Can hip-hop sing the blues?

With the help of Atlanta producers, blues label Fat Possum broaches a black music taboo with New Beats From the Delta

We've always made blues, says Organized Noize's Ray Murray, speaking from his office on Auburn Avenue.
It's a somewhat audacious claim coming from Murray, one-third of the acclaimed local hip-hop production team that has created tracks for TLC, OutKast and Goodie Mob, among others. Murray, though, is in the midst of explaining his work on the recently released CD, New Beats From the Delta, a compilation featuring hip-hop remixes by Organized Noize, fellow Atlantans Big Oomp Records and others. The album's 12 tracks rework blues songs taken from the catalog of Fat Possum Records, the Oxford, Miss., based home to some of the most vital traditional blues still trickling down from that state's northern hill country.
"Hip-hop is the last music of the 20th century," Murray explains, "it's the amalgamation of everything. And now it's splintering. Eventually even hip-hop is going to get back to a point where it's going to be just somebody beating on a table and saying whatever they feel. And that's blues."
Undeniably, hip-hop is an amalgamation, in that it generally relies on a collage of secondary sources for its musical backing. Over the past two decades, just about any recorded hook or groove that could be refitted to a steady dance beat has been appropriated into the genre. But while the funk of James Brown and George Clinton have long been primary resources for sampling, and at various points jazz licks have enjoyed a vogue among rap progressives, the blues has rarely been mined for its looping potential. Strange, given hip-hop's stature as a global youth expression adopted and adapted from Japan to Ireland, that it has rarely returned to what could be called its most primary root.
Stranger still, given the shared community and subject matter between certain strains of blues and hip-hop: Hard living, street life, dissatisfaction and the problems that arise from it. "Blues and rap have a lot in common," Big Oomp producer Freddy B acknowledges. "Rap is from the street and talks about what's going on, and back then when blues was popular people were expressing themselves just like we do now."
It's difficult to pinpoint why the blues have been largely detached from black music currents, though both cultural and musical issues are likely factors. Still, the lack of "hip-hop blues" exploration makes the appearance of New Beats From the Delta something of an anomaly, and might even suggest hip-hop is on the verge of discovering its ancestor.
Until now, modern appropriations of the blues primarily have been centered around white-oriented music. Most famously, its adaptation by rock acts such as the Rolling Stones and Eric Clapton served to translate the blues to a middle-class white audience. In fact, white baby boomers continue to make up the bulk of the blues' current fanbase, something which may in itself serve to alienate young blacks from the music.
Eric King, owner of local blues club Blind Willie's, acknowledges the blues' shift in demographics in recent decades. "It's real apparent in our audience in the club, it's 75 to 95 percent white on any particular night," he says.
King also points to the possible perception of the blues evoking the Jim Crow era as a factor in why it might repulse modern-day African-Americans in a way that jazz — viewed as a more elegant, classical music, associated with the Civil Rights era — doesn't.
"Think about it," he says. "A lot of these folks might say, 'Oh, that's that old cotton field music that my grandmother used to listen to.' Jazz has a much more intellectual, progressive element listening to it, appreciating it and digging it."
Fat Possum founder Matthew Johnson knows well the perceptions about the blues and works to overcome them with his releases. "I think a lot of kids see the blues guys accepting the way things were," he says. "It's hard to keep in mind that that was an era when you could get lynched for stepping out. And it wasn't at all about acceptance — some of these guys were pretty radical — they were the type of bad-asses that some of these rappers today try to hype themselves as."
In recent years, Fat Possum's flagship artist, R.L. Burnside, has enjoyed some indie-rock notoriety both on tour and on record (1996's A Ass Pocket of Whiskey) by pairing with the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, a postmodern punk-blues trio. But while Fat Possum's idea of blues crossover registers far higher up the hipness scale than, say, Dan Ackroyd's version of the music — or Eric Clapton's, for that matter — none of it elicits much reaction from the descendants of the genre's inventors.
Professor Joe Jennings, coordinator of jazz studies at Spelman College, acknowledges that blues has in the past had an image problem in the African-American community, but doesn't think that's a strong factor at this point. "I don't think there's a stigma anymore, a majority of us just don't listen to it," he says. "At one time, there was a kind of a misunderstanding. I've had students who took it almost as an insult when we were talking about the blues. Many people believe the blues is a sad music, not realizing it was a music used to exorcise the demons, designed to uplift the people."
