In the beginning, there was rhythm. Hairy hominids banging bones. Then, poky Neanderthals discovered the handclap, grunted with glee, and then konked on a coconut, thumped on a stump. "Mmm. Good . . . beat. Dance . . . to . . . it." Early rappers rhymed about meat, arrows, gettin' paid, and gettin' laid. Faster neural action resulted in the forging of metals; clangs, clinks, and pings followed, adding more texture -- the shiver of a high hat, a cymbal crash, the ring of a bell. Then the drum kit and crazy arms flailing, followed by the synthetic beat, which mortally wounded the drummer; hot on its heels came the sampler, which stabbed the drummer in the back by swiping his handiwork and transforming it into another beast altogether.
The sampler also allowed clever thieves to steal other sounds and pile them on top of each other, until a virtual symphony could consume a song and battle with rappers for supremacy. Next thing you knew, the Bomb Squad was slathering Public Enemy rhymes with tracks containing 100 dueling textures -- all of which combined to overwhelm the eardrums.
Of course, you can only go so far before all the pretty colors merge into brown. 50 Cent is great and everything, but nothing about his tracks is revolutionary. They're just catchy. Crunk -- the Oi! of rap -- is slow and hard, but nothing new. The basic template is getting rusty, taken for granted, abused, or simply used as a vehicle for copycat mediocrity. But a new style is emerging, one that pares beats back to their essence: rhythms that support rhymes.
Fancy academics call it minimalism: Less is more, man. Minimalism swept classical music in the '70s, infiltrated rock in the '90s, mostly ignored jazz, conquered Chicago house in the mid-'90s, and headed to Germany, where techno producers harnessed miniatures to make weirdo tracks. It's now being harnessed by hip-hop producers to thump listeners over the head with simplicity. In 2000, hip-hop radio was littered with 1,000 Jackson Pollock canvases; now, Mark Rothko rap is on the rise: Producers such as Megahertz, Digga, the Neptunes, and Tedsmooth have uncovered a central truth, one that the Shakers (and, later, Krazy Kat) sang the praises of 300 years ago in New England: "'Tis a gift to be simple, 'Tis a gift to be free/'Tis a gift to come down where we ought to be."
There are some weird sounds on rap radio right now, tracks that seem half-finished, still raw on the inside; tracks that bump without getting all crazy-like, without piling layer upon layer of texture on top; tracks that don't need samples because, really, what more do you need for rhyming than a beat? Maybe a hook, but some general assumptions about the construction of a great rap track are being up-ended by a bunch of producers who are pondering the gift of simplicity, dabbling with the silence between the beats, boiling down tracks to their essence. On the surface, it's nothing new; early rap was, because of technological limitations, quite sparse (see Boogie Down Productions' Criminal Minded, 1987). But the difference is intent. At a time when million-track marches are all the rage (see Lil' John and the East Side Boys), innovative producers are whittling cuts down to the core.
Stardate, 2002: The Neptunes join forces with fellow Virginians the Clipse to release a song, one that serves as the precursor to this year's avalanche. The song is called "Grindin'," and musically, there's not much to it: It's just bass drum, handclaps, finger snaps, and some monster snare. It sounds like an army march: intimidating, but not overwhelming. The rhythm, a jungle-gym burst of claps, snaps, and drums, stretches well into the second verse unimpeded. Then, amid all this simplicity, an epiphany: a muffled ping melody that stretches a mere 32 bars until it disappears. It's little, and if it were buried in the morass of most hip-hop tracks, it would be inconsequential. But as it's presented, it's like a rose bush in the desert: The surrounding starkness serves to glorify its existence. After it vanishes, another blossom: 32 bars of high hat. You didn't even realize its absence -- all rap songs use a high hat -- until its reappearance, halfway through a four-minute track. Again, it's tiny, but its arrival marks a seismic shift that transforms the song. The melody appears again, then again, and every time it sounds better, and sticks in your noggin long after the song ends.
The Neptunes, who have succeeded fellow Virginian Timbaland as the kings of rap producers, are churning out minimal tracks left and right. Their coolest so far this year is buried on their uneven but admirable album Clones. It's called "Hot" and features newbie Roscoe P. Coldchain. This track, too, is nearly vacant -- just a backward kick drum and a few handclaps. But all that silence weighs heavy, and bells and whistles would only diminish its power.
You can thank Jamaican dancehall in part for the rise of rap minimalism -- especially Steven "Lenky" Marsden, the genius producer responsible for a rhythm track called "Diwali," which has served as a template for three 2003 hit singles: Sean Paul's "Get Busy," Wayne Wonder's "No Letting Go," and the ubiquitous summer hit "Never Leave You -- Uh Ooh, Uh Oooh!" by Lumidee. The first two aren't that minimal, but Lumidee's brilliant gem -- produced by Tedsmooth, who harnesses a "Diwali" loop -- recalls both Haitian voodoo trance and the Dixie Cups' 1965 girl-group smash "Iko Iko." "Never Leave You" is one of the best singles of the year, which is weird, because it seems so inconsequential: just a woodblock beat looped over and over again. There's no instrumental melody, only Lumidee's beautiful vocal. The magical transformation arrives not as a string of notes, but as a single bass note plucked three times. This note is nothing, really, but amid all the percussion, it's a deep earthquake that rumbles through everything above it.
"Hey Mega, gimme some of that barefoot jungle shit," mumbles Busta Rhymes to his producer, Megahertz, at the beginning of "We Goin' to Do It to Ya." He's had bigger hits than this one, but none more musically shocking. It's tiny, for the most part, an itsy stutter-step beat that plinks along while Busta, in his best breathy mumble, intones, "Get your big ass on the floor, you know we goin' to do it to ya!" Lyrically, the song's pretty dumb. But this is rap radio, after all, where lyrical brilliance is apparently frowned upon.
"Do It to Ya" flows perfectly into the weirdest track in the new barefoot jungle, the Young Gunz's "Can't Stop, Won't Stop," produced by Digga, which sounds like a DJ Screw version of one of the first crossover synthesizer hits, Gershon Kingsley's "Popcorn," from 1972. "Can't Stop" is all hollow plonks, with handclaps on the second and fourth beats, and it proceeds along innocently before a massive eruption of snare and a sample of a dude stuttering "guh guh guh guhguhguh guh."
Wha'? What is this stuff? Where did it come from? How did the massive power of the big beat transform itself into something so seemingly minuscule as to seem like a speck next to the big-ass booty shit that came before it? How can small seem so big? It's all in the contrast, and the reason that these tracks seem so large is because, within hip-hop radio, where testicle-grabbing lyrical bravado is mirrored by big, big sound, sometimes the only reasonable way to get heard is to whisper. A whisper in a crowded room quiets the loudmouths: They have to shut up for a minute to hear the more important conversation.