Methods of Escape: Ahmad and Warren G.
Ahmad and Warren G are wildly dissimilar new Southern California rappers who sail in on their showbiz connections--Ahmad's with Kendal Gordy, the Berry scion turned hip-hop pop-pup who's said to have discovered the South Central youth after he was bussed to high school in Pacific Palisades; Warren G's with Dr. Dre, who supposedly discovered his kid half-brother along with the brother's potna Snoop Dogg when he needed music for a party. As it happens, their respective debuts--Ahmad, on Giant, and Regulate . . . G Funk Era, on Violator/RAS--are the only 1994 rap albums to do it for me with the year half gone. But I'm obliged to point out that these aren't what you'd call with-it choices, especially in these parts, where Nas's austere, estimable Illmatic is counted the thinking man's answer to the gangsta menace--a menace perceived as regional first, musical second, and philosophical maybe. Illmatic is loved most of all for proving that New York ain't over. Immersed in the hard, uninviting beats of the East Coast style, its grimly articulate lyrics devoid of shoot-'em-up sensationalism, it could have come from heaven, not least because its grace won't touch the unsaved. And when it gets tired you can change up with the hipper production and duller rhymes of Jeru the Damaja's equally subculture-specific The Sun Rises in the East.
Up against such role models, many locals would say Ahmad is barely hip hop at all, and some would level the same charge at Regulate . . . G Funk Era--they're more like "rap," the "soft," "sellout" product into which the record industry and its dupes have supposedly transmuted an authentic street music. Although some fools dismiss him as a Dre clone, Warren G fits the strange new stereotype of the cooled-out gatslinger riding phat beats to flavor-of-the-monthdom: calling card on the Poetic Justice soundtrack, major move on Above the Rim's cross-promotional device, solo album No. 2 SoundScan out of the box. Ahmad, on the other hand, is so embarrassingly willing to please that his May 24 album has yet to chart behind its late-breaking prereleased single, "Back in the Day." If it weren't for the song about holding up the minimart you'd think he still believes Kid 'n Play represent a viable sales strategy--still believes there are young rap fans out there who want to look soft. I hope the videos make him as commercial as he wants to be. But I wouldn't be altogether surprised if Ahmad ended up proving once again how meaningless a concept commercial is.
By an odd coincidence, or maybe not, the lead cuts on the two albums tell pretty much the same story: rapper gets jacked, gets away, and gets laid. The main difference is method of escape. In "Freak," Ahmad skedaddles, disappearing down an alley where he finds the very party he's been unable to locate all night, while Warren is in much deeper shit until his homeboy Nate Dogg tracks him down, pulls out his strap, and makes "some bodies turn cold." In other words, Ahmad plays a self-sufficient teenager running from trouble, Warren a tough guy backed up by an even tougher subculture. And of course, these images don't just depend on rhymes--Ahmad's clever and scattershot, Warren's concrete and succinct. They're music, always music. Although Warren is stuck with his overrated big brother for life, "Regulate" is lither and subtler than anything on The Chronic, which established the parameters of an engaging groove more gifted artists are now free to fill out. Alternating Warren G's nonchalant undertone with Nate Dogg's chilly singsong, hooking off a whistled tune that could be a lookout's signal and keyb chords that evoke one of Steely Dan's perverse excursions, "Regulate" creates an atmosphere that's simultaneously clean and sleazy, relaxed and ominous, posh and spare. As for "Freak," I haven't heard a more enjoyable piece of music all year.
One of two non-Gordy tracks on Ahmad, "Freak" is so unfashionably frantic, so densely joyous, so neo-African in its layered vocal polyrhythms and so classic-American in its breathless forward motion, that I had to find out how it was made. I was especially curious about the basso-dancehall "Freak freak everybody" that clinches the chorus, one of those crucial snatches that sampling was invented for. When I talked to Ahmad, however, I learned it wasn't sampled at all. The toaster is Ahmad, grunting well below his natural register--Brian C. Walls's live-to-the-computer bassline sounded Jamaican to him, so he provided "something that complemented it." All in all the kid jammed some 50 tracks into "Freak," with more vocal parts than I can count articulating, embroidering, and tangling the beat--his breakneck rap, his dancehall impression, the girls going "She did the freak," the girls going "doo-doo-dada" or something a little further down, various cries, murmurs, and cross-comments below that. And then there's the rest of the album.
