January 12, 2016KR BlogBlogEnthusiamsRemembrances

No Father to His Style

On the Biz Markie’s smash hit “Just a Friend,” which I remember watching and singing along with on The Box, he sings a pleading, straining chorus over literally perfect music. Marley Marl’s drums at a relatively slow tempo compared to hype masterpieces like “Make the Music With Your Mouth, Biz” but with so much swing it complements the sing-song vibe while making you bounce. The bright, clean, electric piano line stretches across four bars and thus generates anticipation for the next chorus, where Biz’s singing is serious yet playful, so emphatic and off-kilter it invites the listener to sing along.

Biz’s singing foreshadows that of Ol’ Dirty Bastard, aka ODB, aka Dirt McGirt, aka Big Baby Jesus, another Brooklyn emcee/singer who scored massive radio hits, whose legacy still has not been sufficiently documented and assessed (I haven’t read Buddha Monk/Mickey Hess’s biography yet, though, so I might have to revise the comment). One of the most original, if not the most original, hip hop artist of considerable commercial and critical success, Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s name derived from the fact that, as Meth explained at least once, “there ain’t no father to his style.” This is certainly true. But that is not to say there are no influences, precursors, no prophet signalling that he was to come.

His biggest hit was a song on which he was featured: Diddy’s remix of Mariah Carey’s “Fantasy” (the two were childhood friends—“Me and Mariah/ Go back like babies and pacifiers”). The beauty of his spirit is evident from his opening salvo on “Fantasy,” where he shouts-out all the boroughs, inviting everyone into his world. Diddy also interjects there, as he did constantly back then, over his magma-hot reproduction of Tom Tom Club’s “Genius of Love.” The juxtaposition of Dirty’s raspy, unpredictable croon on the same track as the voice of Mariah Carey, those layers of angelic harmonies, the powerful runs, is a brilliant choice. Diddy plays hypeman for both artists, while anchoring the track in a male voice  more normal, more recognizable and categorizable than Dirty, who tells us “I’m a little bit a country/ I’m a little bit a rock n roll/ and I’m Soul II Soul.” Peppered with Diddy’s commentary and laughter, and what sound like a couple of breathy kisses from Mariah, Dirty’s short verse breaks up the crystalline surface of the track and makes it more fun. I remember going to parties in the summer of ’95 and hearing it four, five, six times in a single night—you could not not dance to this song.

When ODB returns toward the end of the track, he offfers inebriated fragments behind Mariah in a duet, the likes of which we will probably never see again. Mariah, with her ability to sing full-bodied notes in registers that don’t even exist in most singers’ skulls, and ODB’s gravelly moaning of “sweet babyyyyyy” and “sugar pie,” the latter a reference to “Drunk Game (Sweet Sugar Pie),” from his classic debut, Return to the 36 Chambers: The Dirty Version. I always took “Drunk Game” to be a joke, but it wasn’t really a joke, not entirely; it was Dirty expressing his love for singing, and his love for love songs. Perhaps his appearance on “Fantasy” isn’t so strange after all.

“Fantasy (Remix)” is one of the best love songs, and dance songs, of that era. But if you mistake Dirty for a jester, or a clown version of Marvin Gaye, you will miss the fact that as a rapper, he achieved a most singular level of artistry. His “Brooklyn Zoo” is the greatest song ever created by the members of the Wu-Tang Clan. Everything about it is unpredictable; his rhythmic precision alternating with uncontainable but never arhythmic overflow is unassailable battle material. And as if that weren’t enough, the singing breaks up the jabs and uppercuts with cascades of notes—“My hip hop drops on your head like rai-ai-ain.” But what sets it apart completely is the style, so inimitable and abrasive, supported by a beat from the RZA that reminds us why he was the most important producer to come along after Marley Marl who produced Biz Markie’s early piano-laced gems like “Make Music with Your Mouth” and the aforementioned “Just a Friend.” It is as if the piano on “Zoo” is trying to go somewhere, trying to resolve into a statement of gritty sparkle the way Marley’s work did, but it can’t–it is held back within the stiff cage of the beat. The piano just keeps repeating but is not repetitive. It falls so strangely atop the drums that it still sounds fresh after 3 minutes. To use a word Kanye employed to describe J Dilla’s best work, the piano sample on “Zoo” is “wrong.” It never falls precisely on the downbeat, and thereby pulls your head back and forth; it’s actually jarring, because at one point it falls so close to, but quite with, a drum kick. It is this interval, a misshapen time-space that can’t be subdivided, that one hears in Dilla’s smear of hand claps where a snare should be, a mix of on and offbeat claps that don’t just cause you to nod your head but snap it like a rubber band pulled back and released by drum patterns that are somehow always late and always on time.

The concluding chorus of “Zoo” even throws us off. He repeats the hook a couple of times and throws in what would seem to be a book-ending “What!” But after a short space, he breaks back in with chunks of the chorus, again and again as if being scratched in, then goes back into a full chorus only for the song to end with an abrupt fade. If you skip ahead to the sequel, “Brooklyn Zoo 2 (Tiger Crane),” you’ll hear Ghostface introducing the track, along with Dirty who is singing Sam Cooke’s “Blue Moon” in the background. But the first thing we hear is Dirty saying “One two, one two,” a citation of Biz’s groundbreaking beatbox classic, “One Two.” There was no father to Ol’ Dirty’s style, but Biz Markie was a predecessor in genius that the former certainly absorbed.

Whenever I write these kinds of critical tributes, I am struck by the size of the iceberg I am only glancing with these comments. I’m borrowing the iceberg metaphor from James Braxton Peterson, who writes that “being a hip hop intellectual is about excavating some of that energy from the music that you see at the tip of the iceberg but also paying attention to that huge mass of cultural and intellectual energy that’s beneath the surface.” The iceberg is that energy, and it is suffused with talent, with immeasurable talent bubbling in places like Brooklyn, where so much talent goes unseen and undeveloped, unsung, misdirected, or cut short. Even Ol’ Dirty was not with us for even the length of a black man’s life expectancy, and though I wish it for him, it’s hard to imagine him resting in peace. Perhaps some of us rest in laughter, rest in playful battle freestyles, rest in roughly sung fragments from smooth soul songs. The pantheon of hip hop’s fallen is crowded, too crowded for an artform so young. But the tragic circumstances of hip hop’s urban crucibles, and their attendant foreshortened life chances, are inseparable from its energy, aren’t they? They are. But I still feel mournful, for that time, for those people, for the things that were possible back then, and for what we as a society are losing now, in our inability or unwillingness to do better than we have done. What stars are now collapsing in on themselves before they’ve even had the chance to rise?