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Masked Man: MF Doom takes the tops in aught four.

Gift Rap

Hip-hop's best of 2004

By Gabe Meline

The venue was lame and the cover charge was high, but deciding at the last minute to check out Souls of Mischief in Santa Rosa a couple weeks ago meant being able to witness a profoundly hilarious moment in hip-hop debauchery.

At 2am, after a solid set by Souls of Mischief, the DJ finally kicked into the group's perennial favorite, "'93 'Til Infinity." The crowd went nuts, but rapper Opio missed his leadoff cue--he was too busy pouring Hennessy down the throats of the already drunk front row. On the side of the stage, people were bumping and grinding, and after a while, someone bumped the DJ stand, sending turntable cases crashing to the ground. The club hit the lights; the show was over.

My love affair with hip-hop had hit a similar train wreck these last few years, but it wasn't nearly as funny. Trying to seek out albums that stand the test of time is depressing in a genre obsessed with disposability, so it was a pleasure to find my faith rejuvenated this year.

There were a handful of excellent hip-hop albums released in 2004, but my hands-down favorite--at the pulpit of the revival meeting, so to speak--comes courtesy of a heavyweight from Atlanta who wears a menacing metal mask.

MF Doom is his name, and rapper/producer Madlib is his mischievous beat conductor on the deliciously left-of-center disc Madvillainy (Stones Throw). Under various aliases, Madlib has imitated, sampled, remixed and copied innumerable artists from Joe Higgs to Weather Report. On Madvillainy, he finally lets his own production personality shine, his beats tripping off themselves in a mutilated, schizophrenic way.

Add the no-holds-barred outsider rhymes of MF Doom, and the resulting Madvillainy is a deranged hip-hop masterpiece. Doom generally criss-crosses through random subject matter, as though he just stepped off a long Greyhound bus ride. He's got the Godfather delivery--the gruff, mouth-stuffed-with-marshmallows thing--making his antiquated references to Jack La Lanne and the Hucklebuck all the more bizarre, and making Madvillainy a year-end winner.

Lately, my walls have rattled to Haiku d'Etat's Coup de Theatre (Red Urban Records), a clever blend of jazz, poetry and soul from Abstract Rude and former Freestyle Fellowship artists Aceyalone and Mikah 9. Having honed their microphone chops in the mid-'90s and staying in the game under various recording projects (Aceyalone's 2003 Love and Hate being a particular standout), the three MCs have pushed themselves to a new apex. Check out the percussive stuttering of the first track, "Mike, Aaron and Eddie," or the clever slew of feline references on "Kats," a song that flirts with gimmick while still staying fresh.

It was a politically charged year, though most of hip-hop didn't notice, except, of course, Immortal Technique's Revolutionary 2, whose disc comes with a foldout booklet depicting a quintuple murder in the Oval Office. (You can probably guess who catches bullets.) Revolutionary 2 (Nature Sounds) delivers straight rage from what's shaping up to be a bottomless supply in this country. The same issues once fueled New York's political duo Dead Prez, who shifted their world focus to street clichés for their aptly titled sophomore album RBG: Revolutionary but Gangsta (Sony).

In 1997 Lyrics Born and Lateef turned heads with the phenomenal Latyrx album. The spotlight has since followed Lyrics Born, but my bets were always on Lateef's hard-hitting, dazzling style, and his collaboration with Chief Xcel on Maroons: Ambush ups the ante even further. Lateef manages social consciousness without a whiff of Franti-esque self-importance; he's having fun knowing that he's blowing your mind, and he even gives a shout out to Oprah.

The Roots made yet another slick, overproduced album, The Tipping Point, further wasting the valuable distinction they earned as one of the most dynamic live hip-hop acts ever. The Roots' legacy will be having pioneered the practice of performing hip-hop on actual instruments, but the glory of their wake is up for grabs.

At least two contenders have made solid sonic movement toward the prize. San Francisco's Crown City Rockers have obviously done their homework with Earthtones (Basement Records), an organic filet of drums, bass, keyboards and doses of inspired improvisation. It's no wonder that the band met at Boston's Berklee College of Music.

Meanwhile, over in Minnesota, Heiruspecs can sometimes be found backing up their Minneapolis neighbors, Ant and Slug of Atmosphere. On their stellar debut, A Tiger Dancing (Razor & Tie), MC Felix even evokes rapper Slug with a pleading, personal flow, and the rest of the band provide a tight backing.

When you're sick of words, it's time for an instrumental album. My pick this year is RJD2's Since We Last Spoke (Definitive Jux), which packs the sonic spaces otherwise reserved for lyrics with a rich weave of laid-back beats and vibrant riffs. Some people complain that it's not really hip-hop. At a recent San Francisco show, he strummed an acoustic guitar and sang a love song; he's even cited Elliott Smith and Tears for Fears as influences. This is good; variety is the spice of Since We Last Spoke.

A Tribe Called Quest was the year's biggest reunion, appearing onstage together for the first time in seven years. There's no definitive way to gauge the gravity of this event, other than perhaps by the guest appearance of fashion model Mos Def, the culprit of this year's inexcusably disappointing album The New Danger. Ugh! Cleanse your palate with Tribe's Low End Theory (Jive)--and keep your eyes peeled as more tour dates are rumored to be added next year.

Though not bearing a very catchy title, the impressively thorough Anticon Label Sampler 1999-2004 brings you 23 tracks of psychedelic art-rock hip-hop from the explosively creative minds and monikers of the Bay Area's Dose One, Jel, Sage Francis, Sole, Odd Nosdam, Alias, Why? and more. It's only seven bucks, so if you've got a tenner in your pocket, you'll have enough left over for a hit of acid.

Another label-oriented package worth seeking out is Stones Throw 101, a combination CD and DVD. Label head Peanut Butter Wolf adroitly mixes a smorgasbord of Stones Throw's first hundred releases, but the DVD is the winning half here. Hip-hop videos featuring puppets! Free jazz performances from the late '60s! Animated characters who can't really sing all that well! On Stones Throw 101, pretty much anything goes, and though it may not always stick to the wall, it's nice to know that someone's throwing it out there.

So break out the Hennessy--it's almost a new year. Here's to 2005, and to more wild creativity, more risk-taking and more trailblazing individuality in hip-hop.

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From the December 15-21, 2004 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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