Songs from the fringes of hip-hop.

Songs you've got to hear.
July 13 2004 1:59 PM

That's a Rap?

Songs from the fringes of hip-hop.

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Wiley"Wot Do U Call It?" (XL) Click here to listen to "Wot Do U Call It?"The last few years have seen a dizzying sequence of UK-based micro-mini-subgenres of hip-hop: garage, two-step, grime, and so on. They're all fast, trebly and twitchy, with a bit of Jamaican dance hall's digital stiffness in their lineage, and it can be hard to tell them apart without some kind of taxonomical handbook. Producer/rapper Wiley makes the what-style-exactly-is-this question the subject of "Wot Do U Call It?" If his answer—none of the above, it's a genre all his own, "eski"—is a little disingenuous, it's still fun to hear him make the argument. The real fun, though, is the instrumental track: a rinky-tink keyboard doodle that gives way to its rubbery, pumped-up twin when the bass kicks in. Hip-hop hooks have been inspiring cell-phone ring tones for a few years, but this time it's the other way around.

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Madvillain Madvillainy (Stones Throw) Click here to listen to "Figaro."The team of rapper MF Doom and producer Madlib has produced one of the oddest and most concentrated hip-hop albums of the year. Despite its critical hype, Madvillainy's 2-minute tracks and total lack of choruses make it unlikely to turn up on the radio. But its brief, lurching grooves flow like a single long suite, built by Madlib from woozy cut-ups of unidentifiable old jazz and kitsch records, with fragments of context-free dialogue and blurts of noise thrown in as punctuation. Doom's lyrics are the apotheosis of the stoned ramble: They're sometimes just word salad, sometimes a chain of tenuous conceptual links. Ridiculously dense rhymes—like this one from "Figaro"—pour out of Doom in a deadpan rasp: "It's too hot to handle, you got blue sandals/ Who shot ya? Ooh got ya new spots to vandal?"

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KMD (Nature Sounds) Click here to listen to "Sweet Premium Wine."Back in the early '90s, MF Doom was calling himself Zev Love X; with his brother and producer Subroc, he had a group called KMD whose promising career ended abruptly when Subroc was killed in a car accident. Their new best-of cherry-picks both of their records for the thickly detailed, high-spirited party jams whose crate-digging grooves and loopy tangents would soon become more the stuff of hip-hop's underground than of its hits, as sample fees grew exorbitant. Subroc's production on "Sweet Premium Wine" (from their mighty "lost album"Black Bastards) makes rough, complicated funk out of a sour little guitar riff sampled from a badly scratched record. Zev—already rapping about being a "maniacal villain"—manages to stay more or less on topic (specifically, drinking a lot), but he's actually drunk on internal assonance: "He coulda used the loot for ice on his eyesocket!"

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Automato Automato (Coup de Grace) Click here to listen to "Walk Into the Light."New York's Automato tries to duplicate the feel of studio-built hip-hop with a live six-piece band. It's a tall order, and as ambitious as Jesse Levine's lyrics are, the group's album is hit-or-miss. But the virtue of Automato is its instrumental tracks—which might have something to do with the album's production by the DFA, the team that's also masterminded recent dance-rock favorites by the Rapture and LCD Soundsystem. Automato's figured out that asymmetry and dissonance are secretly friends of funk, and "Walk Into the Light" has a marvelously lopsided beat, accented by a hesitant thumb piano and a stuttering guitar that seems to have stumbled in from a totally different song. Levine keeps straying into horny bluntness ("I'd like to try once at least hit that thick ass just once then peace"), but his batty non-sequiturs, like a bit about "digesting flesh inside a tired lion chest," have the same accidental-sounding grace as the song's groove.

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The Streets A Grand Don't Come for Free (Vice/Atlantic) Click here to listen to "Could Well Be In."Listening to Mike Skinner's one-man project the Streets, you can imagine him reading somewhere that hip-hop is mostly spoken and occasionally sung, that its vocabulary is vernacular, it rhymes, and it's strongly rhythm-conscious, and then thinking "I should try that!"—without actually having heard any. The second Streets album is a single long narrative broken up into chapters; Skinner is less interested in verbal pyrotechnics than in using the natural vocabulary and cadences of the London underclass to give his story depth and flavor and—oh, right—a rhyme every two seconds or so. The chorus of "Could Well Be In," in which Skinner's character tries to figure out if the girl he's talking to likes him, could have been a bit of overheard cell-phone chatter. If its synth-piano music isn't much more than functional, that's not the part that's supposed to attract attention anyway.

Douglas Wolk is the author of Live at the Apollo.

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