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(Above: If you want to hang with Mos Def, Eminem and Black Thought, you’d be advised to do your homework first.)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

Two of the most common criticism of hip hop are, one, it’s not music and, two, anyone can do it. While the first complaint is purely subjective, it would be difficult to think anyone could agree with the second conclusion after reading “How To Rap.”

Drawing on interviews with more than 100 MCs, Paul Edwards has assembled a comprehensive primer for aspiring microphone magicians. Incredibly concise, Edwards and his subjects cover nearly every conceivable topic, including rhyme schemes, recording and performing, in 340 pages.

A diverse palette of interviewees matches the range of topics. Edwards culls insight from conscious rappers like Gift of Gab, underground MCs such as Aesop Rock and Mr. Lif and gangsta rappers like the Clipse. Legends Phife Dawg and Q-Tip from A Tribe Called Quest, Chuck D, Big Daddy Kane and Kool Moe Dee (who also provides the introduction), also lend insight. Local music fans will be delighted to read TechN9ne’s contributions.

At first glance, the text seems obvious. Much of the first section on content and styles should already be familiar to anyone with an interest deep enough in hip hop to pick up this book. Once the overview is out of the way, however, the book offers fascinating insight.

The flow diagram demonstrates how MCs line up their lyrics against the beats. The product is surprisingly similar to traditional notation and demonstrates how much forethought is put into delivery. This complexity is reinforced in the chapter explaining different styles of rhyming, rhyme schemes and placement. The pattern diagram ties these concepts together, allowing lyricists to illustrate how the syllables fall in their lyrics, pointing out repetitive patterns or other accidental traps.

Edwards stays out of the way, letting the artists break down each step in their own way. Not only does the reader learn this information firsthand, but receives several different perspectives on the process. Most of the time this format serves well, but sometimes Edwards’ narrative is repetitive. He frequently sets up a topic, only to have the first quote echo that statement. Edwards does a good job of editing the quotes, pruning the “you know what I mean” while maintaining each performer’s voice.

While a lot of the biggest names dropped frequently dropped among the pages – particularly Eminem and Dr. Dre – are absent, several of their collaborators, such as Lady of Rage, Devin the Dude and Royce da 5’9”, are able to provide insight in the missing legends’ creative process.

“How To Rap” lives up to its title, providing a meaty background on all facets of the vocal side of hip hop, while being slim enough to be stuck in a back pocket or jacket as the MC embarks upon the journey. Call hip hop what you like, but there’s no doubt it takes a talented person to do it well. Edwards’ book should arm the aspiring with the necessary tools for the scene.

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(Above: The title song from Naomi Shelton’s debut album.)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

The first month of 2010 is almost in the history books. Fortunately, there’s still time to take one last look at some overlooked releases from the final quarter of 2009.

The Dodos – “Time to Die”

The Dodos third album isn’t a major departure from 2007’s “Visiter.” Several subtle elements, however, make “Time to Die” an improvement. First off, the San Francisco-based indie duo has added vibraphonist Keaton Snyder to their ranks. His playing adds new textures and new rhythms to the songs. Like Vampire Weekend, the Dodos add elements of African music to their arrangements. Unlike Vampire Weekend, though, the Dodos don’t use world music as a template. They incorporate its ingredient into already solid songs. At times the album recalls a more sophisticated Shins. “Time To Die” is filled with a high sense of melody and smart indie rock songwriting bolstered by intricate arrangements that serve the song.

Blakroc – “Blakroc”

Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney have been making great garage blues albums for nearly a decade as the Black Keys. After about five albums, however, some staleness started to creep into the formula. After recruiting Danger Mouse to produce their 2008 release, and Auerbach’s early ’09 solo album, the pair dropped their biggest transformation. “Blakroc” pairs the Keys with former Roc-a-fella co-owner Damon Dash and a host of MCs, including Mos Def, Ludacris, Q-Tip, Pharoahe Monch and members of the Wu Tang Clan. The result is the expected mash-up of rap vocals and raw gutbucket rock that exceeds expectations. Auerbach’s dirty, fuzzy guitars and Carney’s drums add an urgency often lacking in the urban world of sampling. In turn, the MCs feed off the vibe, responding with more bounce and personality in their delivery. More, please.

Naomi Shelton and the Gospel Queens – “What Have You Done, My Brother?”

Naomi Shelton’s back story should sound familiar to fans of Bettye LaVette. Shelton palled around with pre-fame Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding and Lou Rawls. Despite their encouragement, success eluded Shelton, who played regular gigs around New York City. Thirty years later, Shelton became part of the “Daptone Super-Soul Revue,” but it took another decade for her debut album to emerge. “What Have You Done, My Brother?” is a classic gospel album that sounds like it could have been cut 50 years ago. Despite its traditional arrangements, the album finds contemporary resonance in the title song, which questions the war in Iraq. Shelton’s cover of Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come” is especially poignant. A survivor of the civil rights movement, Shelton combines the longing of Cooke’s vision with the optimism of the Obama-era.

Various Artists – “Daptone Gold”

Daptone Records found fame with the diminutive dynamite Sharon Jones, but the entire stable should appeal to Jones’ fans. “Daptone Gold” is a 22-track sampler of the Daptone roster. While Jones is appropriately represented (sometimes through non-album tracks), there are no bum cuts. The old school gospel of Naomi Shelton sets nicely next to Antibalas’ political Afrobeat and the instrumental soul of the Budos Band. Other artists include Stax throwbacks Lee Fields and Charles Bradley. Hip hop fans will recognize “Make the Road By Walking,” the Menahan Street Band track Jay-Z smartly sampled for his own “Roc Boys (And the Winner Is).” At 78 minutes, this generous sampler will certainly send newcomers diving into the back catalog for more.

