By treating the turntable as an instrument, DJs have blurred the line between playing records and making music. Some, like San Francisco's Invisibl Skratch Piklz and New York's X-ecutioners, have done so to stunning effect. But a huge record collection and an acute ear doesn't turn everyone into an artist. Take, for example, "This or That," the new mix CD from Sway and King Tech, hosts of the nationally syndicated hip-hop radio program "The Wake-Up Show," which falters precisely when the DJs actually make music instead of just cutting it up and fitting it together.
"This or That" is a tour of raw, contemporary hip hop with generous nods to the past. The 31-track lineup, spotted with stellar DJs and skilled MCs, includes KRS-One, Eminem, Kool G Rap, Gang Starr, Jurassic 5, Eric B. and Rakim, Kool Keith, Big Daddy Kane, Bobby Digital and Redman. There are some amazing moments: hilarious, startling rhymes, turntable pyrotechnics, bass you feel in your guts and brilliant collage. "Improvise," by the young L.A. collective Jurassic 5, begins with a spare, jazz-inflected production and ultra-smooth rap that segues into an ode to hip-hop history, borrowing bits of hits from the last decade, from Schoolly D's "Gucci Time" to L.L. Cool J's "I Can't Live Without My Radio" and De La Soul's "Plug Tunin'." The group's vinyl wizard, Cut Chemist, gives the song a warm, syncopated groove and thrilling sample-scape. Similarly, Sway and Tech's sidekick, DJ Revolution, electrifies every track he touches, with quicksilver spirals of scratching and exhilarating electro-funk intros and remixes.
But the album's first single -- and what should be its centerpiece -- is surprisingly dull, especially considering all the talent that went into it. Performed by RZA, Eminem, Xzibit, Kool G Rap, KRS-One and others, "The Anthem," is less a show of collective strength than a soullessly aggressive masculine romp that seems intended as some sort of perverse answer song to mainstream R&B rap. Dominated by hard, male MCs and punctuated with the sound of machine-gun fire, it's the worst face of the kind of snotty neo-gangsta bullshit trafficked by guys like Dr. Dre protege Eminem. After all, who is Eminem but pure testosterone with a white trash sneer, the antithesis of Lauryn Hill's gospel-infused self-righteousness?
Maybe "The Anthem" wouldn't be so bad if it wasn't clouded by Tech's murky, pallid beats. (Actually, the music on every track produced by Tech sounds like a Casio set on horror-core, melodramatically gloomy instead of genuinely macabre.) The odd thing is that, as a DJ, Tech's flow is impeccable. On the 1996 mix CD "Hip-Hop Classics," he and Sway burned through 65 (!) songs in an hour and the beats never sounded disjointed. And even on "This or That" the tracks melt together effortlessly. It's actually shocking, considering his gift for mixing other's music, how plodding and bloodless his beats are when he writes them from scratch.
Hip hop has always been among the most nostalgic of musics, forever obsessed with the old school. But rather than longing for the hyper-kinetic Bronx vibe of Afrika Bambaattaa or Grandmaster Flash, many of the stars on "This or That" seem to want to go back to the days of original gangstas NWA (Eminem even raps "My attitude is worse than NWA's was"). It can't be an accident that, with women dominating rap like never before -- Missy Elliott succeeding Hill as the hip-hop poster-girl of the moment -- "This or That" features only one female. And Eminem, on a cut up version of "Get You Mad" featured here, goes out of his way to dis the young queens of urban radio: "All three of my main girls said see ya/'Cause Brandi and Monica walked in and caught me fucking Aaliyah."
The whole endeavor adds up to a thug's backlash against conscious female rappers and the relentless positivity of groups like the Black Eyed Peas. In some cases -- on old tunes like Cash and Marvelous's "Ugly People Be Quiet" and newer ones by Canibus and Redman -- the music's thrusting percussion and lyrical exuberance backs up the attitude. But when the disc slip back to King Tech and his apocalyptic machismo, it just sounds reactionary.