The Experienced Listener Presents: The Rapsody Overture, by the Voelker Brothers
So I’m browsing YouTube the other day, in the mood to listen to some G-Funk. While watching the video for Smokin’ Me Out— or maybe for the remix to Game Don’t Wait (remix), I can’t remember— I look to the side of the screen and notice the link to a video for a track called, Prince Igor by Warren G. Now, I’ve been listening to Gangsta Rap for a long time; only rarely have I come across a title that creative. So I decide to give it a look and a listen.
What I find blows me away. A video I’ve never seen before places Warren G in some kinda Black Ops facility in the middle of a desert with some pale specter of a lady singing opera. I discover not only a creative song and video, but an entire album of hip hop/classical music collaborations. I’ve stumbled upon The Rapsody Overture.
So, I go to Wikipedia to do a little unscientific research. The album was made in 1997. ‘Turns out this Warren G track went to #1… in the UK. In America, it only reaches… actually, I see little to no mention of its American sales. As a matter of fact, before that moment, I had zero awareness of this whole album’s very existence, and I was an avid watcher of music television in ‘97-‘98.
However, none of this surprises me. You see, over the years, I’ve noticed that certain things get promoted in America, and certain things get swept under rugs. Music that’s traditionally considered “Black” gets promoted; music that’s traditionally considered “White” gets promoted. But take the “Black music” and the “White music” and put them together… that’s not getting promoted.
After all, whether you realize it or not, musical genres in America are used to keep the market segregated. The last thing the industry wants to see is cultural exchange and enlightenment. Keep it simple. Keep it dumbed-down. Keep it familiar. Keep it segmented.
…But we’re here to talk about the album.
The idea The Rapsody Overture is to take already-recorded hip hop songs and to blend them with beats that are synthesized from classical music samples. The resulting album is surprisingly well-congealed; kudos to the album producers, the Voelker Brothers. I know this is 2011, but listeners from my generation remember what it was like when hip hop music had strong emotive content. Well, classical music is all about emotive content. And this album successfully manages to emphasize that common thread and make it the focal point.
On the album’s first single offering, E Lucean Le Stelle, rapper Xzibit makes an appearance over a sample of Giamcomo Puccini’s E Lucevan Le Stelle. The beat is very simple; not overwhelming, but it has this wonderful ornamentation that appears periodically to keep the listener interested. The major samples appear in a melody that plays underneath the vocals (as an oboe) and after the ends of each verse (as a flute). Meanwhile, Xzibit delivers a gritty rhyme about his lyrical prowess. A solid start to the album.The song Dalilah, track #5 on the album, features Reverend Run of the legendary Run DMC. On the chorus, you hear the vocals of Gabrielle Fiodoresku, as she sings parts of Mon Couer S’ouvre à ta Voix. While it’s not a lyrical smorgasbord, Reverend Run cleverly adapts the biblical story of Samson and Delilah for the streets, as he spins a tale of “Big Sam” and his downfall at the hands of a vixen. What drew me into the song was the classic hip hop drum sequence, easily recognized from such songs as Set Adrift on Memory Bliss by PM Dawn and That’s the Way Love Goes by Janet Jackson.
Even though Warren G’s Prince Igor is the juggernaut on The Rapsody Overture— landing at #1 on the UK charts back in 1998— the most perfected track on the album, in my opinion, is Vissi D’Arte featuring Onyx. This track does several things in one fell swoop. It introduces the hardest of hardcore hip hop banter and blends it with a beautiful aria, sang by Kathy Magestro. And this blending manages to prove that the snarling battle cries of Onyx are quite theatrical; you can picture the MCs playing the roles of tragic protagonists in an opera. (Actually, aren’t most of these guys actors at this point in their careers?) Not only is there a collision of musical styles, but there is also a collision of cultures. Of all the songs on the album, this one really brings the classical sound to the hood. The chorus simply repeats, “Is it the ghetto way of thinkin/ We be smoking blunts and drinkin/”— if that’s not hood, I don’t know what is. Yet, behind the dogpile of voices, the aria seems to empathize with the struggle like an angel of mercy. (Pardon my use of ‘dogpile’; the pervading thought as I listened to this track was, “Where is DMX?! He would’ve been a great addition to this track!”)
Lastly— because I just love the idea of this— The Rapsody Overture features not one, but two strong deliveries by two legendary female MCs. And by ‘strong’, I mean “relying on raw rhyme and lyricism over sex appeal”. Mother Superia and Nikki D represent correctly with the tracks Belle Nuit and Recondita Armonica. The former track features rap that borders on spoken-word poetry as Mother Superia conveys a love story of deception over a sample of Belle Nuit, o Nuit d’amour, which is sang by Heike Therjung and Kathy Magestro. Later on, Nikki D delivers a stern reprimand to young girls living promiscuous lives to the haunting bellows of Kim Chung Park, as he sings elements of the original Recondita Armonia. And when I say ‘bellows’, it really feels like Park is tearing his heart out of his chest and bleeding grief over the track, making it a close second for my favorite on the album.
Though The Rapsody Overture is not without its faults, at its best, this album is a gem. Of the 14 tracks, there are at least 8 solid listens, maybe more depending on one’s tastes. It’s too bad that the American market is as culturally stagnant and obviously segmented as it is; there’s no way that this album should have fallen through the cracks into obscurity.