy Worldwide Radio when host Nasir Montana offered his condolences on Tim Dog’s passing to other fellow Ultramagnetic MCs Kool Keith and TR Love. The condolences elicited some giggles from the two, with Keith saying “it is what it is” and TR saying “there’s more to the story” and “no comment.” Later, when Conspiracy Radio attempted to call the number they had for Tim Dog, someone answered before saying “Who is this?” and hanging up. The next day, they discovered the number had been disconnected.

Along with being the current frontrunner for the strangest hip-hop story of the year, there’s a certain irony in Tim Dog potentially being the first rapper proven to fake his death. Being Tim’s often the rapper first-credited with kicking off the east-coast west-coast feud with his 1991 single “Fuck Compton,” the fact that Tupac’s fake death rumors persisted for years while Tim Dog is (allegedly) the one rapper who actually pulled it off is something straight outta O. Henry.

If Tim Dog truly is alive, it’s likely nobody will be happier than producer/MC/hip-hop historian and unofficial chairman of the Tim Dog appreciation movement, J-Zone. At first jokingly tweeting “Tim Dog is alive????!!!!!! So does that mean that box set I bought loses value?” he later shared images of texts with his father, celebrating Tim Dog’s “genius” before ultimately tweeting “People hitting me up looking for a reaction to Tim Dog being alive. For the 1st time ever, I have no response to a Tim Dog-related matter.”


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Om’Mas Keith, The Chosen One

Om’Mas Keith remembers the first time he met Ol’ Dirty Bastard.

It was the mid-’90s. ODB was at the height of his success. Keith, a 19-year-old punkass kid music producer, found himself in a recording session at the Music Palace, a premiere music facility out on Long Island, with 88-Keys (yes, that 88-Keys) as his assistant. He recalls: “Dirty rolled in with an entourage of 15 to 20, from top-level A&Rs and executives to street-level thugs. And their women.” The crew was, per Keith, “indulging in all the devices associated with rock ‘n’ roll.” Operative word there? Devices.

“When he met me, I looked him right in the face, shook his hand, and I said, ‘Peace,'” Keith remembers. At that “record-scratch moment,” ODB narrowed his eyes. “[Dirty] looked at me like I was crazy—for like two seconds—and then he was like ‘Oh, that’s the god right there. He greeted me with the universal greeting: ‘Peace.’ What can I say to that but peace?’ ” ODB went on to get “wild” that night, and they recorded “Dirt Dog,” which eventually appeared on Dirt’s Nigga Please.

The producer chuckles as he tells this story. It’s one of the many tales he’s gathered over the past two decades, a time during which the 36-year-old has quietly become an influential force in the music industry. On Sunday, he’ll attend the Grammys with two nominations as a producer and engineer for Frank Ocean’s channel ORANGE. Keith also just released his debut album City Pulse online, for free. His influence on Ocean is apparent: Both records offer stitched-together, smoothed-out r&b that illustrates emotion in a tangible way. Keith candidly chats over the phone from his Hollywood recording studio, but the story of Om’Mas Keith isn’t a West Coast one: It starts—and probably will end—in New York City.

Born on January 20, 1976, at St. John’s Hospital in Brooklyn, Keith grew up in Hollis, Queens, an “enclave” of the “most amazing musicians.” The son of a jazz guitarist, he ran around with the children of Thelonius Monk and John Coltrane. His mother called him a “magical jazz baby.” Then, around the age of 15, he met one of his heroes: Jam Master Jay, the groundbreaking, influential DJ of Run DMC. Keith squeaked his way under Jay’s wing and became his “young ace.” He saw “how a soon-to-be-inducted-to-the-Rock-and-Roll-Hall-of-Fame-peon conducts his business at home.” He made a beat for Ultramagnetic MCs. They loved it, flew him to L.A., and he got picked up at the airport by a Bentley Continental driven by Ice-T. The group recorded music at Ice-T’s famous Crackhouse studio over three weeks, where he met Shafiq Husayn (with whom he’d later form the hip-hop group Sa-Ra). The first night in Los Angeles, he slept on rapper Kool Keith’s floor without a blanket near a stack of very expensive pornos that reached the ceiling.

“Three weeks of the biggest mind-fuck ever,” Keith recalls. “[Ice-T] was my first multimillionaire. Jay was rich to me, but we were in Queens. This was L.A.”

