Author Topic: When the People Cheer: How Hip-Hop Failed Black America  (Read 2081 times)

Offline Reginald Hudlin

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When the People Cheer: How Hip-Hop Failed Black America
« on: April 22, 2014, 01:51:28 pm »
When the People Cheer: How Hip-Hop Failed Black America
By Questlove
This is the first in a weekly series of six essays looking at hip-hop's recent past, thinking about its distant past, and wondering about the possibility of a future.

There are three famous quotes that haunt me and guide me though my days. The first is from John Bradford, the 16th-century English reformer. In prison for inciting a mob, Bradford saw a parade of prisoners on their way to being executed and said, “There but for the grace of God go I.” (Actually, he said “There but for the grace of God goes John Bradford,” but the switch to the pronoun makes it work for the rest of us.) The second comes from Albert Einstein, who disparagingly referred to quantum entanglement as “spooky action at a distance.” And for the third, I go to Ice Cube, the chief lyricist of N.W.A., who delivered this manifesto in “Gangsta Gangsta” back in 1988: “Life ain’t nothing but bitches and money.
Those three ideas may seem distant from one another, but if you set them up and draw lines between them, that’s triangulation. Bradford’s idea, of course, is about providence, about luck and gratitude: You only have your life because you don’t have someone else’s. At the simplest level, I think about that often. I could be where others are, and by extension, they could be where I am. You don’t want to be insensible to that. You don’t want to be an ingrate. (By the by, Bradford’s quote has come to be used to celebrate good fortune — when people say it, they’re comforting themselves with the fact that things could be worse — but in fact, his own good fortune lasted only a few years before he was burned at the stake.)

Einstein was talking about physics, of course, but to me, he’s talking about something closer to home — the way that other people affect you, the way that your life is entangled in theirs whether or not there’s a clear line of connection. Just because something is happening to a street kid in Seattle or a small-time outlaw in Pittsburgh doesn’t mean that it’s not also happening, in some sense, to you. Human civilization is founded on a social contract, but all too often that gets reduced to a kind of charity: Help those who are less fortunate, think of those who are different. But there’s a subtler form of contract, which is the connection between us all.

And then there’s Ice Cube, who seems to be talking about life’s basic appetites — what’s under the lid of the id — but is in fact proposing a world where that social contract is destroyed, where everyone aspires to improve themselves and only themselves, thoughts of others be damned. What kind of world does that create?

Those three ideas, Bradford’s and Einstein’s and Cube’s, define the three sides of a triangle, and I’m standing in it with pieces of each man: Bradford’s rueful contemplation, Einstein’s hair, Ice Cube’s desires. Can the three roads meet without being trivial? This essay, and the ones that follow it, will attempt to find out. I’m going to do things a little differently, with some madness in my method. I may not refer back to these three thinkers and these three thoughts, but they’re always there, hovering, as I think through what a generation of hip-hop has wrought. And I’m not going to handle the argument in a straight line. But don’t wonder too much when it wanders. I’ll get back on track.
I want to start with a statement: Hip-hop has taken over black music. At some level, this is a complex argument, with many outer rings, but it has a simple, indisputable core. Look at the music charts, or think of as many pop artists as you can, and see how many of the black ones aren’t part of hip-hop. There aren’t many hip-hop performers at the top of the charts lately: You have perennial winners like Jay Z, Kanye West, and Drake, along with newcomers like Kendrick Lamar, and that’s about it. Among women, it’s a little bit more complicated, but only a little bit. The two biggest stars, Beyoncé and Rihanna, are considered pop (or is that pop-soul), but what does that mean anymore? In their case, it means that they’re offering a variation on hip-hop that’s reinforced by their associations with the genre’s biggest stars: Beyoncé with Jay Z, of course, and Rihanna with everyone from Drake to A$AP Rocky to Eminem.

It wasn’t always that way. Back in the late '80s, when I graduated high school, you could count the number of black musical artists that weren’t in hip-hop on two hands — maybe. You had folksingers like Tracy Chapman, rock bands like Living Colour, pop acts like Lionel Richie, many kinds of soul singers — and that doesn’t even contend with megastars like Michael Jackson and Prince, who thwarted any easy categorization. Hip-hop was plenty present — in 1989 alone, you had De La Soul and the Geto Boys and EPMD and Boogie Down Productions and Ice-T and Queen Latifah — but it was just a piece of the pie. In the time since, hip-hop has made like the Exxon Valdez (another 1989 release): It spilled and spread.

