October 11, 2004

Various Artists: "African Underground Volume One: Hip-Hop Senegal"

American hip-hop is going through a twofold crisis. Its mainstream rappers seem hell-bent on keeping their lyrics as materialistic, misogynistic and content-free as possible. Underground rappers spend more time pointing out the problems of mainstream rap music than they do providing viable solutions. Many of them possess superior lyrical skill, but either they lack the beats and hooks to engage mainstream listeners or they’re simply too cerebral for their own good. Meanwhile, hip-hop culture travels all over the world, casting its influence over foreign youth in ways that aren’t always positive. Witness, for instance, the trend of Japanese girls darkening their skin and imitating “ghetto fabulous” fashion in the most contextually deficient manner possible. African Underground Vol. 1, on the other hand, is an example of cultural hybridization done right. The Senegalese rappers showcased on this compilation use hip-hop as a “voice of the people” in ways that American rappers haven’t managed since the advent of NWA, and their producers provide backdrops that sound surprisingly current given the fact that most of these songs are at least three years old.

Benny Herson, who founded the Nomadic Wax label and co-produced this compilation, spent three consecutive summers (from 1998 to 2000) in Dakar studying the Senegalese hip-hop scene for his college thesis. He watched Senegal celebrate its first democratic election in three decades during the same year that we Americans were questioning whether our current president actually won the election. He noticed how Senegal’s transition to democracy was partially sparked by its rappers’ efforts to mobilize their communities through their music. (One rapper on this compilation, Omzo, released a song that criticized the World Bank so harshly that it was believed to have directly affected the outcome of Senegal’s 2000 election.) Herson took note of the linguistic fluidity of these rappers, many of whom could flow in French, English, Wolof, Swahili and many other African dialects. (Contrast this with American rappers who can’t even spell the word “here” correctly.) Herson returned to Dakar in 2001, set up a portable studio at a community center, and let rappers come from all over Senegal to write, record, eat, sleep and pray together over that summer.

Because all of the songs were produced by Herson and his cousin, the Hip-Hop Senegal compilation bears a consistent sound. The beats find a happy middle ground between the austere griminess of Wu-Tang and the live instrumentation of the Roots. Beat-wise, most of the highlights are concentrated on the second half of the record. The staccato, squealing synthesizers of Las MC‘s “Africans Don‘t Wanna Understand“ borrow a bit from the sound of early-’90s “G-funk.” The samples on Sul Suli Klan‘s “Mbedo Bama Woo“ are so distorted and dinky that they make the song sound like a demo. “Begguma,” a collaboration between Slam Revolution and BMG 44, runs the emcees’ voices through numerous dub-style production tricks, at one point making them sound like they’re being run backwards when they aren’t. Sen Kumpa’s “Deglu Xel” glides along on some very jazzy Rhodes work, and Abass’ self-titled contribution adds flute and guitar to a loop that sounds like it was created on an archaic drum machine (and probably WAS).

Lyrically, the quality of these songs is inversely proportional to the amount of cribbing that the emcees do from American rappers. The worst contributions come from Shiffai, who raps almost exclusively in English. The infantile rhymes schemes and off-key female singing on “Shiffai” suggest what Nelly would sound like with a thicker accent and a smaller budget, and the elegy “Never Forget” (which was written in tribute to two deceased emcees who appear elsewhere on the record) is just a slightly less monotonous version of P. Diddy’s Biggie tribute “I’ll Be Missing You.” The gruff call-and-response choruses of BMG 44’s song “44” come straight from the DMX handbook, and the lyrical allusions to Biggie’s “Kick in the Door” only underscore the lack of originality. It also doesn’t help matters that one of BMG’s emcees goes by the name of Nigga. My other main gripe with this compilation is that almost all of its artists, whether they rhyme in Wolof, English or French, have the disturbing habit of throwing the N-word around almost as much as American rappers do.

Although the liner notes give brief write-ups explaining the subject matter of each song, there are no lyrics or translations provided. Thus, monolingual listeners like yours truly have to glean what they can strictly from studying the emcees’ voices and deliveries. I listen to Ozmo’s measured, laidback flow (reminiscent to that of Gangstarr’s Guru) on “Missalu Aduna” and get the impression that he’s trying to teach through his rapping. I can understand how the fate of an entire nation could be changed by his words. It only takes the first few seconds of “Africans Don’t Wanna Understand” to hear the rage and frustration in Las MC’s husky baritone. The Slam/BMG collaboration “Begguma” tackles the subject of police brutality. In this song, the rapid tag-team style employed between the two groups becomes a symbolic gesture. Like Boogie Down Productions’ all-star classic “Self-Destruction,” “Begguma” is a collective effort from some of Senegal’s biggest rappers to address a common societal ill. Careful listening to many of these emcees reveals an abundance of complex internal rhyme schemes that can stand toe to toe against the best American rappers. These are not just some dudes that listened to a Public Enemy record last week and got inspired. You might be listening to the Biggies and Rakims of the Motherland. We should pay attention and take notes.

---Sean Padilla

Label Website: http://www.nomadicwax.com
Label Website: http://www.notable.com

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