The Case of Hip-hop



lib.mg exclusive feature
Michael J. Wilson {Brooklyn, New York}

1

This is not an attempt to appeal to the sensibilities of yesteryear, a clarion-call for the new Charlie Parker, the new Al Green, or even the new Nas. Outside of a few universal concepts embodied by each of those artists (namely, a kind of modernist inventiveness useful in all ages, an insistence on the power of love, a dedication to an honest assessment of human struggle, in that order), none of them have anything uniquely contemporary to say to the listener today. Hip-hop itself has begun to compromise its own relevance by growing ironic in relation to its most noteworthy period (i.e., the 1990s). The genre has outpaced its context; it is no longer the voice of the inner city--it is now just filler music. Apparently, this transformation has taken place with the approval of the hip-hop audience.

2

At this juncture, I turn my cloak to the vast majority of readers and insist they move on, thanking the author for sparing them his indulgences. Perhaps our paths will cross again when the election or gender is the topic at hand; for now, only the most dedicated readers have my consent to delve further as I trace the contours this massacre of black music.

Without delay then: the new hip-hop nauseates me--in all its manifestations, from the conscious to the ratchet. My contempt for the conscious rapper springs from the hypocrisy of her existence. At once, she proclaims to be at the pioneering edge of enlightenment. She claims to deliver much needed knowledge, a new vista of recognition whereby, after listening to her words I suddenly fall weeping with newfound understanding. Turn the picture over and we see the conscious artist also growing weary of my reluctance to support her, to buy her. She cannot compete in the marketplace because I am too ignorant to realize her worth: pearls before swine. And here we have her tragedy. If the conscious rapper has any truth to share, she is wasting her wind by trying to rap it to me. Profundity can no longer be reduced to hip-hop bars, by outfitting her words with beats behind them, leaping from one catchy phrase to the next, and limiting this exercise to four minutes only for it to be followed by something considered ratchet--that which should be nutritious becomes merely a microwavable dish. It is akin to carrying a candle in the wind; the flame of conscious rap is a minor one. The expectations of her audience are such that insights, reflections, ruminations are a hindrance, a getting-in-the-way of the motives behind my listening.

If conscious rap represents a kind of "south pole" in hip-hop then we should place ratchet hip-hop at the north. It has become by far, the more popular of the two. Why? Because it eschews profundity, insight, reflection and rumination at every turn. It achieves the goal of contemporary hip-hop by throwing aside concentrated thinking. The goal? As much fun as possible inside a few short minutes. A detaching from reality. A distraction. Yet one cannot chide ratchet hip-hop for it’s lyrical content (its misogyny, its hedonism, etc.) because it addresses a larger phenomenon in our culture. Ratchet hip-hop is supposed to amplify the unbridled desires of its audience. It is contemporary American longing, filtered through black vernacular, embellished with extremely effective production. More or less, I do want a nice car, casual sex, entrĂ©e into the good life, etc. Without ratchet hip-hop (and that wider network of advertising, reality TV shows, award shows, etc.) a great sense of despair--much deeper than the one its audience suffers from now--might reveal itself to the American youth. There is no possibility for the entire population to grasp the kind of wild success presented in the media, but there are ways to make us feel as though we are sharing in on the good time. Perhaps the most effective is ratchet hip-hop. Whether conscious or ratchet, both forms have moved away from the original intentions of hip-hop.

3

Very long ago, when its identity was still in tact, hip-hop had a specific purpose. Its natural habitat, the American inner city, was in a state of crisis. Poverty ran amok and with it, so did violence and drug use. The rest of the nation was ignorant or else turning a blind eye to all of this. Hip-hop was created to ensure that the condition of the inner city in the late 20th century could not be overlooked. It stood then that those with the greatest understanding of ghetto life, those with some air of "street credibility," would be championed as the best rappers. But inextricable from street credibility was lyrical prowess--the beat was just an added luxury. It was not enough to simply know what was happening; one had to be able to render the story with the sort of ornamentation spoken about in Zora Neale Hurston’s Characteristics of Negro Expression:

The will to adorn is the second most notable characteristic in Negro expression. Perhaps his idea of ornamentation does not attempt to meet conventional standards, but it satisfies the soul of the creator...the Negro’s greatest contribution to language is: (1) the use of metaphor and simile; (2) the use of the double descriptive; (3) the use of verbal nouns. (Hurston 1042)

Since its inception, rappers have employed these three devices to the point of exhaustion.


