Before Wu-Tang became a global brand, known and beloved and worn as merchandise from one obscure part of the planet to the next, lauded on best-ever magazine lists, the Staten Island emcees offered a direct line with something much darker.
Listen in, for instance, to the rare outtakes and recordings, such as this one from Ol’ Dirty Bastard – date unknown (see also my earlier piece, from 2015, 'Super Rare Ol' Dirty Bastard Freestyle 1995 & hip-hop monstaz').
ODB today is often seen to be a kind of caricature, or vaudevillian joke act, but he’s always been my favourite out of the Wu-Tang crew because of his ability to convey tough logic and sentiment via off-the-wall humour, while representing a dark energy and freedom.
His voice, delivery and his flow is messy and hard to contain; it’s all over the place and wherever – and this makes it appealing.
This rare recording, date unknown which seems to have been re-released in another version *with music* in 2001 conveys perfectly what I call the ‘scrappy aesthetic’ in hip-hop. If you wanted to, really wanted to, you could divide New York in the 90s into two streams – and much else besides, of course; on one side, there’s the cool formalism and control of DJ Premier, given voice by Rakim and then there are all these oddball mavericks, or voices from ‘the cellar’ like ODB and RZA, the Gravediggaz … (and plenty more besides).
My personal bias/essential nature makes me gravitate towards the second group, as this kind of worldview makes me homesick for the punk music that shaped me as a kid and formed my musical education. But there is something about this that transcends the personal and conveys something essential about the genre; this idea that rap is a kind of music outside the norms, essentially and potentially disruptive and subversive.
What’s the use of all the technique if it gets fossilised into a kind of elegant pose, unable to be chipped away at, easily consumed as an artefact the world over like a McDonald’s hamburger?
Most of the times when rappers tackle politics it bores me stupid because it’s so explicit and there’s no interest in the music chugging along behind it. And yet I believe that these recordings are essentially political, not only because of the lyrical territory but the way they sound.
Just like punk they’re saying we’re not going to play the game, or meet your expectations; we’re not trying to please you.
Made up from the scrap, speaking of the experience of the rejected, all this points to a kind of radical refusal in the music that rejects attempts to commodify it and sell it. Just on the basis of the sound alone it’s interesting because it actively, enthusiastically draws attention to its own messiness; it’s a kind 0f outsider art or ‘scrappy aesthetic’.
Bringing it up to the present now, there’s a direct point of continuum between this kind of thing and the Griselda artists - that stable of emcees and producers – who I believe are producing the most interesting work in hip-hop today (will write more on them soon).
No longer is assessment of worth based wholly on the skill and versatility of the mc, their ability to express their thoughts with a high-level of language, or charm – see the Rakim paradigm – here it’s all about the capacity of the mc and producer to convey mood and give voice to those from the underground.
On the basis of language etc much of the lyrical content in this output doesn’t amount to much, but to talk like this is to miss the point spectacularly, I believe; just like the way critics of punk used to bang on about how the musicians could only play three chords, or what they produced sounded like unbridled noise.
Well, being ‘unschooled’ was the essential point – punk was a reaction against the ‘cleverness’ of all those boring musicians from the 70s who took themselves and their work so, so, so seriously.
What punk was encouraging was a re-assessment of music and performance, while asking questions about who had the right to perform and be heard; it was about refusing to ask for permission. It was about taking it, making space. Much the same could be said about this kind of thing in hip-hop past and present, this ‘scrappy aesthetic’.
All this is music from the offcuts, music and voice from long-forgotten, maybe, radio shows; the hiss and scratching of it all. No need to be so clean and considered and tasteful, much better to keep it raw, uncooked.
For the bubble-gum version, but still nice:
RZA & Ol Dirty Bastard - Freestyle (Rare / Unreleased)