You can divide rappers into two camps: those who celebrate making money, and those who talk about making the world a better place. In the days of A Tribe Called Quest and De La Soul, rap artists could cover all sorts of ground. Then, as commercial hip-hop artists made millions by selling the bling-bling dream, hip hop's spectrum split into polar opposites.
Until this year, that is, when an incendiary union of a left-field producer and a half-forgotten New York rapper turned those preconceptions on their heads. For, on their album Ghetto Pop Life, Danger Mouse, or DM, and Jemini the Gifted One combine thought and intelligence, humour and party spirit.
"I'm a part of that whole ghetto lifestyle, but that's only part of who I am," explains the New York rapper Jemini, not to be confused with the Liverpool duo who won us nul points in Eurovision. "I don't have anything against the bling-bling culture, but I have a problem with the saturation of anything, even if it's conscious, positive rap, because I don't want to hear that all the time. Artists that do a bit of everything are not the norm," he mourns.
He does have one beef with hip hop's bling-bling obsession. Among aficionados, Ghetto Pop Life has been praised as the return of a prodigal son, as if Jemini had returned from the dead. Signed to Mercury, he almost came to fame in the mid-Nineties but was one of many hip-hop artists sacked by a major label for no good reason. His early singles were mourned as lost classics, though Jemini continued to work on remixes and his own independent releases.
"My resumé is crazy, but people don't know it, because if you don't have a hit record, people believe you've disappeared. They are in a bling-bling frame of mind, and if they don't see you on TV, you ain't working. In the music game right now, being a hip-hop artist is not heralded as much as taking a whole bunch of money. You can be the wackest cat, but if you're platinum, you'll be at the Billboard awards."
Whereas Jemini was born and raised and continues to live in Brooklyn, the producer Brian Burton went to college in the indie hotbed of Athens, Georgia, where he immersed himself in psychedelia and soundtrack music, sources that continue to influence him. Seeking a change of musical atmosphere, he came to London, though it was much earlier that he acquired the unlikely moniker of Danger Mouse.
"We had Danger Mouse back a long time ago on the Nickelodeon TV channel, and we just loved it," Burton explains. "So when I started out making mix tapes, that was my name. I never thought I'd make it big in England and still have that name."
Indeed, he started wearing animal costumes at the dynamic duo's first publicity shoot. "As a producer, I like to be in the background. I didn't want some guy taking pictures of me in my street clothes, because I don't really dress to impress. I feel more comfortable in ridiculous-looking clothes."
In London, Burton originally signed as a solo artist to the techno label Warp's hip-hop imprint Lex Records. When he needed a rapper, his first thought was to track down his old hero Jemini. "I still had his first 12"s. I guess it was all the different styles he had, and every track he did was a big song, though back then I didn't realise he was making all those voices on his record."
Jemini is an uncommonly flexible vocalist. By pitching his voice high and low, he can sound like a whole crew of rappers. Burton sent Jemini a tape of four instrumental tracks and asked the rapper to choose one. Thrilled by the production, Jemini came up with a song for each. "Brian had a lot of diversity, though he kept a certain groove, especially with his avant-garde samples. I immediately knew I could go off in all kinds of directions," he says.
Along with Outkast's double-header, Speakerboxxx/The Love Below, Ghetto Pop Life is this year's most engrossing hip-hop record. DM's open mind takes samples from the most unexpected sources: cartoons, angelic choirs and Latin tunes, though always with an ear to the dancefloor. Jemini's smooth flow, meanwhile, takes in the booty-celebrating party rhyme of "What U Sittin' on?" and the Dubya-baiting "Bush Boys".
It is an amazing feat for two artists from such different backgrounds. They share open minds and have a similar sense of humour, but most telling is their individualism. Jemini has remained aloof from New York's endemic gang culture, while Burton is far too eccentric to get along in a team.
"I was never part of any skate crew or anything," the producer says. "I feel suffocated if I have to be a certain way or have people sitting on that kind of stuff. We're both extremely individual."
Jemini adds: "I'm a bit of a loner, though I know a lot of people, and I think he's a bit of a loner, too. As far as the music is concerned, I kept it that way because I never wanted my identity to be contingent on who I was with, or it would be fame by association. I wanted people to recognise me for what I'd done."
"Though it would have helped if you had associations," Burton says. Jemini can only agree. DM and Jemini are half-way through recording a second album, and a clue as to its direction can be found on their forthcoming Twenty Six Inch EP, which has Burton remixing tracks with a more sophisticated sound than his old-school efforts. All that, though, is outshone by Jemini taking the album's title track and singing it in a jaw-droppingly sweet voice. "Yeah, there's going to be a lot more singing on the album," he says. "On Ghetto Pop Life, we were learning to work together. Next time, we'll be able to express ourselves more."
There's just one cloud on the horizon. The duo were booked to play a Lex gig in London tonight, but have pulled out because Jemini is facing a court case and has been refused leave to visit the UK, even though he was allowed to come over in the summer. The duo are tight-lipped on the details, but the fear is that the ghetto pop life may have caught up with Jemini.
The 'Twenty Six Inch' EP is out on 10 November on Lex RecordsReuse content