So what if hip-hop, which was once a form of upstart black-folk music, came to dominate the modern world? Isn’t that a good thing? It seems strange for an artist working in the genre to be complaining, and maybe I’m not exactly complaining. Maybe I’m taking a measure of my good fortune. Maybe. Or maybe it’s a little more complicated than that. Maybe domination isn’t quite a victory. Maybe everpresence isn’t quite a virtue.

Twenty years ago, when my father first heard about my hip-hop career, he was skeptical. He didn't know where it was all headed. In his mind, a drummer had a real job, like working as music director for Anita Baker. But if I’m going to marvel at the way that hip-hop overcame his skepticism and became synonymous with our broader black American culture, I’m going to have to be clear with myself that marvel is probably the wrong word. Black culture, which has a long tradition of struggling against (and at the same time, working in close collaboration with) the dominant white culture, has rounded the corner of the 21st century with what looks in one sense like an unequivocal victory. Young America now embraces hip-hop as the signal pop-music genre of its time. So why does that victory feel strange: not exactly hollow, but a little haunted?
I have wondered about this for years, and worried about it for just as many years. It’s kept me up at night or kept me distracted during the day. And after looking far and wide, I keep coming back to the same answer, which is this: The reason is simple. The reason is plain. Once hip-hop culture is ubiquitous, it is also invisible. Once it’s everywhere, it is nowhere. What once offered resistance to mainstream culture (it was part of the larger tapestry, spooky-action style, but it pulled at the fabric) is now an integral part of the sullen dominant. Not to mention the obvious backlash conspiracy paranoia: Once all of black music is associated with hip-hop, then Those Who Wish to Squelch need only squelch one genre to effectively silence an entire cultural movement.

And that’s what it’s become: an entire cultural movement, packed into one hyphenated adjective. These days, nearly anything fashioned or put forth by black people gets referred to as “hip-hop,” even when the description is a poor or pointless fit. “Hip-hop fashion” makes a little sense, but even that is confusing: Does it refer to fashions popularized by hip-hop musicians, like my Lego heart pin, or to fashions that participate in the same vague cool that defines hip-hop music? Others make a whole lot of nonsense: “Hip-hop food”? “Hip-hop politics”? “Hip-hop intellectual”? And there’s even “hip-hop architecture.” What the hell is that? A house you build with a Hammer?

This doesn’t happen with other genres. There’s no folk-music food or New Wave fashion, once you get past food for thought and skinny ties. There’s no junkanoo architecture. The closest thing to a musical style that does double-duty as an overarching aesthetic is punk, and that doesn’t have the same strict racial coding. On the one hand, you can point to this as proof of hip-hop’s success. The concept travels. But where has it traveled? The danger is that it has drifted into oblivion. The music originally evolved to paint portraits of real people and handle real problems at close range — social contract, anyone? — but these days, hip-hop mainly rearranges symbolic freight on the black starliner. Containers on the container ship are taken from here to there — and never mind the fact that they may be empty containers. Keep on pushin’ and all that, but what are you pushing against? As it has become the field rather than the object, hip-hop has lost some of its pertinent sting. And then there’s the question of where hip-hop has arrived commercially, or how fast it’s departing. The music industry in general is sliding, and hip-hop is sliding maybe faster than that. The largest earners earn large, but not at the rate they once did. And everyone beneath that upper level is fading fast.

The other day, we ran into an old man who is also an old fan. He loves the Roots and what we do. Someone mentioned the changing nature of the pop-culture game, and it made him nostalgic for the soul music of his youth. “It’ll be back,” he said. “Things go in cycles.” But do they? If you really track the ways that music has changed over the past 200 years, the only thing that goes in cycles is old men talking about how things go in cycles. History is more interested in getting its nut off. There are patterns, of course, boom and bust and ways in which certain resources are exhausted. There are foundational truths that are stitched into the human DNA. But the art forms used to express those truths change without recurring. They go away and don’t come back. When hip-hop doesn’t occupy an interesting place on the pop-culture terrain, when it is much of the terrain and loses interest even in itself, then what?

Back to John Bradford for a moment: I’m lucky to be here. That goes without saying, but I’ll say it. Still, as the Roots round into our third decade, we shoulder a strange burden, which is that people expect us to be both meaningful and popular. We expect that. But those things don’t necessarily work together, especially in the hip-hop world of today. The winners, the top dogs, make art mostly about their own victories and the victory of their genre, but that triumphalist pose leaves little room for anything else. Meaninglessness takes hold because meaninglessness is addictive. People who want to challenge this theory point to Kendrick Lamar, and the way that his music, at least so far, has some sense of the social contract, some sense of character. But is he just the exception that proves the rule? Time will tell. Time is always telling. Time never stops telling.

