Sharps & Flats

A hack genius, a bloodthirsty M.C. and a few mouthy street kids from Yonkers: The Ruff Ryders find a chartworthy formula -- again.

Topics: Music,

Swizz Beatz is a hack genius. The hip-hop producer fingers a simplistic splash of keyboard, generates some haltingly syncopated bump and calls his boys in to chant some hoarse phrase like “Ryde or die!” All of a sudden he has another hit. Though he secured his rep working with already respected rhymesayer Jay-Z and bald, bullyish multiplatinum heavyweight DMX, Beatz has seemed determined to prove that he can turn any mouthy street kid with a microphone and a baggy football jersey into a star. As if to demonstrate that, he piloted a crew of DMX’s Yonkers pals, who called themselves Ruff Ryders — among them the terse Drag-On, the snide Jadakiss and female M.C. Eve — to an unexpected No. 1 berth on the pop charts one year ago.

It all sounds so simple, you see, because it is so simple — especially the tracks themselves. In a field where track masters brag of their attention to technical detail and the depths of their vinyl vaults, Swizz is state fair champion hot-dog eater as paint-by-numbers auteur. No one — not even rival assembly line producer Mannie Fresh of hip-hop outfit Cash Money, who averages a mere half-hour to pump out a jam — can match Swizz’s economy. According to an interview with Blaze, he can whip up a hit in an astounding 10 minutes.

You don’t need a calculator to figure that the 16 tracks on the Ruff Ryders’ inevitably platinum, No. 2 Billboard debut “Ryde or Die Volume II” should have killed off no more than two hours and 40 minutes in the busy life of the talented Mr. Beatz. Then again, you might be able to guess how little time he invested just by listening. That’s a compliment, of course: How long do you think it took to compose the first Ramones record? The spare whomp of Ruff Ryders isn’t arty minimalism, though the bobbing, off-kilter influence of superproducer Timbaland (Missy Elliott, Jay-Z, Nas) is palpable, and many of these doodles coagulate into bona fide hooks. It’s dumb-ass punk, ryding out a wallop that either merges irreparably with your arterial pulse or slams with unwelcome suddenness against your tympanum, never to be translated from blare to cheer.

The M.C.s seem to have tossed off their rhymes with equal briskness. “We ain’t industry niggas,” the assembled Ruff Ryders blurt on the leadoff track, “we in-da-street niggas.” And that’s as deep as their bully-boy playground taunts get. Unless you count outrageous similes from ringers the Lox (“I got ‘em looking for my solo album/Like Kennedy Jr.”; “I want my shit back/Like Castro and Elian’s pops”), the highest verbal points are bludgeoning quips like newcomer Larsiny’s: “I hate cops and I like you/Even less/I turn your whole block into/A bleeding mess.”

In this simplified context, even often-overwrought tuff guy DMX gets to wrest himself from the stifling curse of Nu-Pac significance his albums often wallow in, to prove that (despite his svelte, rippled torso) he is best suited to what we’ll just call grumpy-old-man rap. As on “Party Up (Up in Here),” he seems to snarl for you kids to giddafuck out his yard — it’s his ball now, muhfuh. And on “Ryde or Die’s” “The Great,” he bellows like you’ve woken him up an hour after he passed out from too much Hennessey; as soon as his eyes adjust to the light he’s gonna pound you.

And give X one good reason why he shouldn’t pound you. Maybe the members of Ruff Ryders generally offer less social critique than the WWF, but the notion that gangsta rap is an implicitly political art form has always been a bit of a con anyway. Maybe it all started when Ice Cube claimed to have predicted the Los Angeles riots, or maybe way back when Schooly D was fronting sociological interpretations of his bad behavior like a ghetto Pat Moynihan. In either case, one arm of the well-meaning punditry began to excuse the metaphoric violence not as a fun bout of playacting but as a critique of inner-city social policy.

But something was missing from such facile analysis: Sometimes you don’t want to beat someone’s face in because of your socioeconomic status. Sometimes you don’t want to beat someone’s face in because the NYPD has declared open season on folks who share your skin color. No, sometimes, say the Ruff Ryders, you just want to beat someone’s face in because you want to beat someone’s face in.

Keith Harris is a writer living in Minneapolis.

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