Monday, January 17, 2011
Historically, the word "alternative" has been applied to styles of music that are outside of a genre's mainstream -- alternative rock, alternative country, alternative metal, etc. These days, the term alternative rock is really just a figure of speech because alternative rock and alternative pop-rock have been very mainstream since the early '90s. Artists who are considered alternative rock or alternative pop-rock -- which could be anyone from Pearl Jam to No Doubt to Garbage -- are very much a part of rock's mainstream and have sold millions of albums in the '90s or 2000s. And alternative metal (which is part of alternative rock) now dominates the metal field.
But alternative rap, like alternative country, is another matter. Alternative rappers are still outside of hip-hop's mainstream -- they aren't necessarily obscure or unknown, but they aren't expected to have as much commercial success as Eminem or Lil' Kim either. So one can argue, with some justification, that alternative rap really is an alternative to something. Just as the Blood Oranges and Frog Holler (two alternative country-rock/No Depression bands) are considered an alternative to Faith Hill, Shania Twain and Garth Brooks -- the big names of modern country radio -- alternative rappers like the Roots, Blackalicious and Common (formerly known as Common Sense) could be considered an alternative to Jay-Z or Snoop Dogg. Alternative rap is an alternative to hardcore rap, gangsta rap and Dirty South; it is also an alternative to commercial pop-rap.
Alternative rap isn't one particular sound, but rather, a variety of sounds -- alternative rap could be anyone from De La Soul and their disciples to Gang Starr to the very sociopolitical Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy. Exactly when alternative rap got started is open to debate. Arguably, the first important alterna-rap effort was De La Soul's adventurous debut album, Three Feet High and Rising, which Tommy Boy Records released in 1989. Incorporating everything from psychedelic rock to jazz, the Long Island group's first album was amazingly ambitious and went down in history as one of alternative rap's definitive releases. Three Feet High and Rising wasn't pop-rap -- certainly not in the way that Salt-N-Pepa, DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince or MC Hammer were pop-rap. But at the same time, De La Soul didn't have the macho, hyper-masculine image that Run-D.M.C., Big Daddy Kane and LL Cool J were known for -- let alone the thug image that N.W.A, Ice-T, the Geto Boys, Schoolly D and other gangsta rappers were projecting in the late '80s. Rather, De La Soul went for a hipster image, and Three Feet High and Rising appealed to the alternative rock crowd as well as hip-hop audiences. But in some cases, alterna-rappers have appealed to alternative rock audiences almost exclusively. The Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy, for example, had a lot more acceptance in alternative rock circles than they had from hip-hop's hardcore -- and the fact that they reworked the Dead Kennedys' "California Uber Alles" (an early '80s punk classic) certainly didn't hurt their credibility in rock circles.
3 Feet High and Rising proved to be quite influential -- even seminal. The artists who De La Soul influenced in the late '80s or '90s included, among others, A Tribe Called Quest, Digable Planets, Common and the Pharcyde. De La Soul was part of a larger East Coast posse known as the Native Tongues; other members of that alternative rap-minded posse included the Jungle Brothers and A Tribe Called Quest, whose 1990 debut People's Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm was every bit as eccentric, quirky and experimental as Three Feet High and Rising. The Native Tongues were known for their eccentricity (among other things), and in alternative rap circles, eccentricity is a plus. Beck, one of the many alterna-rockers who has been greatly influenced by hip-hop, obviously identifies with alternative rap's quirkiness and eccentricity -- his 1996 smash "Where It's At" had alternative rap and the Native Tongues written all over it.