Metaphor and Simile

/// I get so much pussy my dick be in stitches
Red-boned or even fucked-up black Zulu bitches
What? This lil nigga is a mad stalker
Brooklyn, New York will grab the leash around your neck and then I walk ya

/// Freaks the flows with no rehearsin
Rollerskate backwards when the beat start reversin
You're so wack it make people start cursin
Flows contradict worser than the King James version


The Double Descriptive

/// I got three hundred and fifty-seven ways
to simmer sautee, I'm the winner all day
Lights get dimmer down Biggie's hallway

/// Listen, I like my seat down low and my window slightly cracked
Ridin wit a bad hoe, with her girlfriend in the back


Verbal Nouns

/// Soulja Boy off in this hoe
Watch me lean and watch me rock
Superman that hoe
Then watch me crank that Robocop

/// Ask anybody if my men are rowdy
Give me the mini-shottie I’ll body a nigga for a penny probably
I'm obligated to anything if it's crime related
If it shine I'll take it, still in my prime and I finally made it


Using these poetic devices and other means (e.g., sampling, improvisation/freestyling, etc.), hip-hop artists created myriad forms of relating distressing testimonies about the inner city. So long as the ghetto was in crisis; as long as the stakes were high, hip-hop proper thrived and was even necessary. Yet, this is the inherent flaw of hip-hop (and why it must always be ranked below jazz): it is a music that depends on a specific type of crisis for its nourishment. This is exactly what is meant when we say that a given rapper is or is not keeping it real. Essentially, is this artist painting an authentic portrait of ghetto life? Hip-hop is a rush of adrenaline. Today, without the same conditions that created it, hip-hop becomes confused; in its confusion it becomes ironic.

The conditions have changed on several fronts. In the main, the American inner city has been rid of excruciatingly high crime and drug use. Compared with just 20 years ago, the ghetto is boring. Outdoor gunfights have all but ceased, the major criminals have been locked away and/or killed, crack isn’t so popular a recreational drug any longer. The remaining residents themselves now have the Internet and mobile camera phones connecting them to the outside world in exponentially faster ways than radio stations used to. Compounding all of this, a number of historically prominent ghettoes now have considerable populations of hipsters, students, "artists", and professionals living in them making the overall habitat safer. The American ghetto, as we knew it, is disappearing and with it, the reservoir of hip-hop’s creativity.

Rap has responded to this disappearance by distancing itself from the old ghetto reality. Its insistence on being associated with all things couture, with high European art, with political and corporate affiliations, with luxury clothing and diamonds, with Hollywood--on being associated with a complex of institutions that were once viewed as intrinsic (complicit?) to a larger system of oppression, is the very height of irony.

4

Irony in hip-hop is a frantic attempt to deal with the disappearance of the traditional ghetto without becoming completely apathetic and silent. With apathy we would hear no music because there would be no need for it. With irony we get music that tells white lies, a lyricism that is disingenuous. In this way, irony has led to a lower quality in music making even when the lyrics and production are sound because the music can no longer speaks directly to us. The singer and the listener bluff one another, neither one wishing to reveal too much of the self to the other. This makes the function of hip-hop irrelevant. Now that the inner city is vanishing--at a time when its happenings have become trite--there are fewer rappers with the kind of proximity to ghetto culture we once found in the members of Wu Tang Clan or the early Jay-Z. Many of the new rappers, even when a member comes from the inner city, is not accustomed to crack addicts roaming their streets in large numbers, but they are familiar with H&M and art students in their neighborhoods. Thus, hip-hop no longer has the necessary setting to create the kind of music it became notorious for in the 1990s. Its mission of being a voice for the underprivileged, the invisible people, has been accomplished with unintentional results. It brought crack and urban poverty to the attention of Middle American adults, but it did not realize that their children would be listening too. These children have grown up understanding the culture of the nineties as one more lane in the vast stream of televisual media. The impact of all that lyrical virtuosity and hood imagery is nullified by its proximity to NBA games, deodorant commercials, Nickelodeon--it’s all just so much stuff. And as with most cultural artifacts from the nineties, it is either forgotten or looked on with consumer-fueled nostalgia. It becomes desirable to live in a neighborhood that was once drug-infested because it now has a certain gritty charm.

Gentrification is the death of hip-hop as gentrification means a hollowing out of the space that hip-hop garners most of its ideas from. In the new, superficially renovated America, rap no longer has any true reference point in reality, so it has resorted to contradicting itself with hyper-materialism and hedonism. Even the listeners--who have the most power to assign taste--have acquiesced and allowed irony to set in and cripple their longing for good music.

We must also consider the sheer number of new artists and new songs and the speed at which both are introduced to the audience. Hip-hop requires very little patience, very little time for reflection. Before we can assess the merits of any given artist, there are new ones coming out with whole albums and mixtapes --if the first artist isn’t already coming out with his next album or mixtape. The mixtape has played a pivotal role in this assault. The music on a mixtape is generally not better in terms of production or subject matter or even lyrical content, but in terms of its rawness of delivery. We feel we are somehow getting a more authentic dose of the artist when in fact we are only getting a less cultivated form. We must remember that authenticity is always questionable in the context of contemporary hip-hop because the artists no longer have the backdrop of real ghetto drama to validate the crimes and braggadocio of their lyrics. Therefore, the mixtape is merely more grandstanding, lyrical orgy, hyperbole ad infinitum. Rarely is the mixtape more substantive than the studio album. In fact, the two closely mirror one another in that they both tend to deliver perhaps two or three "standout" tracks with the rest of the album being composed of riffs on the popular tracks, messy collaborations, and maybe a concept song. All the same, the artists would do better to release mixtapes and albums that carry no more than four or five songs, but of course this would never be sufficient to quell the voracious appetites of their listeners. As I alluded to earlier, in today’s context, the listener is not necessarily seeking profundity from her artists and rappers are aware of this. Instead the listener is seeking a comfortable distraction; an escape from day-to-day banality through the consumption of musical banality. If everyday existence is glib it can at least be paired with an equally glib soundtrack.

