Getting a Bad Rap – Five Failed Hip-Hop Crossovers

Originally published by MadeLoud, March 17, 2009

These days, hip-hop is a thoroughly ingrained part of our musical culture, and possibly even the defining sound of an era. As such, it’s been integrated and co-opted into nearly every genre imaginable, from the alterna-funk of early Beck albums to the meathead metal of Limp Bizkit to the country twang of Bubba Sparxx.

But it wasn’t so long ago that the world of rapping and record-scratching seemed weird and exotic to musicians outside the hip-hop sphere. Throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s, adventurous rock and pop artists started to explore the outskirts of this upstart genre with wildly varying results. There were a few successes – Run-DMC’s collaboration with Aerosmith comes to mind, as well as portions of the Judgment Night soundtrack – but, as usual, it’s the failures that were truly fascinating.

Lou Reed – “The Original Wrapper”

Back in the ‘80s, mainstream white America seemed to be of the opinion that rapping was little more than rhyming quickly over a beat. That prevailing notion led to any number of painfully unfunny parodies, and a career low point for at least one rock icon. Much of Lou Reed’s much-maligned Mistrial album comes off like Lou doing a bad John Hiatt impression, but on “The Original Wrapper,” the former Velvet Underground front man embraces his inner Chuck D.

For three-and-a-half baffling minutes, Reed delivers a monotone ramble on AIDS, yuppies, Jerry Falwell and other hot-button issues of 1986, all the while employing waffle-making as some sort of inscrutable metaphor. Odd though it may be, there’s a certain surreal appeal in hearing the man who wrote Berlin deliver a choice couplet like “Ooh-poo-pah-doo and how do you do? / Hip-hop, gonna bop till I drop.”

Bo Diddley – “Kids Don’t Do It”

It’s tough to imagine a more spectacular failure of good intentions than the great Bo Diddley’s sole venture into the genre for which he laid much of the groundwork. Unfortunately, every element of this 1996 cautionary tale seems miscalculated. Employing a flow that would have sounded played out a decade earlier, Diddley and guest rapper Philosopher G (actually Bo’s grandson) lay down the heavy-handed saga of Willie Junior, who starts running with a gang and pays the ultimate price.

Trafficking in clunky rhymes like, “Being in a gang is really lame / Being in a gang ain’t doin’ your thang” and “Don’t take your Mom and Daddy’s gun to school / Because the one that gets shot just might be you”, Diddley gets his message across with all the subtlety of the guest speaker at a middle school anti-drug assembly. The elderly blues man’s heart was clearly in the right place when he delivered this missive to at-risk urban teens – who obviously represent a huge segment of Bo Diddley album-buyers – but the end result is about as effective as a “back in my day” rant delivered by someone’s agitated grandpa.

Buckshot LeFonque

Over the past few decades, DJs have sampled and scratched up countless jazz tunes, and jazz producers have incorporated raps and break beats to great effect. It’s somewhat surprising, then, that full-on efforts to meld the two genres have yielded such spotty results. For every success like Guru’s Jazzmatazz series, there are a dozen failed efforts by artists who just didn’t quite seem to get it.

Case in point: Branford Marsalis’ Buckshot LeFonque project. Over the course of two forgettable mid-1990s albums, the trumpeter and former Tonight Show bandleader crafted a blend of jazz, R&B, rock and hip-hop that was considerably less than the sum of its parts. Even the assistance of DJ Premier couldn’t elevate an undistinguished MC like Uptown, and the constant genre-hopping makes for an unfocused, disorienting experience that provides a glimpse of what hip-hop might be like if Bill Cosby ran the world. Save for the catchy title track from 1997’s Music Evolution, the group’s output proves that as a hip-hop auteur, Marsalis makes one hell of a horn player. At least it stands as a cautionary example for future producers: there aren’t many surer ways to destroy a hip-hop track’s credibility than incorporating samples from Jay Leno’s monologue.

Blondie – “Rapture”

Hating on “Rapture” is a tricky proposition. On the one hand, it’s a major single by one of the more significant bands of the early ‘80s, and one of the first hit songs to bring rap to a mainstream audience. On the other hand, it kind of sucks.

A number one hit in 1981, “Rapture” at least has its references in order. Debbie Harry’s enthusiastic rap does right by hip-hop history by name-checking founding fathers like Fab Five Freddy and Grandmaster Flash. Unfortunately, those shout-outs are mixed into a bizarre, mildly embarrassing second-person narrative involving a space invader with a penchant for eating unlikely objects that rhyme with “Mars.” The lyrics may have been forgivable if they’d been part of a freestyle flow, where the immediacy of the performance excuses occasional lazy rhymes and awkward phrasing, but Harry presumably sat down and penned “Rapture” well ahead of time. Were lines like “And you don’t stop / You keep eatin’ cars / Then when there’s no more cars / You go out at night and eat up bars” really the best she could come up with?

Prince – Diamonds and Pearls and the “Love Symbol” album

You’d think Prince would be the last guy who’d feel the need to enhance his funk quotient, but at some point in the early ‘90s, the Man in Purple apparently decided his sound was losing its street cred. His solution? Recruiting New Power Generation dancer and amateur MC Tony M to bust some sub-par flows on his next couple of albums.

One might assume that music as funky as Prince’s signature style would lend itself easily to a hip-hop coupling, and perhaps the experiment would have worked with a more talented rapper on board. As it stands, the otherwise solid Diamonds and Pearls and “Love Symbol” albums grind to a halt every time Tony M’s thoroughly generic rhymes take center stage, dragging down even a semi-classic like “Sexy M.F.” Give Prince credit for nurturing homegrown talent instead of bringing in big-name guest stars, but Tony M’s legacy is more Apollonia than Sheila E.

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