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Laps and Marco Polo in the Hip Hop Pool

Rising to the Top

Lonnie Rashid Lynn and Teron Delvon Jones are seasoned recording artists in their late twenties, but don't worry if you can't place them. They aren't even especially well-known by their hip hop names: Common (formerly Common Sense) and Del the Funky Homosapien (formerly Del tha Funkee Homosapien). Since neither grew up poor--Common says as much on 1994's Resurrection, and Del's recent interview about his videogame hobby in Electronic Gaming Monthly references a middle-class childhood--their hip hop seems more art form and career option than escape from the street. Both announced themselves with early singles--Del's Three Stooges routine "Mistadobalina" in 1991, Common's end-of-the-hip-hop-affair lament "I Used to Love H.E.R." in 1994--and then fell off some, but though neither has gotten rich-and-famous, both are solvent and well-connected. Recently relocated from Chicago to Fort Greene, Common is in with hip hop's East Coast intellegentsia, helped out in the studio by Lauryn Hill, D'Angelo, various Roots, Erykah Badu, Cee-Lo of Goodie Mob, and some old De La buddies, among others. Launched by his cousin Ice Cube, who coproduced his Elektra debut, Oakland-based Del is a member of the Hieroglyphics and principal rapper at the Handsome Boy Modeling School, whose Dan the Automator will turn him into the futuristic Deltron 3030 on a 75 Ark release this fall. And as it happens, both have just dropped the fourth and best albums of their lives: Common's Like Water for Chocolate, on MCA, and Del's Both Sides of the Brain, on Hiero Imperium.

These parallels are not intended to conflate two different people, or imply that dozens of similar artists are hiding in the back of the video. Del and Common have long since proven too individual and too good for that--the 17-and-spunky hijinks of Del's 1991 I Wish My Brother George Was Here remain knee deep in gloryhallastoopid, and while Common's 1997 One Day It'll All Make Sense didn't generate the pop hit his label would have preferred, it certainly proved him a conscious rapper in good standing. Still, the new albums are leaps forward that stand out as part of a demographic phenomenon. Similar artists they're not, not at all. But they're very much products of the same world.

Although hip hop is notorious for rewarding its champions with cement galoshes, you don't think any of them is going to drown quietly, do you? Instead, they do laps and play Marco Polo while new guys rise to the surface. This vast, profitable genre has obsessed an entire generation of black youth--hundreds of thousands of musically superliterate street soldiers and assistant managers at Paragon, public school inmates and second-generation buppies, all with minds it would be a terrible thing to waste. With input from a multiracial cavalcade of wannabes--note that Muslim Common named his album after a Mexican novel and homosapien Del is a serious student of Japanese--these minds seem capable of generating an amazement of music over the next decade. Hip hop 2000 is like alt-rock 1992, only it doesn't look to one standard bearer and its commercial attitudes are healthier--in part because more participants recognize the need to earn a living at it, in part because its dullest underground party-poopers have trouble pretending that hitmakers like Timbaland and Swizz Beats bring nothing new to the music.

Common is still someone a major hopes to make dough on, while Del is committed to the DIY economy (he owns Hiero Imperium along with such fellow Hieroglyphics as Jive rejects Souls of Mischief and the group's principal producer, Def Jam reject Domino). But both take the career-planning view of their material prospects--they want decent comfort, not obscene luxury. Their musical growth shows the same kind of practicality. In wordy rap at least as much as anywhere else, it's music that breaks through, and they know it--though they identify underground, they're not purists or minimalists. Common's earnest, down-to-earth flow is no more charismatic than his monikers (he lost his first in a copyright hassle with an asinine Cali surf band, but in fact Common is an even braver and more suitable name for an unpretentious man). Here he addresses that problem by abandoning homeboy producers for the Roots' ?uestlove, aided materially by the Soulquarian's' Jay Dee, and together they crush out a distinctively beat-heavy variation on the jazzed-up funk so many thinkers worked in the '90s. I confess I like it best when it's tricked up some--with backup vocals by Bilal and Jill Scott or cross-talk by Monie Love (another swimmer heard from) or, especially, D'Angelo and Roy Hargrove and Uncle Jam all grooving "Cold Blooded." But throughout, Like Water for Chocolate is the first Common record with an identifiable, enjoyable sound, and given who created that sound, it's certain to make the noise it deserves.

