I remember the exact moment I was first introduced to hip-hop. It was late summer of 1984 and I had been watching USA Network's "Night Flight" religiously. The three-hour visual arts magazine and variety television show—featuring band interviews, music videos, stand-up and cartoons—left no genre untouched, including the kind of rap music beginning to flourish in New York City at the time. I was blindsided when a video for Grandmaster Flash's "The Message" showed on the screen. The song emphasized inner-city hardship and had a deep, vicious bass beat with a lyrical flow delivered like nothing I'd ever heard. I had grown up in a suburban housing project north of Detroit that was rife with tension and constant warnings to avoid certain units. The song spoke to me.
I set out to discover more rap and ended up disappointed with what seemed like a lack of musical diversity and rhymes focused on ego and material goods. Nothing was coming close to the humanity of "The Message." A lot of that changed when Beastie Boys, Ice-T, NWA and Public Enemy made major innovations in the genre, infiltrating the mainstream but retaining an underground spirit. Still, this was the time when rap also went full-blown gangster, began heated rivalries, focused too much on violence and indulged in sexism. And, for those reasons, the genre ended up taking a backseat in my musical upbringing—that is, until the 1993 release of the Wu-Tang Clan's 36 Chambers and the 1994 release of Redman's bent and ganja-fueled Dare Iz a Darkside. The funk and soul I'd fallen for in "The Message" was in those albums, too, and it didn't just affect me—it led to a seismic shift all around the country. Rap was resurrected as a diverse artistic form with crafty lyrics and tight beats. It diminished the East Coast-West Coast rivalry and strengthened cultural identity. Collaborations and guest appearances became the norm on albums, including the collaboration of Redman and Wu Tang's Method Man. Together, they were incredibly prolific and, for me, the most unusual and coolest hip-hop duo created.
Besides numerous appearances on records with the likes of 2Pac, Missy Elliot and D'Angelo, Redman and Method Man released the killer 1999 LP Blackout and starred in the seriously funny 2001 comedy How High. But more than that, they've continued to stay relevant over the years, evolving—with solo projects and as a duo—all the way up to the recent releases of Redman's Mudface and Method Man's Meth Lab. Mef and Red, who perform in Missoula this week, get some of the biggest credit for keeping me in this hip-hop game, inspiring me to investigate more underground acts and keep my ear to the speaker.
Earlier this year, when it was announced that NWA would be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, KISS's Gene Simmons retorted that he looked forward to the death of hip-hop. I think he's out of luck. Hip-hop is a true born-and-bred American genre with room for all walks of life. It's here to stay. After 30 years of a love-hate relationship with rap, it's good to be fully experiencing its current renaissance. That renaissance includes the hopeful and existential gangster rap of Kendrick Lamar, as well as rhymes from skateboarding geniuses Earl Sweatshirt and Vince Staples, the deep-ghetto beats of Jay Rock and Freddie Gibbs, and the genre-breaking work of Shabazz Palaces and Run The Jewels. And, like Redman and Method Man, hip-hop veterans—Aceyalone, Myka 9 and Abstract Rude, to name a few—are still carrying the torch, producing monumental works. If you don't believe me, I'll hook you up with a mixtape, gratis.
Method Man and Redman perform at the Wilma Sun., April 17. Doors at 7 PM, show at 8. $42 advance.