Riffin’ and Samplin’: Danny Brown Raps Bob Dylan, and Jimmy Page Remixes Biggie
Classic rockers crib a few moves from hip-hop, and the results aren't cringe-worthy!
On Friday, Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page released “Ramblize,” a remix/mashup of the Notorious B.I.G.’s “Hypnotize” and Led Zep’s “Ramble On,” with Page’s guitar and Robert Plant’s vocals sliced up into little pieces to make a lithe, serviceable, boom-bap-suggestive hip-hop beat, with scratching and everything. But given the famous name involved, no one is willing to state the obvious: It stinks. Soundcloud is filled with these sorts of slightly-above-amateur remixes.
Then again, whether or not “Ramblize” is any good is besides the point: The very idea of a world-famous Guitar God rearranging one of his own songs and sticking a classic rap a cappella over it is still a pretty big deal in terms of how and where hip-hop can stick its head. And it’s a casual affront to plenty of po-faced guitar teachers who worship Page and are going to have a hard time holding tight to their rockist rhetoric now that Biggie’s good enough for Jimmy. It was fine for Page to join Puff Daddy on “Come With Me” back in 1998, but it’s another thing to become a beatmaker and “bastardize” one’s own music, right? Things done changed.
But this reverse-engineered remix also reminds us of Led Zeppelin’s strange history with hip-hop; namely, that in 1993, the group sued Schoolly D for his song “Signifying Rapper,” which was built around a version of the “Kashmir” riff, as played by Schoolly’s manager. (The lawsuit was brought on by the 1988 track’s inclusion in Abel Ferrara’s 1992 cop-out-of-control classic Bad Lieutenant.) As plenty of other people have pointed out in the 20 years since the lawsuit, Led Zep, who pillaged plenty from black music, could’ve maybe let this one incident where a black artist “stole” from them slide.
Puff’s “Come With Me” added insult to injury, sampling and interpolating “Kashmir,” and thus creating a frustrating maze of context: Here was something like an “official” version of “Signifying Rapper” that went above and beyond the legal up-and-up by getting Page to replay his riff, but recasting it in the hip-hop-loop style that Schoolly D’s manager had already used. It speaks to Page’s knotty and sometimes callous old-fart attitude toward hip-hop.
That’s a little less apparent on “Ramblize”, though. At age 69, the guitarist is finally entering the world of grab-from-anything Internet culture — scooping up an a cappella, remixing his own music, dropping the results onto Soundcloud — and at least subconscously pointing out that this strategy isn’t all that different from the hallowed (and much-protected) blues tradition, where it was common to pilfer from old songs and melodic ideas to keep it moving. What is sampling and what is stealing, exactly? Everyone’s been thrown against the wall a little bit with this one: Rap fans are confounded, and classic rock die-hards have to imagine their Guitar God (gasp!) getting all laptop producer on their asses.
Meanhwhile! Yesterday, we got an “interactive video” for Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone,” as promo for the upcoming box set Complete Album Collection Volume 1. It’s an ambitious recreation of what it’s like to channel-surf the hot mess that is everything-and-nothing-at-your-fingertips cable television in 2013: Using your arrow keys to change the channels while the song plays, you can cycle through archival Dylan footage, tedious cooking shows, boring talking heads, podcasting comedian Marc Maron, and those piggymen from Pawn Stars, etc., all with key characters lip-syncing to the track. It’s really smart and well-done and an interesting way to address the role that a monolithic character like Dylan has on pop culture: He’s so significant that he’s both above this consumerist nightmare we’re all living in (because everybody’s singing his song) but rolled up into it whether he likes it or not.
But the clip’s most compelling section features rapper Danny Brown, pretty much doing a music-video-like performance to the song, delivering Dylan’s lyrics as if they were his own while messing around on a playground and eating a burrito (plus a corn dog). Brown’s portion is totally, ha, Dylan-esque: a sly, casual, middle-finger-esque way to address this opportunity while underplaying it, and thus proving that he truly “gets” what the guy was often about. Notice how Brown even changes outfits between shots, suggesting the personae-shifting qualities that mark Dylan’s career.
Danny Brown rapping Bob Dylan lyrics also highlights the way that the latter’s eccentric speak-singing style was a kind of proto-rapping; D.A. Pennebaker’s clip for “Subterranean Homesick Blues” (essentially a rap, by the way) remains a fairly badass and very hip-hop gesture. And this new “Like a Rolling Stone” project has a way of making the handmade qualities of “Ramblize” a little more interesting as well. One isn’t better than the other, but contrast the idea of Dylan nodding to this big, silly idea with Page right down in it, digitally dissecting his own music in a clumsy but charming way. Both are strange, idiosyncratic explanations as to how hip-hop fits into the continuum of boomer-pimped rock’n’roll, and that’s an exciting development. Especially coming from Page and Dylan, who most certainly don’t need to grab onto rap music for some cool points.