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1999 on the pop beat

Better later than never, hip-hop jams its way into our nation's frontal lobe.

By GINA VIVINETTO, Times Pop Music Critic

© St. Petersburg Times, published December 24, 1999

music noteThe best thing about pop music in 1999? It started 20 years ago: hip-hop. Though we didn't call it hip-hop in early January 1979, when the Sugarhill Gang burst on the radio with the fabulous Rapper's Delight, a song that lifted a funky bass line from Chic and wryly commented on pop culture. Though the clever rap delivered by Master Gee, Wonder Mike and Big Bank Hank wasn't actually written by the Gang, it introduced to the world an exciting new musical genre, already burgeoning in urban settings.

So, it makes sense that we kicked off '99 celebrating the anniversary of hip-hop. Like jazz, it began as a signature American sound. In early 1999, mainstream magazines like Time and Newsweek gave a nod to hip-hop on their covers and wrestled to define the music's history and significance inside their pages.

And my, what a history. Hi- hop has morphed from a grass-roots "ghetto phenomenon" to a sophisticated and savvy -- not to mention multimillion-dollar -- international force.

In 20 years hip-hop has proven it is more than a passing fad. It is perhaps the most significant and innovative cultural force since rock 'n' roll's beginnings in the 1950s. Think about it. Who commands some of the biggest paychecks in Hollywood? Will Smith, the former Fresh Prince, now again a bona fide hip-hop star, thanks to his own movie soundtracks.

Since it began, hip-hop has dictated trends and fashions. Break-dancing, graffiti, the love affair with various designer labels -- adidas, Gucci, Tommy Hilfiger. Fat shoelaces. Really baggy jeans.

Lauryn Hill
[Photo: AP]
The genre is no slouch on technology either. Hip-hop introduced exciting studio gadgetry, from primitive turntable scratching on vinyl, to sophisticated computer sampling. We've heard rap lyrics go from the goofy (Run-D.M.C., Fat Boys, old Beastie Boys) to the wise (KRS-One, Chuck D., and, er, new Beastie Boys.) Of course, rap music, hip-hop's precursor with its stripped-down rhymes over beats, also introduced a new idiom to American youth, filled with fresh slang, wit and ever-changing catch phrases.

And hip-hop created a new category of "artist": the DJ.

Hip-hop has also taught its audience a thing or two about the nation's geography -- East Coast (Notorious B.I.G.) vs. West Coast (Tupac Shakur) -- and, unfortunately, gang warfare. But, hip-hop's positive message cannot be denied. Millions of young people know more about our country's history and race relations thanks to artists such as Public Enemy and Boogie Down Productions. Public Enemy's Chuck D. was on the money when he called rap music "Black America's CNN." Of course, one could argue nowadays it's young America's CNN.

Our knowledge of the world and of African culture has been broadened by Afrocentric acts such as the Jungle Brothers and A Tribe Called Quest. Young women have been empowered by female rappers such as Missy "Misdemeanor" Elliot, Queen Latifah and Lauryn Hill. Indeed, hip-hop has stopped viewing female MCs as interlopers; the ladies have pushed their feet into the door, barged in, and taught important lessons to the B-boys, and fans.

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In many cases, fans evolved with their favorite artists. Consider the Beastie Boys, who went from having gigantic inflatable phalluses onstage to name-dropping the Dalai Lama and hosting benefits to free Tibet.

And, unlike other musical "trends," such as New Wave and grunge, hip-hop keeps on going, because, like jazz, it never stops evolving.

Those who viewed hip-hop as a ghetto fad now eat their words -- or exploit the genre. MTV, never supportive of rap early on, now devotes most of its music video programming to hip-hop. The network has learned that rhyme pays.

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame opened the first full-fledged museum exhibit on hip-hop culture this year.

Even highbrows take hip-hop seriously as an art form. This year the National Book Critics Circle awarded Nelson George's Hip Hop America with its best of criticism honors. (George's book beat out tomes about Shakespeare and D.H. Lawrence.)

Recently, too, the Billboard charts began to acknowledge hip-hop's awesome power: this month the magazine's Top R&B Albums chart finally switched its name to Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums.

Hip-hop has covered a lot of ground in its first 20 years. And it's still got a lot of oomph. It manages to stay fresh, to continue its evolution while respecting its past. Those of us around age 30, who don't know what it's like to grow up without hip-hop, should thank our lucky stars.

Other bright moments in pop music 1999 include:

BEST ALBUM: Beck's Midnite Vultures. Beck has a reputation as a genius. This album proves, again, Beck deserves it. A gorgeous hodgepodge of funk, R&B, banjo pickin' and brilliant lyrics. Super fun. Super fly. (Honorable mentions: 1999 releases by Fiona Apple, Moby, Old 97s, Q-Tip, Mandy Barnett, Beth Orton, Handsome Boy Modeling School, Him, Marty Stuart, the Hot Club of Cowtown, Kreidler.)

SMARTEST GRAMMY DECISION: Lauryn Hill's sweep. Five Grammys. One 23-year-old. As long as Hill has a pulse, who can kvetch about the state of pop music? I pray Hill, Wyclef Jean and Pras come through with another Fugees album.

BEST COVER: Sixpence None The Richer's version of There She Goes, only because it brought attention to the La's, the brilliant Scottish band that penned the song. Check out the La's one and only eponymous 1990 disc. Flawless pop.

BEST LOCAL LIVE SHOW: Iggy Pop at Jannus Landing. That concert proved some 50-something guys still have it, even after 30 years of drugs, drink, covering their bodies with peanut butter and carving themselves with broken beer bottles. Pop's energy remains manic, his demeanor full of mischief.

BEST HOST: Chris Rock emceeing the 1999 MTV Video Music Awards, running his mouth like nobody's business, with flippant jabs to sugarpuff teen bands, and white boys trying to be black. Award shows are usually a snoozefest, but Rock was hilarious. He was sassy and spontaneous. If only all rock 'n' roll was this irreverent.

BEST LOCAL COUP: Local promoter Jack Spatafora, formerly of the Rubb in Ybor City, now books interesting national acts at cozy Gyland's Grill & Barin Ybor. Spatafora is responsible for bringing in acts such as June of 44, Trans Am and Rainer Maria. (Also, thanks be to the locally organized emit series for bringing new and experimental music such as avant violinist Jon Rose to Tampa Bay.)

BEST REISSUES: It was a great year for reissues. My favorites: Dusty Springfield's Dusty In Memphis, Johnny Cash's At Folsom Prison, Miles Davis's Kind of Blue, Carole King's Tapestry and Skip Spence's Oar, all digitally remastered, with previously unavailable bonus tracks.

BEST LIVE ALBUM: Finally, finally, a live Clash album for those of us too young to have witnessed the magic firsthand. The Clash's Live From Here To Eternity, spanning 1978 to 1982, bristles with the band's raw energy.

BEST BOXES: Several great box sets were released in '99. I'm partial to Yes I Can! The Sammy Davis Jr. Story, Stevie Wonder's At the Close Of A Century, Janis Joplin's Box of Pearls, Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band's Dust Blows Forward, Bob Marley's Songs Of Freedom (a reissued set), and Loud, Fast and Out Of Control: The Wild Sounds of '50s Rock.

THE YEAR'S BEST SINGLE: Q-Tip's Breathe and Stop. But, TLC's No Scrubs was wonderful the first 4-million times, wasn't it?

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