January 21, 2005

From "Way" to Grey: two decades of genre remixing

If you watch the music video for the remixed "Walk This Way," there's something amazing in Steven Tyler's face when two vaguely thuggish rappers break through the wall and onto Tyler's stage. Something in his eyes flickers with an awareness. His look is one not only of offense—his song was being hijacked, after all—but also of respect. Like it or not, hip-hop (and more specifically, Run-DMC) had arrived, wearing sweat suits, black hats, and Adidas sneakers. And although the remix of "Walk This Way" was more a tag-team wrestling match than a duet, it featured two Goliaths taking turns on one mic.

We all know now, nearly 20 years later, that what happened was not a hijacking; it was a partnership of sorts. The remixed "Walk This Way" broke convention as easily as Run-DMC broke through the stage wall, climbing to the top of the charts and earning critical acclaim in doing so.

It is likely that the separation between hip-hop and rock (besides the fact that they are separate genres) exists simply because commercially successful rock was at its mature stages, recorded and consumed by white people, when hip-hop was introduced. The white corporate world, which mirrored greater white culture, marketed and reaped the profits from commercial rock, and was "the Man" against which hip-hop was revolting.

Hip-hop has always been music defined by struggle. With its brazenly self-congratulatory stanzas, recklessly rapped misogynistic slogans, and subversive lyrics about capitalism, hip-hop has always been about "us" getting what we want from "them." At its heart, hip-hop presupposes opposition from the (usually white) establishment.

Rock has also defined itself in opposition. In the '60s, rock was about disaffected youth challenging an unresponsive system that demanded their obedience. The aggressive, anxious, antiestablishment anger exemplified by the Who's "Won't Get Fooled Again" preaches a Hegelian sequence of destruction and creation ("Meet the new boss, same as the old boss") as a form of self-affirmation.

At their cores, hip-hop and rock are deeply similar. Post-war rock rebelled against an uncaring and demanding establishment that sought to clearly define the limits of expression of a young, white middle class. Hip-hop evolved around the concept that an uncaring and demanding establishment had accepted black "membership" in the culture, but only while restricting expected and accepted behavior. Hip-hop in the '90s and '00s was about black establishment of an assertive identity in a culture that had previously handed an entire people roles to predictably play out.

Hip-hop seemed to strike a chord among the white upper class "establishment," not simply because of its popularity and profitability, but because of its spontaneity. The creation of an intensely lucrative genre produced a social sector of successful individuals comparable to the "new money" white bourgeoisie of the Prohibition Era.

Throughout the '90s, anything associated with "whiteness" in hip-hop was considered shameful. The culture's origins in low-income areas of New York City restricted its appeal, if only due to geographical constraints and the limits of word of mouth. But as hip-hop culture grew, so did its appeal of rebellion and offense. And in the past few years, hip-hop has gone mainstream. Perhaps it was capitalism that started to change things.

With the rise of a commercially viable white hip-hop star (Eminem), the notion that hip-hop would be successful when it was run and listened to by black people fell to the demands of a wider culture willing to purchase a product. Similarly, hip-hop culture began to realize that, having now reached some sort of cultural and economic parity with the forces that it was rebelling against for so long, it could focus on making money.

On his swan-song The Black Album, Sean Carter (aka Jay-Z), considered one of the greatest living lyricists, raps, "And I don't wear jerseys, I'm 30-plus/ Give me a crisp pair of jeans n*gga, button-ups." Perhaps the latent animosity towards things "white" was dispelling in favor of the need to look the part of businessman. Just as Carter was adapting to a new, more profitable business environment, so was hip-hop. With that maturation, the time was ripe for renewed overtures between rock and hip-hop. In 2004, the us/them-hip-hop/rock dynamic fell out of fashion.

The duet that began with Aerosmith and Run-DMC was picked up early last year; The Grey Album was a different creature altogether. Produced by an underground disc jockey named Danger Mouse, it was distributed free of charge over the Internet. It remixed Carter's masterpiece The Black Album with the Beatles' self-titled LP, aka The White Album. The inference is striking. The White Album, considered one of the greatest works in rock history, is also—intended or not—a racial statement: A white album for music made by white people and listened to by white people. Similarly, The Black Album is a masterpiece by one of the greatest black musicians in a genre created by black people.

The Grey Album mixed these two albums together. Over the melodic guitar riffs of the four boys from Liverpool were the rough and tumble lyrics of the savior from Brooklyn, self-proclaimed "Hova." It was fitting even on a spiritual level that the greatest work of a group that famously claimed themselves "bigger than Jesus" was remixed with the work of a man whose nickname quite literally means "God." It was a meeting of equals.

On the first track of Grey, Carter's assertive "Public Service Announcement" remixed over George Harrison's melodic "Long, Long, Long" blends messages, not just talent. Carter's album cut sounds like a cross between biography and ransom note that culminates with directions to the victim, bound and gagged. "Here, you can have hip-hop back, I'm done with it," Carter seems to be saying with his lyrics, his heavy, tonal baseline, and his lumbering beat. It is almost as if Carter came to hip-hop just to see what it would be like to burn down the house. The post-folk feel of "Long, Long, Long" eases the message.

But The Grey Album wasn't as uniting as Danger Mouse likely wanted it to be. When Apple Records took aggressive action against the website that the DJ was using to disseminate his work, free of charge, Roc-A-Fella records released a statement affirming their opposition to the work, couched in terms of economics. There also seemed to be a moment in the industry when nobody was willing to acknowledge what an amazing work of art it was, a synthesis of two of the greatest works in their respective genres. Carter, through his Roc-A-Fella Records, released a few cautionary statements. It was a moment akin to the initial tense moments of Guess Who's Coming to Dinner. Nobody was willing to acknowledge the inevitable: It sounded amazing.

The art of the hip-hop/rock "mash-up" was consecrated in November with two nearly simultaneous events. First was the release of the Jay-Z and Linkin Park album that combined The Black Album with Meteora. Second, and more importantly, was Snoop Dogg's remix of the Doors' "Riders on the Storm." It was an "only-Nixon-could-go-to-China" moment. Only with the blessing of the Doggfather could these two genres come to a mutual and beneficial understanding and future. Rebellion never sounded so good.