That whirlwind gave Keith a taste of the life he could one day live, and he went back to New York with success fresh on the brain. He pushed more with Jay, ODB, Busta Rhymes. He traveled to Houston to work with famous Suave House producer Tony Draper. He moved back east, made beats, worked for an ad firm, but again felt the tug of the west, and went back to L.A.

It was a smart move. He partnered with Shafiq and Taz Arnold, forming Sa-Ra and racking up production credits for the likes of Jurassic 5 and Pharoahe Monch. Kanye West signed them to G.O.O.D. Music, and Keith has been sought after ever since.

In 2009, through his intern Michael Uzowuru, he met a little hip-hop collective called Odd Future and a dude named Frank Ocean. The two developed a relationship that would eventually lead to Keith’s work on channel ORANGE. Keith was thrilled and, in another smart move, threw himself into the work with Ocean, putting his solo project on hold.

“Frank’s understanding of what a producer does is true to what it really is, that a producer ensures the physical manifestation of intellectual property,” Keith says. “However we arrive at the final goal, whether it be by me playing instruments, adding things, adding insight, talking to Frank, or supervising every single occurrence of his voice on the record: This is producing on the high level. This is my opportunity to produce on the Quincy Jones level.”

In the wake of ORANGE‘s success and critical acclaim, his opportunities to work at Q’s level continue. He’s assisting with rapper Azealia Banks’s forthcoming record and Ocean’s next album, and is in talks with Tyler, The Creator and Earl Sweatshirt for their joint debut—all while readying for the response to City Pulse.

“All I wanted to do when I started this game was make great music and create and have an outlet,” he says. “But they chose me. All these kids, everybody chose me. So when someone does that, you have to really say to yourself: ‘I have to be the best I can be for them, to ensure that the final result is what’s in their head.’ That’s what’s being a service provider. That’s Om’Mas Keith at your service.”

 

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Kool Keith Remains Defiantly Warped

Kool Keith is in a midtown diner reminiscing about his days walking around 42nd Street bumping funk from an oversized JVC boombox during the early ’80s. He’s supposed to promote his new album, Love & Danger (Junkadelic Music)—”It was pretty good,” he sums up while fondling a copy of the CD—but he’s happy to go off on tangents.

“Dudes would be looking at me crazy ’cause I’m not playing some early hip-hop that came out on a record from Sugar Hill,” Keith says. “I used to make cassettes of Cameo.”

Times Square has come up in conversation because of a tweet Keith sent out saying that it has been “watered down” from its vice-drenched heyday. As he slathers mustard on his turkey-and-Swiss sandwich (ordered on “the softest bread you have”), he holds court like a neighborhood old-timer who has seen the scene around him shift. He remembers the late ’70s, when he traveled down there from the Bronx to catch a movie with his father. (“Superfly or something,” is as specific as he gets.)

The “3-D action” all around him surpassed anything on the screen. Settling back in his booth, Keith describes a bustling menagerie of guys in Fila sweat suits hanging on Eighth Avenue, pinball spots and arcade parlors, and someone cruising around in a car made of fused-together parts from Ford, General Motors, and Volkswagen models. The whole scene was flanked by a line of Jheri-curled pimps looking to ensnare girls who’d just arrived at the bus station, and illuminated by the glare of kung-fu-flick-touting marquees and LED-lit boomboxes that made the guys carrying them “look like they’re carrying some big spaceship.”

But the ’90s brought the big cleanup. “They started to water Times Square down,” Keith says. “The Howard Johnson’s was gone. You started to see stores close and places like Benetton getting ready to come in. You started seeing McDonald’s. You started seeing all the porno spots being moved off of Eighth Avenue to, like, the side block.” Then the kicker: “You started seeing little kids on 42nd Street. I was like, ‘Wow, little kids are not supposed to be on 42nd.'” With that, Keith decides to focus on finishing his sandwich.

When Keith talks about Times Square’s pornography stores being shoved down side streets, he could be drawing a parallel with his own brand of hip-hop. The characters that inhabit his songs, and the many personas he takes on, come across like a warped version of the strip he recalls. He has rapped about hurling a rat with mayonnaise on it at a car’s headlights and taken on the role of an inappropriate gynecologist; he appears on the cover of Love & Danger wearing a cape with a shark’s fin on his back. Keith is a product of hip-hop’s late-’80s golden era, but as that music has become increasingly tolerable to the masses, he has kept faith in his seedy and often abstract lyrics and unfashionable, warped-synth-based beats.

