It’s official: Akon’s single “Smack That” is overplayed. Don’t let fraternity guys, socially anxious underclassmen or the Scorekeeper’s DJ tell you any differently. The beat sounds too much like Usher’s 2004 hit “Yeah!” to be original, and Eminem’s mailed-in verse only speeds his tailspin from the bright, creative center of hip-hop royalty to shallow, royalties-centered hip hop. His is the most disappointing career devolution in music. And on top of that, Akon can’t even craft a new word for ass – at least Mystikal had the bravado to tell us what to shake. But there’s always a place for songs like “Smack That” in the college partyscape.
Just like the red cups and kegs of Natty Light, fun-loving students need to recognize songs like “Smack That” for what they are: addictions. Sure, it wasn’t so bad at first. Who can forget the rush and the ecstasy of the first time you heard Lil’ John scream “WHAT!”? The crowds couldn’t get enough and before long, the mainstream craved more. How else can Unk’s career be explained?
Soon, Akon, Unk and others will be forgotten – and deservedly so. Not all forgotten party-rappers warrant such a fate. The Pharcyde, an early-’90s poor-man’s A Tribe Called Quest, are the most consistently overlooked and undervalued contributors to hip hop. A feel-good, tongue-in-cheek group, Slim Kid, Imani, Bootie Brown and Fatlip were the alternative to West Coast gangsta rap. Never much of a commercial success, they represent what should be in hip hop today. Their career was a tragic tale mired by crack addiction, commercial failure and a considerable lack of gats. Their biggest hit, “Passing Me By,” was the opposite of Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg’s party-friendly misogyny. The group masquerades as thumb-twiddling nervous teenagers, petrified by their dream girls. The lyrics lament like a pro.
Their other hit, the smooth “Runnin,’ ” reluctantly embraces the tough-guy image in the chorus (“Can’t keep runnin’ away”) and Bootie Brown’s moan: “My pappy never told me / how to knock a nigga out.” Every good stoner will (should) recognize the hazy “Pack the Pipe,” the feature track on Dave Chappelle’s “Half Baked” soundtrack. And their record industry critique “Somethin’ That Means Somethin’ ” should be required listening for this generation. Sadly, coy rappers and reluctant ghetto heroes (regardless of THC intake) didn’t fare well. Still, their midtempo style and sense of humor make the group’s album Bizarre Ride II The Pharcyde an undeniable classic. The Pharcyde is California attitude with enough gusto to power the party into the deep night.
Thankfully, The Pharcyde is not lost. Bootie Brown’s appearance on the Gorillaz’s Demon Days shines. Regretfully, a reformed duo limps on, a musical amputee.
To be fair, there are certainly bright spots in today’s hip hop. Ghostface’s Fishscale and The Clipse’s Hell Hath No Fury were the best albums of 2006. Old-school roots are celebrated and resurrected in the likes of the OkayPlayers troupe, Canadian-born K-os, DJ Shadow, RJD2 and the community-college version of Common, Lupe Fiasco.
The mainstream brand of vapid, hyper-produced hip hop continues to dominate. While most public playing of old-school hip hop is reserved for theme parties – and even then, usually limited to Sir Mix-A-Lot and “Nuthin’ but a G Thang” – the The Pharcyde and other forgotten gems go unheard, scripts unflipped. How to rescue parties and eardrums nationwide? An immediate ceasefire of assaulting beats is needed, and as Akon says, “just kick it like Tae Bo.”