Rakim – “The Seventh Seal”

Rakim made his name as one of rap’s premier MCs with his groundbreaking albums with Eric B in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. It’s been 10 years since the world has heard anything from Rakim. During that decade he toured sporadically and signed with Dr. Dre’s Aftermath label. The prospect of Dre making beats for Rakim made fans salivate, but unfortunately “The Seventh Seal” is not that long-awaited album. It’s difficult to forget about that hypothetical masterpiece with all the b-list production that plagues “The Seventh Seal.” Rakim sports enough killer flow to justify his reputation, but tracks like “Won’t Be Long” and album opener “How To Emcee” are more stilted and dated than anything on “Paid in Full” or “Follow the Leader.” While there are enough moments on “The Seventh Seal” to make it a must-have for old school fans, casual listeners should probably just ask the devoted to cull a few cuts from this for a killer Rakim mixtape.

(Below: “Holy Are You,” one of the better cuts off Rakim’s “The Seventh Seal.”)

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 (Above: Snoop Dogg performs a medley of old hits on Nov. 6 at Harrah’s Voodoo Lounge in Kansas City, Mo.)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star
The revue that brought rappers Snoop Dogg, Method Man and Redman to the Voodoo Lounge on Friday was called the “Wonderland High School Tour.” The promoters should have inserted the word “reunion.”

Hip-hop has turned the corner as a genre. Its former disposable nature and willingness to discard any artist who dared to fall behind a trend, regardless of their past successes, has shifted to establishing legacy artists.

Despite releasing new –- and very good –- material, the three artists were more than happy to trade on their old numbers for most of the evening’s performances.

The sold-out crowd couldn’t have been happier.

After opening with a trio of cuts from his new album-length collaboration with Redman, “Blackout! 2,” including the excellent singles “A-Yo” and “City Lights,” sometime Wu-Tang Clan MC Method Man announced his intentions.

“We want to take this back to when hip-hop was good,” he declared, before launching into Redman’s 1992 song “Time 4 Sum Aksion.” That was followed by Meth’s signature song, the 1993 Wu-Tang classic “Method Man.”

A couple hours later, Snoop Dogg echoed the sentiment. Asking the crowd who came to hear the “classic stuff,” he beamed when the audience erupted in screams.

Snoop opened his 80-minute set with “The Next Episode.” The five-piece backing band added muscle and intensity to Dr. Dre’s nimble arrangements. The hits “P.I.M.P.,” originally recorded with 50 Cent in 2003, and 1993’s breakthrough “Gin and Juice” followed, sending the audience into ecstasy.

Snoop was so enamored with his early ‘90s, Death Row heyday he brought out Lady of Rage to deliver her part on a song from “Doggystyle,” Snoop’s debut album, and her one hit, “Afro-Puffs.”

Rage has been missing in action for better than a decade, but everyone sang along to her hit like Newt Gingrich had just announced the Contract with America. Snoop was all smiles, slinking around the stage and working the crowd as Rage took the spotlight.

The Death Row glory days connection was reinforced when Snoop paid tribute to 2Pac with a performance of “Hail Mary.”

There were some concessions to newer material. “Riding in My Chevy” was well received, but the magnificent “Drop It Like It’s Hot” was tethered to a cover of House of Pain’s 1992 hit “Jump Around.” Why did Snoop feel he needed to attach his song to a one-hit wonder? Also a mystery is why Snoop chose to ignore his upcoming album except for a quick plug at the end of the set.

At any rate, “Hot” was the finest musical moment of the night. The full band fleshed out the bare-bones album arrangement, adding deeper bass and bigger bass. The performance gradually built in intensity until both band and crowd alike were flat-out rocking.

The biggest problem with Snoop’s set was his over-reliance on back-up MCs Kurupt and Daz Dillinger. Their solo turns took time away from other song Snoop could have performed and their backing role was the equivalent of Garrett Morris delivering the news for the hearing impaired on Saturday Night Live.

A medley of “Deep Cover,” “Nuthin’ But A ‘G’ Thang” and “B— Please” went off like a flash pot. A delirious crowd devoured every beat, recited every syllable and danced furiously. It was the hip hop equivalent of “Jump” or even “Jumpin’ Jack Flash.” Snoop closed with another crowd-pleaser: “Who Am I? (What’s My Name?)”

Snoop’s laid-back delivery and contentment to stroll and swagger across the stage stood in contrast to the kinetic energy of Method Man and Redman. The pair barely stood still throughout their hour-long set, delivery Wu-Tang favorites, solo cuts like “Bring the Pain” and “You’re All I Need To Get By” and the obligatory tribute to deceased Wu-Tang member Ol’ Dirty Bastard.

The duo was backed by frequent Wu-Tang producer Mathematics and DJ Nice and scored points with the pro-cannabis crowd by performing weed anthems “How High” and “Part II.” Marijuana was a reoccurring theme of the night. A pair of sheriffs camped on either side of the club entrance and the beginning of the night and a lingering presence later in the night quashed many would-be smokers. The dense clouds produced by the overhead smoke machines created enough cover for the rest.

The evening kicked off promptly at 8 p.m. with the only performer who wasn’t tied to the 1990s. Devin the Dude provided an hour of rhymes about women and weed. His base lyrics and laconic delivery found many fans in the crowd but were no match for what followed.

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