In 1991, De La Soul declared itself dead. Native tongue planted firmly in cheek or not, some folks believed it when the trio puckishly stated in interviews that they intended to quit hip hop and open a donut shop. Of course, Posdnuos, Trugoy, Mase and Prince Paul continued recording, but both their disgust with the state of ball-grabbing hip hop and the influence of their wild, pioneering, cinematic, cross-cultural, cut-and-paste, urban hippy funk had been duly registered. Cut to 1998 and the group's antidote to gangster swagger and embracing of an emotionally integrated hip-hop landscape has been carried on by contemporaries A Tribe Called Quest and a new generation of artists such as the Roots and, now, Los Angeles-based trio Black Eyed Peas. Members will.i.am, apl.de.ap and taboo would rather groove than represent, dance than posture and communicate than shout.
And like the Roots and A Tribe Called Quest's masterpiece, The Low End Theory, the Peas' debut album Behind the Front (Interscope) takes hip hop to new, pre-old school soundworlds by building rhymes around live instrumentation. As a matter of fact, you'll only find a handful of samples judiciously used to flesh out organ, guitar, bass, drums, congas, synthesizers, theremins, turntables, violin, flute and cello, on top of which the Peas and guests rap, sing and philosophize. The sounds are as diverse and culturally rich as Los Angeles -- and the Black Eyed Peas -- and much less conflicted.
And the Peas do it up in the live arena, too. No mere one-shot novelty is the eight-piece band supporting the emcees when they take the stage. Better still, the emcees and musicians in Black Eyed Peas are intent on moving the crowd by their own means, bringing the spontaneity inherent to the way a band interacts on stage together with acrobatic dance moves, fluid verbal flow and, to crib from A Tribe Called Quest, dedication to the art of movin' butts. And you just know how powerful hip hop can be when conceived not just on the mixing board, but in the real world of its practitioners, don't we? The Peas have been there and done that. As a matter of fact, the members of BEP met while in a dance troupe called Tribal Nation and later formed the ill-fated rap group Atban Clan.
Thankfully, BEP members' individual musical influences -- Front sports as many Latin jazz riffs, acoustic guitar passages, post-rock-ish flourishes and straight-up soul songbirding as straight "boom-bap" beats -- have now converged in an eclectic whole that listens like a mix tape you could never hope to craft so perfectly.
And there's an active conscience behind the Peas' artful front, too. The cut "Say Goodbye" sounds and, more importantly, feels, like a premillennial "What's Goin' On?" The trio speaks to what-goes-around-comes-around on the universal level on "Karma," and consistently rails against the dangers of acting as though you're an emperor when you've got no clothes.
BEP's philosophy is perhaps best illustrated on the inside gatefolds of Behind the Front's CD cover. Each member is represented, fully clothed and in full flesh on the cover, each subsequent page strips away, in sequence, skin, muscle and skeleton -- rendered in exact medical illustration form -- till all that's left is the heart, the brain and the soul (represented by a silhouetted shadow).
Or maybe it's the simplicity of the album's closing: "You got to keep it on the positive." Chris Handyside is a freelance writer for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]