New Rap Song (And Its Complicated Roots): Red Cafe, "I'm Ill"


How rap builds itself on itself: Brooklyn MC Red Cafe has a new song out called “I’m Ill.” I like it. But not everyone does. (The Pigeons and Planes website says “This track might be Mr. Marty Mediocre’s favorite new song.” Ha! Marty Mediocre must hang out with Plain Jane McLame and Norman McNormalson.) The song is interesting, though, at the very least, as a study of how production trends work. The beat is built around a vocal sample of Jay-Z saying “I’m Ill” on a record he released last year called “A Billie.” “A Billie” featured Jay rhyming over the beat from Lil Wayne’s hit “A Milli.” (“I’m Ill” samples Wayne saying “I’m Ill,” too. Wayne has said that when he originally heard the beat for “A Milli”-which was made by Atlanta-based producer Bangladesh, off a sample from an old remix of A Tribe Called Quest’s “I Left My Wallet In El Segundo”-he thought the phrase was “I’m Illi,” which brings us back to the lovely espresso Red Cafe might enjoy at the quaint little French place from whence he takes his name.)

“A Milli” was a huge hit. By far the most-jacked beat of 2008. (Meaning many, many rappers rapped their own new rhymes over it.) And it has proved very influential. “I’m Ill” is only the most recent of many songs that have been similarly built around a vocal snippet. Jay’s “Jockin’ Jay-Z (Dope Boy Fresh)” and T.I.’s “Swagga Like Us,” both produced by Kanye West, come to mind. As does Papoose’s “I Just Want The Paper.” Even Kid Cudi’s comparatively antiquated, analog-sounding “Make Her Say,” also produced by the prolific Kanye, off a Lady Gaga clip.

Of course, in their minimalism and record-scratching, “A Milli” and all its followers hearken back to golden-era 1980s rap. “I’m Ill” makes the nostalgia explicit, incorporating the famous call-and-response shouts from Rob Base and DJ E Z Rock’s 1988 classic “It Takes Two.” But if you check out Eric B. and Rakim’s, “My Melody,” from 1987, you can hear the seeds of the whole style.