Article by Mary Sekela
Fusion: The process or result of joining two or more things together to form a single entity.
Confession time: When I first began the research for this article, my motivation was less than admirable. Mostly, I was pissed off at Pitbull. Far from a single entity, his track “Back In Time” sounds more like a battle royale—two or three genres, thrown into the ring and forced to beat each other with big, clumsy sticks.
Luckily for us all, Pitbull’s version of hip-hop fusion is not the only one out there. In fact, just a little bit of digging will prove that there’s a lot of genuinely interesting and successful experimentation going on. So, instead of spending this entire article hating on such-and-such an artist for failing to deliver, I’m happy to introduce you to a few who are doing a bang-up job of uniting hip-hop and rap with anything from metal to jazz to folk. Of course, it’s not all perfect—experiments go awry, and sometimes they blow up in our faces—but I hope this list will at least give you some idea of hip-hop fusion’s considerable potential. From the best to the not-so-best, here it is:
This is my personal favorite: the gritty, bass heavy and often psychedelic sounds of metal combined with rap’s spoken rhyme. While it may seem like these styles developed on opposite ends of the musical spectrum, this type of fusion is pretty common—but it’s easy to let metal’s basic building blocks overpower attempts to highlight any rap or hip-hop influences. Death Grips, however, is a must-listen for fans of either genre. Featuring Nine-Inch-Nail type instrumentals and hard hitting spoken vocals, this trio seamlessly blends the best (and trippiest) of their sampled styles. If you like Rage Against the Machine, Hollywood Undead, or Odd Future’s MellowHype, Death Grips will have you head banging in ten seconds flat.
At first I was determined to put this genre at the very bottom of my list. Clumsy attempts (cough, Pitbull, cough) at this type of fusion have been crowding the U.S. radio waves since dubstep’s first massive assault on the mainstream—but electro-rap has such undeniable potential that I decided to give it second place. You might have to look across the pond to find the really juicy stuff, though. The United Kingdom, for example, has recently given us Riz MC, whose latest album MICroscope is a fantastic, alien-inspired blend of signature electronic effects (that’s electronica, kids, I’m not talking about Skrillex here) and rap vocals. Riz’s clever—not to mention damn sexy—beats and lyrics make this album an important part of any balanced iTunes library. If you dig electronic artists, like Infected Mushroom, and want to see how they’d sound under the rap influence, Riz is for you.
Jazz and rap have been flirting for a while now, but often the result sounds more like pure R&B than either contributing genre. Robert Glasper’s Black Radio, however, features strong, unmuddied jazz influences—most apparent in the slick drum and piano lines—as well as vocals from artists ranging from Mos Def to Musiq Soulchild. Many of the tracks on this production are heavier on the jazz and soul side than the hip-hop or rap, so the fusion isn’t perfect—but the album itself is an excellent and classy compilation (just try not to enjoy those piano solos—I dare you.) In any case, if you like Mos Def, you will absolutely dig his contributions to this musical experiment.
Folk music, traditionally acoustic, earthy, and spread only via live performance, may seem totally incompatible with the modern rap and hip-hop genres—but if you look hard enough, you can find just about anything. I was recently introduced to the folk-rap duo Kri and Hettie, whose music knits together acoustic guitar, sweet vocal harmonies and positive spoken word lyrics into an uplifting and interesting blend. The duo tends to favor the folk (and soul) half of their fusion, and it’s almost impossible to get the full effect unless you see the ladies live—but if you’re into artists like Michael Franti, then Kri and Hettie are worth a listen. If, however, you like your rap without the spiritual slam-poetry sprinkles, avoid this duo at all costs.
I’m almost sad to slip this genre in at number five. After all, Santogold (Santigold) and DJ Diplo released their mixtape collaboration “Top Ranking: A Diplo Dub” only four years ago, and that’s some damn fine fusion—but most of the reggae-rap I hear these days is, well, borrrrrrrring. Ky-Mani Marley is one of the few artists still out there doing this well, and we haven’t heard much from him since “New Heights” was released in March of last year. Plus, if you look far past Marley’s reggae-heavy style then you’re bound to come up against reggaeton—and there’s a good reason I didn’t give this repetitive sub-genre a place on my list. But hell, if you like Daddy Yankee, more power to you—I can only suggest you spread those wings and try a little Marley or Santogold for dessert.