Offline Reginald Hudlin

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Re: When the People Cheer: How Hip-Hop Failed Black America
« Reply #1 on: April 29, 2014, 09:16:14 am »
Mo’ Money, Mo’ Problems: How Hip-Hop Failed Black America, Part II
By Questlove
This is the second in a weekly series of six essays looking at hip-hop's recent past, thinking about its distant past, and wondering about the possibility of a future. Read the first one here.

What do people think of when they think about hip-hop? I don’t mean the technique of the music so much as its meaning. Technique is a limited part of any art form, really: how well Rapper X raps is important but not central. How devious or wonderful Producer X’s beats are can get you on your feet more quickly, but hip-hop isn’t an abstract sonic art form. It’s a narrative one. And what that means is that matter matters more than art. Or rather: what matters to art is its matter, what it’s about, the ideas it communicates to its audience. The other aspects serve it, but perfect performance and production of empty ideas can’t fake the fill. I hope this isn’t a controversial view. It shouldn’t be.

I’d argue that when people think of hip-hop, pretty quickly they think of bling, of watches or cars or jewels or private jets. They think of success and its fruits, and the triumphant figures who are picking that fruit. This linkage isn’t limited to hip-hop — all of American celebrity, to some degree, is based on showing what you can buy — but it’s stronger there. The reasons are complex, of course, but the aspirational strain in African-American culture runs all the way back to slavery days. Slaves couldn’t own property because they were property. When freed, they were able to exist politically, and also economically. Owning things was a way of proving that you existed — and so, by extension, owning many things was a way of proving that you existed emphatically. Hip-hop is about having things to prove you’re not a have-not; it works against the notion that you might have so little economic control that you would simply disappear.

But what are the haves that you might have? And are they the same haves that people had 10 years ago, or 20? You only have to wind the clock back a few decades to see how drastically this dynamic has changed.

Back in 1986, the group standing on top of the rap heap was Run-DMC, and after rising to international prominence, they released a song about one of their prized possessions. That song, of course, was “My Adidas.” Let’s take a look at how rap stars back in the '80s celebrated what they owned:

My Adidas
walked through concert doors
and roamed all over coliseum floors
I stepped on stage, at Live Aid
All the people gave and the poor got paid

It doesn’t take much scrutiny to see that this is an especially benign form of consumerism. For starters, it’s not about the shoes themselves, in the main. It’s about the group’s experiences on the way to stardom: the audiences that came to see them, the shows they headlined. And fairly quickly, it’s not about them at all — it’s about Live Aid, a benefit concert focused on making sure that “the poor got paid.” In last week’s column, Albert Einstein and I talked about spooky action at a distance, which I reimagined as a version of the social contract: what happens elsewhere also happens to you, and it’s hard to divorce yourself from other people’s circumstances, no matter how much you try. This is that same principle, an illustration of connection. It’s sole music: the shoes convey you to the spot where you can see the haves working on behalf of the have-nots.

But there’s something else, too. Think about the product that’s carrying the song along. It’s a little strange: It’s a German athletic shoe from Herzogenaurach, not Hollis, Queens. But it is also (or was also) part of the Run-DMC uniform: the terry-cloth Kangol hat, the warm-up suits. At the time, Run-DMC was counterprogramming the flamboyance of other hip-hop artists, who were dressing like they were still in the funk and disco eras, with furs and studded jackets. Run-DMC stripped it down, and in doing so, sold a new kind of cool. More to the point, they sold a cool that was accessible to their fans. You could buy Adidas and be in their club, which was a club that you wanted to be in.

What has changed? Well, back in Run-DMC’s day, hip-hop had winners and others, on a sliding scale, all the way down to artists who were making more modest local impact. Now, because of the radical contraction of the market and the reluctance of companies to invest in anything that’s not a sure bet, hip-hop has become almost exclusively about winners, big sellers who have already proven their muscle. And even those numbers are dwindling, to the point where the million-seller club these days contains almost no one — Jay Z, Eminem, Drake, Macklemore, and Kendrick Lamar. You could argue that there are artists a tick down who have more cultural cachet: the big example there is Kanye West, who has sold not quite 700,000 copies of Yeezus. But that’s a half-dozen artists, total, with any appreciable influence.

