My iPod was on shuffle the other day and a song popped up I honestly didn’t even know I still owned. It was an early 90’s song about having an afro by a group called “Th Afros”. Hearing this song again for the first time in probably 15-20 years got me thinking about all the fantastic(ly bad) gimmicks people have run with over the years. So, I thought up ten of them. I’m surely missing some good ones so feel free to add them on in the comment section. Just don’t be a smug prick about it. I was curious what you guys would consider the “best” gimmick. To be clear, when I say “best” I mean the most ridiculous. Not to be confused with the gimmick that made the best music cause, you know, that’s boring. So, here are the gimmicks, a brief synopsis of them and an example. What do you think?
Gimmick #1: Afro’s
This group was affiliated with Russell Simmons, co-signed by all sorts of respected rappers and featured DJ Hurricane (The beastie boys dj for a while) as the high pitched mc. I honestly can’t even really wrap my head around what their angle was. Blaxploitation plays in there somehow. I’d venture to bet they saw Humpty Hump and that got the wheels turning but who really knows. What I do know it that this got released as a full length album on a major label and I own it on cassette.
Gimmick #2: Horrorcore
Gangster rap reached a point where it just wasn’t extreme enough. Sure, killing people in a song will be good forever but dudes in the early 90’s needed more. They needed to be full blown lunatics. The thing about this gimmick is that it actually had some legs and resulted in some good music. To this day, Gangsta nip’s South park Psycho is still a great album, in my mind. The early incarnations of this gimmick were strangely sincere. Not that the people who made the music were actually serial killers but they sprung up organically out of mostly small local scenes. Texas, the bay area and detroit all had popular horrorcore acts that, to this day still get bumped. But when did it jump the shark? The Flatlinerz. They
were like the musical equivalent of when the grandma says “For shizzle my nizzle!” in movie preview. Once they rapped from a grave, it was a wrap.
Gimmick #3:Being “Folksy”
This was perhaps a response to the dominance of gangster rap. Or maybe an unfortunate and misguided spin off of the Native tongue movement. It’s hard to really say. But when Arrested development dropped, I was ready to be a fan. Three videos later and one album later, it was clear they had figured out a way to manufacture that good old “down-home cooking”. The problem with this was that they were so unbelievably corny that it made their folksy-ness downright annoying. Fucking MR. Wendall…Surprisingly, This Gimmick didn’t take though. But I do like to think it opened doors to hippies in hip hop which, as fans, is fine but it led to so many terrible jam bands that feature rappers it’s actually more terrifying than the Flatlinerz.
Gimmick #4:Being white
It’s been an uphill battle for white rappers since day one. Before indie rap, nothing was more crucial for a white rapper than a strong co-sign from a non-white rapper. Authenticity was more important than the music itself. The Beastie’s did it. 3rd Bass made it. But then Vanilla Ice ruined it for everyone. After that debacle, lots of burgeoning white rappers were left with their pink dicks in their hands. What was a whig to do? Well, clearly, join a group called “The young Black Teenagers” with a bunch of other white dudes and get a few albums produced by Public enemy’s own Bomb Squad. When the YBT dropped I was 14/15 and pretty much loved any hip hop that wasn’t about dancing. Even the young , impressionable me heard them and was like “wait…what?”. No amount of pay offs to the source magazine could steer this ship right. Even though “Tap the bottle” was a minor hit, the gimmick of basking in their own whiteness, while claiming blackness is simply a state of mind, was dead from the start.
Gimmick #5: Whispering
This may be the creepiest of all the gimmicks. Whispering sex rhymes. I won’t front. The Ying Yang Twins song is hilarious. “Wait’ll you see my dick” will go down in hook history as one of the finest phrases ever spun by rapper with only half their teeth intact. But this was just never gonna take. Thing is, to have a hit, you’re gonna eventually have to perform it. You know what doesn’t work when you’re performing in from of fans who are making noise? Whispering. Unless they’re performing at a silent disco, I can’t see it working. And it didn’t. These two songs came out and that was that. Though, you could argue that the super talented brooklyn rapper Ka does his own version of whisper rap, I’d say he just speaks quietly to great effect.
