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THREE ON THE TOWN

ROLLING WITH THE FLOW : They Might Be Co-Opting Cutting-Edge Rap, but It's His Beat and He'll Stick With It

January 09, 1994|Jonathan Gold

It is 20 minutes to 10, and my friends are all inside. I am sitting in my car, parked a block down from the restaurant, listening to somebody named Tina dedicate a song to her boyfriend, Frank. I half-wonder why I am listening to the radio by myself in the cold when strong coffee and companionship are so close at hand, but the rap song "G-Thang" starts to play, and I am happy with the beat, and the deejay follows up with Domino's "Ghetto Jam," which is a song that I could listen to all night.

I am waiting for my favorite five minutes of radio to come on, a segment called "Roll Call," where young listeners from Compton, from Whittier, from Beverly Hills dial KPWR and rap a few lines over the air, usually haltingly at first, building into a sort of awkward grace, a geeky, teen-age swagger that usually disappears about five minutes after a rapper walks into a recording studio for the first time. If you tune in often enough, you learn the names of most of the callers, you trace the evolution of their styles, from generic rap to Ice Cube guttural to Snoop Doggy Dogg smooth. You can predict which day most of the rhymes might include salty couplets about Michael Jackson, or which budding rapper will be cut off when he leans a little blue.

I've spent an eccentric amount of time lately listening to KPWR, a dance-music station with a peculiar mix of bass-heavy hip-hop, saccharine ballads and "old-school," which has come to mean, roughly, songs you might have heard on an L.A.-based R & B station in 1983--Rick James, the Gap Band, Vanity 6. The mix seems to work; KPWR is consistently among the highest-rated in the city, and such old-school superstars as Zapp & Roger chart massively higher in Southern California than in the rest of the country.

Where old-album rock radio seemed to play "Stairway to Heaven" every 15 minutes, KPWR plays "The Message," and between Grandmaster Flash's original and Ice Cube's contemporary reworking, you can count on hearing the song at least twice on an average commute. It is comforting that one of the nation's most famous morning jocks could have been knocked off the air by what amounts to a bunch of goofs talking about football and girls. And I found it kind of nice when KPWR's brass decided to bleep out the nasty words in hard-core rap songs rather than ban the music altogether.

It is peculiar, though, to inadvertently find oneself part of a target market; it also feels odd to have one's meager lode of '80s nostalgia mined so precisely, from the heavy electrobeat breathing of the Egyptian Lover, to Melle Mel's "White Lines," to early L. L. Cool J, to . . . oh Lord! . . . the yo bay-bee, yo bay-bee yo that used to define West Coast rap music before Ice-T discovered his gangsta muse deep within the barrel of an Uzi. The stuff makes me feel the sort of vague longing that my dad must have felt hearing a Jo Stafford song 20 years later on "The Swinging Years."

Sometimes nothing annoys a certain kind of person more than having popular consensus swing around to agree with his taste. Who wants to stand in line at the Forum to see a band you used to rock out to at tiny Hollywood clubs; who's happy when the friendly hip-hop crew whose tapes he bought out of somebody's trunk develops into the Beatles of vulgar rap? Some degree of success is fine--you don't want the terrific Malaysian novelist you champion to remain so obscure that even Susan Sontag has a hard time placing her name--but in a culture where hipness is measured by how many left-field obsessions you can claim, extreme popularity can only debase the currency: Who wants to be just getting into Edith Wharton right now?

But sometimes it's better to flow with a groove than to fight against it, especially when you like the beat. The "Roll Call" music pumped through the car, there were enough Michael Jackson japes to fill a monthful of Letterman monologues, and as I had hoped, I got back to the restaurant just in time for the second course.

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