Hot In Here, Part 5
DJ G. Brown
Pure Fiya vol. 3: Rude Boyz
Mixtapes are to hip hop as zines are to punk: symbols of a romanticized urban past, in which kids who couldn't afford to take classical piano lessons, or rent band instruments, made their own music by cutting -and-pasting from a grab-bag of 808 machine beats, turntable cuts, and disco loops. At first glance, it's difficult to discern what's creative about poaching and scissoring other people's art -the same way it's sometimes hard to see the craft in writing, when writers are just re-iterating their own experiences, or vicariously telling the exploits of other people.
In writing, creativity stems from an author's ability to make a point that's larger than the words explicitly state: new emotional landscapes, ideas, and meanings precipitate in the arrangement of the words themselves. Similarly, the cleverness and intelligence of a mix lies in the DJ's ability to re-arrange other people's sounds to create his own landscape. The most astute DJs can hear, right off the bat, that with the vocals turned down, Missy Elliot's Under Construction is actually a techno album, or that the beginning hook on Pete Rock's "KrossRoads" exactly matches the feeling in a particular Bobby Hutcherson lick. Mixing is all about getting that unexpected, haphazard combination to actually work, creating a sound that builds on the ideas and intentions of the original artists.
Of the reigning mixtape kings du jour, DJ Vlad is probably the most talked-about, and most controversial figure. Having minted three albums since the first Butcher mix that dropped in December, 2003 (the poppy Hot in Here volumes four and five, along with the more nourish Don Diva: Old Gangsters, Young Gunz) Vlad rose in the ranks to MTV's Top Ten DJs of 2004, garnering write-ups in glossy magazines like Dub, Vibe, and Remix. Yet, critics disparage him with terms like "culture vulture," because, well, he cuts tracks with the aid of a computer, circulating mixes on the internet, as MP3 files. Not to mention Vlad stakes his authenticity -in part, at least- on the string-bikinied African-American "honeys" who decorate his website.
Given that list of trespasses, most conscientious critics don't really want to like Vlad -his mixes are kind of a guilty pleasure. Problem is, they also sound dope.
While Vlad's latest, Hot In Here Part 5 mix, lacks the ingenuity that produced stranger mash-ups like the now-famous mixed-marriage of Fifty Cent's "In Da Club" and Nine Inch Nails' "Closer", it's clear that Vlad is moving in that direction. The best track on Part 5 is Vlad's quirky mishmash of Biggie's "Ten Crack Commandments" with the clamorous beat of Kanye West's "Jesus Walks". By wedding the famously dark, homicidal poetry of Brooklyn's "black Frank White" with the apocalyptic sounds of a current Midwestern hip hop mogul, Vlad creates a thematic switcharoo that's as great as it is perverted. In an equally inspired remix, DJ Vlad contorts R. Kelly's mawkish tune, "Happy People," by setting it against 213's ribald "Groupie Love". For anyone who's read any recent R. Kelly lore, the combination makes perfect sense.
While G. Brown's dancehall-driven Rude Boyz lacks the tongue-in-cheek sense of humor that almost redeems Vlad for his unabashedly commercial music selection (which ranges from infectious club joints like Frontline's "Uh Huh" to shitty club joints like Nelly's "Flap Your Wings"), Brown's album has a much wider scope. The most exciting track on Rude Boyz is also the one that blares on the DJ's website: Elephant Man's "E.L.E.P.H.A.N.T.," set to Dr. Dre's "Next Episode." The raga emcee's raging tirade against "that man who called me nigga" completely changes the tone of Dre's chilled-out West Coast anthem. Ever the scrupulous mixer, Brown detected the violent, explosive energy that undergirds Dre's West Coast beats -which often passes for gangsta chill- and found a way to bring it to the fore.
It takes an inventive DJ to put one over on Dre, and Brown sustains that creative force throughout Rude Boyz. He boosts the replay value of Joe and G Unit's "Ride With You" and Yin Yang Twinz "Salt Shaker" by setting them to a riveting dancehall track, and prettifies Foxy Brown's off-key rendition of "Sorry" by giving it a slowed-down, dub-influenced backdrop. In contrast, Vlad seems less inclined to challenge his listeners: By sticking within the confines of Top 40 rap and R&B, Vlad produces mixes that are more straightforward, but also less ambitious. Brown's penchant for blending genre ultimately creates an album with more musical depth than Vlad's Hot In Here, even if it has fewer "aha!" moments.
Mixtapes may be a form of nostalgia, but that doesn't mean they're made out of chewing gum and wire -not anymore, at least. Given the many technological advances being made in hip hop, a DJ's conceptions of musicianship have become as important as his ability to convey personality through his mixes. By current standards, not only must you have something interesting to say --you also have to say it well.