Tag Archives: hip-hop

Odelay, by Beck – Album #134


Odelay (Spotify Link)
1996, DGC Records. Producers: Beck Hanson; The Dust Brothers; Mario Cataldo, Jr.; Brian Paulson; Tom Rothrock; Rob Schnapf.
In My Collection: CD, 1996.

(Five minute read)

IN A NUTSHELL: Odelay, by Beck, is a record entirely of its era, an amalgam of genres, ideas, styles and choices from the mid-Clinton-era United States. Beck’s creativity never wanes, and even when he’s channeling his earlier, “Loser” self, he keeps the songs interesting and catchy. Beck demonstrated he was so much more than a one-hit-wonder, and his success into the next three decades confirms what many suspected the first time they heard Odelay: Beck is here to stay.


~ ~ ~

I’m old enough to remember when Beck was the hippest, hottest, most groundbreaking sound around. If you’ve read a bunch of these 100 Fave posts, you’ll know that I can remember farther back than that. A lot farther. And even farther than that. But for now, we’ll just settle into the soft glow of the mid-90s, when the nation ignored the creepiness, crimes, and ugly policies of the President because his opponents were even worse. When Silicon Valley was flexing its muscles and trying to disrupt things, but still mostly whiffing. When my girlfriend and I were buying our first computer together, by far the most valuable object we co-owned, and actually getting married. Oh yeah, that’s right. We got married in 1996.

We’d been sharing an apartment for a year an a half, and getting married seemed like the natural next step. By natural I mean in a practical, step-wise sense. Just like a growing lizard must shed its skin, or CO₂ must enter the Calvin Cycle, after deciding to mingle finances on a home, a couple must both have access to good, cost-effective healthcare. You see, while I was pursuing acting and comedy gigs in San Francisco, I held a job in the biotech/pharma industry that had pretty decent healthcare benefits. My girlfriend was finishing up a Master’s degree and working as an intern for the US government, so she had no healthcare. What better reason to enter into the contractual obligation of marriage (in America, anyway, with its fucked-up healthcare delivery system) than obtaining good healthcare?

So we woke up one morning, called in sick, called her old roommate, a professional photographer, and asked him to be our witness, went to San Francisco City Hall, and found the Marriage and Domestic Partner Commissioner’s office[ref]In 1996 the city of San Francisco granted marital rights to domestic partners. The City was so far ahead of the rest of America on Human Rights.[/ref]. It was a lovely ceremony, lasted 15 minutes, and cost $110. A friend who was out of work came along, and left an hour later having been made a San Francisco Marriage and Domestic Partner Commissioner! (She pointed out that her brother in Rabbinical School had to wait 4 years to be able to marry people, and she earned the privilege in a few minutes.)

This little story, to me, is a microcosm of the 90s. You might not realize it today, in 2023, but the idea of getting married without a big plan was pretty strange in 1996. (Later that day we bought plastic rings at a variety store because we didn’t think our friends would believe us if we didn’t have rings.) But ideas of marriage were changing. In 2023, folks are used to seeing all different kinds of people with different arrangements and approaches to creating a family. And in the mid-90s, particularly in places like SF, the seeds of this cultural shift were being planted.

There have always been folks on the edges of cultural propriety, doing things that cause the rest of society to gasp in dismay. But the 90s felt like the time when doing things differently from the norm began to take hold and become the norm. Just as the nerds in high tech were causing Americans to reconsider what was “cool,” Gen Xers were questioning all the unwritten rules of culture, and culture was responding with “You know, you have a good point there.” The Hippies did this in the 60s and 70s, too, but culture continued painting them as weirdos. Gen-Xers were the kids and younger siblings of the Hippie generations, so it was just how we were.

LGBTQ awareness and tolerance was growing, as stars like Greg Louganis (1994) and Ellen Degeneres (1997) came out. It wasn’t perfect, but by 1998 America reacted in horror to Matthew Shepard’s murder, a stark contrast to the indifference shown less than 20 years earlier during the initial AIDS epidemic. The first medical marijuana law was passed in California in 1996, and by ’99 four states had legalized it outright. The spiraling decline in religion over the past two decades began in the 1990s[ref]I generally think of this as a positive development, although it’s clear over the past thirty years that this decline has acted as a kind of zealotry distillation apparatus, in which the kinder, more thoughtful believers have evaporated from a given faith, and the hardcore assholes are left behind, which leads to a Supreme Court with five high priests whose dumbass invisible myth restricts women’s rights.[/ref]. And in music, the genre wars of the past were beginning to end, and musicians were combining all sorts of new ingredients in their melody stews.