Keith picks up the thread as we enter a dive-ish bar a couple of blocks away. Standing in the corner with a glass of chardonnay in his hand—”Do you have wine that’s soft?” he asked the bartender when ordering—he spends a good hour explaining the how and why of rap becoming watered down. Keith’s take is based on people rapping over the same-sounding beats, in the same style, using the same slogans, and concentrating on hooks instead of verses. To demonstrate his point, he makes up a song that repeats the word “Lemonhead” 12 times as the chorus, accented by a curt verse based around the phrase “sweet juice.” It’s a to-the-bone parody, and it sounds not all that dissimilar to some of the songs that have become summer hits recently. “The people are taking it in, they are gobbling it up, then the artists make another one right after that,” he says. Then he breaks into a new song called “Peanuts.”

The way Keith explains the homogenization of rap mirrors the way parts of the city have changed over the years. Times Square is now home to big-box stores, and the most commercially successful hometown anthem of recent times, Jay-Z’s “Empire State of Mind,” sounds like it was cut for a schmaltzy tale of big-city redemption. The rappers and the record labels, he says, are equally culpable. “The artists created it, but the labels love it ’cause people get drunk, and they love those TV dinners like Swanson. It’s like Domino’s Pizza—you order 10 of those songs for Monday Night Football.” He mimes working in a pizza spot and adds, “But it’s funny, they’re cooking ’em right now—put them in the closed boxes and load ’em on the trucks.” In a world of saturated sounds, it’s reassuring to know hip-hop still has one guy who’d prefer to drive a bespoke car to pick up a turkey-and-Swiss on soft bread. The secret must be in the mustard.

Kool Keith plays solo at Brooklyn Bowl on June 14 and as part of Ultramagnetic MCs at Music Hall of Williamsburg on June 17.

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The Diss-Track Family Tree

Rick Ross and 50 Cent may be pushing the boundaries of multimedia rap beef, but they’re just riffing on the tried and true strategy of insulting members of a rival emcee’s family. Here, a primer on who to target, and select examples showing how to lyrically pulverize someone’s dear auntie.

Mother: The classic. If originality is less important than impact, immediately attack the woman from whose tainted womb your opponent sprung. Angles are endless: sexual humiliation, appearance, physical harm, the emotional damage that shanking her child will cause. (“Cut out your momma’s ovaries,” Kool G Rap, “3 to the Dome”; “Stake your house out/Know what your momma cook/Fuck her with a broom,” Sheek Louch, “D-Block”; “Here’s a jimmy joke about your momma that you might not like/Heard she was a ‘Frisco dyke,” Snoop Dogg, “Fuck Wit Dre Day”; “Ya’ mama’s got a peg leg with a kickstand,” the Pharcyde, “Ya Mama”; “Your moms call me Frankie Sanchez/On deck with penis out/Pine tar like Tony Pérez,” Kool Keith as Dr. Dooom, “I Run Rap.”)

Father: Considering the number of single-parent households, there’s a reasonable chance that insulting someone’s father will garner a response of “Yeah, I don’t like that dickhead, either.” But when in doubt, call him gay. (“Your daddy is a queer,” Central Coast Clique, “Gangsta Shit”; “Your daddy likes to cuddle and touch too much,” Ice-T, “Always Wanted to Be a Ho”; “Your father dress in drag/Stick out his chest and brag how he molest a fag,” Tony Touch, “The Foundation”; “Your pops is a politician,” Del tha Funkee Homosapien, “Followers.”)

Grandmother: Going after the family matriarch is unorthodox, but it illustrates a penchant for “mature” sex and a sociopathic zeal for cruelty against the helpless—of course, the latter is preferable. (“I bet you even got a baldheaded-ass granny,” Willie D, “Bald Headed Hoes”; “I’ll pimp your momma, your sister/And I’ll even take G.P./That’s ‘granny panties,’ ” D-Nice, “Pimp of the Year”; “Dick in the dirt/Shit in your drawers/I’ll make your grandmother get on the floor,” Jadakiss, “Show Discipline.”)

