When Hip Hop Goes Retro

That earthquake-like beat in the distance is the sound of hip hop returning to underground roots put down in the '80s. Hip hop was hardcore back then, because hard times were spreading like the flu -- just like now.

Tik crack

Thump/thump

Thump/thump

Boom/Boom/Boom

It's the sound that only hip hop can make. It's different from the usual West Coast/Southern "funk" hop (Lil Wayne, Dre, DJ Quik, Snoop), NY superstar rap (Nas, Jay Z) and flavor-of-the-month hip pop/R&B (Ashanti/Ja Rule, Usher) that booms from car stereos.

That "tik crack" drum track "Grindin'‚" by Virginia-based rap duo The Clipse comes through my East Oakland three-way intersection four or five times a night, toppling The Big Tymers' "Hood Rich" from first place on my own unofficial street-bump chart.

To "grind" is to work your hustle, whether it be drugs, stocks or real estate. In these tough times, everybody is grindin', with the same cutthroat "earn by all means necessary" attitude of a CEO or gangster.

Listen to Malice, who, with Pusha T, writes The Clipse's raps:

"My grind's 'bout family, never been about fame

From days I wasn't "Abel/able", there was always "Cain/caine"

Four and a half will get you in the game

Anything less is just a goddamn shame

Guess the weight, my watch got blue chips in the face

Glock with two tips, whoever gets in the way

Not to mention the hideaway that rests by the lake

Consider my raw demeanor the icing on the cake

I'm grinding."

Sound familiar? Reaganomics, excessive materialism, high crime, crack, the first round of welfare reform, the scourge of AIDS, high unemployment, urban decay, poor schools, the rise of gangs and rampant police brutality defined the nation's urban landscape in the 1980s.

Now, more than just the attitude in Malice's lyrics or the song's infectious beats recall the '80s. Nationwide, the overall crime rate is up for the first time in a decade. In Oakland, the number of murders threatens to double from last year's total of 48.

Preachers and community leaders held a "peace march" in response to the recent rash of mostly Black-on-Black violence. A similar march was held in 1986, when Oakland was literally "crackin'." At the height of the crack-inspired turf wars in 1992, more than 200 people were murdered here. Most of the killings were drug related, with Black victims and perpetrators.

The bloodletting of the mid-'80s through the early '90s set the stage for the L.A. riots in 1992, the massive jailing program known as the Clinton Crime Bill in 1994 and the redemptive vibes of the Million Man March in 1995. Eventually, rap music smoothed out and became mainstream.

But "Grindin'" has the aural aesthetic of hip hop born in early '80s hardcore beats. The single -- produced by the Asian and Black hit-making duo known as The Neptunes -- is all beat and boom, completely stripped down to the naked soul of ghetto-bred rhythm.

There have been similar sounds in the history of rap. Run DMC's "Sucker M.C.s," Mantronics "Fresh Is the Word," Audio Two's "Top Billin'," Ice T's "6 in Da Mornin'," UTFO's "Roxanne Roxanne" and Easy E's (RIP) "Boyz in Da Hood" -- all were made in the mid- to late 1980s, when hip hop wasn't on commercial radio.

Dr. Dre's classic "The Chronic," released in 1992, and its melodic hit single "Nuthin But a G Thang" was more like an R&B tune, a sing-songy departure from the hardcore. "Nuthin" was one of the first gangsta rap singles to get mainstream radio play. The sound was reconciling and laid back, like an L.A. sunset. The video featured a barbecue and house party -- two activities that were almost impossible to do in the roaring '80s of drive-bys and crack kingpins like Oakland's Felix Mitchell, L.A.'s Rick "Freeway" Ross and New York's Nicky Barnes.

That smooth formula has ruled from the mid-'90s until now.

The "raw demeanor" that Malice raps about is the attitude of desperation and greedy ambition that drove Felix Mitchell and many others to contribute to the destruction of the community while feeding their families -- a bitter irony made possible only in America. I expect the music to get better as times threaten to get worse.

"Grindin'" reaffirms hip hop's musical power. If hip hop becomes a revolutionary cultural force for change again, know that conditions in the 'hoods where the sounds are born are getting more desperate and hectic. That's good for the music, bad for the 'hood.

Kevin Weston (kweston@pacificnews.org) is editor of Youth Outlook (YO!), a magazine by and about Bay Area youth that can be found at www.youthoutlook.org.

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