I’ll never write about “nü-metal” or “rap-rock” because I never connected with it. (Except for Rage Against the Machine. I guess they’re in that category? Who knows; the whole music categorization thing is so weak.) But even before 90s acts like Korn and Limp Bizkit were metal-izing hip-hop motifs, there had been rap/rock hybrids surfacing every now and then. Metal fan Ice-T featured hard rock guitar in songs in the 80s, and famously led the hardcore band Body Count. Rap/rock collaborations, like 1991’s Anthrax version of the Public Enemy song “Bring the Noise,” crested with the 1993 Soundtrack to the film Judgment Night. But blending hip-hop and rock didn’t simply result in rappers rhyming over metal guitars or metal bands rapping. Many of hip-hop’s production techniques started to be heard everywhere, particularly in popular alternative rock songs.

Cake’s “Going the Distance” featured a tootling synth line, just like the one lifted from Parliament and featured in Dr. Dre’s “Let Me Ride.” Foundational elements of hip-hop, like sampling and DJ scratching, were heard on songs from acts like The Verve, and Sugar Ray. Hell, The Beastie Boys even had the privilege[ref]Wink, wink.[/ref] to become alternative rock stars. By the end of the decade, hip-hop motifs were a necessary ingredient for alternative rock one-hit-wonder stardom – just ask Len and Wheatus and Crazy Town.

But to my mind the coolest, perhaps purest, blend of hip-hop and rock (and several more styles than that) was Beck’s 1996 album Odelay. In 1993 I’d pegged Beck for one-hit novelty song status, expecting his 1993 top ten smash “Loser” to land somewhere between “Pac-Man Fever” and “Rock Me Amadeus” in terms of artistic legacy. But repeated listening to “Loser” reveals that there’s much more happening there than simply a fun, sing-along chorus and a few DJ scratches. Beck amalgamated sounds in a way that Buckner & Garcia or Falco hadn’t even attempted. I didn’t buy Mellow Gold, the album featuring “Loser,” but when I heard the first few singles from Odelay, I rushed out and bought the CD.

“Where It’s At,” the first single, is a ramshackle, folked-up-hip-hop singalong that takes all the elements of “Loser,” substitutes an electric piano for the acoustic guitar, and “two turntables and a microphone” for “I’m a loser, baby,” then ratchets up all of the sampling and studio shenanigans.

I always put links to the lyrics of songs. For Beck songs, however, I don’t know how helpful it is to read them. Much like Yes or early R.E.M., Beck’s lyrics tend to live in some space where cool words and catchy phrases carry their own meaning apart from whatever it is that, grammatically and linguistically, the combination of words would typically denote. (In other words, if you know what “Shine your shoes with your microphone blues/ Hirsutes with your parachute fruits” means, well god bless ya.) But the phrases are memorable. (“The jig-saw jazz and the get-fresh flow.” “Bottles and cans, just clap your hands.” “Members only hypnotizers.”) And the sounds and samples (the robot vocal; “That was a good drum-break;” “I rock the most;” “what about those who swing both ways? AC-DCs?;” “Let’s make it out, baby”) jell perfectly with the mellow groove of the song. Even the little drum break before “Where it’s at!” sticks in my head. It’s a super memorable song. And it has a way-cool organ solo outro (3:14.)

The next single was the lead track on the CD, “Devil’s Haircut.” When I’d heard “Where It’s At,” I thought it sounded like “Loser – Part 2,” but I liked it. “Devil’s Haircut” made me think there was probably more to the album that I’d really like.

For one thing, there’s a melody that’s sung by Beck! The lyrics are as bizarre as ever[ref]Love machines on the sympathy crutches/ Discount orgies on the dropout buses?[/ref] but there’s a catchy, if repetitive, tune to them. And the song is quite repetitive. I’m pretty sure the bass the same four notes for the entire song – but somehow all the noises and samples keep it from driving me insane. Plus the drums, like at 1:06, keep propelling it forward. There’s also a cool harmonica solo after the first chorus. The next single after “Devil’s Haircut” follows a similar script: catchy repetitive hook pumped up with found sounds, and strange lyrics. It seems to be about a woman this time. But somehow “The New Pollution” doesn’t really hold my attention.

Despite those similar tunes, Odelay is actually a stylistically diverse record. Take, for example, “Jack-Ass,” where he really goes into singer-songwriter mode. I think it works brilliantly.