Great-Great-Grandmother: Pointless. (“I got my feet up on your momma Mabel’s/Mother’s mother’s mother’s three-generation table,” Abstract Rude, “Feet Upon the Table.”)

Son: As long as your hated foe has actually sired a male child, this one is sure to inspire fury and hilarious hand-wringing from onlookers. (“Run up in your cribbo and suffocate your son with a pillow,” Big Pun, “Who Is a Thug”; “You got rats and roaches and your kids have got the mumps,” J-Dee, “Ain’t Got No Class”; “My nigga Gutta fuckin’ kidnap kids/Fuck ’em in they ass, throw ’em over the bridge,” Notorious B.I.G., “What’s Beef?”)

Daughter: Just as effective as slurring a son, except with rad sexual abuse! (“If you got a daughter older than 15/I’m-a rape her,” DMX, “X Is Coming”; “Throw your daughter in the air/Hope that bitch break her leg/Be nice and help her up/And kick her dead in the head,” Ganksta NIP, “Psycho”; “Lickin’ on your daughter/Say, south of the border,” C.L. Smooth, “For Pete’s Sake.”)

Baby: It’s less personal than insulting a young child with a name and a personality, but threatening a pamper-swathed tot surely shows a respectable degree of depravity and remorselessness. (“Your baby’s crying—pop, pop, pop—I put some in the crib,” Beanie Sigel, “What a Thug About”; “Put six in the clip/Put it up that clit/And watch that baby’s brains drip out that fetus,” Brotha Lynch Hung, “Return of Da Baby Killa”; “Back-smack you so hard all your seeds will be born deformed,” Holocaust, “Silkworm.”)

Brother: Excellent for inflaming familial vengeance imbroglios. If you don’t know the tale of how Joab killed Abner to avenge his hermano in Samuel 3:27, it makes a great belly tat. (“Kidnap your family/Make your brother eat your mother out,” Cam’ron, “357”; “I’m on some other shit . . . duct-tape your brother shit,” B.G. “Bounce with Me”; “Garbage bag around your brother’s head/Smother him out,” J Hood, “Don’t Mean Nuthin’. “)

Sister: Everyone’s sister has probably had sex—this just drives the terrible truth home. (“Now everybody in the world know that your sister is a nasty little girl,” Pimp C, “Something Good”; “I reminisce/I miss playing Twister with your sister,” Kool G. Rap, “Keep it Swingin’ “; “I heard your sister had sex with Colin Powell,” Humpty Hump, “The Odd Couple”; “Your sister just got married/I’ll shoot up her reception,” B.G., “Gun Slinger.”)

Aunt: Inventive, but it honestly sounds like you’re just throwing shit at the wall. (“I was drinking Asti Spumoni with your auntie,” Tha Alkaholiks, “Bottoms Up”; “I fuck you, your mama, your auntie, and your lady,” Kurupt, “New York, New York”; “We both saw your mama get beat down by your pops/And saw your auntie get freaked down by your pops,” Paradise, “Hoochies Need Love Too.”)

Uncle: Maybe you could hurt General Petraeus’s feelings? (“Tax-free/I ain’t giving shit to Uncle Sam,” Young Jeezy, “What They Want.”)

Cousin: No one cares. (“I’m bustin’ your sister and your pregnant-ass cousin,” Bloods & Crips, “Steady Dippin’.”)

Wife/Girlfriend: Another key target—while taking another man’s girl has been a part of every generic battle-rap since the dawn of time, these are especially valuable if your enemy is in a weird relationship with an r&b singer. (“That’s why I fucked yo’ bitch, you fat motherfucker,” Tupac, “Hit ‘Em Up”; “If you think I’m fucking your wife/You’re motherfucking right,” Eazy-E, “Niggaz 4 Life”; “I hope your girl get AIDS,” Cam’ron, “Hate Music”; “I let your girl suck my dick from the back/And let your moms give me cornrows on my crack,” Redman, “Noorotic”; “I get your bitch pregnant/You take the bitch to Lamaze,” R.A. the Rugged Man, “American Lowlife.”)

