Fucking hell, "Cordless Mics @ Twenty Paces" by Skitz is awesome. It's one of those rare hip-hop tracks where everything I search for comes together: a strong beat ("strong" is a hard word to define, but what I think I mean here is that it dominates the track and it isn't the chunky funk or virtual lite-jazz of the rhythms in most other recent UK hip-hop I've heard), the rhymes are utterly self-confident and on-point throughout, and the production is a perfect mix of the modern / recent-past-retro (computer game sounds, mainly) and the ancient (folky guitar lines and the melodic hook of a sea shanty). It's a record that makes me absolutely proud of this country right now, utterly convinced of the positivity of my nationality, uncontrollably angry that the virtual cultural repatration of hip-hop is still believed in by many who would otherwise go to great lengths to point out that they are in no way right-wing. If this piece was about Skitz's Countryman album, there would be no time or space for self-doubt.
But I don't have the Skitz album yet. Don't blame me, I haven't been out much recently. And I couldn't find it last time I was out, and I'm close to bankruptcy anyway. So I went for Ty's album Awkward instead, and I'm trying hard to like it. It's a well-produced, solid record, the emceeing never spectacular but never bad, and a fair few good tracks - the goodtime Britfunk of "Walk With Your Ego", the autobiography of "The Tale", the tightness of "Jealousy", the irresistibility of the chorus to "Zaibo", the catchiness of the slightly bombastic 80s-sounding orchestral sample on "Front Free". But there are a good few moments which I'd have shrugged off in my undie days - darling, at least it wasn't that vulgar synth sound used by that ghastly Timbaland! - which now make me puke; the boring jazz-funk breakdowns into which tracks like "Trippin' Over Words" and "Break The Lock" descend, the banal slow jam of "You're So ...", and the general torpid jazziness and funklessness of the rhythms when listened to all at one sitting (the influence of Will Ashon's Big Dada Recordings, with its consensual love for tedious post-trip-hop, has rubbed off very badly on this record). And "The Nonsense", I'm afraid, is just fucking ugly, a quasi-rock jam whose guitar sound brings to mind sweaty LA session musicians circa '87.
But what's bugging me is why I can't really get myself to like Awkward in a deeper sense than that of straight-faced, straight-laced appreciation; it's a perfectly good record on its own terms, a very well-intended record, probably better than some of the ostentatiously "look at us, we make British references" earlier UK hip-hop records that lurk in my collection. Why do I still regard listening to it as a kind of chore, yearning to put on Missy Elliot again? Do I, in short, now search for something more, something - gasp - deeply vicarious?
One thing's for sure: my preference for Skitz is musical, not theoretical; of course, in terms of the cultural meeting of the ancient and the ultra-modern (my once and future and ultimate fixation) the folkiness of "Cordless Mics @ Twenty Paces" is far more interesting than the chunky funk (pretty good) and the mellow neo-jazz (bad, with very few exceptions) that dominates Awkward. But that's not the reason for my preference; I don't like music that is theoretically good when it turns out to be shit. "Cordless Mics @ Twenty Paces" is awesome in practice even more than it is in theory.
I used to vociferously denounce the whole idea of "getting off on" - in other words, taking some kind of vicarious pleasure in - the extreme, the violent, the crazed in pop. In short, I thought I'd become enough of a citizen of the world - familiar with all that could confront me and removed from ancient concepts of getting some strange kick from the aggressive only because it seemed distant and "other" - that I'd never need to listen to someone like Jay-Z again. Then I realised just how much was actually happening there - how astonishing the production was, principally - and I was utterly transformed. Sometimes I look back at my old undie self with a curious "how could I ever have been that purist?" self-questioning / criticism. But there are two sides to all this; the thrill of the sound and the near-evil (I use that word very carefully) of some of the lyrics. Have I progressed musically, but regressed ideologically? I'd never doubt that I've moved forward in terms of becoming less hidebound by some idea of "real" hip-hop - I've left behind dead-end classicism and embraced the sonic state of the art - but, in the process, have I lost some kind of personal decency? Have I turned from a passionate anti-exploitation globalist into some leering exploitative ironised version of Kevin the Teenager, a sort of intellectualisation of the Ali Gs of the public schools?
I think the answer would be no, despite everything. I had to stop playing "Wild Out" by The Lox after a few weeks because I just couldn't take it any more, couldn't take the viciousness with which the song's nihilism was hurtling into my face. More worryingly, I started considering The Lox's hysteria to be actually subhuman, or at the very least post-human; while the latter term is preferable in that it does not imply a lower level of evolution and development, it does however suggest that somehow, they are different from us. Suddenly I was thrust into whole cultural ideas on levels of development and intelligence which I'm essentially very suspicious of. And that's from someone who would love nothing better than to see the Daily Telegraph destroyed forever. Personal cultural crisis time.
At that moment I could understand why hip-hop, so often, seems to make people otherwise passionately of the left seem like cultural protectionists and fearful gatekeepers. An impeccably liberal and left-wing friend of mine, normally one of the most rational people imaginable, once made the extraordinary and utterly tasteless comparison between hip-hop and Stalin as something that the left shouldn't necessarily defend simply because it is articulated as subversive and dangerous by the right. Enough. I had to stop there. After all, I was going to buy the Eve album but suddenly I couldn't bring myself to actually spend money on it. Some of my old moral integrities survive.
I'm still not quite sure, though, from which perspective I come at pop. Do I have some idea of social and cultural progressivism - which in itself requires some internal sense of discrimination and avoidance of what I consider to be regressive and unsound, in some way - or am I, again, a pure pop consumer? Am I a voyeur, or a hard worker? Am I a fantasist, or a realist? For the moment, I'll keep playing Awkward, keep trying not to end up being bored by most of it, and keep trying to work it out.
Robin Carmody, 14th April 2001