This is a terrific headphones song – so much is happening in the background. For one thing, the bass is doing interesting, simple swirls in the background. And the organs create a spiraling, dreamlike atmosphere. And Beck’s thin voice is actually full of emotion – even if I don’t know what he’s singing about it sounds like he surely does. It’s a nice song, one of my favorites on the record.

But it’s hard to ever know what Beck’s singing about. Is “Hotwax” really about a karaoke weekend in a suicide shack? I doubt it, but it sounds really cool, nonetheless. With it’s old-timey guitar, distorted harmonica, and gross-fart-synth noise, it’s a funky soundscape that repeats the “Loser” vibe with style. (Plus it introduces the “enchanting wizard of rhythm.” (3:17.)) Then again, the slow groove “Readymade” actually seems to have a point, about moving on and freedom. He uses cool self-harmony and what sounds like an actual band, as opposed to a bunch of samples. It’s a mellow singer-songwriter turn, but keeps enough trashiness to be unmistakably Beck.

He turns even more singer-songwriter on the subdued “Ramshackle.”

His voice is flimsy but expressive on this little ode to couples and togetherness. Lyrically, it’s a sort of abstract modernist update of The Beatles‘ “Two of Us.” The song shows off just how wide Beck’s range of influences is. It’s a song you wouldn’t expect to sit next to “High 5 (Rock the Catskills),” a straight-up, heavily-sampled hip-hop track. (Which totally rocks, by the way, in a Beastie Boys style.) Then there’s a track like “Minus,” which is kind of heavy rock? It definitely demonstrates Beck’s versatility, but also shows that not everything necessarily works well.

Another genre featured on Odelay is, believe it or not, honky-tonk. Well, Beck-style honky-tonk.

“Lord Only Knows” would sound at home on a 1960s Waylon Jennings record. Except for the freakout opening, studio noise and weird guitar solo (1:31). Also, the lyrics are a bit too indirect – but it’s a great song! Variety is what makes an album re-listenable to me, and Odelay has it throughout. “Derelict” would NOT fit on a Waylon album. It’s creepy slow funk slop, and it just works. It’s hypnotic, Moroccan[ref]I guess? I don’t know Moroccan music, but it’s what I imagine it sounds like?[/ref], and has the standard Beck word-salad lyrics.

Novacane” also rides a funky beat, with a shaggy rap on top. It’s another spin in the “Loser”-mobile, not particularly distinctive. I would pick “Sissyneck” as the most perfect distillation of what Odelay has to offer. It’s got cool samples, a bit of a country flair, a nifty riff, and a great melody. The drumbeat is fun, and the harmony vocals stand out. The lyrics are once again opaque, but Beck delivers them with style. It’s one of my favorites on the record.

Odelay is a kitchen-sink record. It’s got everything. It accepts the world around it, immerses itself in diverse sounds and thoughts, and doesn’t stand on bullshit like tradition and institutional conventions. It’s what the 90s were like. It’s what America is like. Sure, in this era there are scared, whiney-baby trolls trying to fuck it up. But even myth-worshiping judges and hateful bigoted governors can’t stop what we started. Go listen to Odelay and you’ll understand.

Devil’s Haircut
Lord Only Knows
The New Pollution
Where It’s At
High Five (Rock the Catskills)


Album #121: The Low End Theory, by A Tribe Called Quest


The Low End Theory
1991, Jive Records. Producers: A Tribe Called Quest and Skeff Anselm.
In My Collection: CD, 1991.

(Five Minute Read)

IN A NUTSHELL: The Low End Theory is a record that is inventive and fun and makes me feel like a young man. A Tribe Called Quest use many jazz samples, which DJ Ali Shaheed Muhammad mold and distort into fresh sounds. The raps are funny and smart and invite the listener into a world where beats and snippets of melody reign. Q-Tip’s smooth, laid-back flow melds beautifully with Phife’s rapid patter, and the result is a hip-hop record that I return to again and again.


Hip-hop is a genre that’s grown up alongside me. “Rapper’s Delight” came out when I was in 7th grade, just as I was starting to care about music. I liked that song a lot, and I still know a couple of the verses. But I eventually lost touch with hip-hop, just as I did with the middle school kids I knew then. We just didn’t have a lot in common. By college, “Yo! MTV Raps” ruled the airwaves, and white folks my age and younger immersed themselves in the music. However, my caucasian ears were conditioned by years of classic rock, guitars and the tribal mentality of 70s-80s music, and they didn’t easily adapt to the repetition and lack of melody in most hip-hop songs.

