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Many of today's most successful hip-hoppers share a simple credo: Creativity is for suckers. In their view, success isn't judged on the basis of good reviews, which, after all, can't be cashed in at the bank. The Benjamins are what matter, and whoever has more of them at the end of the day wins. Period. The end.

Bill Laswell has a different opinion. A musician and producer who's spent his entire career on the far-out fringes of the music industry (his biggest hit, Herbie Hancock's "Rockit," was a happy accident), Laswell has long used the Material name as an umbrella term, gathering under it musicians of the moment eager and willing to join him in mutual risk-taking. And on Intonarumori (the name refers to machines invented by Luigi Russolo, the Italian futurist who penned the 1913 manifesto "The Art of Noises"), he turns his attentions to hip-hop. His goal for the disc is as simple and straightforward as the declaration stamped on the CD's liner: "Rap is still an art."

Proving this contention could have turned out to be a stone drag, but for the most part, the resulting cuts are as intriguing as they are smart. Folks capable of picking up the scent of pretensions will find some: "All That Future," the spoken-word blather offered up by the Golden Palominos' Lori Carson ("Hours swallow minutes/Day's gone/The sun moves across the sky again/Morning light against the wall, then gone"), implies that she showed up at the wrong house party even if she is in the company of P-Funk veteran Bernie Worrell. Moreover, Laswell stretches out too many tracks with haunted-house atmospherics seemingly channeled from DJ Spooky. But on "Conspiracies [248K aiff]," he gets an almost cogent performance out of Kool Keith, and "Burnin' [293K aiff]" finds Public Enemy's Flavor Flav sounding better than he has in years. Just as impressive are "This Morning," an eerie bit of aural darkness offered up by the Juggaknots featuring Breeze and Queen Heroine; "Temple of the Mental," highlighted by the creepiest turn Killah Priest has yet committed to plastic; and "Life Itself," throughout which the Ghetto Prophets and DXT demonstrate how to get the feet moving without putting the brain to sleep.

Not everything here will sound incredible booming out of an open Jeep, but neither must these songs be studied before they can be heard. After more than twenty years of existence, hip-hop has developed to the point where it can move down many different paths without losing its way. And this is a direction worth taking.

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts

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