Tuesday, April 10, 2007:

stop, hey, what's that sound?

College was a culture shock: going from true poverty to an artificial poverty with secure housing and a clear end, from a small town where I was considered brilliant to a college town where I was surrounded by people who were, from oversight that was vindictive and capricious to authority that were indifferent, all of it coupled with an exhilerating and terrifying freedom. My first roommates were from Boca Raton, the three of us sharing the second-cheapest room on campus, built for four, their friends coming over to drink or smoke, one of them once memorably complaining about being given a car which cost more than my mother's house but wasn't what he wanted.

I was a teetotaller losing his faith, bitter and angry and self-righteous, and took comfort in my arrogance. Cypress Hill was a fixture in the room that year, even before "Insane in the Brain" hit MTV; I heard their first two CDs constantly and hated them for their stoner vibe and the gangsta theatrics, but still I wondered if it was a deeply ironic word choice or a sly wink and a bit of hiding in plain sight that--among the machismo and claims to murder--they'd drop lines like "I'm a chicken hawk huntin' for a chicken."

Some time back I remembered the group with some fondness, and bought Black Sunday, and found that their sound on the CD was actually fairly interesting. In trying to describe it, I thought it would be like a pitchfork: deep prominent bass, high far-off (far-out) sounding noises, vocals in the middle. And going back a bit further, to high school, to Young MC, I stumbled onto what seemed like a precursor to their sound; a track with all that lethargy and sonic separation yet from someone who, from his lyrics, would clearly not approve of Cypress Hill's lifestyle. I'm not sure if Young MC has changed his attitudes towards drugs since 1989, as mine did, and did again, since 1993; his first CD was the only one I listened to, and I listen to it still: I enjoy the beats and the facility with rhyme (even silly rhyme) ("I'm sloppy like Oscar but neat like Tony Randall"?) and the general party atmosphere of it, which is light and fun as long as it's not taken seriously. In this regard it's like the early Tribe records, which also have some green lyrics, some clumsy seductions and misplaced wallets.

But the more I think of it, the more I notice songs flirting with this Cypress Hill sound, this same sound predated by Young MC's track: decades earlier, in Bill Wither's "Ain't No Sunshine"; and a few years later, in The Coup's "Fat Cats, Bigga Fish," in Louise Attaque's "Du Nord Au Sud"* and, to a lesser extent in Radiohead's The National Anthem (the vocals at the high point, the horns starting in the middle ... but too thick a sound overall, too much overlap and chaos) and in The Cure's remix of "Fascination Street" (the bass needs to be thicker, the middle thinner).

The more I think of it, the more I think I hear it (Pink Floyd, Depeche Mode, Baaba Maal), leading me to wonder if it's everywhere or if it's anywhere at all. It's possible I'm imagining it: representative samples in a frequency analyzer show some similarity, but not the separation of sound I thought I'd heard:Young MC and Cypress Hil samples

But quite distinct songs (Tears for Fears' "I Believe," The Beatles' "Helter Skelter") don't show nearly as much difference as I'd expected:
Helter Skelter and I Believe samples

In '93 I'd probably bend over backwards, making any contortions necessary to prevent saying "I don't know" or "I was wrong." I don't know, and I may be wrong. Yet I'm not sure that recognizing that puts me any closer to finding what the similarities are, if they even exist.

Readers, if you care to comment (musicians, music theorists, music historians and/or critics--anyone with a clue really), is there actually any similarity between the Young MC track and the Cypress Hill track? If there is, how would you go about finding more of it?
[Stone Cold Rhymin' @ amazon, @ emusic]
[Genocide & Juice: out of print]
[Black Sunday @ amazon]
[Comme on a Dit]
[Mixed Up]
[Kid A]

* First posted 63 years ago in internet years on my guest post to Said the Gramophone.

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It's only just now occurred to me that the way to approach this might be to load a couple of the songs into a playlist at www.pandora.com and see how it describes the songs and which songs it suggests as a result.

Still, I wonder if there's anything quantifiably there or if I have a half-deaf ear and/or overactive imagination.

I hardly want to use a play on words regarding overactive, but i just might be forced to if my train thought gets derailed.

i think you are one to something. My lil brother was huge into Cypress Hill, me i had moved on to the more social and political rap (i liked my rap like i liked my punk rock derivative and self righteous) seriously though i liked the obsurity of non gangsta and pop rap.

One day while working on my van i was listening to one of my mixtapes that featured a whole bunch of Young MC. My brother and his friends thought i was listening to a Cypress Hill remix that is till Young MC started rappin'

no i dod not recal if it was these two songs in question. but i do know that was the day my brother started giving the rap albums i had a listen.

so i think that you might be one to something.

your buddy,

todd x

Ah, that's interesting, Mr. X. Thanks.

Here's how Pandora describes "Fat Cats, Bigga Fish":
west coast rap roots
vocal samples
explicit lyrics
a tight kick sound
an electric bass riff
the use of background scratching
use of strings
subtle use of turntables
subtle use of electric keys
layered electric guitar riffs
thin synth textures
a dry recording sound
subtle use of noise effects
trippy soundscapes
thin orchestration
production and lyrics by respected rap artists

It will play "Non Stop" but has no description for it.

And it doesn't have "I Wanna Get High," but here's what it says about "Insane in the Brain":
west coast rap roots
sampledelia compositional qualities
lyrics about alcohol and drugs
a repetitive chorus
melodic part writing
a tight kick sound
a synth bass riff
a slow moving bass line
a highly synthetic sonority
a dry recording sound
radio friendly stylings
thin orchestration
production by a respected producer
lyrics by a famous rap artist

Both are listed as having
a tight kick sound
a dry recording sound
thin orchestration

I guess you could argue for a similar "trippiness" ("trippy soundscapes" vs. "sampledelia compositional qualities" and "a highly synthetic sonority") though I'm not sure how that--or any of the above--gets quantified (I don't like the "I know it when I see it" kind of definitions...).

Oh, and they share "west coast rap roots" but I doubt that's central to the sound itself, since Young M.C. came from London to Queens.

The description of "Ain't No Sunshine" and "The National Anthem" both don't share anything with the bits above, and "Fascination Street" is in their catalog but without description. But "Essential Elements" by Himalayan Project, which came up in the station based on "Non Stop" and "Fat Cats," shares "west coast rap roots," "a dry recording sound," and "thin orchestration" with the two above (as well as "an electric bass rif," "the use of background scratching," "subtle use of turntables," "layered electric guitar riffs," and "subtle use of noise effects" with Cypress Hill).

So that's a start, I guess. Next, to find out what "a dry recording sound" and "thin orchestration" mean.

Hieroglyphics' "Third Eye Vision" shows more:
west coast rap roots
a tight kick sound
an electric bass riff
a slow moving bass line
a dry recording sound
subtle use of noise effects
thin orchestration

One of those Himalayan Projects CDs actually sounds pretty good, as does the Hieroglyphics CD; I'll have to pick those up once my emusic rolls over.

I love your autobiographical couple first paragraphs to this post. You perfectly capture that culture shock of the first year of college.

I tried to leave a comment on your Bill & Ted post last week but Blogger wouldn't cooperate. Just to say that Forbidden Games is a devastating film. You reminded me that I should see it again.

Thanks, Amy.

Forbidden Games is a devastating film, yes. It reminds me a bit of The Burmese Harp, though I don't know if anyone could make it through a double feature.

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