Baby Mama: This wickedly unfair stratagem renders your rival responsible for whatever ugly deeds his ex-girl (or just a former jump-off) has done since their breakup. Highly recommended. (“I came in your Bentley backseat/Skeeted in your jeep/Left condoms on your baby seat,” Jay-Z, “Super Ugly”; “I got my middle finger up your baby-mama anus, bitch,” Baby Beech, “Wiggy Wiggy.”)

Pet: Only a total monster could hurt someone’s ferret. (“Kill my dog, I’m-a slay your cat,” Flavor Flav, “Terminator X to the Edge of Panic.”)

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‘Dr. Octagon vs. Dr. Dooom’

Kool Keith’s alter egos Dr. Octagon and Dr. Dooom have had quite a rivalry throughout the Bronx-based underground hip-hop legend’s repertoire: cannibalistic serial killer Dooom offed time-traveling alien gynecologist Octagon, who returned (cloned, no less) almost a decade later. Whew! Knowing this, expect Keith to put on a show that won’t be so easy to explain the next day. With Keith collaborator KutMasta Kurt and Hopson.

Fri., April 3, 9 p.m., 2009

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Murs Hits the Big Time, If ‘the Big Time’ Even Exists

Odder than anything beaming in from Planet Weezy is Warner Bros.’ decision to take a chance on indie interloper Murs just when hip-hop sales have gotten as terrible as the rest of the music industry’s. Pitchfork noted that “mainstream hip-hop has little time for ordinary dudes,” and I’d add that neither does the underground, which prefers to lionize principled nutcases like El-P and MF Doom and Kool Keith. Even with a whole album (Murs 3:16: The 9th Edition) of dick-talk behind him, the 30-year-old rapper may be a man’s man, but he’s no pimp. Murs has always been an oddly middle-class, blue-collar straight-talker, conscientious but not too p.c. to pick up a girl who wants a “Bad Man” and violate her with a glow stick. In 2003, he advised us to “keep it gangsta in your CD changer, not your residence,” and, on the same record, did pills with Aesop Rock and let Humpty Hump trash his house (“Yo, is your Rolls blue? Cuz I got bad news”), so count “balance”-obsessed regular doods as his peers: Akrobatik, Rhymefest, etc.

There’s odd whimsy in the title of the one-time Living Legends alum’s sellout move: Why not elect Murs and throw him into the void? What do the majors have to lose anymore? It’s not hard to imagine the power ballad–styled “Everything” making MTV2 waves, though he remains a curious signing—nothing about this man screams “hit single.” So with Murs for President, he just did what he does, churning out another strong album of choppy retro samples that pretend chipmunk-soul and snap never existed. Like Portishead’s Third, it’s been so long since beats like this were prominent that it sounds beautiful now—and maybe wiser in the long run. All he asked for in return from his new label, apparently, was a decent sound-effects team for an intro skit that builds to a supposed inauguration speech (the concept ends there), and a guest spot from Snoop Dogg—just for a personal photo-op, maybe. The fast-fading will.i.am (the Pete Wentz of rap) probably showed up for free. If this regular dood never gets to make another one for a major, at least he won’t be able to complain that the money changed him. They don’t have any money.

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Spankmaster and Servant

And now, some dating advice from Kool Keith. “The girls in New York gotta go back to the ’80s, and socialism,” advises Kool Keith, wearing a cream-colored cape accentuated by an enormous popped collar made from—you know, that might actually be tin foil. As though his head were a microwave pizza. Like one of those long, conelike appendages you lock around a dog’s head to prevent it from licking itself. (There is, in truth, a constant danger of Kool Keith licking himself.)

Anyway, socialism. Pretty sure he doesn’t mean that socialism. This speech is more Carl Weathers than Karl Marx. Kool Keith is onstage at the Bowery Ballroom—Saturday night, sold out, cape/conelike appendage, etc.—admonishing women for . . . something. Resisting the notion of casual sex with Kool Keith, in all likelihood. “How many girls wanna husband?” he demands, to general audience confusion. “Stop giving guys the application. Just rent the room.”

Uh.

“Most guys work for UPS,” Kool Keith continues. “He can’t be takin’ you every weekend to the Olive Garden.” We laugh. The Olive Garden we understand. “To Sizzler.” Hahahaha. “To Applebee’s.” Hahahahahahahahaha.

