Unlike the breakdancing it originally accompanied, hip-hop music hasn't quite made the transition to the mainstream. Sure, artists like Afrika Bambaataa, Melle Mel and the Furious Five or Run/D.M.C. are well known on the R&B charts, but by and large the pop Top 20 remains terra incognita for these groups.
Instead, the hip-hop sound (electronically oriented black dance music) has crossed over, as recording artists interested in dance hits have learned that hip-hop studio tricks can make almost any record hotter. Thus, recent releases have found Daryl Hall and John Oates using hip-hop auteur Arthur Baker for a few tracks of their new album; Robin Gibb electronically enhancing the tracks of his solo debut in genuine hip-hop style, and Barry Gibb even incorporating rap into his stylish dance pop.
All of which makes them certifiably au courant. But does it make them funky?
Not really. At best, it enhances the rhythmic aspects of their music, but there's a big difference between a strong pulse and the perfect beat. Take, as an example, "Big Bam Boom" (RCA AFL1-5309), the latest offering from Hall & Oates.
The record gets off to an impressive start, as "Dance on Your Knees," a fiercely propulsive Arthur Baker collaboration, dissolves into the more characteristic blue-eyed soul groove of "Out of Touch." Hall & Oates make good use of the hip-hop approach to instrumental balance, which plays spare harmonies off against a monolithic drum treatment with heavy reverb lending the whole thing a larger-than-life grandeur. As a production philosophy, it works because it understands a dance record's priorities -- the beat, then the melody -- and reduces all else to window dressing.
This sonic strategy leaves hip-hop sounding fairly cold, however, in that it recognizes intensity but not sensitivity, and that leaves Hall & Oates at a disadvantage. Because the duo's roots run deep in the romantic ooze of Philly soul, their instincts are for lush harmonies and sweetly sung melodies. But the hard-edged production values of hip-hop leave the duo sounding brash and brittle, with Daryl Hall's expressive tenor unflatteringly flattened by the mix. Occasionally, as on the saucy "All American Girl" or the infectious "Method of Modern Love," they find the ideal middle ground, but when they cap "Possession Obsession" with sweet doo-wop harmonizing, it's hard not to feel shortchanged.
To an extent, it's almost better to start out with a stiff sound and add on studio effects. That's the approach former Bee Gee Robin Gibb has taken on his solo debut, "Secret Agent" (Mirage 90170-1), and it seems to have been quite a canny move for the singer.
Basically, what he does is employ the digital delay, a device that can be used for everything from echoes to stuttering repeats, and the harmonizer, a gizmo that electronically alters the pitch of a sound, as melodic instruments. So "Boys Do Fall in Love" has a funny, robotic final chorus that turns the singer's voice into a sort of synthesizer, while the sinuous melody of "X-Ray Eyes" slides impressively through layers of echo. The production doesn't necessarily make the songs better, but it does make them more amusing.
Still, there's always the possibility that new sounds will be seen as little more than the latest gimmick. To Barry Gibb, hip-hop's rhythmic vivacity is just the latest dance beat, something that can be plugged into his songs as easily as the disco beat was back when he was still a Bee Gee. No surprise, then, that "Now Voyager" (MCA5506), his solo debut, is as manipulative as it is catchy.
There's no denying that this Gibb has a way with melody. From the stylized funk of "Fine Line" to the rich choruses of "Face to Face," the songs here practically bulge with melody, and Gibb's appropriation of hip-hop rhythms guarantees each tune a certain lively bounce. As enjoyable as the album is, though, little of it stays with the listener, in part because the songs are pleasant to the point of vapidity. Add the annoyance of the singer's squirrel-like warble, and there is all the more reason to avoid "Now Voyager."