I doubt Del will get the same respect, although Both Sides of the Brain is equally original and almost as subtle. Problem is, the overall effect is so bright and perky you have to step back and think about its parts before you realize there aren't many: synth bass and synth piano and synth synth, scratching, hornbursts here and there, a few uncredited samples that evoke movie or TV themes. Most pronounced when he's producing himself and somewhat redolent of Kool Keith, his funk comes down to electro, but since it doesn't favor tweedle, it comes off as pop. Helpings of childish tunelet provide a few hooks, but basically I credit (and others may blame) Del's vocal presence. Can I say he sounds like a Fresh Prince who didn't grow up to be Will Smith (whom I have nothing against)? Not if I want to win him friends on the Right Coast, but I don't know how else to describe it. From the time he was milking P-Funk at 17, with "Mistadobalina" and that wonderful song about trying not to get beat up on the bus, there's been an unforced playfulness about Teron Delvon Jones that's as rare in hip hop as Lonnie Rashid Lynn's common sense. And on these records the playfulness and the common sense both come into their own.

Yet though you'd figure Common's got the themes, he's always been more about tone--a thoughtful race model working out his political and personal struggles in public, as on One Day It'll All Make Sense's mournfully postabortion "Retrospect for Life." And here the lyrical mood, while still reassuringly plain, approaches an Afrocentric poetry that could have been designed to mesh with the music or vice versa. There are exceptions--a frank piece of agitprop about exiled Black Panther Assata Shakur, and the outrageous sequence in which Common first bitch-slaps a ho and then plays MC Lyte and loses, darkly and comically undercutting his own professed respect for sisters. Without question it's an achievement to meld the mystical and the ordinary, an honorable and beautiful continuation of Common's longtime project of bridging the life of the street and the life of the mind. Still, there's a little less to his rhymes than meets the ear. The two antigay asides are unworthy of his high consciousness. And I'm sorry the experience of fatherhood, a big deal for him back in 1997, has vanished from his metaphor bank.

Del, a few years younger than Common, has no kids he's telling us about. If anything, he's still a kid himself. He takes a teen delight in showing off extracultural vocabulary ("balderdash," "subterfuge," "talisman," "lummox"). He's very interested in how bad some people smell, details of which feature in the crack attack "Soopa Feen" and make up the entirety of the winningly immature "If You Must," with a refrain that goes: "Wash your ay-uss, wash your ay-uss, brush your teeth, or else you'll be funky." Beyond the common underground ploy of casting social content as sci-fi, he charges the competitive mettle of his putdowns and battle rhymes with a videogame feel, something nerdy and yah-yah. And on this record he shows as little interest in sex as any rapper I can think of. Yet at the same time he's clearly an adult. In interviews he's copped to problems with dope and alcohol, and there's a song about the evils of each. I hope the comic edge of "Skull and Crossbones" doesn't discourage anyone from enlisting it in anti-DUI campaigns. It's the scariest musical warning against drunk driving extant.

Very dissimilar artists, and probably not knock-down geniuses either. But together Common and Del the Funky Homosapien demonstrate how deluded it is to claim a commitment to pop today while ignoring rap. I always put "hip hop community" in quotes. By now hip hop is at least as fragmented as any other branch of pop--probably more so, because more is at stake--and I never expect its self-validated citizenry to care what an outsider like me thinks. But that won't stop me from observing that Common fans and Del fans would be better off sharing each other's wealth. And if you're an outsider like me, with no compelling social or ideological interest in whether the prize goes to callow smart-asses or righteous teachers, for God's sake dig in.

Village Voice, Apr. 18, 2000