Backward masking

What we talk about when we talk about old-school.

Now that your average Spin/Details reader has soaked up the benefits of dressing, talking, dancing, and stockpiling vinyl like an old-school b-boy, the question that begs to be asked is: What exactly do we mean by “old school”?

Smokin Grooves Tour: Public Enemy, Cypress Hill, Wyclef Jean, Busta Rhymes, Gang Starr, Black Eyed Peas

KeyArena, Tuesday, August 18

Most Mase fans were barely even teething in the late ’70s and ’80s, when hip-hop was also in its infancy. Listen to the big hits by early rappers like MC Shan and U.T.F.O., and the sound is quaint by today’s standards. Anyone with the romantic view that the early days were free of mercenary concerns hasn’t heard the story behind Sugar Hill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight”—a music exec’s attempt to exploit what he thought was a passing fad. With the limits of early-’80s technology, the real value of rap music from those years lies in the excitement to be found in any art form under construction—if you lived through it, those songs will never sound that good again.

Suburban b-boys may think they’re lionizing the old school when they don their Adidas shell-toes, but what they’re really nostalgic for is what local rapper Samson S. jokingly dubs “middle school”: the late-’80s and early-’90s heyday of De La Soul, Tribe Called Quest, Run DMC, Public Enemy, and Gang Starr.

Could it be possible that since the deaths of Tupac Shakur and the Notorious B.I.G., rap fans are sick of the ultraviolent gangsta hegemony? It happens all the time that rock musicians hide backgrounds of education or privilege, and sadly rappers joined in, denying their idealism in order to establish their street cred. The late-’80s role model wasn’t hard gangsta, it was enlightened boho, and acts of the time weren’t afraid to say they had more on their minds than where their next million dollars/bottle of Cristalle were coming from. Showing his idealistic middle-school roots on Gang Starr’s new record, Moment of Truth, Guru says of his music, “There’s always a message involved.”

Then again, the nostalgia could stem from the reign of simplistic acts like Master P and Puff Daddy. Maybe folks are missing the middle-schoolers’ sheer musical variety. A group like De La Soul made no bones about its pop, rock, and jazz influences—not just Top 40, but Lou Reed, obscure synth-pop, even Schoolhouse Rock. Fugees rapper Wyclef Jean, who usually busts out a guitar at least once in his live sets, recently announced that he’d produce a new Earth, Wind & Fire record.

Jean is just one of the artists on the nostalgia-stoking lineup for this year’s Smokin’ Grooves Tour, which stops in Seattle this week. Public Enemy and Gang Starr are also on the bill; both groups recently released their first new records in four years. Another hip-hop group from the early ’90s that seemed in danger of breaking up, Cypress Hill, returns for its third year on the tour—its first with Sen-Dog returning to the fold after a two-year absence.

But maybe the harbinger of hip-hop’s next wave is openers Black Eyed Peas, who sample the same sources as their predecessors on their Interscope debut, Behind the Front. A sign of the times is their use of the familiar synth riff from 1984’s “White Horse”—a song that’s made it onto such varied genre compilations as ’80s Hot Dance Trax, Best of Old School, and Best of ’80s Rock.

At least one person who was there back in the day, approves of the nostalgia: “The ’80s was classic hip-hop, and classic styles are timeless,” Guru noted recently. “Just like how the ’70s were revisited last year in music and fashion, people now are revisiting the ’80s’ hip-hop style.”