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Rapping Down AIDS

cd cover

Hip-hop superstars collaborate with a purpose on 'American Is Dying Slowly'

By Nicky Baxter

"That's Eazy, knowhaI'msayin'? And I never woulda thought he woulda gone out like that. I woulda thought that he woulda got shot. Or went to pen forever. Or got caught up in some bullshit."
--Spice 1 on America Is Dying Slowly

Spurred in part by the shocking AIDS-related deaths of gat-rapper Eazy-E and X-Clan's Suga Shaft, America Is Dying Slowly (Elektra) marks the first hip-hop-ocentric album initiated by the Red Hot Organization, a fundraising consortium committed to AIDS awareness. Similar recording projects have involved rock, pop and jazz musicians.

Wu-Tang Clan, Common, Organized Konfusion and Pete Rock comprise just a fraction of the rap regiment enlisted for the cause. Of course, there's nothing like a catchy single to draw public attention to projects such as this one. Hence, "The Yearn," a "throw 'em up" sing-along featuring Rock with the Lost Boyz, is already a hit.

By definition, such compilations are uneven affairs, and this one is no different. Starting from the bottom up, Wu-Tang's "America" is a surprisingly lackluster entry. The RZA's banal production may be the culprit here; his meandering piano sound track doesn't take you anywhere. Nor do things get hiked up to the next level by the stiff-backed verbals. Could it be that the Clan is uncomfortable comin' with a message of responsible social and sexual behavior. Dealing with body-bagged brothas is one thing--showing love for all Africans is another matter.

MTV poster boy Coolio's "I Breaks 'Em Off" is an imminently irrelevant undertaking--negro narcissism at its lowest ebb. "Check Ya Self" is a dysfunctional family affair with Spice 1, Celly Cel, 187-Fac, Ant Banks and Gangsta P shooting off at the mouth--but shooting straight blanks, nonetheless. At least the ghetto hustlas Money Boss Players' "Games" comes with sumo-heavy beats and wicked flow.

At the other end of the spectrum are word-whirlers like Eightball and MJG. The tandem's "Listen to Me Now" is proof that hardcore rap needn't wallow in "niggativity" to be "real." Against a tight rhythmic backdrop coupling slinky neo-'70s bass, polar-cold keyboards and minimalist drumming, Eightball slides inside the virus, looking at the world from its perspective. The chorus--"I'm rollin' through your skin, cuttin' corners through your bones"--loses something in print translation, but on disc, that haunted vocal could turn Coolio's aerial hairdo limp with fear.

Common and Sean Lett's jazzy "(Lately) I've Been Thinking" raises the stakes considerably. Its optimism is heartfelt, though sans the treacly bleeding-heart liberalism of all-too-many "positive" hip-hop artists.

Before we seek closure here, it must be noted that there are no females in sight, an inexcusable oversight, since, for one thing, AIDS affects men and women both; boo to Elektra and Red Hot, too. This lack of inclusion leads to phallocentricism, disfiguring the album's point of view.

Evidently, in the minds of certain semiconscious artists representin' here, females are seen as the bearers of viral fruit. Someone needs to break these brothers of some misconceptions. Maybe with a few sistahs soldiering around the studio, that ill mentality could've been curbed (or at the least, the missives could've been set off in both directions).

This final note: according to the information on America Is Dying Slowly's dustjacket, "[W]orldwide, AIDS affects people of African descent more than any other group" and "75 percent of all HIV-positive people around the world became infected through heterosexual sex." You can only hope that at some point, the targeted audience will take time out to read those three vital statistic.

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