"We are not underground or commercial: We are hip-hop." So write the Arsonists in the liner notes to their full-length debut LP, As the World Burns. If that statement of purpose isn't clear enough, this Brooklyn-based, five-man crew breaks down its shtick even more clearly on the track "Underground Vandal," on which the band defines the main ingredients of hip-hop: DJing, MCing, breaking, and graffiti. It's an oft-repeated list these days, heard again and again on releases from America's emerging underground hip-hop labels like New York City's Rawkus, San Francisco's Bomb Hip-Hop, and the bicoastal Asphodel. The elements amount to a four-point plan to return hip-hop to its Bronx roots (where endless fun could be had with just a can of Krylon spray paint and a dismembered cardboard box), when it was still music done on the cheap with two turntables and a microphone.
And an early pair of tracks here certainly offers hope. "Shit Ain't Sweet" has a decent tag line and one of those eerie piano loops you've heard before, though it still works; "Pyromanix" offers a quirky, octave-defying groove and bratty rapping, lending it the same kind of off-kilter swing that makes Eminem's misanthropy endurable. Things start going downhill with the aforementioned "Underground Vandal" and a spate of tracks that are more history lessons than songs, filled with pastiches of older groups' signature sounds and a roll call of all the rappers the Arsonists are down with.
Things pick up again on later tracks: "Session" bounces with fingerboard-jumping, upright bass work; the poetry slam cadences of rapper D-Stroy on "D-Sturbed Words" and "Geembo's Theme" allow him to establish an identity in a way his crew members never permit elsewhere; and "Rhyme Time Travel" offers long-time Rock Steady Crew member Q-Unique a chance to offer the beat and lyrical styles that were fashionable in '79, '88, and '99. But the '99 era is ill-defined here via thin beats and Casio keys. When the record ends, you're left with the same empty feeling that makes nearly all revival acts so dispiriting: They have plenty to repeat but nothing new to say.
It's easy to figure out why a rapper would want to turn back the clock. In creating tracks that confuse sampling for songwriting, everyone from critically respected groups such as the Fugees to walking punch lines like Sean "Puffy" Combs have made the widely reviled populist rap entertainers MC Hammer and Vanilla Ice seem like the genre's bedrock. And by putting too much emphasis on brutal attitude and sonic violence (and not enough on providing beats that actually make people move), artists ranging from the Wu Tang Clan to Public Enemy have encouraged the notion that great producers needn't be concerned with the dance floor. Yet this is no excuse for puritanism, and the truly religious always realize you can't return to the Garden of Eden -- even if Eden in this case was a burnt-out, poverty-stricken borough. (Hmmm, perhaps this explains the rising sonic dominance and popularity of hook-filled, highly rhythmic acts from the American South such as Timbaland, Outkast, and Master P. They're not only far from hip-hop's source, they're in the Bible Belt.)
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Rap has spent the past two decades establishing itself as a dominant pop-music force, delivering endless singles that promised hooks and innovation. It would be unfortunate if the rap scene were to mature into the same kind of "cred" contest that has divided rock's audience and debased that music, delivering neurotic indie sounds to a retinue of knowing urbanites and college students, and lunk-headed beat metal to everyone else. No matter who the pyro, a self-satisfied underground is one muthafucka that shouldn't be allowed to burn.