Alternative rap was never dominated by any one particular city. A lot of important alterna-rappers have come from the New York area, including De La Soul, A Tribe Called Quest, the Jungle Brothers and Gang Starr. But some of the most critically acclaimed alterna-rappers have also come from Philadelphia (the Roots), Chicago (Common), Oakland (Digital Underground) and Los Angeles (the Pharcyde). And alternative rap doesn't necessarily have to come from the United States; MC Solaar, for example, is a French alterna-rapper who made a name for himself in the early '90s. Musically, there are parallels between Solaar and American alterna-rappers like Digable Planets and Common, but Solaar's lyrics are in French -- and the language barrier has prevented him from becoming well known among American hip-hop fans. However, Solaar is a major star in Europe, where people are likely to speak more than one language.
One of the things that alternative rappers have been known for is sampling jazz extensively. When other East Coast rappers were still sampling James Brown to death in the late '80s and early '90s, De La Soul and A Tribe Called Quest were sampling jazz recordings. There is no law stating that alternative rappers have to sample jazz, but the practice has been quite common. John Coltrane, Donald Byrd, Art Blakey, Horace Silver. Freddie Hubbard and Herbie Hancock are among the countless jazz heavyweights who have been sampled by alterna-rappers -- check the credits of a Digable Planets or Tribe Called Quest CD, and you're bound to see some jazz samples listed. The members of Digable Planets were obviously Miles Davis fans; the title of their 1993 hit "Rebirth of Slick (Cool Like That)" was no doubt inspired by Davis' seminal Birth of the Cool sessions of the late '40s and early '50s (which wrote the book on cool jazz). In fact, a lot of veteran jazz artists have received royalty payments when their work was sampled by alterna-rappers -- that is, if they held onto their publishing. When this journalist interviewed the late soul-jazz/hard bop organist Jack McDuff for some liner notes back in 1997, he pointed out that one of his fellow jazz veterans (a saxophonist) had received a royalty check for no less than $257,000 thanks to an alterna-rapper who had sampled one of his old recordings. McDuff knew the saxophonist personally, and he took pleasure in knowing that a hip-hopper had enabled one of his colleagues to earn an additional $257,000 for something he had recorded decades ago. So in McDuff's mind, alternative rap was a very good thing for veteran jazz musicians who had kept their publishing.
As a rule, alternative rap has been marginalized in the hip-hop world; nonetheless, some alternative rappers have sold a lot of units, including De La Soul, A Tribe Called Quest and the George Clinton-influenced Digital Underground. But in many cases, alternative rappers have underscored the fact that what music critics like and what rap audiences actually buy can be two very different things. The Roots, the Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy, Blackalicious, the Jurassic 5 and Common are five perfect examples of alterna-rappers who have been adored by critics but have often received more support from alternative rock fans than from hip-hop's hardcore. Those artists have received more than their share of rave reviews -- and they have had their share of devoted fans -- but they haven't sold as many CDs as hip-hop's major superstars. The Roots aren't as big as Eminem or Nelly; Blackalicious and Common haven't outsold DMX or Busta Rhymes. And it isn't uncommon for an alternative rapper to be a college radio favorite who has a hard time getting airplay on urban contemporary stations. But that doesn't necessarily worry alterna-rappers -- some of them thrive on their outsider status and don't stress over the fact that they're more popular among college radio and indie rock audiences than they are in the 'hood.
For the most part, alternative rap has been known for unthreatening, nonviolent lyrics; De La Soul and their allies were never into the thug-life imagery of gangsta rap. But that isn't to say that alternative rap lyrics are fluff -- far from it. The Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy, for example, were as fiercely sociopolitical a group as Public Enemy or Boogie Down Productions, and they rapped about issues like racism and sexism. But their rock-minded, industrial-friendly approach kept them from appealing to rap purists. Common, meanwhile, isn't as consistently sociopolitical as The Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy, although he questioned gangsta rap's excesses on his 1994 single, "I Used to Love H.E.R." (which led to a mini-feud with former N.W.A member Ice Cube).
It's unlikely that alternative rap will ever become rap's primary direction the way that alternative rock became rock's primary direction in the early '90s. Nonetheless, the music that is loosely defined as alternative rap has had an enthusiastic cult following and will probably continue to do so.