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    Monday, August 20, 2007

    Everybody, just clap your hands


    There used to be a dividing line, a gap as sharp as East Coast versus West Coast. Radio hip-hop and indie hip-hop lumbered over the landscape like two warring philosophies, and at least where I lived, you listened to one or the other. (And Outkast probably.) After tiring of Hot 97, I went off in the latter direction. I dismissed any track that didn't namecheck Betty Shabazz by the third verse. I scorned any song that didn't lay out a cogent vision for black empowerment. I blasted the gross materialism and vapid gun-talk that characterized most mainstream rap, but secretly, I thought some of it had some pretty hot beats too.

    But now, it hardly seems like there's a choice. Rap's kept on fissuring into ever-more microgenres, accommodating a vast range of possibilities between the disparate tentpoles of nerd-rap and hardcore. While the radio isn't any more diverse, digital media's liquidity means anybody can now throw together a playlist that samples styles prodigiously. The proliferation of hip-hop culture means that whole new fusions are taking place worldwide. J-Direct, a duo out of Chicago, represent a particularly notable dissolution of either/or. If they needed a label, they could comfortably be categorized as mainstream indie or indie mainstream, adopting many of the best features from both sides of the divide.

    Fitzgerald, J-Direct's MC, spits ably about a impressive variety of topics, sounding natural no matter his target. He brings the puffed-out-belly bravado of top cats, calling out challengers to step the fuck up, and shouts out to his hometown in a mix of local pride and hardscrabble nostalgia. On "Hand Be Free", he's nursing a broken heart and depicting himself as a vulnerable victim to swelling strings. Soon after though, he's recovered, pounding over a sizzling club banger, "Clap/Twerk," and imploring, "Young girl, just twerk that ass." He relies on the time-tested rap trope of building around hot hooks, but he's conscious of the formula, ending one sequence by playfully instructing, "This song ain't go no hook, so fade it out cuz I'm finished." He also condemns the usual route of hitting it big in commercial rap: "They want to follow their A&Rs, sorry mixtapes/ Payola radio, that's the shit that I hate."

    J-Direct's other half, Griff, backs Fitzgerald up every step of the way with some very fresh beatmaking. Throughout Live and J-Direct, his production stays exciting and novel, with particular shining moments on aptly named "Marvelous," "Integrity," and "What Is Better?" At times, it starts out humbly utilitarian, a wingman's superego reining in Fitzgerald's ferocious id. But Griff manages to infuse plenty of thoughtful details that distinguish his soundscapes. High-octane flourishes and bouncy electronics slip into the mix, and he has a clear talent for matching his beats to the raps' energies. He's also as versatile and style-promiscuous as his partner, which makes sense given the explanation that "Marvelous" offers. The album's opening song and an origin story, it recalls the group's first meeting: "When we hooked up with Griff/ He like El-P, I like Missy Elliott."

    These days, that kind of style clash isn't that strange or that anomalous. In a borderless era, where contemporaries like Clean Guns are shouting, "Many styles" as a mission statement and Timbaland's collaborating with Bjork, J-Direct fit in perfectly as a group blazing their own trail. They're not carefully crafting an image or hewing to what's marketable, but they're also not dismissing the notion of having fun, partying and talking shit. They're just making great hip-hop any way they please. They're engaging every weapon in their arsenal and coming out swinging, taking whatever they touch as their own.

    * MP3: "What Is Better?" - J-Direct from Live and J-Direct
    * MP3: "Clap/Twerk" - J-Direct from Live and J-Direct [Buy it]
    * MySpace: J-Direct

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