Mars Ill / Lifesavas
ittle did I know that only one year after graduation that I’d be going back to school. This time, however, it’s a bit more fun. This is due, in most part, to my relationship with my teacher, Mr. PA Simon. Oh- and the subject? Hip hop. That’s right. Mr. Simon has taken me under his wing, guiding me away from making mistakes that’ll get me beaten mercilessly at a hip hop show for my lunch money or flippantly dismissed by the ever-growing body of tantalizing females. No, I’ve taken my education seriously by refusing to care about what people think of me.
He’s been very gracious to me for these last few months, and very patient dealing with my hip hop ignorance (which didn’t border on illiteracy, mind you, but I’d hear him say “What!? You haven’t heard ��so and so’ yet” quite often). He’s opened these jaded ears to more than just the typical indie, “sit hop” stuff. I’ve learned how to nod my head again, and I guess he’d hate the fact that I’m writing this (“Man, time you could spend listening”), but I’d like to show you what I’ve learned so far, while hopefully highlighting some of the best of the genre. Because hip hop is bloated with countless recordings and, at times, it appears to be in danger of artistic collapse, but inevitably transcends stagnation with the help of a handful of passionate underground artists. So without further ado- my first term paper.
Christian hip hop isn't so bad after all
When PA handed me this disc, he just looked down on me in my chair and said “some new shit” with that look in his eye that told me I should pay close attention. Surprisingly, I was able to sit and enjoy the first half of the album until “Alpha Male” when I realized I had yet to hear one dirty word, which apparently were replaced with a whole slew of ��God’s and ��Bible’s. My first obvious reaction was intense disappointment… especially within the context of the song. The unfortunately christened Manchild paints a vivid, slyly ridiculous portrait of a controlling unsympathetic husband in the first verse, only to offer the Bible as the ultimate solution to misogyny in the next (including some curious revelations like “I know that woman came from man’s rib, so oddly/ When you sin against your wife, you sin against your own body”). However, I was already in love with Dust’s production and Manchild’s flow isn’t grating at all- sometimes its quite good. This Atlanta duo seemed like a group that had grown up in hip hop culture and then began to embrace Christianity, not the other way around.
You see, Mars Ill hasn’t co-opted hip hop to proselytize, which is why Christian music scares most of us, I think. If anything, Mars Ill could usher their Christian music lovers into the gloriously hedonistic world of hip hop. Dust sculpts ethereal, Enya-like beatscapes around tastefully placed sound bites of some of America’s most foremost Christian thinkers to create… no, I’m sorry, I couldn’t help myself. This is very far from PM Dawn material, trust me. In fact, Dust’s production most closely resembles a slightly bouncier El-P at its most sinister, but usually it vacillates between dark and light seamlessly. This music is so dense and spontaneous that it has you discovering new elements listen after listen. Take, for example, “Black Box Artist (Boom Bap)”, one of the stronger offerings on the album that covers its beats in a thicket of noise samples, including a dial tone, thankfully drowning out some of the vocals.
But it’s not always “God this” and “the Bible that.” Mostly, the themes just propose a universal spirituality, capitalizing on simple imperative advice that should resonate with any listener. The album’s first single and obvious anthem is a dirty horn-driven number called “Breathe Slow” that highlights the benefits of keeping a cool head when under stress. Most tracks feature the usual boasting and dissing, albeit less confrontational than their contemporaries, highlighting the interesting paradox for Christian rappers, supposing that to succeed that they have to indulge in a not-so-little sin known as pride in order to appear genuine. But at least Manchild doesn’t directly quote scripture or spin far-fetched tales of the impending apocalypse like those evangelicals (and maybe Method and Busta).
So wouldn’t it be cool to own a Christian rap album? Just maybe, Christian rap could be the next suicide death metal. I mean, you probably won’t agree with everything these cats represent, but that isn’t reason enough not to hear one of the year’s best hip hop releases.
Positive hip hop is hard to produce, fo’ real!
Spirit in Stone
The Quannum camp does the “positive thing” so much better than their peers. The Lifesavas are obviously graduates from the Blackalicious school of hip-hop correctness, and that’s more than alright with me. The “What happened to the positivity?” diatribe mentioned in any address of “conscious” rap has become a cliché for a very legitimate reason. Positive rap is always in short supply because it’s very difficult to produce; just look at what happens when it goes bad (the new Black Eyed Peas single). A trite utopian vision will always fall flatter than a tired pandering to the violent and base. I don’t know why, but a hopelessly romantic pacifist always seems more pathetic than a really committed belligerent bastard.
Acts like Blackalicious and the Lifesavas pull it off because their songs are based in the real, about real people. “Fa’show” is simply a tribute to anti-groupies, the folks at the shows who don’t buy into the ego wars and just love the music. Maybe I’m all over this because I like to consider myself one of these types. Whatever the reason, it doesn’t change the fact that this song boasts the most devastating chorus on the album. “She wasn’t in it for the fame/The glitz and glamour didn’t move her/She wanted more than just a one-night stand/She digs the music, fa’show.” It’s all slick and R’n’B-ish, and most heads will hate it, but you should enjoy this now… because a good “conscious” hip hop record comes along once, maybe twice, a year. Somewhere, the Black Eyed Peas are listening to the Lifesavas and crying, fo’ sho’.
Also: check out “Hellohihey,” to listen to Vursatyl confront his own ego in one of the most clever examples of humility I’ve ever heard in hip hop. Definitely worth a listen.
By: Gabe Gloden
Published on: 2003-10-02