Sometime after college I saw an MTV news piece on A Tribe Called Quest, and they seemed like goofballs. I mean that in a good way – like me and my friends. Their catchy and funny song “I Left My Wallet in El Segundo” had so many cool musical ideas that my melody-seeking ears were drawn in. The MTV item mentioned their pals, De La Soul, a hip-hop act I’d already discovered on MTV. When The Low End Theory arrived in late ’91, I picked it up. I always say, my hip-hop knowledge ends in 1992. Since buying The Low End Theory and De La Soul’s Three Feet High and Rising, Public Enemy’s Apocalypse ’91…The Enemy Strikes Black, and The Beastie Boys’ Paul’s Boutique and Check Your Head, I don’t think I’ve gotten another hip-hop record[ref]Except Jurassic 5’s Quality Control, which was billed as a throwback but just made me want to listen to De La and Tribe some more. I also may have purchased CDs by Digable Planets and Arrested Development.[/ref].

Because my appreciation of the genre is so limited, it’s hard for me to write about hip-hop. Truth is, I feel like a fraud writing about any music that isn’t guitar-based rock music. I listen to classic jazz quite a bit, but other styles are mostly background music for me. I’ll listen closely to some things[ref]My 100 Favorite Albums list contains only rock/pop records. I don’t listen to much classical music, and outside of Johnny Cash, about the closest my ears get to Country music is Lucinda Williams. On Sirius satellite radio, I often listen to Classic Soul, and at dinner time my family enjoys a Pandora station of Brazilian music. I’ve recently gotten a bit obsessed with Ghanaian and Nigerian 70s pop, and after seeing Toots (R.I.P.) and the Maytalls live a few years ago, I discovered a fondness for reggae.[/ref], but I don’t tend to dive in like I do with rock. But The Low End Theory is a record I really love, and so I’ll just try to explain why.

Right off the bat, the record sounds unique for pop music, sampling Art Blakey’s “A Chant for Bu” on the lead track “Excursions.”

I really enjoy jazz, and in 1991 a hip-hop act rapping over jazz samples was fairly unprecedented, to my (limited) knowledge. Rapper Q-Tip’s lyrics and flow set the stage for the album. His nickname is “The Abstract Poet,” but this rhyme is fairly direct. It describes his dad comparing hip-hop to bebop, then lays out the Tribe’s ethos of Afrocentrism and Black positivity. A sample of The Last Poets’ “Time” (2:00) acts as a bridge, but the beat keeps moving things forward. Q-Tip raps in a smooth, nasally tenor. It’s distinctive and sounds especially good next to his rapping partner Phife Dawg, who leads off on “Buggin’ Out.”

It opens with a downbeat bass line from “Minya’s the Mooch,” by Jack DeJohnnette’s Directions, but Phife (so-called because the late rapper stood 5’3″, and so was called “the five-footer”) makes it upbeat. He and Q-Tip trade verses all about what great rappers they are. And they do sound great together. They were friends since age 2 (Phife died in 2016 of complications from diabetes), and their playfulness always shines through.

So, when writing about hip-hop, am I supposed to name the samples? That will get overwhelming, and there are so many songs to mention. It is fun to hear the originals, however. Listening to them truly demonstrates the artistry of sampling, as they’re tweaked and distorted into new sounds. It’s worlds away from Vanilla Ice or MC Hammer rapping over a Queen or Rick James song. The third member of A Tribe Called Quest, Ali Shaheed Muhammad, is the DJ who put all the sounds together. Q-Tip has a massive record collection to draw from, and some of the fun for me when listening to hip-hop from this era (i.e. the five CDs I own) is knowing what the samples are. If you’re wondering, this site has an extensive list (that may be incomplete).

Rap Promoter,” has the longstanding pop/rock lyrical theme of wanting to get paid. Q-Tip interpolates Peter, Paul and Mary in his fantastic rhymes about fat promoters shorting him, something he won’t stand for anymore. “Butter” features Phife describing his life as a lothario in high school (with “Tonya, Tamika, Sharon, Karen/ Tina, Stacy, Julie, Tracy”), until he met his match in Flo. It’s a crazy-good verbal display, and it reaches a highlight as he complains about girls changing their looks so much they’re like The Bionic Woman. “Trying hard to look fly, but yo, you’re looking dumber/ If I wanted someone like you I woulda swung with Jamie Sommer.”