We laugh at Kool Keith. With Kool Keith. At Kool Keith. Either way, though, sometimes we feel bad. Are we savagely mocking a deranged, profane, helpless man oblivious to his own depravity, in the style patented by Wesley Willis and, more telegenically, Flavor Flav? Or are we paying sincere homage to a fully lucid master of emotional and conceptual disguise?

The Bronx rapper is an enigma wrapped in several Day-Glo magnum condoms. You know him perhaps from 1996’s Dr. Octagonecologyst, his alter ego Dr. Octagon’s pornographic alien autopsy concept album, whose deep-space dystopian hits are held sacred by the don’t-really-like-much-rap-but-I-like-this set (see “Blue Flowers”) and whose skits make splendid outgoing voicemail messages. (“Oh shit there’s a horse in the hospital!”) Every year since, he’s put out roughly 20 albums utilizing roughly 40 alternate personas (best overall concept: Black Elvis; best album cover: Diesel Truckers. Dig the leg warmers). His erratic behavior and scatological acumen (best title: Spankmaster) are as crucial to Keith’s popularity as 50 Cent’s bullet wounds are to his. Keith’s crazy, you see. Every article on the guy is contractually obligated to note that he was allegedly once a Bellevue psychiatric patient; that might be bullshit, though. This year’s The Return of Dr. Octagon is most assuredly bullshit—even favorable reviews dutifully note that this record has no remote emotional or musical connection to Octagonecologyst (the skits suck too), and is allegedly “unauthorized,” released by a nefarious country music label that fraudulently acquired raw demos of Kool Keith raps and farmed them out to a German production team. Allegedly.

This is the sort of crap fans of this guy have to put up with. It’s great. Return of Dr. Octagon, despite a few solid rants with regards to global warming and “All you motherfuckers tryin’ to be Al Green,” is not. The Bowery Ballroom crowd does not care. We’re here for the stage banter. Also, to add to the uncomfortable Wesley Willis exploitation factor, we are white. Overwhelmingly. (How white are you?) We’re so white there’s a pack of bearded dudes by the downstairs bar singing the chorus to “Brandy (You’re a Fine Girl)” a cappella. “There’s gonna be a Parcheesi tournament after the show—word is bond,” notes magnificently dreadlocked opening act Mr. Lif, whose act gets steadily more theatrical—skits, extensive dialogue, costume changes, onstage deaths—with every show. By 2008 he’ll be on Broadway. Kiki and Herb and Lif.

And Keith. After a terrible DJ interlude from longtime cohort Kutmaster Kurt, the walking microwave pizza emerges, multiple buddies in tow, and begins with a few bronzed oldies from his ’80s group Ultramagnetic MCs (“Ease Back” knocks ’em dead.) He moves into solo material. “Blue Flowers” takes a bow, original and remix back-to-back. And then the Richard Pryor banter starts. “Anybody out there got a drinking problem?” Keith asks. “Who got a bottle tucked under the bed right now?” Then Keith’s crew hands out 10 to 20 pairs of thong underwear to random ladies in the crowd, stoking demand via onstage models who gyrate suggestively as Kutmaster Kurt cues up “Girl Let Me Touch You.” As we segue into such career-spanning hits as “Spank-Master (Take Off Your Clothes),” the evening teeters on the brink of a full-blown orgy, but Keith pulls us back via more wacky banter on the subject of . . . baseball. “Who know Tom Seaver? What you know about Rod Carew? What you niggas know about Ron Guidry? Fuck you know about Vida Blue?”

The “rap” part of this rap show has more or less ground to a halt at this point—Keith indulges us with maybe 30 seconds’ worth of highlights like “Backstage Passes” or (personal favorite) “Halfsharkalligatorhalfman” in between boastful interludes wherein he compares himself to Jeopardy champion Ken Jennings or details his writing routine: “I get me a Yoo-Hoo, I get a motherfuckin’ donut, and I get in they asses.” He interrupts the jape central to “I Don’t Believe You” (“You live at home with your mom”) to cut the beat and announce, “Let me elaborate.” (Pregnant pause.) “A lot of people live at home with their mom.” He also sells copies of one of his “rare” albums from the stage, during the show, for $20 a pop, noting that eBay’s going price is $500. (I don’t think so.) By the time his sermonizing has progressed to socialism and/or dating advice, half the crowd has left in understandable frustration and the other half is absolutely spellbound. Half the spellbound folks, in turn, probably consider him a diabolical genius, the other half a raving, hapless lunatic. At about 2:15 a.m., the show finally disintegrates. Keith announces he’s going to Rio and flees the stage.

