To continue on my unofficial “things that people don’t associate with science fiction” series of articles, I have decided that it’s about time I wrote on the effect science fiction has had on hip-hop. Now, there are a lot of differences between the music of The Notorious BIG with the writings of Isaac Asimov, but that doesn’t mean it can’t have some sort of overlap. Both genres have a thing for pointing out sociopolitical undertones via a narrative, be it through the lens of a robot on a generational ship or a crack dealer through his Pyrex. Both have larger than life characters that have to deal with “the struggle,” whether it’s an intergalactic war or the five-o. For my examples, I’ll present two different artists who have used SF elements: producer Dan “The Automator” Nakamura and rapper/producer Jaime Meline, also known as El-P.
The idea of a connection between a part of black culture and sci-fi in music is not a new one. Some of the basis for many SF stories involved straight escapist fantasy mingling with New-Age ideas of global unity. Where this comes into play with black culture started with a sub-genre of what would later be called afrofuturism, the marriage of SF concepts with the black experience to point out and investigate it. Musically, this was originally carried on by the jazz artist Sun Ra and George Clinton and his Parliament/Funkadelic crew. Sun Ra had experiences and visions that was in the same vein of Phillip K Dick’s VALIS event, where he was in his own words “landed on a planet that I identified as Saturn”. George Clinton actually did to black culture what I hope someone will do to do to Latino culture: strap it on a rocket and see what comes out. Fueled by his love for Star Trek, Clinton created Mothership Connection , placing himself spilling out of a flying saucer bumping through space on the album cover to drive the point home. The fact that the album is on so many Greatest Of All Time lists gave credence to the idea that a synthesis of SF and black music is praise-worthy and accepted by the mainstream. A prime example of this is in the photos from Kanye West’s widely successful Glow In The Dark Tour.
Fast forward to 1996. Dan Nakamura and a rapper by the name of Keith Thornton dropped a peculiar little hip hop concept album called Dr. Octagonecologyst involving a, I kid you not, an alien gynecologist/surgeon/time traveller named Dr. Octagon. The songs consisted of the character making botched procedure after procedure, sexing up female patients and generally being a lecherous ol’ doctor with a pink and white afro and green skin. The best part about it is that, despite its clear insanity, the album is dope as hell. Critics regard it very well, mainly for the production work Automator did and the scratching skills of DJ QBert, but Kool Keith’s delivery and lyrics were also on point. 4 years later, Automator would do it again, this time with one of his main partners in crime, Del Tha Funkee Homosapien, to make Deltron 3030. This album almost starts where George Clinton left off, as mothership is now gone and corporations and government have replaced them, which serve as villains for rapper/ space hero character Deltron Zero. Again, the production is amazing, but where Dr. Octagonecolgyst isdecadent Deltron is dystopian, which lends itself incredibly well to the topics of sucka MCs and keeping it real in a world of New Coke and holograms. to prove my point, take a listen a snippet of the title track (courtesy of Hieroglyphics’ website):
If Automator is the Harlan Ellison or Robert Heinlein of SF-styled hip hop, El-P can definitely be considered its Neal Stephenson or Phillip K Dick . Like Stephenson, he often uses intricate pop culture references in his already rather verbose lyrical delivery. Like Dick, a lot of his songs deal with the nature of the self and the general feeling of paranoia. The really cool thing about it is, El-P blurs the lines between whether it’s sci-fi or just straight underground hip hop. This is very apparent right in the beginning of “Tasmanian Pain Coaster”, the first track in of his second album I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead. It starts off with a sample of dialogue of David Lynch’s Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (the text is below the song, just in case you don’t feel like listening):
Do you think that if you were falling in space
That you would slow down after a while, or go faster and faster?
Faster and faster…
For a long time you wouldn’t feel anything…
Then you would burst into into fire, for ever
And the angel’s won’t help you, ’cause they’ve all gone away…
Mind you, the lyrics of the song actually have to do with a stream of consciousness response from an old friend/PCP addict he runs into on the A train. Still, that intro is so very SF it hurts. El-P has done even more overt references in song titles (Delorean, Deep Space 9mm) and in entire songs; Stepfather Factory is a song from a CEO’s perspective of selling abusive fathers, while Habeas Corpses (Draconian Love) very lyrics are really dialogue from two soldiers on a space prison ship, one of them falling in love with one of the prisoners. He even gets his Cory Doctorow on, pulling out a post-apocalyptic version of Disneyland on Dead Disnee, from the seminal Fantastic Damage. His work as a producer also lends to an idea of the synthesis between the genres. Take, for example, his work on Cannibal Ox‘s album The Cold Vein. Vast Aire and Vordul Mega spit over beats that are at times just as space operatic as Automator’s beats on Deltron 3030, but still deliver verse after verse about NYC grime that fit just as well. The beats on the opening track, Iron Galaxy, sound like the opening track of a SF movie where a battlecruiser has dropped out of warp and is cruising through the stars. Scream Phoenix, the ending track, sounds like that very same ship riding off into the nebula-stained sunset, content with its collection of information on Asgardian battles, F-words, and painkillers. There are plenty of other hip hop artists who have also done other SF tinged joints. MF DOOM and Mr. Lif (in particular his I Phantom album) have both done off-the-wall songs mixing the two.
Now, some people will ask: what about nerdcore hip hop? Sure, on paper it does look like this would be up that alley, but truthfully, most of the songs play off as shameless novelty acts that really prey on nerd-dom more than they actually, you know… make a good rap song. Don’t get me wrong, I think Fett’s Vette by MC Chris is funny as all hell, but it doesn’t really add to either genre, in my opinion. Honestly, rappers and avowed geeks like Pharrell Williams and Lupe Fiasco are actually doing a better job of bringing the nerd out to the open than these guys are in their style and music.
(What is humorous to me, above all, is the way some SF fanboys act is pretty similar to how the underground “backpackers” do when one of their beloved writers/rappers “sell out”. Maybe someone should make a song about it.)
Hip hop and science fiction both talk of struggle, hopes, and dreams/nightmares of, in Neal Stephenson’s words, what is different. The main difference between the two is that while most SF ends with a happy ending, hip hop knows better about the realities of street life and says it how it is. In that sense, it would be interesting to me to see more synthesis in the other direction, seeing SF lit heavily influenced by scratching, b-b0ys, drug dealers, gang warfare, bravado and all the other standard tropes in hip hop. Maybe some new ones will come from it.