The Low End Theory isn’t only built on samples. “Verses From the Abstract” features jazz bassist Ron Carter and vocalist Vinia Mojica.

Carter kills it. His bass enters at 0:17, and throughout the song plays off Q-Tips vocals. It clearly demonstrates Q-Tip’s dad’s assertion of the connection between jazz and hip-hop. These rhymes are indeed quite abstract, stream-of-consciousness that sound dreamy in Q-Tip’s thick, precise voice. I love the “in the house” chorus, when Mojica sings (for example, 1:40), and Carter plays a descending run that sounds like his bass is chuckling. This is one of my favorites on the album.

So far, The Low End Theory has been rather laid-back, but A Tribe Called Quest pick things up on “Show Business.”

The drums (from drummer Allen Schwartzberg on James Brown’s “Funky President“) and all the samples (“Wicky Wacky,” “Mandementos Black“) are super funky and sound great together. The song is about the trials and tribulations of a performer’s life, and the band invites hip-hop friends from Brand Nubian and D.I.T.C. to help out. The rhymes are funny (“they lyrics is played like 8-ball jackets;” “eat from the tree of life and throw away the verbal ham”) and together they offer a view of The Business that isn’t pretty. (But it’s funky as anything!)

Vibes and Stuff” is a mellow, positive track about hip-hop, and it includes Phife’s funny reference to himself, “Hair is crazy curly/ flip like Mr. Furley.” “Infamous Date Rape” is a rather progressive-for-its-time song about treating women with respect, although it does make some dubious claims about a serious issue. (Making a woman’s menstrual cycle a key reason to ask for consent is, you know, problematic, but I guess if it made some man think a little about his actions we could call it a win?)

I love when childhood friends Q-Tip and Phife are rapping together about their past, and the best example of this is “Check the Rhime.”

The band uses a wickedly cool sample of the Average White Band song “Love Your Life” as the hook, and trade verses over Minnie Riperton’s “Baby This Love I Have.” Tip and Phife reminisce about the early days, and sound like they’re having a blast. The hooky chorus (“You on point, Tip?” “All the time, Phife”) is super catchy. This song also has one of my favorite rhymes in (my admittedly minuscule knowledge of) hip-hop: “Industry rule number four-thousand-and-eighty/ Record company people are shady.”

Everything is Fair” takes the Funkadelic song “Let’s Take It to The People” and uses it as the background for a tale of crime and woe in the big city. “Jazz (We’ve Got)” has some of the coolest rhymes on the record, including a sly reference to The Doors’ “Light My Fire.” “Skypager” is the closest thing to what I’d call album filler here, an ode to important technology, ca. 1991. The frantic “What?” is a series of questions from Q-Tip, set to a sample from Paul Humphrey[ref]According to Wikipedia, drummer Humphrey played with Steely Dan, Frank Zappa, Marvin Gaye … and was the drummer for Lawrence Welk![/ref], “Uncle Willy’s Dream.”

My favorite track on The Low End Theory is the closer, “Scenario,”a fun, infectious verbal free-for-all, a “posse cut,” featuring collaborators from fellow hip-hoppers Leaders of the New School. It’s a song that’s so fun and inventive, it’s remained on my playlists for 30 years.

The song’s a bouncy jam, and has an infectious jump-around beat. Its shout-along chorus (“Here we go, yo! Here we go, yo! What’s the what’s the what’s the Scenario?”) is pure party. The raps are amazing, with Phife (“all that and then some/ tall, dark and handsome”) leading things off. (“Bo knows this/ And Bo knows that/ But Bo don’t know jack/ Cuz Bo can’t rap.”) Leaders of the New School trade verses that are catchy and inventive, “from New York, North Kackalacka and Compton,” then the star of the song appears. The group featured a then-unknown 19-year-old Busta Rhymes, and his verse, introduced by Q-Tip at 2:49, is like a terrific guitar solo. It changes and builds, has a texture that’s different from the song but fits perfectly. By the time he roars “like a dungeon dragon,” I’m usually dancing around the room.

The Low End Theory is a fun record that I still listen to. I don’t know much about hip-hop and rap, but I know what I like. It’s 30 years old, but still sounds fresh to me, which is the most elderly thing I’ve ever written. Hip-hop and I have grown apart over the years, sure, but we still share some great memories!

Buggin’ Out
Rap Promoter
Verses From the Abstract
Show Business
Vibes and Stuff
Infamous Date Rape
Check the Rhime
Everything Is Fair
Jazz (We’ve Got)