Hip-hop's oddest, best and most unexpected pairings, as chosen by Sage Francis
Underground rapper Sage Francis closes his latest album, "Li(f)e," with a five-and-a-half minute orchestral memoir. "The Best of Times" is a warts-and-all, near-spoken-word take on growing older, told with self-deprecation, and laced with an almost comforting sense of insecurity. In the span of a verse, Francis relives the pain of sporting braces and headgear, and then wonders if he'll ever find a wife.
The heavily detailed diary-like entry comes with an unexpected collaboration, even for the cult hero. "Best of Times" sees Francis partnering with acclaimed French composer Yann Tiersen -- perhaps best known to American audiences for his score to "Amelie." The song is epic in scope, opening with a playful xylophone, all while Francis reminisces on his "conveniently religious" family and failed attempts at asking out a girl in junior high.
Tiersen's arrangement doesn't let Francis wallow in nostalgia, as near-mechanical atmospheres break up the soft accompaniment. More classical than, say, Kanye West's works with Jon Brion, a rhythm doesn't really arrive until more than halfway through -- the beat allowing Francis to pick up the pace and keep the song from getting too grandiose. It's ultimately a tale about learning to keep perspective through good and bad, and Tiersen's guitars rescue the song from self-pity at just the right moment.
It's not the only cross-genre pairing on the album. Francis, who will appear Sunday at the Music Box@Fonda in Hollywood, composed "Li(f)e" with members of Calexico, former Grandaddy leader Jason Lytle and Death Cab for Cutie's Chris Walla, among others. The album varies from the Southwestern shades of outlaw tale "Little Houdini" to the spooked violins of "Diamonds and Pearls" to the call-and-response rock 'n' roll of "Love the Lie."
On Sunday, Francis will be backed by a live band in the Free Moral Agents, which features Mars Volta keyboardist Isaiah "Ikey" Owens. Tickets, which are $20, not including Ticketmaster service charges, are still available.
In the spirit of Francis' style-hopping album, Pop & Hiss asked the artist to rank the most unexpected pairings in hip-hop history. Francis e-mailed his list to Pop & Hiss, and explained each of his choices below:
The Fat Boys & the Beach Boys,"Wipe Out"
In 1987 the Fat Boys remade the Surfaris' "Wipe Out" song and they had the Beach Boys singing the background vocals. This is one of the most bizarre pairings in hip-hop history and it hardly ever gets talked about. In fact, I just had to revisit the video on YouTube to make sure this song actually existed and it wasn't a figment of my imagination. There it is...in all its amazingness. Not as amazing as Brian Wilson's short stint as a rapper (which lasted for at least one bizarre non-ironic song as far as I know) but it is peculiar, comical and catchy.
Public Enemy & Anthrax, "Bring the Noise"
While Run-DMC and Aerosmith may have had the most popular unexpected hip-hop pairing, the BEST unexpected pairing has to be what Public Enemy did with Anthrax in 1991. When they remade PE's "Bring the Noise" it merged two counter-culture genres together in a way that had never been done before. It was incredibly risky at the time, and it may have helped contribute to a lot of bad metal-rap, but I have to believe it inspired great things such as the "Judgment Night" soundtrack. Win some, lose some.
R.E.M. & KRS One, "Radio Song"
One song I never liked much but it always pops into my head when discussions about unexpected hip-hop pairing comes up is R.E.M.'s "Radio Song" that features KRS-One. This was also released in 1991. I think it's an interesting pairing, and it was really cool to see someone like KRS get commercial radio play (while seemingly railing against commercial radio), but it's definitely not the kind of song that the hip-hop crowd embraced the way they did "Bring the Noise." That being said, this collaboration opened up KRS' listenership to a bunch of folks who appreciated his message and music but never would have checked into him otherwise.
B. Dolan & What Cheer? Brigade, "Border Crossing"
A recent and personal favorite odd pairing is one with B. Dolan and a 15-piece marching band called What Cheer? Brigade. The song is called Border Crossing. I was there in the Providence warehouse studio when this was recorded and as soon as the music began I wondered why I hadn't tried something like this before. I guess it seemed like an impossibility until I saw it executed in person and I'm still jealous of that collaboration.
Ed. note: Due to the profanity in the opening of the "Border Crossing" clip, it is not embedded on the family-friendly music blog.
Brother Ali beatboxing with Justin Timberlake
Lastly, perhaps the most bizarre and truly unexpected hip-hop pairings happened when Justin Timberlake stepped on stage during a Brother Ali performance this past January in Jackson, Wyoming. Brother Ali was performing a show for a snowboard magazine when JT popped up unannounced, grabbed a mic and started beatboxing. The only footage that exists has horrendous sound but you can clearly see that Ali is doing his very best to freestyle to an avant-garde, arrhythmic beatbox. A+ for effort on everyone's part there.
Ed. note: The Justin Timberlake / Brother Ali clip is indeed unlistenable. It's embedded above for its spirit.
-- Sage Francis; Intro and compiled by Todd Martens
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