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Outta the Crypt

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Tupac Shakur: Gang-bangin' on Heaven's door.

Tupac Shakur's posthumous release

R U Still Down? (Remember Me)

DJ Shadow
Preemptive Strike
(Mo Wax/A&M)

ONE GLANCE at the Billboard best-seller charts will tell you that hip-hop music is as strong as ever; repeat listening verifies the genre's depth and worth. Almost 20 years old, hip-hop is now understood not simply as rap, but as a whole funky umbrella of R&B, techno, global-fusion, indie-dance, and soul. Sonically, it's always been about MCs and DJs, about singular voices shining in a form based on do-it-yourself assemblage.

Two recent from-the-vaults releases illustrate the growing fork in the road between hip-hop's rapper-based old school and its dawning electro-auteur avant-garde. Tupac Shakur's posthumous double R U Still Down? (Remember Me)--the rapper was gunned down in September of 1996 in Las Vegas--is a topnotch set from the compelling late-rap titan. Meanwhile, DJ Shadow's Preemptive Strike compiles import tracks by this Davis-based producer into a set of sampled tracks with a human face.

Shakur's release--seemingly, the first of a family-controlled, Hendrix-like flow of recordings--focuses on a vision beyond the numerous producers and party-time grooves; the key is Shakur as a vocalist and lyricist whose gift must be seen not merely as jaded truth-telling, but as a keen sensitivity for the hearts and minds behind his double-edged "Thug Life."

Similarly, DJ Shadow knows that there's more; his interludes and breaks are designed to speak to you. Tracks set up and unfold as if to transcend their own ambient groove, as if DJ Shadow is aiming more for your thinking cap than your dancing shoes. His samples are as obscure--his grooves as odd--as is Shakur's ride on the time-honored P-Funk/Blue Note bedrock. Taken together, it's like hearing hip-hop translate itself from an exciting past into a mysterious future.

Lecture on Nothing
Lecture on Nothing
(Pop Mafia)

WONDERFULLY ZANY, this studio project consists of scraps of words and sounds encompassing everything from gospel-hour organ and somber Alan Watts-like snippets to left-field funk overlaid with sexy female blandishments. "Strap It On" best illustrates this massive unruly experiment. Commencing with what sounds like the opening guitar figure from "Spanish Harlem," the "tune" flaunts a crazy collage of voices: a Frank Sinatra sound-alike sunnily enjoining us to "wake up to reality," futuristic vocoded interjections, and, lurking in the distance, the subterranean menace of a two-note synth. The implacable pulse of "The Art of Love'" is a funky Frankenstein fashioned out of a Stanley Clarke bass line, the Artist's brazen black rock, and a mock Gurdjieff (by way of Robert Fripp's cut-up recordings) babbling on about heavy petting. Interspersed is an ongoing, if incoherent, dialogue about the Heimlich maneuver. Of course.

Various Artists
Ay Califas! Raza Rock of the '70s

THE YEAR: 1974. The place: Sunnyvale. Electronics industry fat cats living the good life, though they haven't yet gotten totally rich off the sweat of local Hispanics and hippy shop workers. I'm running a ripsaw at a lumberyard that builds specialty shipping cases for main-frame computer companies and defense-industry firms, staying alive on a steady diet of huevos and chorizo, Michoacan gold, and Latin rock. Late afternoon. Break time. Cold soda and a hot doobie behind the lumber stacks. Shorty and Pud crooning for rail-thin chicks over at the Atari plant. Radio blasting: Carlos Santana's "Oye Como Va"; Tower of Power's "You're Still a Young Man," a hefty helping of East Bay grease; and War--the ubiquitous "Low Rider" et al. The list goes on. The Latin beat goes on. Malo. El Chicano. Azteca. Sapo. Suevecito, baby!

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From the January 29-February 4, 1998 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

© Metro Publishing Inc.

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