Arts & Culture

A Binational Solution

When a group that hasn’t achieved big mainstream success releases a compilation record, they’re usually trying to capitalize on a sense that their time has come. That makes the decision to lead off Carne Masada: Quite Possibly the Very Best … Read More

By / May 12, 2009

When a group that hasn’t achieved big mainstream success releases a compilation record, they’re usually trying to capitalize on a sense that their time has come. That makes the decision to lead off Carne Masada: Quite Possibly the Very Best of Hip Hop Hoodios with the brand-new track “Times Square (1989)” rather curious. Not because it’s lackluster – it’s one of the album’s highlights – but because it does a fine job of sounding like it’s from 1989. The fast breakbeat, forced through an echo chamber worthy of dub reggae master Lee “Scratch” Perry, recalls the heady days when artists like Public Enemy, De La Soul and KRS-One elevated hip-hop to the same cultural significance that rock music had enjoyed during the counterculture of the late 1960s. Clearly, Hip Hop Hoodios want listeners to hear them as direct descendants of this tradition, rather than the bling-bragging megastars that followed in its wake.

Unafraid of pushing buttons, the work of the pioneering musicians of the late 1980s showcased an oppositional political perspective rooted in the legacy of Third World Marxism and multicultural entrepreneurialism alike. As important as the music was as a tool for raising awareness about social issues, however, its biggest impact was aesthetic. It was as if all the highbrow discourse about postmodernism circulating through the art world had suddenly materialized in a form that didn’t require an advanced degree or a subscription to ArtForum to decipher. Indeed, the music was often so exciting that the very idea of deciphering it seemed absurd. People had been busy interpreting the world for so long that they’d forgotten how much fun it could be to change it.

Josué Noriega and Abraham VelézJosué Noriega and Abraham VelézBy using the latest computer technology to sample a vast range of sources and then collage them together into pieces of astonishing complexity that still rocked, these artists demonstrated that history could be a source of inspiration as well as dread. Sadly, though, the conditions that made that breakthrough possible were only to endure for a few years. As Benjamin Franzen and Kembrew McLeod demonstrate in their superb new documentary Copyright Criminals: This Is a Sampling Sport , musicians’ freedom to mine the past for material that can be “repurposed” in new work, while it had been a staple technique of gallery artists for decades, was severely curtailed by a series of lawsuits claiming copyright infringement. Unless contemporary hip-hop artists have enormous budgets to work with, as only someone of Kanye West’s stature can boast, they cannot afford to legally simulate the late-1980s aesthetic unless they can find a way to make many of the raw materials for collage from scratch.

And that’s precisely what Hip Hop Hoodios have managed to pull off over the course of their career. By marrying Latin and Jewish musical idioms, with the help of everyone from Ozomatli to The Klezmatics, the group has managed to conjure the multicultural fervor of Public Enemy – not to mention a good deal of their humor-inflected outrage – while still remaining topical. Although Hip Hop Hoodios were often portrayed as a novelty act early in their career, the seriousness they bring to progressive causes has helped them wriggle free of that straitjacket. The 2007 song “Viva La Guantanamera,” for example, effectively transposes the sort of music popularized in the film Buena Vista Social Club into a hip hop format, while also forcefully denouncing the American prison at Cuba’s Guantanamo Bay.

One of the five new tracks on Carne Masada, “Que Pasa in Israel (Checkpoint Culero)” does an even more impressive job of mixing music and politics. The song interrogates the Israeli government’s treatment of Palestinians, making efficient use of a serpentine melody suggesting the Middle East without sacrificing the Latin sabor that permeates most of the group’s best music. Hip Hop HoodiosHip Hop HoodiosBut what sets this number apart from most “conscious” hip hop is the sophistication of its critique. By opening with a dialogue in which a Mexican seeks entry into Israel, Hip Hop Hoodios encourage us to think hard about the relationship between the border checkpoints here in the States and those in Israel, both of which function as tools of a discrimination that is simultaneously economic and political.

More than anything, Carne Masada attests to the fact that the politicization of hip-hop culture was not a phase that could be outgrown as profits mounted, but a legacy that we should return to in the struggle to make popular music that both delights and instructs. For all the accusations of anti-Semitism that plagued the hip-hop scene in the late 1980s – some of them justified, some not – it provided a way for people with non-WASP backgrounds of every color and creed to preserve their collective heritage without becoming mired in nostalgia. Hip Hop Hoodios point the way forward without ever succumbing to the arrogant delusion that we can leave the past behind.