Thursday, 3 October 2013

We Can't Be Stopped (1998)

I gave up listening to rap fairly early on in its development. I had liked Grandmaster Flash, Whodini, the Beastie Boys, Public Enemy and those guys, but for some reason LL Cool J just seemed to represent a good idea taken too far in the wrong direction with all else following along like seagulls in the wake of a trawler. I can no longer remember why LL Cool J in particular should have represented my cut off point, but the whole enterprise just seemed to be getting too goofy, and I was tired of being asked to put my hands in the air and wave them as though viewing the act with absolute indifference, and that same fucking drum machine over and over...

De La Soul sounded interesting, although not enough to make me want to buy an album; and NWA sounded terrifying in a fairly interesting way, but by 1990 it seemed obvious that rap had become too wide and too complex to be understood at a glance by a relative outsider such as myself. Unfortunately this left me with very little fresh listening material as that with which I was more comfortable had, generally speaking, begun to turn to shit during the nineties with the refitting of proper music as a series of jangly consumer options. Where once we'd had Wire, Crass, Joy Division, Siouxsie & the Banshees, Bill Nelson or whoever - to name but five off the top of my head - now there was the Beautiful South, Oasis, Supergrass, Björk, the Levellers, the Boo Radleys, Primal Scream and a million other horrible box-ticking wankers all queueing up to provide the sort of mechanically reclaimed lifestyle soundtrack that shifted T-shirts and got crowds punching the air without sounding too dissonant when used to advertise car insurance. Suddenly it was okay to listen to ELO again, and I found myself increasingly driven into a corner desperately clutching a few albums by Foetus, Nocturnal Emissions, and the three other people in the world still doing something that didn't sound like the musical equivalent to an episode of My Family.

I needed a complete change, something as far removed from four white guys with guitars as possible. I didn't want to end up as one of those persons wistfully pulling a Simple Minds album from its sleeve and telling his guests I'm an eighties man. I wanted to be able to slap on a newly purchased record and find myself staring open-mouthed at the speakers wondering what the hell I was hearing; and much like the guy who sang the theme from Friends, rap was there for me. It probably helped that rap was what people at work listened to, not so much because they tried to bring me into the fold or bothered to lend me anything they thought I might like, just that they provided a precedent. I bought Foxy Brown's Chyna Doll album more or less on the grounds that it wasn't by the White Stripes - or the Shite Stripes as I call them hur hur hur - and looking at the cover in the store, I found it impossible to imagine what the thing would sound like.

It actually sounded pretty fucking great, and even better, it featured what I later came to recognise as a fairly typical quota of guest performers, others whose work I could chase up in my quest for aural stimulation; which led to a couple of CDs by Mia X, and in turn to whatever else I could find on the No Limit label.

No Limit were a revelation to me, a stable of New Orleans rappers sharing the same production team, and churning out disc after disc of stuff that wasn't really like anything I'd heard before, and all with these bizarre covers by Pen & Pixel graphics, sharp dressed photoshopped rap persons eating diamonds for breakfast cereal - designs perpetrated without concessions to taste or subtlety by people who probably didn't quite know what they were doing but still had one hell of a time doing it; and the records sounded like they were made in the same spirit, like the fruit of a journey that began with the words well, let's turn this thing on and see what the fuck happens.

We Can't Be Stopped dates roughly from the heyday of No Limit records and is reasonably representative - a uniquely varied line up of landmark rappers of whom at least three or four existed pretty much in stylistic fields of their own, notably Fiend and Mr. Serv-On; and the music is typically all over the shop, probably composed mostly in Cubase or some similar programme, disparate elements joyfully slapped together just to see how they'll sound, cheesy old Roland drum machines pinging away next to piano, brushed snares, pizzicato strings, and all sorts of things that just shouldn't be served on the same plate. One great thing about No Limit was that even when their Beats by the Pound production team were quite obviously responding to someone asking for a track that sounds like that song by so and so, the end result more often than not goes somewhere else entirely. There's an almost amateur feel, the outsider art of rap, but done with such enthusiasm that it can't help but sound weird and great and absolutely fresh - I mean fresh as in new, by the way, but the other meaning is fine too.

Sadly, it wasn't long after We Can't Be Stopped came out that Master P, No Limit CEO, made the grave mistake of listening to his critics and turned the label into a spent force more or less overnight, shedding most of the roster's talent in a doomed effort to keep up with the times and emulate those newer artists who had spent most of the nineties vainly trying to duplicate his success. Some of the artists here went on to better things - not least Fiend, the definitive bullfrog of rap and a personal all time favourite - but the golden age was over. It turned out some of them could be stopped, none of which changes that this collection still sounds great more than a decade later, still full of surprises. If this stuff hadn't come along at just the right time as evidence in support that there will always be new things under the sun providing you know where to look, my own listening habits would probably still be stuck back in 1989.

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