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Friday, March 31, 2006

Spring in their steps

Hip-hop royalty start festival season

Special to The Japan Times

As a crash course in the current state of African-American pop music, this weekend's Springroove festival being held on consecutive days in Osaka and Chiba Prefecture showcases an impressive range of artists. The headliners all represent major labels, and thus the mainstream: Since hip-hop and R&B are the dominant commercial music forms in the world today, that's what's driving the business.

Snoop Dogg

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Snoop Dogg

No single artist characterizes this development better than Snoop Dogg, who not only helped invent gangsta rap, but broke through with it on his quadruple-platinum debut album, "Doggystyle" in 1993. At the time, 21-year-old Calvin Broadus, already an ex-con, was considered the devil incarnate, blasted by everyone except the people buying his albums (and probably a few of them, too) for his laconic promotion of violence, drugs and misogyny.

What a difference a decade makes. Snoop's latest album, "Rhythm & Gangsta -- The Masterpiece," returned him to the hip-hop throne after years of albums that sold well but were considered behind the curve. What's more, it's just as gun-obsessed and bitch-slappin' as his early work, but now Snoop is a respected member of the show-biz establishment. He plays golf with automobile-industry magnate Lee Iacocca, which makes him the Alice Cooper of hip-hop.

What "R&G" proves, beside the fact that Snoop's G-Funk beats and low-key flow have become as recognizable as Colonel Sanders, is that people have for better or worse gotten past the content thing. Snoop's middlebrow acceptance shouldn't be surprising in light of the Oscar win (best original song) for Three 6 Mafia, a hardcore Memphis rap collective whose own brand of thug boasting has been offending sensibilities probably longer than Snoop. Nothing succeeds like success.

Pharrell Williams

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Pharrell Williams

And no one has milked success as much as Pharrell Williams, who, as half of the superstar production team the Neptunes, had a hand in Snoop's revived credibility since the Neptunes executive-produced "R&G." Expect Pharrell to poke his head in during Snoop's show. Despite his reputation as one of the busiest hip-hop producers of the age (credits include Justin Timberlake and Jay-Z among many, many more), for the past several years Pharrell has concentrated on performing, first with the rockish Neptunes side-project N.E.R.D., and now on his own.

Pharrell's long-awaited solo album, "In My Mind," was due in February, but has been held up indefinitely. The two singles that have dribbled out won't cause Kanye West to lose any sleep, but they do confirm Pharrell's versatility. He's better at falsetto loverboy soul singing than he is at rapping, and seems to be edging toward Prince-like minimalist funk. When he does rap it's at the service of the production rather than vice versa, but the production is pretty potent. In concert, Pharrell is nothing if not a showoff, especially in rock mode. He could be a tough act to follow.

Erykah Badu

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Erykah Badu

But maybe not as tough as Erykah Badu, who, like her stylistic forebear Nina Simone, has a reputation for moodiness and spotty shows, but when she's in the right frame of mind she's been known to blow audiences all the way to the moon. Whereas her main competition in the big-money neo-soul race, Macy Gray, rebuilt '70s funk through slavish devotion to the hard basics -- melody and rhythm -- Erykah pulls off something similar through sheer force of personality. Her lazy jazz scatting is about as real as that overgrown 'fro she sports on the cover of her last album, "Worldwide Underground," but she's enough of a real musician to be able to extract fun from artifice. She wraps the beat around her little finger and you along with it.

Damian Marley

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Damian "Jr. Gong" Marley

Still, it's been 2 1/2 years since Erykah's released a record, so if you go by freshness, the festival's one guarantee is Damian "Jr. Gong" Marley, who isn't merely on hand to represent the Caribbean. His fierce, hugely enjoyable 2005 album, "Welcome to Jamrock," is a crossover triumph that ranks as one of the best radio records in recent memory. The polished sheen may offend roots reggae diehards and people who think his father was God, but Bob Marley was more than a voice for the displaced. He knew how to crank out hits, a talent that Damian seems to have inherited and -- dare I say? -- improved on. He can do dancehall, hip-hop, even trip-hop.

Nate James

However, the poppiest artist on the bill is British newcomer and Stevie Wonder acolyte Nate James (who plays Tokyo only). James is young and impressionable, and his lack of guile translates the Stevie signature into disco, lite funk and pop soul. His production may lack bottom, and his singing is conventional, but as an R&B songwriter he has few peers in terms of melody and craft. His hit single, "Universal," doesn't bear scrutiny anywhere but on the dance floor, but that's where it counts. Ever since Michael Jackson left the building and Madonna found Yahweh, British acts have set the dance pop standard more resolutely than anyone except maybe Britney Spears -- and James is their champion, at least for the moment.

Gym Class Heroes

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Singer Pushim brings her reggae, soul and gospel fusion to Springroove

At first, New York's Gym Class Heroes seem like a leftover from the weekend's other big festival, Punkspring, since they record for the Florida-based punk label Fueled By Ramen. But GCH has more in common with alternative rap outfits like the Roots and Automato, who prefer instruments to samples and loops.

Their only album, "The Papercut Chronicles," is a whirling head trip through the plains of adolescent anxiety. In every way, lead vocalist Travis is the lyrical opposite of Snoop -- confused by women, scared of drugs, ignorant of money and dumbfounded by the need for violence. But they're different from Snoop in another, more rewarding way. Their music really swings, thanks to Travis's rubbery rap stylings and Disashi's pliant, almost delicate guitar playing.

Best of the rest

Of course, African-American pop music isn't just for African-Americans any more, and hasn't been for decades. The complement of local artists who fill out the roster lean toward the hard-core rap side. Veteran B-Boy trio Rhymester practically invented Tokyo hip-hop, but the Nitro Microphone Underground is certainly more daunting -- eight (count 'em!) MCs trading off in rapid succession. Mighty Crown will fill the hall with their powerful dub sound system and dancehall, while solo vocalist Pushim will lend a much-needed feminine touch with her own blend of reggae, soul and gospel.

Springroove takes place April 1, 12 noon, Osaka Castle Hall, 8,500 yen; April 2, 1 p.m., Makuhari Messe Convention Center, Kaihin Makuhari, Chiba Prefecture, 10,000 yen (plus one drink charge). Tickets are available from Ticket Pia. For information in English, visit www.springroove.com/06/english.html

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