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Riddim Warfare

Meet Jay-Z's The Black Album -- the remix

To find evidence of Jay-Z's far-reaching influence in club culture, all you need to do is look toward South Beach on a weekend night. Visit any hip-hop club on the Washington Avenue strip, or Opium Garden on Collins Avenue, and you'll find people acting out one of the rapper's videos: girls grinding on girls, men brazenly pushing up on women, wankstas trying to talk their way into the VIP area, and would-be ballers popping corks of champagne, all set to one of Jigga's numerous hits -- "Change Clothes," "Dirt Off Your Shoulder," "Give It to Me" ... the list goes on and on.

Meanwhile a rash of underground producers are cannibalizing The Black Album. These remix CDs pair a cappellas from the rapper's so-called "last album" to all-new beats. So far, the best of the lot is Kev Brown's The Brown Album. Brown, best known for his work with Jazzy Jeff's production company A Touch of Jazz, rearranges The Black Album's track order ("99 Problems" follows "December 4th" instead of "Encore") and fuses its raps with his own beats, leading to the smooth, low bass hum he crafts for "Threat" and the slow-burning jazz used for "Moment of Clarity."

The nine-song Brown Albumis more consistent than its inspiration, which was stylistically all over the place, but as a whole it's not any better -- or worse. Some of the other remix CDs which have appeared are more uneven, though. On The Black Remixes, popular mixtape DJ Lieutenant Dan incorporates instrumentals from Nineties classics like Biggie's "Unbelievable," but the results sound gimmicky, with Jay-Z's unique cadences often proving a poor fit. There's The White Album, where Kno, producer for Atlanta backpackers Cunninlynguists, tries a similar approach to Brown, even rearranging the a cappellas to drop in at different points on his original tracks. More attempts are appearing every month, too, like DJ Danger Mouse's The Grey Albumand a remix CD by Canadians Saukrates and Choclair.

So why are so many upstarts reworking The Black Album? The trend has its roots in Ron G.'s blend tapes from the early Nineties, on which he would blend a cappellas from R&B stars over hip-hop beats. His results hit harder than the flimsy, keyboard-heavy new jack swing at the time and led the way to a true synthesis of R&B and hip-hop on Mary J. Blige's What's the 411?debut and Jodeci's classic single "Come and Talk to Me" -- both directly influenced by Ron G.'s mixtapes.

As the decade wore on, bootleg break records would occasionally appear that collected unauthorized remixes of popular singles. Madlib, for example, released a Madlib InvazionEP three years ago on which he reworked the Roots' "Don't See Us" and Common's "Car Horn." But Pizzo, owner of the Las Vegas-based online store hiphopsite.com, was probably the first to commission an entire remix album. Last summer he enlisted Little Brother's producer 9th Wonder, then riding high off his group's underground sensation The Listening; Soul Supreme, who had just released his own The Saturday Night Agenda, a solid compilation of tracks featuring guest MCs like Insight and L Da Headtoucha; and iconoclastic MC/producer MF Doom.

The first in the series, 9th Wonder's reworking of God's Son(retitled God's Stepson), was straight classic, actually improving upon the original by creating an elegiac, almost tragic sound that truly cast Nas as a street poet observing life through literate slang. It returned the MC's voice to the Sixties soul vibe that first won him acclaim on Illmatic -- and which fans have been pining for him to revisit ever since. Soul Supreme tackled Stillmatic, changing its title to Soulmatic and dropping an avalanche of the breakbeat-on-45 RPM cuts pioneered by the RZA and popularized by Kanye West. Though not as substantive as God's Stepson, it was a great disc full of kinetic energy.

The same can't be said for MF Doom's attempt at remixing Nastradamus, which he called Nastradoomus: Instead of making all-new beats like his predecessors, he used old tracks overly familiar to Doom fans, in some cases not even bothering to properly sequence the a cappellas over his tracks. It was so poorly received, in fact, that MF Doom released a Nastradoomus Volume 2to make up for it.

Hiphopsite.com's Nas remix series caused a sensation, with God's Stepsoneventually reaching Jay-Z himself. While his group Little Brother fielded contract offers from several major labels, 9th Wonder was being considered to contribute a beat to Jay-Z's next album, one of the most sought-after assignments in the rap industry. After months of consideration -- it seemed that as recently as October (see "Fade to Black," November 6) 9th Wonder was far from a shoo-in -- the North Carolinian produced "Threat," one of the last songs completed for The Black Album.

Upon its release, Def Jam made it be known that a cappellas were available for the new Jay-Z album. It's not clear whether Jay-Z's management team at Roc-A-Fella actually encouraged all the remix CDs currently clogging the market and clamoring for a little bit of God's Stepson-style acclaim (of which The Brown Albumcomes closest). But they're just ripples in the pond, further proof that Jay-Z is the straw that stirs hip-hop's drink.

 
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