And what do those artists do? They celebrate themselves, just like the artists of a generation earlier. They talk about products that prop them up, just like the artists of a generation earlier. But what have the products become? Let’s look at one of the descendants of “My Adidas” — a song on Jay Z’s recent Magna Carta Holy Grail called “Picasso Baby.”

I just want a Picasso, in my casa
No, my castle

This is on the opposite side of the planet, ethically and socially, from “My Adidas.” It associates personal satisfaction with a product, but on an entirely different scale. I went to the mall the other day. They didn’t sell any Picassos. You can accuse me of a certain amount of humorlessness, and I’ll plead temporary insanity. But let’s look back into the lyrics. Jay Z isn’t just collecting art. He’s using the brand names of other famous painters to declare himself, by association, as an artist.

It ain't hard to tell
I'm the new Jean Michel
Surrounded by Warhols
My whole team ball
Twin Bugattis outside the Art Basel

Whereas “My Adidas” highlighted consumer items, “Picasso Baby” is all about unattainable luxury, fantasy acquisitions. Within the first ten words of the song, Jay Z ensures that no one in his audience can identify with the experience that he’s rapping about. He would never want to be in a club that would have you as a member. But this doesn’t offend his audiences. They love it. They want to be just like him so they can exclude people just like them. There’s an even more egregious (comic?) example, from Ace Hood, with his song “Bugatti.” I’ll quote the chorus.

I woke up in the new Bugatti
I woke up in the new Bugatti
I woke up in the new Bugatti
I woke up in the new Bugatti
I woke up in the new Bugatti

Now I’ll quote a verse:
Niggas be hatin’
I’m rich as a bitch
A hundred K? I spent that on my wrist
Two hundred thousand, I spent that on your bitch
You and your model put that on the list

I don’t know exactly how much a Bugatti costs. Oh, wait: I’ve been told by my business manager that it costs Amused Laughter. Very few people I know, including several best-selling artists in various musical genres, can afford this item, which depreciates as violently as whiplash the minute it’s off the lot. Something about the song, though, creates an environment where I feel a twinge of shame admitting that. And I won’t even get into whether I can spend a hundred K on my wrist.

But what does it mean that hearing the song somehow makes me measure myself against its outsize boasting? For starters, it means that hip-hop has become complicit in the process by which winners are increasingly isolated from the populations they are supposed to inspire and engage — which are also, in theory, the populations that are supposed to furnish the next crop of winners. This isn’t a black thing or even a hip-hop thing exclusively. American politics functions the same way. But it’s a significant turnaround and comedown for a music that was, only a little while back, devoted to reflecting the experience of real people and, through that reflection, challenging the power structure that produces inequality and disenfranchisement.

Who’s to blame? It’s hard to say. Certainly, Puff Daddy’s work with the Notorious B.I.G. in the early '90s did plenty to cement the idea of hip-hop as a genre of conspicuous consumption. Before those videos, wealth was evident, but it was also contextualized, given specific character that harmonized with the backgrounds of the artists. Run-DMC had East Coast cool and cachet; Dr. Dre had West Coast cool and cachet. But Puffy had — and wanted to tell everyone he had — a different idea of power, an abstract capitalist cachet. His videos, and the image they projected, played as well in California as in New York, as well in Chicago as in Florida. It was a cartoon idea of wealth, to the point that specific reality no longer mattered. In literary terms, it was pure signifier. It would take him a little while to formulate that into a manifesto, but when he did, he hit it on the nose. “Bad Boy for Life,” in 2001, contained a line that says all that anyone needs to know about this strain of hip-hop: "Don’t worry if I write rhymes / I write checks.” Picasso, baby.

A few years back, there was a video on YouTube that featured the rapper Lil Boosie. It showed him counting out his money onto the pavement of a parking lot. You can see it here. I haven’t studied too much contemporary performance art, but whoever’s doing it — Vito Acconci, Marina Abramovic — can’t be doing anything stranger than this. (You too, James Franco.) The money is a pure abstraction. Nothing is purchased with it — no goods, no services. It’s a series of symbols being thrown to the ground, one after the other. And as each one lands, the message gets stronger and stronger. You don’t have this money. You may never see this many hundreds. You don’t belong here.

