Saturday, February 11, 2006

Party Like It's 1991

-Or, Play That Funky Music, Whiteboy.



A couple of cool used CD finds have prompted me to remember a short slice of time in the early nineties.
Back in the Bush I regime, there was a burst of highly politicized industrial/hip-hop and aggro-rock that seemed to have a common thread and sound. A lot of it took cues from Public Enemy, who were titans in the hip-hop world, and also at the center of most anti-rap controversy.
So perhaps in light of that, they were an understandably appropriate template for the burgeoning proto-industrial (semi)white-boy rap scene to adopt.
The Disposable Heros of Hiphoprisy emerged from singer Michael Franti's earlier, punkier project The Beatnigs and even updated their Television (the Drug of the Nation) on their debut album Hypocrisy is the Greatest Luxury. Franti is a powerful and authoritative rapper, not unlike P.E.'s Chuck D. And- like P.E.- most songs sound like a CNN report, with almost statistical reportage of the state of Bush I's America. They also cover the Dead Kennedy's California to feature then-Governor Pete Wilson. Co-conspirator Ronald Tse (what happened to him?) provides ample fat, double-tracked beats and samples to great effect.

Industrial dance saints Consolidated sound very much like Disposable Heroes during this period, and even name-check Franti on the opening track to Friendly Fascism. Consolidated always run the risk of the politics of their lyrics- and especially the high ratio of samples to music- outweighing musical form. Like a Crass album, musicality takes a back seat to the message, but here the music is very good. And like with a peace-punk band, the listener runs the risk of being hit over the head with lefty dogma, no matter how like minded they are or how heartfelt the conveyed sentiments may be. This time around it's male chauvinism, meat, vegetarianism, meat, racism, meat, fascism, meat, abortion rights and more, not necessarily in that order. The whole album is interspersed with soundbites that seem to be about the band and the many confrontations they encountered in the media and apparently at their own shows. Although the band centers its sound around hip-hoppish dance music, it occasionally turns the dial over to Ministry-ish aggro-metal and feel-good hippy rock. One hilarious song, College Radio, laments the state of that formerly cool medium with funny, ironic lyrics.

Emergency Broadcast Network were like a cool amalgamation of the above two bands- albeit with much less rapping, and a much heavier reliance on ironic media sound-bites and samples. In fact, it's this latter aspect that dates Telecommunication Breakdown the most. Although most samples themselves are somewhat timeless, the sheer number present per song make this production sound more like something that would've come out in the earlier nineties (instead of it's release date of 1995!) along with Tackhead, Ministry and to a lesser extent, Negativland. But it is a great sounding album, with lots of heavy, hard-edged beats and fat synth lines- thanks in no small part to the production prowess of the great Jack Dangers (Meat Beat Manifesto), whose signature is all over this album (in fact, Dangers is the common thread to all the above albums- and it shows in the sound). The motif of this disc being a multi-media device is driven home with samples of flipping dials, soundbites, announcements and the like. EBN were famous for their shows-as-multimedia events - so much so that they were tapped by U2 to provide visuals and transitional material for their ZooTV Tour. No doubt this fact helped them secure the superb packaging and bonus features in this production and maybe even the swell guest appearances and producer credits, such as Brian Eno and Bill Laswell.
It also drew heat for them in the indy world, which slagged them as sell-outs and the album as a mainstream flash in the pan, which it isn't.
It sounds very timely, in spite of some potentially dating aspects to it.
In today's political environment, all of the above albums sound very appropriate, especially where they mention Bush, Iraq, media manipulation, economic stagnation, racial ghetto-ization, etc...

Where are bands like this today? Most of these bands enjoyed the status of being rock-press media darlings, especially Franti, who now trades under his own name and with a sort of peace n' patchouli circuit friendly rock thing. Consolidated went public with their courtship and subsequent dumping with big record labels, culminating with 1999's Dropped, but have been very quiet on the scene, even when releasing the occasional album.
The boys of EBN are involved with aspects of multimedia and marketing.

Who are the equivalents of these bands today, and would we get to hear them?
Hip hop, be it of the whiteboy variety, or otherwise, seems to be largely apolitical by comparison and perhaps safely so.
It's also interesting to note how much ire that band like Public Enemy and similar groups drew, and by comparison how much the debate seems to have died down now that most hip-hop has centered around an apolitical and nihilistic/narcissistic lyrical bent. By mimicking the imperialistic nature of our culture, and highlighting a self-destructive outlook, rap seems to have found a safe and profitable haven for itself.

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