On July 4th, Ben FM and Fan Ran, along with Swerve 36, dropped “American Music.” Four years in the making, this seven-song cycle tells the story of America from the Revolution to the emergence of the hip-hop nation. It is an incredible album. It is a risky album. It’s my favorite album of 2017.
Let me digress: I moved out to Virginia over a decade ago for graduate school. I trained to become a scholar and historian. My area of expertise is post-1865 American history, and specifically post-World War II American cultural history and hip-hop. So when I put on American Music—an album all about American history expressed through hip-hop—it blew my mind.
Jono, BEN FM, & Fan Ran of Gritty City Records —
Better still, this isn’t whitewashed history. Ben, Fan, and Swerve offer up American history as experienced by marginal voices: immigrants, indentured servants, slaves, women, bootleggers, and working-class folks. This is A People’s History of the United States as told through hip-hop.
Have I lost you yet? Rest assured this is not Flocabulary™ or some other institutionalized educational gimmick. Sonically and lyrically this album’s the shit. The lyrics for each song were culled from historical documents using actual quotes so that the language matches the song’s era.
The instrumentals were likewise culled from “historical documents,” all vinyl. As Fan Ran explains, “the music was made completely from vinyl records, containing rarely heard sounds and dialogue” to create a pre-digital hip-hop soundscape. Not only does “American Music” attempt to preserve historical authenticity through lyrical sources, but also provide an “authentic” hip-hop musical experience by keeping the music analog.
I’m all about context, so let’s break down three of the album’s standout tracks to get a true sense of the craftsmanship of “American Music”:
“The Whim of Death,” tells the story of the American Revolution beginning with the Boston Massacre. The song builds with a minor key martial beat haunted by Fan Ran’s refrain from the Gospel of Mark, “Let No Man Put Asunder,” while Ben FM raps “fife and drums, blood and whiskey/ arms and artillery/ with me and against me,” quoted, in part, from Issachar Bates’ Revolutionary era memoir. Even though the outcome of the war is never in doubt, the track is filled with tension.
“The Narrow Way” is built around a snippet of a working blues song that is looped throughout the entire track placing slavery front and center as the cause of Civil War. Ben FM uses Moses Roper’s narrative of his enslavement and escape to accurately depict this era. It’s a powerful track vividly depicting the intersections of race and economics that were foundational to building the nation.
Concluding the album, “The Next Room” places the emergence of hip-hop coincident with the computer age. The track starts with Russell Simmons saying, “the realest thing you could do was just put a drumbeat with nothing but a drumbeat,” leading into a slick early hip-hop/electro funk beat. Ben and Fan create the lyrics for the song by quoting from a variety of other hip-hop songs beginning with “Guess what/ America we love you,” from Sugarhill Gang’s “Rappers Delight.” From here the song quotes Run DMC, and Public Enemy, among others. The song ends with a sing-a-long to Violent Femmes: “Do you like American music? I like American music.”
The overarching theme of this album is hip-hop is THE American music. The vision of the album comes from Divine Profitz founder Chadrach’s song, “Soul Search,” rapped on “The Next Room.” Chadrach raps, “From Blues came Jazz/ from Jazz came Soul/ from Soul came Disco, Pop and Rock ‘n’ Roll/ Every genre stemmed from black music/ Hip-hop combined all that and used it.”
As Ben FM says, “the subliminal message is that the evolution of rap is far from over.” With “American Music,” Ben, Fan, and Swerve redefine the America’s past by charting a course for hip-hop’s future.
“American Music” is out now via Gritty City Records and Bandcamp. On July 20th, catch Ben FM, Fan Ran, Swerve36, Johnny Ciggs, Big Lo, PT, and Samson for a full album performance at En Su Boca.
Words by Kevin Kosanovich – follow him on twitter at @Kevinkos81