Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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VARIOUS ARTISTS
The Hip Hop Box
Hip-O

A severely incomplete rap history filled with beats, changes and glory

Single-artist box sets wear down because single artists keep making music even after the thrill is gone. Sometimes, genre overviews have the same excuse--the last 20 years of recorded blues clearly can't compare to the first 40. But that's not the problem with the final disc of The Hip Hop Box, in which Universal Music, the largest musicorp in the universe, sums up a miraculously vital genre in four action-packed CDs.

As it stands, disc four proves how many memorable tracks are embedded in the past decade's radio-rap detritus: Bone Thugs-n-Harmony's prophetic singsong, Gang Starr's classic flow, DMX's brutal bark, Noreaga's Neptunes-supplied electro-jive and more. But imagine if it featured the Notorious B.I.G., the Fugees, Jay-Z, Eminem, Missy Elliott, Nelly and Outkast, all absent here except Biggie, snuck in via a well-selected Junior M.A.F.I.A. cameo. Had the purse keepers so desired, they could have blown away underground purism. Who needs "real hip-hop" with the greatest pop on the planet at your fingertips?

Instead, by shortchanging the recent past, The Hip Hop Box inadvertently makes a kind of argument for purism. It may well play as an overall downhill slide to anyone familiar with such old-school classics as Afrika Bambaataa's "Planet Rock," Run-DMC's "Sucker M.C.'s" and Roxanne Shante's "Roxanne's Revenge"--which in turn may well shock young rap fans who haven't heard them, positively with their optimistic audacity or negatively with their crude hooks. The throbbing bass-synth figure of the Treacherous Three's "The Body Rock," from 1980, is ready to conquer the world even if it never gets to New Jersey; the simply chanted repetition of a girl's name is ready to make U.T.F.O.'s 1984 cut "Roxanne Roxanne" a pop sensation even if Billboard never notices. In retrospect, both are strikingly minimalist instrumentally--augmented beatbox excursions, basically.

Eric B. & Rakim, Boogie Down Productions and Ice-T lead disc two by deftly elaborating those minimalist parameters. Then comes MC Hammer (with the minor "Turn This Mutha Out" rather than a smash, a typical cheapo tactic): full-band sonics, femme chorus, hype man, scratches, drum breaks, the works. And then comes the dense Bomb Squad multi-tracked production undergirding the outspoken Public Enemy, as loud and aggressive as any arena-rock band, and a hell of a lot funkier.

It's not even 1990, and we're off to the races. Hip-hop can be anything it wants to be.

It can be Biz Markie out of tune over a piano sample or De La Soul layering as thick as P.E. so they can remain goofs for life. It can be Naughty by Nature copping the Jackson 5, followed by the Fresh Prince (now known as Will Smith) doing spoken-word over girlie cheese. Or the indie entertainment of Chubb Rock, the proto-underground provocation of Black Sheep, the jazz-lite of Digable Planets, the cockeyed nutball of Craig Mack, the sisterly womanism of Queen Latifah, the diva pride of Roots protégée Jill Scott, the textured flow of Pete Rock & C.L. Smooth, the dramatic atmospherics of Wu-Tang Clan, the oily G-funk of Dr. Dre, the bumpy swamp beats of Timbaland.

Box sets are generally rip-offs one way or another, top-shelf items packaged to suggest a weight that rarely registers on the scale. With its corner-cutting and historical pretensions, The Hip Hop Box is no exception. Yet most of its obvious choices sound better than they ever did, and most of its more obscure ones gain cred with every play. Maybe somebody at Universal has good ears. Or maybe with a genre so pervasive and extraordinary, picking just 51 tracks is a gimme.

If the greatness is never as undeniable as at the beginning, the overall effect is, in the end, anything but an argument for purism. It's an argument that hip-hop will continue to mutate successfully for the foreseeable future, and that that's what it was always meant to do.

Blender, May 2004