ALBUMS / Smoke gets in your eyes: Andy Gill reviews new releases from two of the hottest acts in rap. Plus gospel bliss and techno terror

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The Independent Culture
CYPRESS HILL

Black Sunday

(Columbia 474075)

THE PHARCYDE

Bizarre Ride II the Pharcyde

(eastwest 7567 92222 2)

AFTER years of crack and alcohol exerting their stranglehold on rap, it comes as something of a relief to find marijuana once more in the musical ascendant: these two LA rap crews both proclaim their fondness for herb, though it appears to affect them in wildly different ways.

Cypress Hill are probably the biggest thing in rap at the moment: their debut album spent over a year on the American album charts, and the dope- and gun- drenched Black Sunday should ease comfortably into the multi-platinum bracket. And rightly so: the two Cuban-American rappers, Sen Dog and B-Real, are probably the most potent pairing in the genre, while the third member, Italian- American producer DJ Muggs, has developed a highly commercial version of the Public Enemy / Bomb Squad style, with hard drums, abnormally loud bass, and a brusque collage of squeals, thunderstorms, and samples from artists as far apart as Black Sabbath, and Dusty Springfield.

The group's real star here is B- Real, possessor of the most distinctively unpleasant instrument in rap, a fearsome in-your-face sneer that slaps the words around with the casual violence of a Roadrunner cartoon: when he warns of how mad booze makes him, you believe him implicitly, because he sounds that way anyway. On ritualised armaments brags like 'Cock the Hammer' and 'Hand on the Glock', meanwhile, one is reminded of Travis Bickle asking, 'You talkin' to me?' How this crew square their fascination with firearms with their love of getting stoned is a matter for debate. Whatever, Black Sunday sets the pace in this year's rap race.

Coming up hard on the outside, though, are the Pharcyde, a quartet of wacky rappers who met while breakdancing on American teen TV shows like In Living Colour. Despite their 'semi-pro' origins, however, they bring an authentic street style and youthful exuberance to their raps, most of which seem to have been developed from freestyle busking: typical is 'I'm that Type of Nigga', which uses the chorus line 'Who is the nigga in charge here?' to preface bouts of fantastic off-the-cuff invention as each rapper takes charge in turn.

There are distinct similarities with fellow LA rappers the Freestyle Fellowship, especially since producer J-Swift specialises, like the FF, in cool jazz-rap grooves, but the Pharcyde's vision is more absurdist and comic, and prone to more excruciating rhymes ('7- Eleven Slurpees' with 'I got herpes', for instance). They're at their most engaging on tracks like 'Officer', a tale of automotive paranoia, and 'Ya Mama', a roundelay of insults that's the modern equivalent of things like Bo Diddley's 'Say Man', taken to ludicrous extremes: 'Ya mama got an afro with a chin-strap'. How marijuana has affected them, I know not.

THE STEELES

Heaven Help Us All

(Elektra Musician 7559-61290-2)

ALL the great soul and gospel groups have their own distinctive harmonic signature, the product of seemingly limitless tonal and timbral calculations: the way a particular voice rests against another, the carefully choreographed exertions and relaxations of inflection - though there's a danger that the classical purity of such as Take Six renders their work rather lifeless. No such problem here: like that other testifying family, the Staple Singers, the Steeles (Fred, JD, Jevetta and Jearlyn) counterbalance this possibility by bringing a churchy verve to their performances.

Best known for their work with Prince - who contributes a typically incongruous, robo-rhythmed track, 'Well Done' - the family Steele follow the Chic formula, with the brothers responsible for the music and the vocal arrangements, and the sisters providing the star voices. There's plenty of gospel gusto in their version of the standard 'Heaven Help Us All', while rhythmic variation is furnished by Daryl Boudreax's creole-flavoured percussion on 'Oh What a Gift'.

The only sour note in the set comes on the climactic 'Big God', which sadly contains within its rejoicing all the incidental triumphalist imperialism of Christianity: 'My God's a strong God / He made the mighty mountains . . . My God's a loud God / He rocks the hemispheres' etc.

SPIRAL TRIBE

Tecno Terra

(Big Life BFLCD 6)

MOBY

The Story So Far

(Equator/Mute ATLASLP 001)

The debut album from the Spiral Tribe collective - whose parties led the law enforcement agencies of several shires a merry dance throughout the last few summers - consists of motorised techno- terror beats and headcleaner white- noise interrupted here and there by fragments of new-age sermonising.

On one level, it may be the best hardcore techno LP since the Prodigy's debut, though Spiral Tribe allow fewer hooks to hang on to, locking single-mindedly into the dervish principle of insight through sensory exhaustion espoused by shamans of all cultures.

But there's the whiff of a new- age Stalinism in its aggressive martiality and the accompanying manifesto statements. 'At full volume the resonance and rhythm of sound inputs the extra energy required to jolt the human sensory circuits up into the next level,' explains one, 'from the terrestrial to the extra-terrestrial'. Ah, so it's not music, it's space travel, then?

Moby's debut album compiles the less well-known house tracks which followed in the wake of his Twin Peaks mix-up 'Go', which is included in two different mixes. Alas, not all the pieces have that track's grace: some - 'Ah Ah' and 'Drop a Beat', most notably - are hardcore headache techno, the former utilising a really annoying rumble of distortion deep in the mix for added alienation; others, like 'I Feel It', employ typical Black Box-y vocal samples set against simple keyboard vamps. There is, however, a Kraftwerk- style elegance to Moby's synth tones on 'Mercy', and in general The Story So Far employs greater variety - and artistry - than the Spiral Tribe album.

It pumps harder, too, when it needs to: 'Thousand' spoofs the entire genre by gradually increasing speed until it's barrelling along at an absurd 1015bpm.

Try dancing to that and staying fashionable.

(Photograph omitted)

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