Two days later the Bowery Ballroom hosts a significantly more professional troupe: the Dears, ludicrously melodramatic Canadian indie rockers led by goth-operatic frontman Murray Lightburn (pffft), himself a nonwhite in a sea of “Brandy (You’re a Fine Girl)”–lovin’ whiteness (“This one’s for the honkies,” goes a rare bit of stage banter), battering us with arena-caliber light & sound & earnestness. Outstanding.
ce.” During the encore Lightburn (pffft) boasts that “We aren’t hidin’ shit,” playing up his band’s guileless, bleeding-heart honesty and chanting “We love you we love you we love you we love you” for 45 seconds or so. I’m increasingly fond of his band, but I don’t believe him. I believe, however, that Kool Keith partakes of Yoo-Hoo before putting pen to paper and getting in they asses. Thus is the nature of showbiz. The sensitive, stylish rockers rip their hearts out, but we react with disbelief we’re willing to suspend for a possibly mental rapper with too many aliases and backstories to count, onstage talking dirty and flinging underwear into the crowd, swaddled in a cape and a dog cone collar, concealed in costume. We just know he still ain’t hidin’ shit.

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More Controversial Porn Rap From the Alias King

Apparently this album is some treacherous betrayal (not the first, mind you) of an aborted three-year-old project featuring legendary underground New York rapper Kool Keith, a onetime Bellevue psych-hospital patient and “pornocore” pioneer. Rumor has it that a dastardly country label gained control of Keith’s lyrics and backtracked them with a mysterious production team dubbed One Watt Sun. Kool Keith’s signature was allegedly forged, the country label created a front company to put out the disc, and the fanatics are definitely pissed off. This sort of thing happens, though, when you create nine fucking alter egos under a bajillion different labels with all manner of collaborations. Maybe it’s all a ploy to drum up controversy. Who knows? Regardless, The Return of Dr. Octagon entertains, leading with “Our Operators Are Masturbating” and closing with Princess Superstar commanding her jihadi boyfriend to eat her out, while funky breaks and bright digital flourishes dazzle in between.


Kool Keith plays the Bowery Ballroom September 9 and 10.

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The Nerd Behind the Mask

Ever wonder why rappers change their names so much? They’re growing up. Cocky bastards that they are, the Jiggas and P-Diddys update their handles every so often to let the world in on even the minutest personal development. Fine, if it helps them cope. But don’t expect Slim’s or Marshall’s or whoever’s next LP to be any grand departure from the Eminem album that Jimmy Iovine paid for. MCs with nothing to lose, on the other hand—ones who, as De La Soul put it, “fell the fugghhh off” long before gold was the lowest acceptable sales standard—experience much more dynamic character arcs, emerging as if from behind Ricki Lake’s curtains, wholly made over. When Kool Keith morphed into Dr. Octagon, he grew into his dirty old manhood. As Deltron 3030, Del came out of a drug-and-freestyle-induced haze an aging hippie, brooding over our planet’s future. Now, hidden behind the Metal Face of Doom, a hip-hop Michael Stipe finds a new religion in rocking the mic.

From the beginning, MF Doom was heavily at risk for an identity crisis. In 1989 he debuted as Zev Love X, the token black guy on 3rd Bass’s “Gas Face,” a song that featured two white rappers criticizing white people for demonizing black culture. Zev’s cleanup verse was mostly meaningless, but his anxious release and quirky wordplay (“Cash or credit for unleaded at Sunoco”) were enough to set off the “yo, who’s that?” ripple that had launched so many rap careers before him. Wigger sponsorship aside, Zev and crew KMD came out preaching to the gods and earths alongside Five-Percent nationalists like Brand Nubian. Their first album, Mr. Hood, was a primer for Islamic teens cast in beats, rhymes, and cartoons. (Remember “Peach Fuzz,” rap’s only ode to adolescent stubble?) But “pro-blackness,” arguably the first mass-marketed hip-hop trend, faded fast, and by 1993 KMD were ejected from Elektra ostensibly because the cover art for their on-deck second album, Blck Bstrds, was too inflammatory. No more than a year later, Zev Love X shipwrecked on rocks way sharper than his professional ones: His brother and musical partner Subroc was hit and killed by a car.