Even Fat Possum's first attempt at marketing its catalog to younger, forward-looking audiences — 1998's Come On In, which featured Burnside remixes — bypassed hip-hop for a whiter electronic rock sound, care of Tom Rothrock, producer of Beck and Foo Fighters. And while Come On In was a success by the standards of the tiny Fat Possum (which is distributed by punk label Epitaph), the following year techno artist Moby employed a similar idea — marrying blues samples to modern-dance beats — and scored a major mainstream commercial and critical hit with his album Play.
Encouraged by these "beats 'n' blues" hybrids, Johnson first conceived of getting hip-hop producers in on the game. Come On In, he says, "worked pretty well, though Moby seemed to be really poised to tap into it better than we did. But it encouraged me to take this challenge."
While he's no hip-hop fanatic, Johnson couldn't help notice that in recent years the East Coast/West Coast hype of the mid-'90s had given way to a dominance of Southern rap acts, from Master P and Cash Money in New Orleans to OutKast and Jermaine Dupri in Atlanta. From there, he drew a regional connection back to the blues.
"It seemed that people were sampling everything, like Spanish guitar and a lot of stuff that wasn't nearly as strong or as heavy or as deep, or that people could related to as much as blues. There's a lot of stuff that's closer to home that people could connect to easier, that would have a lot more meaning."
To get New Beats underway, Johnson approached a number of hip-hop producers. Among them were the New Orleans crews, "but they were flying so high." He eventually arrived at four production teams that were inspired enough by the idea of the project to work for less than they might make on a large-budget major-label job. In addition to Organized Noize and the Big Oomp, New York-based Nas producer John Shriver and a little-known Memphis crew, the Go Gittas Camp, contributed to the CD.
"We had to get people who wanted to do it because they wanted to do it," Johnson says. "Ray [Murray of Organized Noize] was cool to work with. He was like, 'Don't get me wrong, I like the money, but that's not what it's all about.'"
Says Murray, "I found that the artists on [Fat Possum] were the real thing, 60 years old and playing for generations, and from the Deep South. It was just the real shit. It was easy for us to be involved because it was authentic."
After providing the producers with CDs from the Fat Possum catalog, Johnson and his partner Bruce Watson gave them free reign to come up with whatever they wanted. Fixing upon tracks by veteran bluesmen Johnny Farmer, Junior Kimbrough, T-Model Ford, Cedell Davis and Asie Payton, some of the results on New Beats From the Delta simply loop a single blues line to use as the hook of an otherwise straight rap song; other tracks attempt more complex integrations and retain large parts of the original music and vocals. Styles span from the Dirty South street sounds of the Go Gittas and Big Oomp to the more sophisticated arrangements of Organized Noize, to Shriver's more mannered, pop-oriented styles.
The degree to which New Beats is successful depends to some extent on the listener's perspective. While eclectic-minded hip-hop fans will find a lot that's fresh and exciting in many of the tracks, those who would be put off by the profanity of street hip-hop or believe that the integrity of the blues relies on its purity might find themselves disgusted by the CD.
"I'm not a big fan of what Fat Possum has been doing with traditional blues artists, they've remixed some stuff that I think is an abomination," Blind Willie's Eric King says in reference to Burnsides' Come On In. King, however, welcomes any means of raising exposure and income for blues artists who've lived most of their lives near poverty.
Johnson scoffs at the idea that blues is too sacred to be messed with. "It's always got to be changing or it's not good," he says. "It can't be something that becomes right or wrong. That's the problem with the blues, it's sort of trapped by society, academics, all that stuff. That's not good for anything, except maybe 'Antiques Road Show.'"
Professor Jennings is optimistic that the hip-hop generation will finally rediscover the blues after decades of it being relegated to scorn and caricature in segments of the African-American community, and possibly re-establish the link that connects all styles of black music.
"Maybe, they're just getting to the blues," he says of hip-hoppers. "Jazz may have reached them sooner. They sampled jazz, they sampled a lot of funk, so now they're getting to the blues, and trying to understand how they can use that music to enhance whatever their products are."
Similarly, Organized Noize's Murray chalks it up simply to exposure. Hip-hop kids, he says, "just haven't really had a taste of it. But blues is primal, that's why it's going to always be here and you're going to always come back to it. Everything else is wall covering. Blues is the fucking frame of the house. It's the wood that gives it depth."
Mississippi bluesman T-Model Ford, whose music gets four reworkings on New Beats, couldn't agree more. "These hip-hop songs, I don't care nothing about them," he says. "Because the blues will be here as long there's a world, and I like it. The blues been here since there's been a world. ... And I like it."
New Beats From the Delta is out now on Fat Possum Records. See www.fatpossum.com for more information.