Unlike blues, jazz, R&B and soul, hip-hop has proved a stubbornly tough genre to incorporate into other song forms. Though the movement has been more or less in the mainstream for more than 25 years now, and a whole generation of musicians spanning every point of the racial spectrum has been immersed in it from birth, most white musicians have yet to come to terms with the music with any kind of proficiency. Hell, most black musicians from genres beyond hip-hop have whiffed at incorporating it into R&B and soul.
Think about it. Most rap-rock fusions are very bad and have always been so. The Run-DMC/Aerosmith collabo "Walk This Way" robbed Aerosmith of what little subtlety balanced its bluster and cheated Run-DMC of its rhythmic flow. The musically and lyrically moronic "Fight for Your Right" was easily the worst track on the Beastie Boys' otherwise excellent Licensed to Ill. Anthrax's squalling guitars added absolutely nothing to Public Enemy's "Bring the Noise." Ice-T's career went in the tank the second he formed the monstrosity that was Body Count. And the less said about nü-metal, the better.
One of the few who has taken a different, subtler and infinitely smarter approach to melding hip-hop with other sounds is Citizen Cope. At his best, some of the songs on his latest record, The Clarence Greenwood Recordings, fuse the best of hip-hop -- clever beats, great wordplay, important lyrical content -- and the best of rock, soul, funk and reggae into a seamless whole. This ain't no crude, Frankenstein's monster stuff, all shredding guitars and slammin' beats -- the crap that makes you dread reading the words "hip-hop-influenced rock."
"That's the big misconception," Cope says. "When people from R&B and rock want to put hip-hop into something, they think it's all about the big beat. But people related to Tupac because he was an honest poet. People felt what he said, they identified with him, his heart. It wasn't just that the beat was bangin'.
"These nü-metal cats and these certain people -- even in pop today -- just want to throw a fuckin' beat behind somethin' so they can call it hip-hop. I identified with the lyrics and the heartfelt emotion of hip-hop as well as the energy of it, and hopefully you can tuck some of that energy into what you do. I think I saw somethin' differently. It wasn't just, 'Oh, let me grab a beat and throw some hard metal guitars behind it.' That stuff is like The Fly in some ways. You ever see that movie, The Fly, where they combine two things and it just doesn't work?"
Citizen Cope -- Clarence Copeland Greenwood to his mama -- may have been born in Memphis and partially raised in North Texas, but his drawl is pure East Coast slacker hip-hop guy. That makes sense: The bearded, hair-bunned twentysomething artist spent most of his youth in D.C. and first entered the national limelight as the turntablist and sole white member of the influential hip-hop group Basehead.
His training as a DJ shows in the music. Cope not only wrote all the songs and lyrics on The Clarence Greenwood Recordings, but also played several instruments and produced the album. Cope's half-rapping, half-singing delivery is laconic to the point of being mush-mouthed -- though not distractingly so -- and we guess you could say his approach to lyric-writing is too, as his themes tend toward the sweepingly general.
But it's the music that draws you in, albeit slowly. While there's little that jumps off this record and grabs you, its rhythms, grooves and healthy appreciation for subtle variations on themes do sneak up and kick your ass. The album closer, "Deep," sounds like filler, and there's an occasional heavy hand on the keyboards, but these drawbacks are balanced out by the pleasantly repetitive piano- and conga-driven "Hurricane Waters," a little reminiscent of 1970s Steely Dan; "Bullet and a Target," the most hip-hop-like tune on the record; and the gently psychedelic, backward-guitar-driven "My Way Home."
For the first time, Cope is pleased with the finished project from beginning to end. "I enjoy the whole album, which is rare for me, 'cause I've made a couple of records, and there's always something that bothers me," he explains. "Tonality I kinda cringe on...stuff like that. Plus I did a lot of the mixing and a lot of listening on this record, and I was just able to enjoy it. It's one of those things I look at as a whole piece."
Others have been less pleased -- it's hard to find a record that has gotten reviews more mixed than those of The Clarence Greenwood Recordings. Amazon.com and NPR had it pegged among the year's best, while the usually generous All Music Guide gave him a mere one and a half stars, one of the lowest reviews we've ever seen on the site.
Cope believes that, much like most rockers, far too few of today's music critics get hip-hop. "I'm not hip-hop, but I am influenced by it, and I don't have a problem trying to understand where some of the heartfelt elements of that genre were," he says. "I got it differently. Some people look at the colors of people's skin too much. This is music: It's supposed to change those barriers that aren't really supposed to exist in music. And I'm not really an entertainer, so I don't think people should jump on me like that, especially because I'm pretty much an underground artist. People can dis me, do whatever they want, but it's not like I'm the Backstreet Boys or something."