Gimmick #6:Bi-lingual rappers
This is one that comes up often with people from europe who read this blog. I’ve made a clear “i don’t care about listening to rap in languages I don’t understand” stance. This isn’t to say that music is bad, it’s simply not for me cause, well, I want to understand what the fuck a rapper is talking about.
In the early 90’s, there was an attempt to bring the spanish language into mainstream hip hip. Thing is, these songs did incredibly well in the markets they were aimed at. I’m sure, in L.A., Kid frost is still a legend. But to those of us who failed Spanish 2 three times, we all pretty much gave up on this the second the english ended.
Gimmick #7:Tongue twisty, iggity biggity nonsense rap
Now, this is a gimmick I LOVED. It just got out of hand. It was in an era where MC’s were really doing anything to set themselves apart from other rappers.So, in reality, it was born from a good , creative place. Rapping fast was not yet as standard as it is now and , aside from big daddy kane and Jaz, no one really did it too much. So , a few groups came out rapping nursery rhymes at lightening speed or adding superfluous “iggity’s” at the end of words. Das Efx was really a game changer. Anyone fronting like they didn’t love that shit back then has no heart or is the Beatnuts. But, all that said, it was clearly a gimmick. One of the more absurd ones, when you think about it but , still, I give them all props for trying something different.
Gimmick #8: Akinyele’s lowering the voice thing
While the tongue twister rhyme style took off, Akinyele was like “Fuck that…I got my own thing!”. And he ran with it. From his first verse on wax, on “Live at the BBQ”, Ak set the stage. his gimmick? Simply lowering his voice at the last word of a rhyme. That was it. I’d imagine he thought it would take off. Or maybe he thought it would be his very own calling card. EIther way, it never did. That said, he made a great debut album despite of it so you can’t really be THAT mad at the guy.
Gimmick #9: Shaved headed , screaming, lunatics
Much like horrorcore, this was fully a reaction to the popularity of gangster rap. This, however, was NYC’s direct answer to it. I recall seeing thugs with shaved heads popping up all over in the early 90’s. It really raised the bar of terror for all of us who didn’t want our discman’s stolen while waiting on a train platform. Once considered just for skinheads, the hood embraced the bald head look (I’m thinking Michael Jordan plays into this somehow) with great results. Onyx popped on the scene and everyone was like “whoa..those are the hardest rappers ever”. Little did we know they were all 5’3” and used to be ravers, but still…it worked. After them, copy cat groups popped up everywhere , the most overt and offensive being “The Hoodratz”. But no one ever captured the glory of a bald screaming maniac quite like Onyx. On the bright side, these dudes can still tour eastern europe whenever they want and make tons of money. Tough guy gimmicks tend to have way more legs than, say, arrested development rapping in burning man pants.
Gimmick #10: Children rappers
Pushing kids into music has always been a thing. Sometimes, it’s created greats. Where would Michael Jackson have been if he hadn’t been brutally forced to become a pop star by his tyrannical father? In rap, there was always that desire to find the prodigy. The Lebron James of rap that could hang with the big boys. So, they’d find some high pitch voiced child who could keep a flow going, white some rhyme for him and throw him on a beat. This resulted in a lot of rappers who “had potential”. The problem was that, anytime you marketed the kids age, it was a wrap. He would forever be that kid. Kinda like most child actors. Meanwhile, kid rappers had existed under the radar for years. Ll Cool J was 15 when he started. Mobb Deep were kids. L-swift was a respected underground rapper by the time he was 16. All these guys succeeded (Well, not L-swift but he was dope) cause they rapped well DESPITE their age. These other dudes? They were all guys who probably could have become respected rappers later on but got caught up in that child rapper bullshit. Oh well…