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The World's Most Local Pop Music Goes International

Planet Rock

Paradoxically, or maybe not, hip-hop is at once the fastest spreading and most local pop music in the world. The media-saturated, electronically hooked up world, anyway. Ethnomusicologists mourn the indigenous idioms that mutate or fall into disuse once their practitioners get a load of Bucharest or Bangui, and in a sense, hip-hop reverses this process, not musicologically but emotionally. From 'hood to city to coast, what other pop genre makes so much of geography? Early rock and roll lived off a dynamic in which the local went national, usually from a base of local radio; now, local radio barely exists, and even in the Internet-surfing, CD-scarfing indie/college realm, local scenes rarely generate local sounds or more than a smattering of local references. In hip-hop, styles are regionally distinct, although they certainly crossbreed, and representing where you're from is the rule, especially when you're coming up. Hip-hop speaks so loudly to rebellious kids from Greenland to New Zealand not because they identify with young American blacks, although they may, but because it's custom-made to combat the anomie that preys on adolescents wherever nobody knows their name.

The aforementioned antipodes weren't picked out of thin air; I got them from a book and a CD. The book is a recommended anthology from Wesleyan called Global Noise: Rap and Hip-Hop Outside the USA, edited by Australian cultural studies lecturer Tony Mitchell, whose own chapters concern Italy and, yes, New Zealand, home to a Maori hip-hop subculture spearheaded by the long-running Upper Hutt Posse. The CD is a recommended compilation on Hip-O called The Best of International Hip-Hop, whose single best track originated in, I wouldn't believe it either, Greenland: the even longer-running Nuuk Posse's "Uteqqippugut," a/k/a "Back in Business." Since hearing most of the acts referenced in the book is next to impossible in America, it's good to have the record despite its awful notes ("The land of Aristotle and Socrates found its 21st century hip-hop philosophers in Terror X Crew"). But there's little overlap. France, Japan, and Australia are the only countries that make both, with Canada, the U.K., Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Bulgaria, Korea, and New Zealand (plus Basque nationalists and Muslims) described in Global Noise and Portugal, Switzerland, Austria, Romania, Croatia, Greece, Israel, Greenland, Argentina, Algeria, and South Africa represented on The Best of International Hip-Hop.

Assuming the book is accurate (only the Canadian chapter seems inept, but selective reporting is a temptation of such projects), hip-hop is different wherever you find it. In Germany its pop breakthrough dates to 1993, as does a familiar schism: "old school" purists, an Italian-Ghanaian-Haitian immigrant trio rapping "in clear German" about racism, versus white schlagermeisters from the south sprechstimming romantically over "highly polished breakbeat stylings" and insisting that rap doesn't equal hip-hop--which is linked by both sides to not just freestyling but breaking and graffiti. In Japan, having rhymed to the best of their abilities in an unaccented language whose sentences all close on the same handful of verb endings, rappers divide up "underground" (focus of a huge and intense late-night club scene) and "party" (pop in the extreme Japanese Tastee-Cake sense); at consecutive outdoor concerts, the audience for the former was 80 percent male, for the latter 80 percent female. Elsewhere the music is far more rudimentary--a techno-flavored symbol of American wealth and worse in Bulgaria, a stylistic trapping in Korea, where the big star is a lower-middle-class surrogate rebel who got large protesting an educational grind more joyless and authoritarian than Japan's. Most telling is the Australian chapter, centered on Def Wish Cast, "westies" from the underclass suburbs 30 miles on the inland side of Sydney, who since the 1980s have given their all to a hip-hop culture open to anyone who gives his or her (usually his, natch) all to it. It opens with headman Ser Reck laying down the hip-hop law to author Ian Maxwell: "They'll tell you it's a black thing, man, but it isn't. It's our thing."

And with the obvious reservations, he's got a right. Ser Reck isn't dissing the African American originators of the music he's made his life--he reveres them. But he's not them, and good for him for knowing it. Instead he's constructed the identity and authenticity he craves on a model learned from hip-hop--a model that however arbitrary its specific rituals (graffiti and break dancing again) reconceives community at least as explicitly as the hippies did 35 years ago. Ser Reck works, commits, represents. Hip-hop is his. But unless you're Australian--and probably not then unless you're also young, alienated, rebellious, male, etc.--his hip-hop is unlikely to be yours even if you're in the market for rocked-up Public Enemy on a definitive 1992 CD that'll run you 35 smackers shipped. Although Maxwell devotes a rapturous paragraph to the fondly remembered funk spell of "White Lines," his only musical description of the local stuff contrasts Ser Reck's "ragged, guttural, barking," Australian delivery against "the smooth, mellifluous flow of a NAS or a Dr. Dre."