No way I'm gonna tell you anything else here matches my fave, but that doesn't mean his handlers' definition of people-friendly isn't savvier than mine. "Back in the Day," a charmer in which a teenager waxes nostalgic about his youth, is Ahmad's idea of a slow groove, and the fast funk of the designated follow-up, "Touch the Ceiling," seeks its fortune with the same busy, cheerful, vigorous uncool that animates "We Want the Funk," "Can I Party?" and "The Palladium"; in today's sound environment, the attendant horn and synth dissonances are about as off-putting as a splash of aftershave. Ahmad's long, excitable, word-stuffed phrases bespeak a kid who always colored outside the lines--they're about desire rather than control, so eager to get over you hate to think what will become of him if they don't. With typical offhand sass, Ahmad likes to call himself a "niggaroe"; he's got too much integrity or naiveté disguise a self-starter's ambition as a thug's greed. He will turn 19 in October.
In case you were wondering, Ahmad doesn't claim he robbed that minimart himself. The song is an explicit fiction, its protagonist a kid who did the crime so he wouldn't get slammed by the neighborhood bad guys, and given Ahmad's street credentials it'll probably prove as futile as most of rap's cautionary tales. Nevertheless, there are signs that even in a teen culture where pretending to be hard may not be a matter of life and death but for damn sure is the easiest way to avoid looking like a geek, most poor black kids would just as soon grow up into the "Ordinary People" who are the heroes of another of Ahmad's sweetly conceived but not quite convincing message songs. In Nas, in Jeru the Damaja, in veteran Compton rookie Coolio, there's a post- if not antigangsta mood afoot, and although it makes sense to slot it as part marketing ploy and part formal inevitability, it also makes sense to figure that we've yet to reach the point where the average adolescent male, ghetto-bound or not, would just as soon smoke your ass as look at you. One fascinating thing about the Warren G album is how it negotiates this development.
I understand that there's no point arguing with The Chronic. You hear it or you don't, and although I'm not the only one who thinks the thing builds its myth off a few jeepbeats and a worldwide stupidity epidemic, we're definitely a minority among those who care at all. Still, I must report Regulate . . . G Funk Era a more satisfying album in every category except rap style itself, where the content-free (when we're lucky) Mr. Snoop has no serious competition on either record. But that's not to grant parity to the principals--Dr. Dre's clumsy arrogance is manifest every time he opens his mouth, whereas his brother has his own languid, tentative voice, a voice perfectly completed by Nate Dogg's singsong. With Nate's minitunes backing him up, Warren G's music is catchier, always a plus when crossover is your mission in life, and this may be why I find his grooves more redolent as well. Then again, it could be the unlooped basslines he favors. Or maybe it's just the lifestyle that's projected onto them. The Chronic's brutality is both generalized and unrationalized, boiling down to a collection of empty threats. Regulate is more specific--and also a little more defensive.
In the title tune, remember, Nate Dogg only draws his gun when Warren's life is in danger, and the next song, "Do You See," explains the choices they've made. "You don't see what I see/Every day as Warren G/You don't hear what I hear/But it's so hard to live through these years," goes the chorus, while the verses describe a scary-warm world: "Another sunny day, another bright blue sky/Another day another motherfucker die." Take him at his word and it's not hard to see why he pumps gangsta rap as an improvement over gangsta period--the dopeslinging and gangbanging he says he left behind. The progress, if that's what it is, is barely incremental--guns show up in five of the 12 songs, not always as defensive weapons, and bitches-and-ho's get verbally smacked on the usual continual basis, with yeast and halitosis added to the ever-lengthening list of their crimes against humanity. But some combination of insinuating music and verbal detail render Warren G's world more seductive and more frightening than competing gangsta fantasylands--a bona fide guilty pleasure.
If Ahmad defines himself as just another niggaroe, Warren G likes to call himself the G-Child, spiritual heir to George Clinton's StarChild, and though the "child" probably just exploits his kid-brother relationship to Dre, the association is eerie. Warren Griffin would have been a very young Clinton fan, just the right age to have gotten the funk as a geepie, which is what the P-Funk mob used to call the subteenaged target market of Bootsy's Rubber Band. The geepies seemed a visionary concept at the time, and they were, but nobody envisioned a world in which these young fun-seekers, although imbued with Bootsy's childlike hope and properly and humorously warned off booze and dope, would come to regard Warren G as normal and Ahmad as a throwback. Puritans and neoconservatives would claim that this was at least partly the fault of the art--that musicians like Clinton allowed these gullible children far too much latitude, seduced them into growing up too soon. I'd counter that it proves how quickly artistic hopes get bulldozed under by material realities. Which is one more reason to root for a real world, which in this case equals a pop world, that still has room for Ahmad as well as Warren G.
Village Voice, July 12, 1994