Meet the Beat

Hip-hop's here. Deal with it. Check the local MCs and DJs moving up from the underground.

If you compare the coopting of sounds, melodies and samples in hip-hop with the philosophy that such exalted heroes as Dylan, Guthrie and Johnson used, many criticisms of the music collapse under the weight of one simple word: tradition. Mos Def and Taleb Kweli's "Definition" is centered around a musical quote from one Boogie Down Productions song, "South Bronx," and a lyrical melody based on another of their mid-'80s cuts, "Stop the Violence." The result is more than the merging of two different BDP cuts; it's a whole new vibe that refers to the lyrics of the originals but spins the song in an entirely fresh direction. It's both honoring hip-hop's heritage while moving it forward.

As a musical art form, hip-hop lacks respect from the more "musicianly" disciplines. The line of thinking is that, first, hip-hop is easy to make because all you need are samplers, turntables and a voice; you don't need to learn an instrument to be a rap artist. In fact, although that may be true on one level -- it's possible to take swaths of sound from prerecorded sources, paste them together and bang out a beat to create a song -- the art of the form has transformed turntables into musical instruments, sermonizing and singing into complex raps that are simultaneously rhythmic and linguistic.

The DJ uses two turntables and a mixer in the same way a drummer uses drums or a guitarist uses the guitar -- he or she plays them. By perfecting the craft of mixing -- blending and merging the sounds emanating from the turntables by switching a fader back and forth -- a DJ can develop a style in the same way any musician develops one. Sound simple? Check DJ Charlie Chan, who's been honing his craft for more than 15 years, as he explains the basics of DJing:

"I got marks (on the records), so if there's a certain place I want, the marks are up. Then as I play with it and I find other spots, I notice that the marks might be right here -- they might be at 3 o'clock, 6 o'clock. And you can actually feel it. So when I pull it back, the beats -- I can feel it, it'll be like dut-dut-dut-dut-dut. And then you start to feel like errerrrerrr -- you know those are words. And then I guess from hours of practice you learn it. Like, if the record skips, I know where it skips to. And then I also put marks where I can drop the needle down right on the part I want. I had that cued for 'Trix are for kids' when I dropped it, but I knew that in four spins the 'bad meaning bad' part was coming up. Since I've mastered dropping the needle right down on it, spin it four times and I know that it's right on that spot. These are some of the tricks that DJs use so we don't actually have to wear headphones."

From its earliest days, MCs have preached a message. Whether they're political or celebratory, furious or lighthearted, the words and rhymes of rap have evolved into an art form. The best rappers are able to combine the poetics, playfulness and profundity of language with an underlying rhythmic force, and the combination creates a momentum that rolls through the heads and hearts of listeners. For those who bemoan the fact that students don't memorize poetry and recite it to others anymore, next time you see a kid with a booming system rolling down your street, watch him as he moves his lips, reciting by heart the hundreds of lines of lyrics and shouting out key phrases.

MC Add Verb Superb of In Limbo describes the difference between two approaches to rapping: freestyling on the mike -- stepping up to rhyme on the spot, a sort of verbal improvisation -- and rhyming the words you've written with a pen, some paper and a sense of precise purpose. "They're both extremely important but not mutually exclusive," he says. "Sometimes you get ideas for writing when freestyling, and sometimes the concepts that you build off in your writing develop into freestyling when you get onstage. And 'freestyle,' term-wise, means a couple of things. There are two basic camps, and there are shades of gray between. One is where you've got so many rhymes written that you can interconnect them at will. And a lot of people do that. A lot of people, honestly, sit there, feel the beat and drop, and it comes right off the top of the head, or what would be called 'top of the head.' And a lot of people -- they're amazing. When I was into it, I was trying to do a lot of it myself. There are people like L.O.G.I.C, Intellect Emcee (of the Midwest Avengers, this year's Slammy Award winner for Best Hip-Hop Artist and one of the most active crews in the St. Louis scene), a lot of guys from the Ruckus Crew and the (Track) Vandals -- just beautiful freestyle artists. And they're just delivering, out of the blue, raw power. And it's beautiful. It's like jazz improv."

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