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Retro Rock to Be-hop

Methodology: Wu-Tang Clan's Method Man was only one of the hot hip-hop crew to record a solo hit in 1995.

Alternative rockers looked back in nostalgia while Wu-Tang Clan dominated the hip-hop nation in 1995

By Nicky Baxter

R & R ruled in 1995. As in reaction and retrenchment. It was a year in which popular media, especially TV, overshadowed all else: The ABC miniseries on the Beatles was bigger than Jesus (although not as big as O.J.).

Witnessing Paul, George and Ringo offer conflicting opinions on the Beatles made us realize that rock history is far from monolithic. In a way, the Beatles retrospective was in perfect keeping with the times, characterized by the continuing retreat on social and political matters. With little to look forward to, pop music, most notably alternative-indie bands, waxed nostalgia, giving new meaning to the term retro rock.

In the forefront of this retrenchment was, significantly, ex-Nirvana skin basher Dave Grohl's Foo Fighters (Roswell/Capital). Brimming with tuneful, punchy melodies, buzz-saw guitar (courtesy of Grohl) and Dave's earnest, Cobain-like caterwauling, the album careens amiably from the Beatles pop of "I'll Stick Around" to the near-anthemic ecstasy of "This Is a Call." Indeed, Foo Fighters was a pleasant surprise for fans uncertain if Cobain's rhythm mate's return to the fray wouldn't tarnish the legacy of the band that broke punk.

Pearl Jam, once the scourge of punk-purists, emerged, paradoxically, as standard-bearers of socially responsible rock raging against the machine onstage and off. Between well-publicized bouts with TicketMaster, the band managed to record the angsty, visceral Vitalogy (Epic), as well as collaborate with the grand old man of grunge Neil Young on his deceptively offhanded gem Mirror Ball (Reprise).

On the former, Eddie Vedder and company struggle to make themselves heard above the din raised by demons just out of reach. You can hear the frustration in Vedder's desperate howl and in Mike McCready's scabrous guitar. Given Pearl Jam's unwavering devotion to the ideals of the '60s, and their uncommon gifts for updating hard rock, hooking up with Young was an inevitability.

Shucking Crazy Horse's no-holds barred bashing for the Seattle unit's relatively more polished approach, Young disinters the Age of Aquarius with the humor and compassion of someone who's been there and done that. Better than most, Neil knows that he can't go back--rust, after all, never sleeps--yet courageous enough to admit a certain longing, his Mirror Ball is both reflective and stubbornly contemporary. Even in a subsidiary role, Pearl Jam adds subtle, sinewy muscle to the proceedings, youthful yin to Young's cranky garage-noise yang.

If the time-warped roar of Green Day and Rancid revealed a mule-headed refusal to face the future, across the Atlantic, bands like Blur and Oasis plundered the past with typical English wit and school-boy insouciance. The two bands took their battle for Brit-pop supremacy to the press, each slagging off the other with cheeky impertinence.

The contention heated up with the release of Blur's The Great Escape (Virgin) and Oasis's (What's the Story) Morning Glory? (Epic). Both groups raided British Invasion's first- and second-wave heroes like pop pirates. Blur's rough-and-ready pulse retools the Stones and Small Faces, while Oasis unabashedly cribs from the Beatles.

Meanwhile, hip-hop lurched forward, even as gangsta continued to revel in expressing socially retarded sentiments, refining and updating its formula of massive beats, aggro-machismo and lyrical dexterity.

No doubt, it was the year of the Wu-Tang Clan, Brooklyn's sonic samurais. When Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) debuted a while back, no one knew quite what to make of them.

Featuring a rhyme-freaking front equally capable of rockin' the spot with wildly distinctive styles, the Clan clicked like an Instamatic with fans fiending for something other than the same old same old.

And if there was any doubt that this was the most talented crew to emerge since N.W.A., the notion was squashed when various members released solo joints. Of these, Method Man's Tical (Def Jam) kicked up the most dust. Meth's bomb was succeeded in short order by Old Dirty Bastard's Return to the 36 Chambers: The Dirty Version (Elektra) and Raekwon the Chef's Only Built 4 Cuban Linx ... (Loud/RCA).

Tical evokes the feeling you get walking in certain inner-city neighborhoods on moonless nights. It's predator or prey here--no in-between shit. Peer over your shoulder, and out of nowhere a hooded figure swathed in black is up on you.

Shaking like jelly and scared witless, you open your mouth, but nothing comes out. No one would hear you anyway; not on these shell-shocked, deserted streets. And then: Blam! Blam! Blam! 36 chambers to the cranium.

If Tical's methodology is organized around unremitting menace, OBD's Return is downright scary though tinged with a dark humor from the bizarre side. The first thing you notice is his verbal style; he sounds like a cross between an emphatically unfriendly Caspar the ghost and a serial killer on the lam. Clan chief RZA's signature beats wrap around ODB like a much-needed straitjacket; doomsday piano, insinuating bass lines and creepy sound effects all serve to heighten the mock-horror raps.

For Cuban Linx ... , the RZA deploys similar effects--creep show violins, drop-dead drums--but the aural painting is more expansive, even cinematic. With help from Clan member Ghostface Killa, Raekwon comes up with a one-two punch that cold-cocked the hip-hop nation. Cuban Linx ... , turns gangsta rap into an art form; on this dank sonic tour of thug-town, U.S.A., Raekwon and the Wu rhyme syndicate prove crime does pay.

While Wu-Tang ruled the roost in '95, other rappers challenged their reign. Literally the largest of these would-be kingpins was Notorious B.I.G. His platinum-selling debut album, Ready to Die (Bad Boy) dropped in mid-'94 but continued to sell well into the current year. The B.I.G.'s pimp-hop may not have broken any new ground, but his Barry White-cum-B-boy innuendoes sparked sexual feeling in honeys and mello-fellows from the Left Coast to Long Island.

Me Against the World was an apt summation of jailed Tupac Shakur's problems: paranoia and wreckless aggression conflicting with remorse, mother-love and candid self-examination. In addition to its hooky chorus, the platinum-selling "Dear Mama" was a soliloquy so intimate that listening to it felt like you were eavesdropping on a wayward son's private confessions.

The Roots' Do You Want More?!!!??! (DGC) was proof that mating jazz and hip-hop was much more than an avant-garde notion clinging to pop's periphery. The sound is organic; this is a real band in which the musical skills of drummer B.R.O.THER.? are as important as Black Thought's verse-signifying.

Though "Proceed," the album's first single, didn't claim platinum (or even gold), rest assured that scores of heads were bobbing to its Rhodes piano-dominated patter. Philly-blunted but together, the Roots may nod in the direction of the Digable Planets, but they've created their own cool world and dubbed it be-hop--a fly example of how fascination with the past doesn't have to derail the future.

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From the Dec. 28, 1995-Jan. 3, 1996 issue of Metro

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