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MUSIC: NOT YOUR FATHER’S HIP-HOP

3 minute read
Christopher John Farley

THERE’S A WITTILY INCENDIARY scene in Spike Lee’s film Do the Right Thing in which a group of Hispanics and a lone black man spar with each other by turning up their radios to louder, increasingly confrontational volumes. The scene challenges the old cliche that music is the universal language. Often, in fact, it is an expression of what divides us–Shania Twain and Tupac Shakur don’t share much of a crossover audience. It’s therefore a delight to encounter two engaging, offbeat new rap groups, the Japanese-American duo Cibo Matto and the Haitian-American trio the Fugees. Neither makes overtly integrationist music–no hip-hop covers of We Shall Overcome–but both of them cross cultural and musical boundaries to create a sound that is bold and fresh.

The Fugees’ name is short for “refugees”: two of the members, Wyclef Jean and Prakazrel Michel, have family roots in Haiti; the third, Lauryn Hill, is a native of New Jersey but considers herself “Haitian by association.” The band’s winning new album The Score draws liberally from the music of both the Caribbean (there’s a rousing cover of Bob Marley’s No Woman, No Cry) and urban America (a woozy hip-hop remake of Roberta Flack’s Killing Me Softly).

A good deal of their music has gangsta-rap aggressiveness (in The Beast, for example, they decry police brutality), but the Fugees deliver a very different message from gangsta rappers, steering clear of boastful misogyny and empty-headed machismo. They criticize performers who fail to make clear that their violent songs are fantasies, not instructions. “You got a lot of kids who look up to these artists, who think what they’re saying is true,” says Michel, who was a philosophy major at Rutgers University before he took a break to pursue a musical career. “I’m not saying don’t do it, but let these people know that it’s the same as with Arnold Schwarzenegger: when he jumps off buildings and shoots people up, it’s just a movie at the end of the day.”

Cibo Matto’s blissfully oddball music, by contrast, is free of any overt social agenda. The duo’s impressive debut album Viva! La Woman is a seductive mix of hip-hop beats, jazzy instrumentation and goofy yet provocatively surreal lyrics. “The velocity of time turns her voice into sugar water,” sings lead vocalist Miho Hatori on the genially bizarre Sugar Water. Food–apples, artichokes, white-pepper ice cream, beef jerky–is the album’s constant, almost perverse preoccupation. “When Miho and I used to hang around before we started this band, we became close friends because we love to eat–it was a mutual obsession,” explains keyboardist Yuka Honda, who, like her bandmate, was born in Japan but now lives in New York City’s East Village. “It’s also something that really relates to our lives; it’s something every one of us does.”

Not everyone will relate to updating Sammy Davis Jr.’s schmaltzy Candy Man, but Cibo Matto puckishly turns it into an eerie, atmospheric dirge. Like the Fugees, Cibo Matto provides a twist on rap, a genre in which groups seem to have the shelf life of yogurt. No need to try to identify the taste–from Tokyo or Trenton or Port-au-Prince. As Hatori sings on Cibo Matto’s Birthday Cake: “Shut up and eat!”

–By Christopher John Farley

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