Hip-Hop Nation

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THIS PAGE AND COVER: PHOTOGRAPHS FOR TIME BY KWAKU ALSTON; STYLING BY LISA MOSKO; MAKEUP BY ANITA GIBSON; HAIR BY VERONICA FLETCHER

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The dance floor is getting crowded. Flash puts on a record. Does a little scratching. He plays the instrumental intro again and again and then lets it play through. "Ain't no stopping us now..."

At first I did not know what I wanted. But in the end I
understood the language. I understood it, I understood it, I
understood it all wrong perhaps. That is not what matters ... Does
this mean that I am freer than I was?"
--Samuel Beckett, Malloy

In Mill Valley, Calif., in a one-bedroom apartment above a coin-operated laundry, Andre Mehr, a white 17-year-old with a crew cut, and Emiliano Obiedo, a ponytailed 16-year-old who is half white and half Hispanic, are huddled over a PC. A beat spirals up. Obiedo offers some advice, and Mehr clatters away at the keyboard. They are making music. Once they settle on a beat, Obiedo will take a diskette bearing a rhythm track home and lay down some rhymes. Soon they hope to have enough for a CD. Boasts Obiedo: "I'm going to change rap."

Across the country, similar scenes are playing out as kids outside the black community make their own hip-hop or just listen in. Some say they don't pay much attention to the lyrics, they just like the beat. "I can't relate to the guns and killings," says Mehr. Others are touched more deeply. Says 15-year-old Sean Fleming: "I can relate more and get a better understanding of what urban blacks have to go through."

Todd Boyd, a professor of critical studies at the University of Southern California, says rap can bring races together: "It's a little more difficult to go out and talk about hate when your music collection is full of black artists. That is not to say that buying an OutKast record is the same as dealing with real people, but it is reason to hope." Ice Cube is a bit more cynical: "It's kinda like being at the zoo. You can look into that world, but you don't have to touch it. It's safe."

Nonblack performers are increasingly drawing from rap. Beck expertly combined folk and hip-hop. Hanson's hit MMMBop included deejay scratching. Portishead refashioned hip-hop into ethereal trip-hop. Singer Beth Orton, whose enchantingly moody album Central Reservation is due out in March, blends folksy guitars with samples and beats. Doug Century, author of Street Kingdom: Five Years Inside the Franklin Avenue Posse, studied hip-hop culture as he documented the lives of gang members; he predicts white acts will eventually dominate rap, just as white rockers pushed out rock's black forerunners. "It's possible that in 15 years all hip-hop will be white," Century says. "[Then] black youth culture will transform itself again."

Already the white b-boy has become an iconic figure--ridiculed in movies like Can't Hardly Wait and the forthcoming Go, and in songs like Offspring's Pretty Fly (for a White Guy). In Pretty Fly the punk band Offspring mocks whites who adopt hip-hop styles, singing, "He may not have a clue/ And he may not have style/ But everything he lacks/ Well he makes up in denial." Irish-American rap-rocker Everlast, whose new CD, Whitey Ford Sings the Blues, has proved to be a commercial hit, says the song makes him laugh: "They ain't talking about me, 'cause I'll beat the s___ out of every one of those guys." In fact, Everlast feels confident enough about his standing in the rap world to take a verbal swipe at Puffy Combs: "I don't think Puffy really cares about what he's doing. He's a brilliant businessman, but he's no different from the Backstreet Boys or the Spice Girls because he's just creating a product."

Wu-Tang Clan producer-rapper RZA is also concerned about maintaining standards. He believes many performers are embracing the genre's style--rapping--but missing its essence, the culture of hip-hop. "I don't think the creativity has been big. I think the sales have been big, and the exposure has been big," says RZA. "Will Smith is rap. That's not hip-hop. It's been a big year for rap. It's been a poor year for hip-hop."

Underground rap is available for those industrious enough to seek it out. At New York City's Fat Beats record store, you can pick up vinyl editions of independently released songs by such promising new acts as the Philadelphia-based Maylay Sparks (call 215-492-4257 for more information) and the all-female antimisogyny hip-hop collective Anomolies (917-876-0726). Maylay Sparks' spirited I Mani and the New York City-based Anomolies' raucous tune Black-listed (a collaboration with the group Arsonists) are two of the best songs to come out this year.

Other groups, signed to major labels, are trying to perpetuate rap's original spirit of creativity. The rapper Nas' forthcoming album I Am...the Autobiography promises to be tough, smart and personal. And the Atlanta-based duo OutKast's current album, Aquemini, weaves chants, neo-soul and hip-hop into an enthralling mix. Says OutKast's Big Boi: "We're not scared to experiment."

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