If you had to pick seven songs from this year or yesteryear that have meant the world to you in 2016, what would they be?
“You just changed, a brand new funky President,” sang James Brown back in 1974. “Eric B is president,” suggested Rakim back in 1987.* Funk, soul and hip hop music have always commented on the state of US politics. The US now has a brand new – some might say unfunky – president. Hip hop – as always – knows exactly what time it is.
#7Songs2016 (Volume IV): DJ Shadow feat. Run The Jewels – Nobody Speak
Run The Jewels are the hip hop group I’ve been waiting for all my life. They are Killer Mike and El-P, two forty-something gents with a lifetime in hip hop**, unifying their talents to create their concept of the ultimate hip hop crew. I can’t believe I left it until 2016 to check them out (finally doing so after a tweet from my Twitter friend Ellison Bloomfield about the greatness of RTJ’s (Oh My Darling) Don’t Cry.
My two favourite albums of this year – though they’re from yesteryear – are Run The Jewels and Run The Jewels 2. Listing the reasons for their greatness would take me 10,000 words. Instead, allow me to share this short video interview with them. If you don’t enjoy their humour and don’t love Killer Mike (that accent!) by the end of it, RTJ are not for you.
RTJ’s DJ Shadow collaboration Nobody Speak, is maybe their most accessible track. But it’s still uncut RTJ. Over a twangulent guitar that sounds like it’s just waiting to be used in a Tarantino film, Run The Jewels serve a masterclass in hilariously arrogant and outright potty-mouthed virtuoso rapping that displays a deep knowledge of four decades of hip hop history. They voice extremely strong views on Donald Trump. The video is an apt commentary on the disgusting cesspit of US politics in 2016.
My most anticipated album of 2017 is Run The Jewels 3 (out 13 January 2017, and already parent to a hotly anticipatory hashtag: #RTJ3). The three preview tracks they’ve blessed us with so far show that their standards remain sky high (witness the ultimate hip hop slow headnodder Legend Has It). However, I have fearsome news for RTJ diehards. None other than El-P himself recently answered my Twitter query as to whether Killer Mike is going to keep up the traditions of RTJ and RTJ2 and once again use the word “pugnacious”*** in the lyrics for #RTJ3:
sadly, no. i begged mike but he refused. i said “ITS WHAT THE PEOPLE WANT, MIKE!”
#7Songs2016 (Volume V): A Tribe Called Quest – We The People
A Tribe Called Quest’s surprise final album – We Got It From Here… Thank You 4 Your Service – is one of 2016’s very best releases. It’s as jam-packed with instant classics as the Run The Jewels albums.
We The People is the most instantly gratifying, grin-inducing track on a deeply gratifying, profoundly grin-inducing album.
It’s also a very 2016 song from a very 2016 album. I wrote last month:
“For once we have a musical comeback that is easily the equal of the artists’ very best work from decades past. The band reconnects perfectly with the endlessly fresh, endlessly funky and endlessly lyrically inventive spirit of their classic era. This record could also not be more of the moment.”
We The People talks about gentrification, the expulsion of black folks, Mexicans and poor people from urban neighbourhoods. Walls play a prominent role in the video, which also acts as a moving tribute to dearly-departed Tribe member Phife Dawg, who passed away in March 2016.
The album is as playful and as joyous as any of their previous work. It is also clear-eyed about the state of the world around us. And it marks a passing of the baton to hip hop’s next generation.
The world is looking more worrying than ever as we approach 2017. But hip hop couldn’t be looking healthier or more alert.
* Besides JB’s Funky President and Eric B and Rakim’s Eric B Is President, here’s a very small, very partial selection of other funk and hip hop classics dealing with the presidency. Firstly –
Parliament, with Chocolate City. Second, the great Bun B with The Inauguration:
** Run The Jewels’ El-P was also in cult underground hip hop group Company Flow. I got to see them at London’s Ladbroke Grove Subterranea – and at that gig a member of the audience shared a story so odd that even El-P was left speechless. Midway through the gig, a girl in the front row grabbed one of the MC’s microphones and told El-P that she’d just got married in Australia a few weeks previously. She and her new husband had walked down the aisle to Company Flow’s somewhat musically uncompromising (to put it very mildly) The Fire In Which You Burn. El-P was visibly stunned at this song being used at a wedding – as well might you be if you give it a listen:
*** How I wish I’d got a screengrab of this tweet, as El-P seems to have deleted it – but cached evidence of its existence is still out there on google, at least…
- Eric B for President photograph taken by mjcarty in Brighton, October 2016.