Ah yes, music. Long before rock and roll, the local-goes-national dynamic went global with Italian opera and fake ragtime, but that kind of move is rare. Which is why The Best of International Hip-Hop stood quietly on my not-bad shelf for a year before Global Noise opened me up. Turns out it's a fun record, and a revealing one, full of catchy beats and local flavors. If you want deep funk, Timbaland or Organized Noize or RZA or Mannie Fresh, listen elsewhere. What prevails instead is remarkably consistent despite its all-over-the-place provenance, maybe even the real world-beat--a generally uptempo electro groove with universal hooks, insistent basslines, off-and-on scratching, and such sound effects as oud from Algeria, balalaika from Greece, and whale from Greenland, plus no doubt a few folk melodies. Far from disrupting music that might otherwise go down queasily lite, the language shifts texture it, with the coughed-up consonants of Greenlandic, Croatian, and Hebrew especially welcome.

Apparently some of the rhymes are interesting too, but when Fijian-Australian Trey comes on, it's not her modest boast that'll perk you up, or even her dulcet female tone--it's her English per se. This isn't chauvinism, it's aesthetics. Although "flow" can mean anything, just like "beats," its relationship to language is always one of its prime pleasures. You don't have to get every word to hear how a rapper's phrasing, intonation, pronunciation, and timbre inflect meaning, reshape sonics, and fuck with the other man's culture. But you have to get some of them. Thus, Nuuk Posse's hip-hop, say, is even less likely to be an English speaker's than Def Wish Cast's. When it comes to African American music, I scoff at talk of cultural imperialism. Only a Frenchman could imagine that white capitalists conspired to impose Negroes on the world. But English's status as a lingua franca has always helped African American music get over. That's why Frenchmen invented francophonie.

Skeptical of French pop, and with my experience limited to MC Solaar's mellow-to-a-fault, never-quite-released-stateside 1997 Paradisiaque, I was intrigued by Global Noise's account of French hip-hop as an oppositional music dominated by Muslim and Muslim-identified immigrants, then surprised to learn from my general nosing around that hip-hop of every sort is a much bigger deal in France than in the U.K. or anywhere else besides America. Perhaps prodded by the Senegalese-born rapper's sometime collaborator Missy Elliott, Elektra has taken a flier on Cinquieme As (Fifth Ace), the latest by Solaar, a violence-hating, million-selling girl magnet who's barely described in Global Noise. Although the beats continue to go down too easy, they have rather more body than those on Paradisiaque, and when I read along or just concentrate, I can appreciate his flow--but still not its verbal components, including what insults it does or doesn't visit on la belle langue. Musically, I'm more taken with what little I've heard of Marseilles's Sicilian-led, all-Muslim, multiethnic IAM. But even were I to beef up my spoken French, their slang and accents would be beyond me.

So it's no surprise that my favorite non-English rap album to date is the Sahel-generated Africa Raps comp Michaelangelo Matos pumps elsewhere in this section. Whatever localism's undeniable validity and just rewards, black people have always been best at taking it worldwide. Be it nurture or nature, rhythm is at the forefront of their musical skills--on Africa Raps, the goddamn Ousmane Sembčne dialogue sample has some funk--and also at the forefront of hip-hop. So it's striking that African hip-hop is ignored in Global Noise. Equally striking is a half-articulated anti-essentialist resentment of the African American claim on hip-hop. It's as if Jay-Z, to choose our biggest willie, is merely a point man for cultural imperialism--although the perp actually named is that tireless profit taker and hip-hop ambassador Chuck D, who's criticized for disdaining white fans in Bilbao and white rappers in Sydney.

Maybe that's what Jay-Z gets for rapping over a cushier rhythm bed than Europeans can manage at a five-star hotel. Maybe it's what Chuck D deserves for agitating hearts whose pain he can't comprehend. But what if the dislocated continuity that animates each rapper's deep funk fills a need that upbeat electro cannot? What if it's such a vivid aural metaphor for all attempts to re-create community in this undoing world that no roots rap however authentic can replace it? What if it's just better music? What happens to the local then?

Village Voice, May 14, 2002