Do Rappers Dream of Electro-Beats?
DJs Egyptian Lover and Arabian Prince return to celebrate an unsung chapter of L.A. hip-hop history
Punch up and down the radio dial these days, and Missy Elliott's new single, "Lose Control," will inevitably make its way into your ear hole. And, unless you spin records obsessively, it's tough to recognize the pedigree of this hit's bleating, rapidly percolating rhythm. The trendy will place it just outside the nubile young womb of electro-pop, while the more learned might link the sample to Kraftwerk's pioneering work.
The truth lies somewhere - exactly, actually - in between. In Los Angeles, in a club, back in the back of the day - rough-and-tumble-first-term-Reagan back in the day. With impeccable timing, this brand-new single harks back, as does so much of hip-hop, whose history repeats itself like a loop.
Missy's latest recalls the time when a beyond-suave DJ named Egyptian Lover sampled, to grassroots acclaim, Cybertron's dance classic "Clear." And, like a loop, Egyptian Lover is back, along with peers and products from one underground Petri dish of a scene. On August 6 at Zen Sushi, along with Arabian Prince and admirers such as DJ Mark Luv, Egyptian Lover will attempt to turn Silver Lake's Zen Sushi into a revival house for Uncle Jamm's Army-era L.A. - a milieu that influenced everyone from N.W.A to industry heavyweight Lyor Cohen - in a fashion that reflects as well as directs.
"One thing about hip-hop that I always loved is that it regenerates itself," says Mark Luv. "Hip-hop is the only music I know that can come out in '88, '98, then 2005, and it comes out the same. We knew that music would come back; we just didn't know when."
It was the era of $50 Air Jordans, S-Curls, swap meets, and the Crenshaw cruise. But, at least as Luv recalls the epoch, hip-hop started with the RTD bench in the 'hood.
"You get dressed, and you go to the bus stop around 6 p.m.," he says. "For Uncle Jamm's Army, you'd get into either the Santa Monica Civic Center or the L.A. Sports Arena for $10. The first thing that hits you is the sound of the bass." Every bit of promoter money paid for promotion and sound systems, with maybe a bit left over for security. Nothing went into décor. "Just straight-up chairs around and music in the middle, some pop-locking on the side," Luv remembers. "Sure, there was some gangbanging, sure there was some fighting on the side. But if they broke it up by 12:30, we were doing good. We got a good three-and-a-half hours of fun."
Smaller clubs like One Nation, Jam City, and Radiotron gave energy to early L.A. hip-hop, but Uncle Jamm's Army - named, of course, after the P-Funk classic - was the granddaddy of this enormous underground scene. Its stars were Roger Clayton, who bankrolled the events, and DJs Bobcat, Arabian Prince (who would go on to contribute to N.W.A's Straight Outta Compton), and the inimitable Egyptian Lover, who would spin on as many as five turntables at a time. "Egypt," whose biggest hits - "Girls" and "Egypt, Egypt" - were collected in the 1984 album On the Nile, tended to play fast dance music that confounded out-of-town clubgoers from the East but drove local hip-hoppers into a frenzy.
Run-D.M.C. made a heralded early Southern California visit then, and, as Luv remembers, "We were so on our own stuff, we didn't give it up for them. They were breaking up our dance time. If you weren't doing something 120 beats per minute, we weren't tryin' to feel you."
The DJs from hip-hop's birthplace embraced non-hip-hop records by groups Maze and the Incredible Bongo Band, and that music played well in the Los Angeles of the Uncle Jamm's Army Era. But here, groups like Kraftwerk and Art of Noise - especially the 120-beats-per-minute and higher tracks - were taken to heart just a bit more.
"We got electro-hop and embraced it," Luv recalls. In time, that music would undergo contortions that became the foundation of contemporary rap music. The sound is reflected in Bay Area legends Too Short and E-40's specific uses of the Roland drum machine. "We would slow down 'Planet Rock,' keeping the 808 bass drum and snare. You can hear that on songs such as the [Toddy T's] 'The Batter Ram,' which was same sort of beat slowed down to 88 bpms.
"It did come from the time of us loving music that wasn't hip-hop," Luv continues insistently. "We were able to go both ways 'cuz we still called it hip-hop, and no one else was. It was so easy because we had no hang-ups. We were so innocent about it at the time."
For music that now seems almost quaint in its clean content and simple, uptempo rhythms, L.A. hip-hop between the early and middle 1980s was remarkably insulated, just barely, from hardcore nefariousness - from the DJ booth out to the dance floor.
"A lot of people who were doing their dirt - selling, banging, seeing their homies get killed - they got a break in their lives at these clubs," says Luv of both performers and crowd. "That music used to make us happy as hell. Why? Because back in the day we were going through way more gang shit than we are now. People got jumped on the bus over shoelaces and jewelry or the wrong color Kangol, emulating the wrong album cover and just trying to survive the Reagan era. The only way we had fun was with that 'corny' music."
Hip-hop, especially in Southern California, isn't so good at taking care of its history. In recent months, commercial radio has been censoring the line "Remember KDAY" from Tupac's "To Live and Die in L.A." because a Florida-based corporation has revived those glorious call letters. But let's not assign one more crime to radio. Hip-hop long ago lost its innocence, maybe more. As Danyel Smith asks in her new novel, Bliss, "hip hop is over, dead, finished, and we're still in costume, in denial?"
What this means to a series of evenings expressly about celebrating a time before mean-mugging at the House of Blues is up for debate, although we all have our opinions.
"The era of having just straight fun is pretty much dead," says Luv. "I don't think a lot of people are gonna be there. Egyptian Lover should pack the place, but he won't. People out here will break their neck to see someone from the East Coast before they'll come and take part in our history, because they've been convinced we don't have a history. They don't look at him as a pioneer. They just look at him as an old-school DJ from L.A."
Yet, there does exist another market for the music, the DJs, the iconography of rap. About the only question that remains is whether, in the spirit of the Europeans who have supported, say, Egyptian Lover's last four albums, these mature native hip-hop people - who understand that, 25 years from now, Lil Jon and T.I. will sound hella corny - might come out and represent.
"You know that old saying that one man's trash is another man's treasure?" says Luv.
That trash is, at least, another DJ's sample.