UK Fresh '86
Simon Trask leaves all that MIDI jargon behind to check out Britain's first major live hip hop event. How are the DJs and the rappers making technology tick?
No area of modern pop makes more inventive use of technology than hip hop, the street music of the eighties. At Wembley Arena this summer, the biggest names in the business gathered for Britain's first major live hip hop event. The beat went on and on.
AT A TIME when real experiments in popular music are few and far between, hip hop is one area where there is ceaseless experimentation and a genuine sense of excitement. It has an urgency and a topicality, and a sheer speed of invention, which makes it truly the music of the eighties. Tough music for a tough world.
Hip hop is the logical result of instant, global electronic communication. It appropriates all music — all information, in fact — to its own ends, absorbing to create something fresh.
Hip hop was born from a huge array of different sources, and this is no place to discuss them all. But one of the biggest — and most surprising — influences was European and Japanese synth-pop of the late seventies and early eighties. Thus Afrika Bambaataa, one of hip hop's founding fathers: 'I was heavy into Kraftwerk, heavy into Gary Numan, heavy into Yellow Magic Orchestra. I wanted to be the first black group that had a record with just electronic instruments, no band except a synthesiser'. Bambaataa's seminal 'Planet Rock', released in 1982, was an electro rap version of Kraftwerk's 'Trans-Europe Express', replete with the TR808 rhythm patterns and sampled orchestra hits that have since passed into the everyday vocabulary of hip hop.
And among the younger generation of hip hop musicians, Sir Mix-A-Lot cites 'Gary Numan and all that British techno-pop' as a vital influence.
All of which goes to prove that 'ethnic identity' isn't a great help when trying to pin down hip hop. It's street music, certainly, full of warmth and spontaneity, but it's nothing like as dependent on ethnic roots as, say, reggae.
As Grandmaster Flash, one of the first hip hop artists to win crossover success with 'The Message', would have it: 'Musically, hip hop doesn't have an identity. That's what is so good about it. We can take a bit of jazz or rock or r'n'b. Because our music has no identity, that means we can cross boundaries left and right.
'The future of hip hop has to be in experimenting. My advice to new hip hop artists is don't be afraid to experiment, because hip hop can go in so many directions.'
Hip hop has always embraced new technology and used it for its own ends, creating a music which otherwise just couldn't have existed. It took the insistent urgency of the drum machine and set the rap element off against it, revelling in the tension generated by the resulting collision/collusion.
"The show was about the music of the moment, not the personalities who make it. If an act is fresh, that's all that matters."
Hip hop is the beat and the rap, but it's also the turntable mediating between the two, the DJ scratching and cutting records — any records — to create a collage of sounds few would believe could live together in the same track. Grandmixer DST scratched a record of Balinese gamelan music on Herbie Hancock's 'Rockit'; Grandmaster Flash cut together Chic's 'Good Times', Queen's 'Another One Bites the Dust' and Blondie's 'Rapture' to create 'Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel'.
The genre's willingness to include all manner of musics and sounds makes hip hop an ideal area of exploration using that still fashionable musical device, the digital sampler. Listen to the way hip hop not only draws on diverse influences, but also integrates them into a convincing whole; it's deceptively simple.
Technology and hip hop go hand in hand, whether the artists involved are using turntables, drum machines, synths or samplers. DJs like Davy DMX, Mantronik, Sir Mix-A-Lot and Hitman Howie Tee exemplify the openness of hip hop towards technological innovation — even if the way they apply that technology strays into the realms of abuse, rather than use.
There's a lot to be learnt from hip hop, and there's certainly a lot more to be done as the music moves ever outward. Just so long as the beat goes on...
SATURDAY JULY 19 at Wembley Arena, and the beat was definitely going on. This was UK Fresh '86, the first major live hip hop event in Britain. It attracted 15,000 people during the course of its two shows (one in the afternoon, one in the evening), proving that, despite the (in)attention of a mass media that wrote it off two years ago, hip hop has more grass-roots appeal now than ever.
Nearly every major US hip hop act trod the boards at some point during the day — a triumph of organisation for the Streetwave empire and Capital Radio. And what the assembled masses got was a unique chance to take in (or rather, be bombarded by) some of the greatest acts in hip hop's eight-year history — originators Afrika Bambaataa and Grandmaster Flash alongside newer acts like Mantronix, The Real Roxanne and Sir Mix-A-Lot.
"Hip hop has always embraced new technology and used it for its own ends, creating a music which otherwise just couldn't have existed."
With the volume set permanently to 11, UK Fresh was no place for faint hearts. But it's the sheer physical, energising presence of hip hop you need to experience to understand why it just refuses to go away. The music takes you over, imprints itself on your unconscious. Two shows' worth of this and my world is spinning on a different axis, under the control of that beat.
The acts came fast and furious, and demonstrated a consistently high level of professionalism. Hip hop is about showmanship, and what we witnessed was showmanship of the highest order — backed up by consummate technical skill.
DJ Cheese and Word of Mouth opened both shows. A sensible choice, as they set a high standard for the other acts to follow. Their 'Coast to Coast' is a formidable slice of hip hop, now available on 12-inch in the UK.
Often, racks of synths and samplers were dragged centre-stage between acts. Amidst just such an array of hi-tech instruments, Sir Mix-A-Lot delivered his hip-hop-meets-country-hoedown 'Square Dance Rap', chipmunk voice and all. It's a track you either love or hate, depending on whether you have a sense of humour.
But it was Grandmaster Flash's supremely orchestrated crew of ensemble rappers who stole the first show with a sharp, streetwise set. In contrast, headliner Afrika Bambaataa and his cohorts were ponderous, their dense tribal rhythms muddy — and the crowd weren't overly sold on Bambaataa's peace, love and unity philosophy, either. This show was about the music of the moment, not the personalities who make it. If an act is fresh, that's all that matters.
Contests lie at the heart of hip hop, and are one of the means by which the music constantly regenerates itself. One eagerly awaited contest was that between female rappers Roxanne Shante and The Real Roxanne. It never materialised. Shante fell prey to chicken-pox back in New York, leaving the stage wide open for The Real Roxanne and DJ Hitman Howie Tee to put across one of the best sets of the entire event, 'Bang Zoom (Let's Go Go)' and all.
Aleem were one of the few bands to play — fortunately, as their sound was a mess. On record their arrangements are among the best around, but that didn't translate live. What's more, lengthy posturing guitar solos were definitely not the order of the day for this crowd, who were waiting for second show headliners Mantronix to deliver the goods. This they eventually did, with a unique combination of hard rapping and tight beats, bringing down the house in the process.
The crowd filtered out into the warm evening air as, next door in the Stadium, Frank Bruno prepared to do battle with Tim Witherspoon. But this particular Saturday, it was hip hop that delivered the real knockout punch.
Show Report by Simon Trask
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