Liberal hip-hop. Democrat rap. Conscious rap. Hippy hop. Whatever you choose call it, this stuff undeniably constitutes a whole sub-genre, encompassing Arrested Development, Spooks, Jurassic 5, Fugees, Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy/Spearhead, Roots, and the Daisy Age dudes (De La Soul, Tribe Called Quest). The shared attributes are a fondness for real (and preferably acoustic) instruments over scratching and sampling, no bling, no bitches, no bullets, dreadlocks instead of razorcuts, and feelgood sentiments instead of macho frontin'.
The Black Eyed Peas were just another name on the list, peddling similar fare for two albums to only moderate acclaim, until "Where Is The Love" caught the wave of an anti-NeoCon backlash, giving Will.I.Am, Apl.de.Ap and Taboo a belated breakthrough in the US, and spent more time at number one in the UK than anyone else in 2003.
"Where Is The Love" must, of course, be praised for explicitly calling the CIA "terrorists". This is a band whose hearts are in the right place (right down to the End Israeli Occupation stall in the foyer). Ultimately, however, "Where Is The Love?" was a song you could agree with, rather than a song you could love.
"Shut Up", its irritating successor, would surely have stiffed had it not followed on the heels of such a megahit. But there's no denying that for the time being, The Black Eyed Peas have captured a mood. Many of Birmingham's real-life Vicky Pollards - townies in denim minis - are wearing flat caps in imitation. But in the flesh, BEP are just another Conscious Rap cliché. They tick all the correct boxes, shuffling on in their dreads and fishing hats (bearing a Red Bull logo rather than any designer brand), in front of a live band (percussion, keyboards, guitar, sax).
The addition to the line-up of a foxy chick (the unfoxily-named Fergie) who is willing to gyrate in tight crop tops (they're PC, but they're not that PC), has undeniably made them more marketable, but musically she's a liability: she should be incarcerated for what she does to Snoop & Pharrell's "Beautiful". Ming Xia she ain't.
The Black Eyed Peas sound is a throwback to early Nineties jazz-rap (Dream Warriors, Digable Planets). They lift the sax break from Public Enemy's "Night Of The Living Baseheads" (to far weaker effect), they chant "If it smells like funk it must be us" over a tune nicked from "Putting On The Ritz", but it feels tired and stale: standard hands-in-the-air fare with plenty of bounce, but not a lot of groove (never mind "Where Is The Love", where is the sex?).
Will.I.Am does deserve respect for breakdancing in a powder blue linen suit, and for getting 2,000 people to chant "I wanna get retarded". But in a year when Outkast and N*E*R*D have set the bar for nonconformist hip-hop at an all-time high, it won't do.
Twenty-five years ago, we couldn't be so choosy. To most of us, there was only one rap record, and that was "Rapper's Delight" by The Sugarhill Gang. Dismissed as a novelty by many, it blew just as many minds, including mine: I bought the 12-inch when I was 11 (for which I'm rather proud of my 11-year-old self). When you consider than it is little more than an extended skit in which three New Yorkers talk boastful nonsense over the bassline to Chic's "Good Times", the detractors might, you would think, have a point. But a quarter-century later, "Rapper's Delight" is still a fail-safe floor-filler, revered by DJs the world over (not least because the full 15-minute edit is handy if you need to dash to the loo).
Still, The Gang's 25th anniversary tour is far from a sell-out, rap fans famously (but regrettably) having scant sense of history. But those who turn up to see Wondermike, Master Gee and Big Bad Hank (nowadays very big indeed) do not regret it: the queue for autographs at the end says it all.
The Sugarhill Gang will always be known for one song, and one song only. As a result, the trio's Silver Jubilee show is one long build-up for the big tune, littered with padding (mainly other people's tunes, such as House Of Pain's "Jump Around"). To spin things out a little longer, they're joined onstage by Scorpio from Sugarhill labelmates The Furious Five, which is used as a paper-thin pretext for a "Message"/ "White Lines" medley, prompting a local lad called Coza to evade the bouncers and give us a spectacular breakdancing display.
When they finally drop the immortal intro, a barrier-breaching invasion means more people are onstage than in the crowd, and we get a generous nine-minute version, taking us as far as the bit about Wondermike going round to his mate's house and having to eat "chicken that tastes like wood", and the childish vignette where Hank tries to lure Lois Lane away from Superman, on the grounds that "He's a fairy, I do suppose/ Flyin' through the air in his pantyhose" and "He can't satisfy you with his little worm/ But I can bust you out with my super sperm..." If The Black Eyed Peas can write a rhyme like that, I'll be coming back in 25 years.
The Black Eyed Peas: Brixton Academy, London SW9 (0870 771 2000), 3 March; Forum, London NW5 (020 7344 0044), 12 MarchReuse content