The last stop on this train, at least for today, is the “Otis” video that Jay Z and Kanye West made to promote the hit single from Watch the Throne. In the video, which was directed by Spike Jonze, the two of them go to an industrial space and proceed to demolish a Maybach (another car, like a Bugatti, that no one can afford), after which they drive around the lot, four models in the backseat. What are they destroying with their hammers and their saws? The car? The idea of the car? The idea of the car in other videos? And what are they building as they destroy? The idea that they exist at a level where they can afford to discard something as valuable as the car? The idea that their cool transcends money and the things that it can acquire? The belief that art should always violate and remake consumer products? A hierarchy of image that somehow, strangely, privileges the human element? The car was eventually auctioned, and proceeds were donated toward the East African Drought Disaster. Spooky action at a distance.

Offline Hypestyle

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Re: When the People Cheer: How Hip-Hop Failed Black America
« Reply #2 on: April 29, 2014, 01:44:00 pm »
hip-hop's been praying at the altar of Warren Buffett for years, even if the vast majority of artists have no idea who that is..  ;)  Rappers can go on a rant against a Donald Sterling (bravo) but in various other aspects of their lives/songs openly fantasize about having his same lifestyle with virtually the same disdain for the have-nots: ostentatious wealth continues to be implicitly equated with moral righteousness.  Artists claim perpetual outlaw-status while several flaunt their endorsement deals/co-ventures with assorted high-end corporate brands.

Another excellent commentary by Questlove on the current state of hip-hop music/culture. The Roots’ “What they do” has come home to roost. (Ironically, I think Jay Z put together his own ‘backpacker’ satire video shortly after. Of course, they all did Unplugged together, so it’s not like there’s beef.)

It seems like so many artists of today—in terms of lyrics-- have topics that revolve around a zone of billionaire envy and egregious mobster fantasy that I scarcely even find anything engaging with what’s on the radio now. To me, a lot of stuff that’s out now is damn near self-parody, or heck, it just is. Who’s the guy who keeps going “Versaci versaci versaci versaci” in his rap? As far the music/rhythm tracks go, whenever ‘keyboard-beats’ became the standard, I guess Reagan-era-Rap-spoiled me started to find a lot of "hot" instrumentals barely tolerable.

Going to and from work, I'm usually tuned into (non-opinion) news radio or NPR. Besides that, I'll flip around to jazz/soul, country, classic rock... I’ve come (slowly back) into listening to top 40 “churban” stations (ostensibly pop/rock crossover driven with an expanded emphasis on hip-hop/R&B) in recent years. Somehow, I’m finding that quite a bit of ‘hip-hop’ has been coming from pop artists- various pop performers either share producers with rappers, (Katy Perry, Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, Kesha) or even if they don’t, hip-hop informs a lot of contemporary pop production (I'll hear a breakbeat cut/scratch on Taylor Swift and Leann Rimes songs.)

The critique that "rappers" aren't expected to be "uplifting" while their pop-rock contemporaries are allowed to be "vapid and meaningless" is valid, to a degree-- however: based on many of the interviews that rappers conduct, the self-absorption is rather grating. Audiences have been subjected for years to revolving doors of "street reporters" who nonetheless seem to have more in common with the performers from World Wrestling Entertainment. To confront any of them that what these "artists" are all about is just schtick to make their bucks is met with glowering resentment that implies a certain form of cultural treason. For many of them, apparently, the vices of the ghetto are signifiers, freely used to support their self-directed commercial enterprises.

The notion that a strip-club anthem all of a sudden makes somebody an activist/ revolutionary along the lines of Stokely Carmichel is ludicrous on its face. But this is kind of where the standard is. Performing de rigueur community service activities like donating holiday turkeys & gift baskets is nice-- but heck, when every other rap is "I've got a fleet of Maybachs and you don't", the philosophical cleavage is rather stark. Being a flamboyant self-aggrandizing entertainer doesn't make somebody Malcolm X or Martin Luther King, even if social conservatives offer plenty of "hate me now" fodder.

Unfortunately even when there’s a thoughtful reaction (and not just a reactionary reaction) to the dumber stuff in the culture, the observer(s) often get put into a zone of blanket-hater and bourgeois-flag waver. Sometimes this comes from hip-hop journos and editors themselves, when they could be aiming for the middle ground. For the urban-music mags that are still staying afloat, only the handful of super-duper stars from 10+ years ago get feature articles even if they’re still active, and you can almost forget about the cover. Hip hop's media infrastructure (terrestrial, non-internet, non-satellite broadcast radio, magazines, online) has yet to create a cultural "classic rock" zone for most veteran acts of the 80s and 90s.
« Last Edit: April 29, 2014, 06:54:44 pm by Hypestyle »
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