Hip-hop

Hi-Tek (“Breakin’ Bread,” Hi-Teknology, Rawkus, 2001)

Often the artists/releases, across jazz/hip-hop that click with me tend to be the ones that garnered ambivalent, grudging responses to their work when it came out; Hi-Tek’s debut solo album from 2001 is a case in point.

Writing music reviews isn’t easy, especially when working under pressure, but it’s hard to understand the luke-warm responses this record received. Take, for example, the response to this track, “Breakin’ Bread” which I think is phenomenal, perhaps even an example of a perfect hip-hop song from that era.

One contemporary reviewer was prompted to say: ‘On the radio accessible Wannabattle collective track Breakin’ Bread we are given an entertaining posse cut over a beat that changes up enough between verses to keep from getting repetitive.’ (Ah thanks). The AllMusic review, meanwhile, covered the territory well enough, but ends on this note, wondering if after this release Hi-Tek will ‘claim his rightful spot among hip-hop's elite soundboys’. The first line of the review reads: ‘Since breaking in quietly with fellow Cincinnati residents Mood in the mid-'90s, DJ Hi-Tek's climb up the crate-digging ranks has been a slow one. (Cheers, then).  Here's yet another in the same vein.

Ranking, ranking, ranking: assessing worth of music in terms of their rank, lining artists as if they were greyhounds chasing a hare is a defining element of much hip-hop criticism. Responding to work like this has long seemed problematic to me, as this way of assessing the value of art leaves little, or no, room for nuance. 

Within this frame-work, how are brave, artistic ‘failures’ to be assessed, the kinds of projects that may not be the artist’s ‘best’ (sic) but still important in the way they gesture towards a future development in their career, or the genre as a whole? Or what about the releases that connect with you for reasons that are deeply personal, not immediately obvious to others?

Not everything needs to be so public, so collective, so shared.

In other cultural contexts, you might have critics ranking new releases – books, films – or even giving out stars but this is not the focus. It’d be highly unusual, for instance, to find a literary critic expending energy wondering if Wyndham Lewis beats Jean Rhys, or if Ezra Pound is the greatest (writer) of all time? It just doesn’t happen.   

So, what makes me like this track by Hi-Tek then, what distinguishes it from all the others from that time, most of them better-known and better-respected/loved? For me, the interest lies in its expression of something that I’ve always believed is essential to hip-hop as a genre, and something that defines it: the spirit of collaboration. My very first piece that I wrote on hip-hop for this site, on Pete Rock, began with this idea …)

The title makes this explicit, where the language of Christianity and language of the street come together :

(to) break bread

1.    1.

celebrate the Eucharist.

'as we gathered to break bread, a sense of thanksgiving ran through us' and from Urban Dictionary: 'to share ones belongings or assets with another person.' The lyrics enact this spirit as well, making connections: referring to the Pete Rock via the sample from ‘Tru Master’ from 1998 (and sampling Common as well later on).

[Hi-Tek cuts it up]
"It's like the A to B to the C, it's easy as.."
"1-2-3"
"DJ"
"Hi-Tek y'all" -] Inspectah Deck
"Collaborate, break bread with.." -] Pete Rock

The original lines from Pete Rock’s verse: ‘A rap nigga, show respect, write rhymes that connect/Collaborate, break bread with Kurupt and Deck ..’ Also sampled on the track: Elmer Bernstein’s ‘Rejected’ from 1962 and Run-DMC’s ‘Beats to the Rhyme’ (1988).

That core notion of hip-hop production then is given another dimension here lyrically and musically. Information on the MCs is a bit sketchy, with not all references mentioning all of the artists: Homeskillet, Crunch Ex. and Mood (Donte/Main Flow) all offering up 'Big Ohio status.' Listen to Crunch Extraordinaire:

I'm +Live+ and +Fortified+ like Kweli and Mos Def
Practice the incredible, shit ain't even competable
Due to that I'm technical, TKO's I got those
I got control but I'm reckless in studios
I got Harmony and Thug tendencies all in my Bones
No need to be flashy, for heads to recognize me
Hi-Tek throw them joints that magnetize me
We global, East, West, North, South, we robo
Hands that touch mic's get smacked cuz that's a no-no
Who rock the mic? Yo, we take the whole show
When heads hear this piece they call off with no shows 

Coda:

Like it when Hi-Tek says in relation to the Elvis record that he wouldn’t have normally picked it, but that the sound quality was really good on RCA at that point, in 1973 (and then later bursts into song, providing a brief Elvis impersonation; nice) 

‘Sankara’ JP Manova (19h07, Not on Label/Self-Released, 2015)

[Intro : Sample]
"Les masses populaires en Europe ne sont pas opposées aux masses populaires en Afrique. Mais ceux qui veulent exploiter l’Afrique, ce sont les mêmes qui exploitent l’Europe. Nous avons un ennemi commun."

 ‘The working-class in Europe are not in opposition to the working-class in Africa. Those who want to exploit Africa are the same who exploit Europe. We have a common enemy.'

Thomas Sankara, president Burkina Faso, 1983-1987

In a 2015 interview entitled ‘I met JP Manova, the invisible man of French rap’ - originally in French - by Ramses Kefi the very, very famous French rapper MC Solaar refers to Manova as the ‘Loch Ness Monster’ for his secretive, or publicity-shy ways. (Manova asked the interviewer repeatedly why he wanted to meet him). But despite his low profile, Manova offers a fine continuity with the past and the contemporary hip-hop scene in France. 

This track, ‘Sankara’ is a perfect example of Manova’s skill to present a powerful argument, keeping it cool, while skewering the hypocrisy of Westerners looking at Africa, whatever that means; see, for example these great lines:

À ceux qui pensent l'Afrique comme un clip de Shakira
Où le blanc mène la danse et les nègres suivent le pas

(For those who think Africa is like a clip from Shakira/Where the whites lead the dance and the negroes – or niggers, it’s the same in French - follow the steps)

There is a submerged intensity, or anger in this song and the way the lyrics are delivered, alongside a kind of intimacy where the repeated refrain suggests that if you – we – have these questions, or prejudices we will keep coming back to Thomas Sankara, the great revolutionary leader who promised another way forward in the post-colonial era.

From the Encyclopaedia Britannica entry on Sankara:  

‘Sankara declared the objectives of the “democratic and popular revolution” to be primarily concerned with the tasks of eradicating corruption, fighting environmental degradation, empowering women, and increasing access to education and health care, with the larger goal of liquidating imperial domination. During the course of his presidency, Sankara successfully implemented programs that vastly reduced infant mortality, increased literacy rates and school attendance, and boosted the number of women holding governmental posts. On the environmental front, in the first year of his presidency alone 10 million trees were planted in an effort to combat desertification. On the first anniversary of the coup that had brought him to power, he changed the country’s name from Upper Volta to Burkina Faso, which means roughly “land of upright people” in Mossi and Dyula, the country’s two most widely spoken indigenous languages.’

Here is an interview – in French – with JP Manova around the release of his record where he speaks about the values of hip-hop and gives his thoughts on Trap among other subjects.

Manova grew up in the 18th arrondissement, the area in northern Paris where there are large North African and West African communities, he has described how this experience of not growing up in the banlieues  (the poor, largely immigrant neighbourhoods surrounding central Paris) gave him a particular perspective.

As he told the online magazine Le Bon Son in 2015

‘We’re not in the banlieue, but the edge of it; we’re not in Paris, but on the edge of it. It’s a working-class area … where there are workers, immigrants, but also Sacré Cœur the tourist site the whole world wants to see’ (this is my neighbourhood as well, so I appreciate this description when I’m so far away).

Coda: