Doing it their way, the Brand New Heavies inject live music into rap

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Grand Puba probably puts it best. Speaking over a loping funk groove at the end of the Brand New Heavies' "Who Makes the Loot?", the rapper announces that "This is how we gonna move it for the '90s.

"Check it out," he says. "This ain't no loop -- this is the real-live, funky, get-down on the get-down. . . . The bass player's real, and the drummer's real. . . . Everything is live, you know what I'm sayin'?"

Maybe you don't. For the majority of pop musicians, recording with a live rhythm section is the norm -- nothing to boast about. But in the rap world, where backing tracks are concocted from samples, scratches and other prerecorded sound sources, the notion of using an actual band verges on the revolutionary.

That's why the Brand New Heavies' "Heavy Rhyme Experience: Vol. 1" (Delicious Vinyl 92178) is likely to become one of the season's most talked-about rap albums. Because this, as far as a lot of young rappers are concerned, is the way to the future: Fresh beats. Deep grooves. Live funk.

Most rap recordings these days rely on "looping" -- that is, generating a repetitious rhythm bed by creating an infinite "loop" with a sequencer or reel of tape. It's a great way to get a groove going, since there's no chance the band will tire and nobody ever drops a beat, but it also locks the rappers into a preprogrammed pulse that makes interplay and improvisation almost impossible. That's why so many rap artists see working with humans as the wave of the future.

Of course, the funny thing about this vision of tomorrow is that it looks an awful lot like rap's past. As any old-school hip-hop fan can attest, the early rap singles were all made with live musicians. In fact, Sugar Hill records -- the pioneering rap label that was home to the Sugar Hill Gang, the Furious Five, Sequence and others -- owed much of its success to its house rhythm section, a combo whose members included bassist Doug Wimbish (now with Living Colour), drummer Keith LeBlanc and guitarist Skip McDonald.

"Heavy Rhyme Experience" springs directly from that Sugar Hill tradition. Here, the Heavies are stripped to basics -- just guitar (Simon Bartholomew), bass (Andrew Levy) and drums (Jan Kincaid). With singer N'Dea Davenport on hiatus, the vocals are supplied by a string of guest rappers, including Grand Puba (formerly of Brand Nubian), Gang Starr, Main Source, Black Sheep, Ed O.G., Kool G. Rap and dance-hall star Jamalski.

Thanks to its constantly shifting cast, "Heavy Rhyme Experience" even manages to capture the grab-bag feel of an old Sugar Hill singles compilation. Stylistically, the music is all over the map: "Bonafied Funk," with Black Sheep, boasts the brassy, bass-driven swagger of a JB's jam; "Death Threat," with Kool G. Rap, has the jazzy sophistication of an early Kool & the Gang instrumental; while "Whatgabouthat," with Tiger, is fitted out with a tightly coiled beat and jabbing horn lines that could as easily have fallen off an old Earth Wind & Fire album.

Such soul classicism is typical of the Brand New Heavies, whose self-titled debut was a full-blown homage to '70s funk, but it suits the rappers just as well. Grand Puba's cadences, for example, fit perfectly with the Stax-style shuffle the Heavies provide for "Who Makes the Loot?", while the Pharcyde's "Soul Flower" not only parodies the James Brown oldie "Soul Power," but even makes a bizarre allusion to the Parliament chestnut "Up for the Down Stroke."

("Soul Flower" is a '70s throwback in yet another sense, since the botanical wonder referred to in the title is marijuana. Indeed, the rhymes here simply reek of reefer smoke, from the spliff passed by the Black Sheep in "State of Yo" to the blunt -- rap slang for a marijuana cigarette -- smoked by Gang Starr in "It's Gettin' Hectic." No Bill Clintons in this bunch, apparently.)

Where the Heavies most clearly break ranks with tradition is in their insistence on original rhythm beds. Many of the Sugar Hill hits, remember, were built on borrowed riffs, from the "Good Times" groove of "Rapper's Delight" to the bassline copped from Liquid Liquid's "Cavern" that drove Melle Mel's "White Lines (Don't Do It)." As Delicious Vinyl's Matt Dike has suggested, the Sugar Hill approach was really just a form of "live sampling."

But the Heavies go their own way, and consequently come up with what ought to be a more enduring product. A lot of that has to do with the way the music flows, following the lead of the rappers instead of the other way around. That's part of the reason Kool G. Rap's verbal violence in "Death Threat" seems so dramatic, and also why Masta Ace's stick-to-your-art message in "Wake Me When I'm Dead" comes across so convincingly.

Even better, by relying on their originality, the Heavies end up forcing some of the rappers onto new turf. That's particularly the case with the dance-hall artists included here. Neither Tiger's "Whatgabouthat" nor Jamalski's "Jump n' Move" make any attempt to approximate a Jamaican groove, and what results is bracingly original, as Tiger's semi-sung rhyme style seems to turbo-charge the band's stop-and-go rhythm patterns, while Jamalski's motor-mouth delivery adds a secondary level of syncopation to the Heavies' fluid funk.

Still, it's hard not to wonder whether this "Heavy Rhyme Experience" really does offer a workable model for rap's future. Why? Because as good as the Brand New Heavies are, the fact is that they're a band -- and most of the great R&B; rhythm sections weren't.

That's not to say they didn't try to maintain a musical existence of their own. Everyone knows that, in addition to backing everyone from Otis Redding to Albert King, Booker T. & the MG's also had numerous hits of their own. Likewise, the studio stalwarts at Motown used to play Detroit nightclubs as the Funk Brothers, the JB's played and recorded without James Brown, the Philly International house band also made up the bulk of MFSB, and even the Hi Rhythm players cut a couple of singles of their own.

Apart from Booker T. & the MG's, though, most of the above-mentioned rhythm sections did their most enduring work in anonymity. Many, in fact, were simply adjuncts to certain studios or producers, like the Muscle Shoals crew who backed Aretha Franklin on "Respect" or the Philly soul stalwarts who helped Thom Bell push the Spinners up the pop charts.

But that environment is all but gone now. Instead, what we're left with are a lot of sampler-and-sequencer producers like Teddy Riley, Jam and Lewis, L.A. and Babyface, and the Bomb Squad. And because these self-contained units have been able to make hits without a band, it seems all too likely that rap's use of live rhythm sections will remain nothing more than a novelty.

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