March 1, 2013

Joshua Lerner is an invisible bully like The Gooch.

In one of the many excellent anecdotes from Something From Nothing: The Art of Rap, Ice-T tells what it was like to hear Melle Mel grab the mic in the early days of hip-hop in the Bronx. When Mel would take his turn, it would sound like he was using a different microphone than the other cats. His voice was that strong. T goes on to relate that to be a preeminent MC in those days you had to have a voice that could cut through the rumbling of shitty system speakers in the park or at a club. In other words: to be known, you had to be heard.

Today anyone can make a record. Copping a listen no longer depends on the force and intensity of a rapper’s voice holding up live. In fact, these days, rappers may be known for an opposite set of qualities. Kendrick Lamar’s nasally articulated sentences are awesome, but not in the literal sense. They don’t have much stature. They poke tiny holes to creep through the beat. Drake’s delivery is smooth and static. 2 Chainz might have some grit, but it’s hard to tell when his voice is so often pitched-down in production. Rick Ross has the blunt-scarred heft but little authority.

This video of Notorious B.I.G. is a verité glimpse of what it’s like to hear an MC with a colossal voice spit live off the top. Biggie’s Old Testament God vocals ride a screaming wave of boom-bap, just barely keeping above the foam of the curl. He’s seventeen, and practically devouring that microphone. Can you imagine what kind of difference you’d hear if another one of those guys in the background took a turn? It’s all the same mic. It’s the voice that matters.

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