Zev resurfaced—sort of—in 1999 wearing a Marvel Comics Halloween mask and calling himself MF Doom. His Operation: Doomsday buzzed underground but was hard to come by. Old schoolers being all the rage on small labels these days (the Large Professor is on Matador and Oh, how the mighty—KRS-One, Grand Puba, and even RZA—have signed to Koch). Sub Verse rereleased both Doomsday and Blck Bstrds this May. As promised, the album jacket for Blck Bstrds—a lynched Sambo—smokes, but there’s no fire within. The lyrics, when decipherable, are limited to weed and women. There’s no well-intentioned anti-pork propaganda, just signs of boys turning to men and handling it poorly: “Who said I drink? I don’t drink. I guzzle. . . . I got stress, I sip booze to heal it.” Without Allah, KMD were like the Leaders of the New School sans Busta, rushing garbled rhymes over muddy, indistinguishable two-bar loops. Were it not for Zev Love X’s current incarnation, KMD might eventually wind up in the next ego trip Book of Lists, stuck between the UMCs and Fu-Schnickens under Whatever Happened To . . . ?

So: “Why don’t you tell him about the time we faced Doom?” Sound bites nabbed from episodes of The Fantastic Four and the movie Wildstyle clue us in: Our hero has been resurrected as a “super villain,” a tortured personality who shies from the spotlight while at the same time plotting world domination yada, yada, yada. The shtick is beside the point; Doom is a purist now. The anxious, mumble-mouthed lyrics filled with “knowledge of self” rhetoric have calmed into a casual stream of confident, clever self-promotion. Fortunately, Doom rhymes with tongue in cheek as well as dick in hand, frequently slipping off the inflated ego and revealing the cynical, self-deprecating nerd behind the iron mask, admitting, “I only play the games that I win at.” In fact, if there is anything truly villainous about Doom, it’s that he subverts hip-hop’s foundation of taking oneself way too seriously by acknowledging that it’s all just tall tales: “Me, sci-fly, whole style stuck-up/Used to talk to myself, I told him, ‘Shut the fuck up.’ ” Imagine Wu-Tang unclenched; Doom often likes to knowingly suspend disbelief, kick back with us and watch his own fantastic exploits from the safety of third-person: “He’s like a ventriloquist with his hand in the speaker’s back.” And even then, he never seems too excited to see himself, always rhyming as if in repose and simply exchanging pleasantries. (Sometimes he is: “Anyhoo, how ’bout them Yankees?”) When Doom is actually ready to accept his own praise, he does so with such humility and finesse that it’s pointless to argue: “This fly flow takes practice like Tae Bo with Billy Blanks/Oh, you’re too kind. Really, thanks.”

Doom also likes to name-drop archvillain Slobodan Milosevic, but the worst of his own crimes amounts to sampling without a license. Everyone from Steely Dan to Sade gets gouged, the latter losing several bars and the chorus of her “Kiss of Life” to “Doomsday.” It’s all fun and games until someone loses a lawsuit, but our (anti)hero doesn’t seem worried. He acknowledges his sources with winks in lieu of payment, like the last line of the Scooby-scooping “Hey”: “to all my other brothers who is doing unsettling bids, you could have gotten away if was not for those meddling kids.” And when he pulls from James Ingram or Atlantic Starr, he strips the polish off, dicing their smooth r&b and crumbling it over jagged drums straight out of the RZA’s missing chamber.

And samples aren’t all that MF Doom won’t credit—he won’t give Elektra credit for derailing his career eight years ago, either. Even the adverse effect of his brother’s death gets only a passing nod on “Red and Gold”: “I been bent back since my physical went back.” Other than that, MF Doom seems to have settled with his past and put aside all his childhood pursuits . . . well, all except one. “As the life cycle goes on,” he rhymes on “The Finest,” “you learn to hold on to things like the mic.” But unlike most guys still struggling to check one-two in their twilight years, Doom somehow managed to fall completely off and come back, not just older, not just more genuine, but a hell of a lot cooler the second time around.


MF Doom will perform at S.O.B.’s August 15.