Instrumental hip-hop should be banned. It's the banal, meandering stepchild of hip-hop. It's a front-runner for the dubious honor of being the world's most snooze-inducing form of music. And, shockingly, there are still producers and fans who insist on validating it like it's anything but sample-based Chinese water-torture -- one of whom, RJD2, will be airing out his oh-so-atmospheric productions at Manor West on Wednesday, Feb.1.
Beyond playing spot-the-samples, listening to the entirety of an instrumental project from the likes of Madlib, RJD2, or J Dilla -- who now presumably spends his days pestering heaven's denizens with the unreleased off-cuts from his bizarrely worshipped Donuts ruse -- is a feat requiring the ability to numb your mind while practicing saintly levels of patience. Where is the joy and excitement in listening to three minutes of plodding drum beats overlaid with a short sample that repeats but goes nowhere? It's music without a start or end, without peaks and momentum -- it's hip-hop without a money shot. Tragically, it also forgets what makes hip-hop so invigorating in the first place.
Of course, in ye fabled Old School days, hip-hop began with the DJ as the cornerstone of the music: Armed with two turntables and a crate of vinyl, they'd spin the break-beat section of other artists' music. This was good. It was a magpie approach to curating music that honed in on only the snappiest, most infectious, and usually funkiest parts of a song. To invoke a cliche, it was like musical crack, distilling a song down to its most addictive part. Even before rappers were invited to MC over the breaks, it was a dancefloor- and block party-centric movement. The electro scene that quickly followed also made music to break and dance to.
But that quaint, nostalgia-saturated scene has nothing to do with the modern idea of instrumental hip-hop. Coming into its own off the back of the dirge of mid-'90s trip-hop, certain DJs and producers seemed to decide that they were on a pre-ordained artistic mission to conjure up -- ahem! -- "atmospheric soundscapes" instead of getting on with their jobs and making rap tracks that bang.
It's a formula that never works. Sure, hip-hop may no longer consist of a tight idealized union between the four elements, what with breakdancing and graffiti having been ostracized by modern mainstream rap. But it's the crucial dynamic of hearing someone rapping their ass off over a beat that makes the music so thrilling.
One-time Busta Rhymes cohort Roc Marciano's Marcberg was my favorite rap album of 2010. It's also available to buy in an instrumental format -- but when you take out Marcy's semi-slurred raps, the songs lose their menace and drama, and instead come off like a collection of miserable and depressing music. Likewise, Trackademicks has been providing the Honor Roll Crew with some of the freshest Bay Area hip-hop beats in years, but without Spank Pops' smart raps or Josie Stingray's enthusiastic energy, his work would downgrade into music to drift off to.
Even the world's foremost hip-hop hipster tastemaker, Diplo, couldn't inject some life into the conceit with his debut album, Florida -- an almost exclusively instrumental set whose only spark came when he crammed three fiery vocalists onto the track "Newsflash." (Bay Area stalwart DJ Shadow is exonerated from the crime of instrumental hip-hop by virtue of his music being more correctly in the lineage of Steinski's witty cut-and-paste experiments.)
Sure, some will claim that to fully understand and enjoy the experience of listening to -- shudder! -- an album-length collection of hip-hop music without words, you need to get high. (There's probably all sorts of awesome textures within the music that reveal themselves once you're enhanced, right?) But, frankly, if you're partaking in so much greenery that you can happily tolerate trawling through all 10 sets of MF Doom's Special Herbs series, don't you have bigger life issues to deal with than suspect taste in wordless rap music?