When rappers use oldies, it's what they borrow and how they use it


April 26, 1992|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,Pop Music Critic

fter Hammer got pounded by the critics for building his most successful raps around purloined beats -- hooking "U Can't Touch This" to Rick James' "Super Freak," for instance, or "Here Comes the Hammer" to James Brown's "Superbad" -- he swore off samples altogether. Consequently, his current "Too Legit to Quit" was entirely written around original (or, at least, non-purloined) melodic ideas and recorded entirely with live musicians.

Unfortunately, Hammer seems to have thrown the baby out with the bathwater in declaring, "Get thee behind me, sampling!" After all, what most critics objected to about his earlier work had less to do with what he borrowed than the fact that he leaned so heavily upon it. Still, "U Can't Touch This" and its ilk did have strong hooks -- which is more than can be said for much of "Too Legit."

Nonetheless, Hammer (who will be at the Baltimore Arena

tonight) is far from being alone in the move toward a live band approach to rap. L. L. Cool J, for example, turned up on the MTV Awards broadcast with what amounted to a rap big band, while A Tribe Called Quest turned up on "Late Night with David Letterman" a few weeks ago to perform "Check the Rhime" with a group including the original Average White Band horns.

So far, though, no rap act has quite captured the live band vibe as accurately as the Beastie Boys do on "Check Your Head" (Capitol 7 98938). Some tracks, in fact, put such emphasis on groovemanship that the rapping seems almost incidental.

It helps, of course, that the Beastie Boys started out as a guitar band, having dabbled in punk before turning to rap, but that hardly prepares the listener for the sort of playing heard here. Forget the power-trio crunch of "Fight for Your Right (to Party)"; for this album, the Beasties pursue a sound that owes more to the J.B.'s than AC/DC.

"Live at P.J.'s," with its wah-wah guitar and conga-spiked percussion, is pure '70s' funk; Mark Ramos Nishita's organ even adds the requisite jazz flourishes for extra period flavor. Nor is that the only vintage sound referred to here. "In 3's," in which Nishita's clavinet spars with Adrock's chicken-scratch guitar, recalls the rhythmic excursions of Dennis Coffey's Detroit Guitar Band (remember "Scorpio"?), while "Funky Boss" plays off a Latin-edged riff reminiscent of War, and "Lighten Up" spins a dreamy percussion vamp suggesting Santana's jazzy, mid-'70s' work.

Yet as vividly as these tunes evoke such vintage grooves, the Beasties aren't trying to follow the Brand New Heavies into retro-soul heaven. These three still rap hard-core, however. But the polysyllabic wordplay could as easily have come from "Licensed to Ill."

Nor have they forsaken the sort of scattershot sampling that made their last album, "Paul's Boutique," so kaleidoscopically dense. "Jimmy James," in fact, opens the album with a sound bite swiped from "Cheap Trick Live at Budokan," while other borrowed bits range from the wine commercial drolly interpolated into "Blue Nun" to the dab of Bob Dylan that delivers the final rhyme in "Finger Lickin' Good." There's even a good bit of scratching on the album, suggesting that neither instrumental dexterity nor sampling technology can make the Beasties abandon their turntables.

This everything-and-the-kitchen-sink strategy gives "Check Your Head" an almost dizzyingly eclectic sound. And while that may leave some listeners with a case of cultural vertigo -- "Pass the Mic," for instance, includes go-go beats, heavy metal guitar and samples ranging from a shakuhachi (a Japanese bamboo flute) wheeze to Jimmy Walker's shout of "Dy-no-mite!" -- the Beasties' awesome aural inventiveness guarantees that there's never a dull moment.

There aren't too many rap acts taking such a wide-ranging approach as the Beastie Boys, but there are plenty whose sound is just as ambitious. Take Arrested Development, for example. Despite such touches as the guitar fills behind "Blues Happy," this Georgia-based quintet lacks the Beasties' instrumental skills; its vocal skills range from straight-up rapping to gospel exhortations and old-style soul singing, and that -- along with some sharply expressed ideas -- adds considerable luster to the group's debut, "3 Years, 5 Months and 2 Days in the Life of . . ." (Chrysalis 21929).

Tellingly, Arrested Development's musical roots are sunk into the same rich soil as the Beasties. "Man's Final Frontier," for example, opens with a J.B.'s sample, "Mama's Always On Stage" cops a harmonica hook from War, and "People Everyday" finds the quintet quoting Sly & the Family Stone's "Everyday People" for its chorus.

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