Every time Death prepares to pounce on the gasping body of rock or rap music, someone or something comes along to administer CPR—usually by mistake. Dance music's surprising popularity, for example, has given a much-needed shot in the arm to both rock and rap. The best records of the past few years, however, have come from musicians who don't strive within a dying genre—they refuse to acknowledge that genre restraints even exist. Musicians like DJ Spooky (a.k.a. writer and conceptual artist Paul D. Miller), Asian Dub Foundation, Ozomatli, Plastilina Mosh, Money Mark (a.k.a. Mark Ramos-Nishita), and UNKLE don't fit into the established hierarchies, whether hip-hop, rock, or techno. Instead, they've created a millennial mix.
DJ Spooky & the Universal Robot Band, Plastilina Mosh
Showbox, Saturday, October 24
ARO.space, Monday, October 26
Whether you call their music post-rock or experimental hip-hop, these musicians sound nothing alike. Most of them are steeped in hip-hop culture (many started as DJs), but like the former b-boys in Bristol who launched the drum-and-bass attack, they've taken music beyond that scene's insularity. DJ Spooky calls his stuff doom hip-hop or space funk jungle, but these phrases barely describe his poaching of everything from Latin music to rock, from funk to hip-hop, from jazz and ska to classical and disco. Money Mark (who picked up extra money in the mid-'80s playing keyboards for the LA hip-hop label Delicious Vinyl) mixes electro-funk and Jimmy Smithstyle soul-jazz with tiki-lounge ballroom dance numbers, old-fashioned R&B, Indian ragas, and even goofs on high-BPM techno.
"What the old-school record-company people don't realize is that there's a new audience—and that is the audience that buys compilations, and listens to all kinds of music," Mark explains. "I am that person too, and my output only resembles my input. I listen to everything, so I feel like creating those kinds of things."
James Lavelle, owner of the influential label MoWax, recently described his impetus for UNKLE's 1994 debut as "the whole kind of collective idea . . . that it wasn't just focused on one central character, that you'd have different people, and you'd have a lot of different moods on records."
MoWax, releasing records from Money Mark, as well as DJs like Krush and Shadow (now the other half of UNKLE), launched a mostly instrumental, beat-based revolution. Now more than ever, though, the über-rock element of human (indeed, highly emotional) vocals is nudging into the mix, putting a sonic face on the beats. Mark's sophomore release, Push the Button, contains a number of lovelorn pop songs indebted to Elvis Costello. Plastilina Mosh and Ozomatli work Spanish-language crooning into their eclectic raps and mix cumbias with turntables, jazz, and funk. Asian Dub Foundation, on its Mercury Prizewinning debut Rafi's Revenge, celebrates punk roots with confrontational vocals that match the music's liberating, fuck-you energy. And UNKLE's new record, Psyence Fiction, was famous even before its release for using rock-star guest vocalists Richard Ashcroft from the Verve and Thom Yorke from Radiohead; Lavelle, who grew up not paying much attention to rock music, has mentioned being "blown away" by the emotion in both singers' voices.
For his latest record, Riddim Warfare, Spooky included guest MCs like Kool Keith and Sir Menelik to complement spoken-word and sung tracks. His first album, which contained no vocals, "was a theater of what people consider to be the signifiers of different music styles. . . . I said, 'I'll make a hardcore hip-hop track with no beats, no human recognizable voices,'—and it becomes an ambient glaze. . . . I took a couple classical-music riffs and turned it into a funk track. . . . I would just play with the variables and signifiers of each style, and just playfully show that it's all about the remix," says Spooky.
Money Mark's pop songs also respond to convention—in his case, hip-hop's historical revisionism. "I wanted to acknowledge the pop influence that people in hip-hop have," he says of his newest songs. "A lot of hip-hop has borrowed from jazz and funk, and that's well-known, but borrowing from the pop side of things isn't really acknowledged, because MCs don't sing the melodies."
The time seems right for these hybrids. Mainstream rock listeners are opening their ears to the Chemical Brothers and ska-core bands, and mainstream rap listeners are embracing reworkings of '80s pop hits (and, in the case of Jay-Z's "Hard Knock Life," Broadway show tunes). "We've played for so many different types of people, it's hard to say what our average crowd is," notes Ozomatli bass player and co-founder Wil-Dog.
Spooky, for one, is suddenly everywhere, contributing music to the film Slam and providing visuals and sound for an interactive Web site from Absolut vodka. On his current tour, he plays as part of a band of DJs, who "apply DJ logic" to their set: "Most bands are usually made out of people who are oriented by guitar, bass, drums," Spooky explains. "Everyone in my band is a DJ, but they also play bass, guitar, whatever. . . . The whole band can scratch. Like if you take a back cue of a record, imagine a whole band playing backward for a second, or as if we were a record being scratched."
Whatever it sounds like live, Riddim Warfare's ability to encompass Sonic Youth guitarist Thurston Moore, Buddhist mantras, Wu Tang Clan's Killah Priest, and Julia Scher from MIT feels like a glimpse of the future.
"Music is able to fluidly navigate the cultural situations that other art forms—painting or sculpture or whatever—have to negotiate much more slowly," Spooky points out. "I really like the idea of music as a metaphor for plurality, and sampling is a perfect reflection of that—being able to pick and choose all these different things and make them co-habit a space."
Or maybe it's just that pop music is pop music, no matter what stylistic cubbyhole you put it in. Play around with the pitch control on your stereo sometime, and spin a copy of Tag Team's "Whoomp! There It Is": You'll find that it sounds remarkably like Gary Glitter's "Rock and Roll" speeded up to 131 BPM.