There is a great deal of complicity with the everyday in today’s hip-hop. Unlike its forbearers in the eighties and nineties, contemporary rap no longer stresses a concern for political or social critique. Hip-hop artists once prided themselves on their political efficacy and found methods to render their critiques in creative ways. Of course, a whole catalogue of songs exists from the previous decades that show no interest in social analysis, songs that eschew the desire to be respected for their intellectual content or their lyrical dexterity (e.g., “Big Booty Hoes,” etc.). But those songs existed in a matrix that included more refined, richly cultivated music as well. There was no unanimous departure from the profound.

Who or what entity is responsible for this degradation? There is the massive music industry which wields a great degree of control over funding and promotion, but to place all blame on a group of companies erroneously vindicates the actions of the artists and the preferences of the audience; two groups that are able to make decisions without the consent of the industry.

The artists constantly shrink back from the label of "role model," which is not an unfortunate action on their part. We should not look to mimic the life of any artist nor should we listen intently to their songs in order to find an instruction manual to life. At best, we should be able to say that an artist has taken some aspect of reality and provided her audience with a new insight, a new level of understanding about something we had just accepted as intractable. Anything beyond this is extraordinary, those who surpass this requirement ad abundantium we call geniuses. Apart from the efforts of the artist, there is the penultimate decider of the fate of all rap: the hip-hop fan’s taste.

As I have mentioned earlier, it is not a requirement that a hip-hop consumer be well versed in the black musical tradition or even in earlier hip-hop. The practice of sampling, while still a prominent feature of the music, nevertheless involves such steep departures from the original songs that one does not need to recognize that sampling is taking place in order to appreciate the current song. Recall Wu Tang Clan’s "C.R.E.A.M.," a song about the effort to escape the poverty of the ghetto, using the mantra cash rules everything around me as motivation. The mantra indicates that there are no limits to what one might do to achieve his goal. The song samples "As Long As I’ve Got You" by the Charmels. While both songs share a heightened sense of dedication to the objects of their desire, the Charmels are singing about love and companionship, not the dogged pursuit of money. With the passage of enough time; however, the intentions of the original song become obscured and irrelevant.

In another example, the Game’s "Celebration" samples Bone Thugz N Harmony’s "First of the Month." The two songs are celebratory and document what the rappers do when they are in a celebratory mood (i.e., buy weed, fuck, etc.) though "Celebration" does not cite the welfare check as a source of jubilation as is the case in "First of the Month." Just as the Game samples Bone Thugz, they in turn combined elements of Chapter 8 and Anita Baker’s "I Just Wanna Be Your Girl" and Marvin Gaye’s "Sexual Healing" to create "First of the Month." Nevertheless, one need not have heard of Marvin Gaye, Chapter 8, or Anita Baker to appreciate "Celebration." What we have then is homage to homage that has abandoned that which was supposed to be remembered in the first place. In bebop music, sampling was not so much a feature as covering was. Covering is a rendition, a take on a previous song. The borrowing that occurs is obvious and allows for a more evenhanded comparison of the old and new. A cover, in this way, is a challenge, an acknowledgement of the older version’s respectability and an attempt by the newer artist to make something of equal or greater value. A relationship is created and the listening audience must have knowledge of both songs in order to weigh them fairly. Hip-hop frees its artists (and its audience) from this relationship and in doing so almost completely severs any link to the past. In many instances, this act of severing paves the way for new directions in music but it also allows for songs to be created within a new matrix of values that no longer require the refinement so necessary to the jazz musician. When the need for a mastery of the previous is done away with, we enter a newer, fresher realm that has the potential to produce previously unimagined forms of brilliance to be heard, but also for tragically inelegant music to be created and ironically appreciated for its coarseness.

5

Perhaps all musical forms are susceptible to the kind of exhaustion that plagues hip-hop. As the social environment for a given genre changes, as it moves from its first set of core listeners into wider popularity, all styles lose their eminence. What is interesting in hip-hop music is that as it degrades it becomes more permanent, maintaining its chiefdom over the black musical imagination even as it strays from its original principles. Therefore the genre should be critiqued, unmasked, assaulted; not because of any one quality of hip-hop but because of the tyranny of hip-hop. It is presiding over a far-reaching stagnation in our musical output. And although charming exceptions do occur, they seem unable to thrive or else their "uniqueness" quickly reveals its cheapness. -END-

Wilson, M. J. (2012). The Case of Hip-hop. In The Last Generation Of Black People. New York: The Liberator Magazine.

We're a human development centered cooperative, producing in part through the generous and faithful contributions of our North Star members. Choose your membership: Annual ($36), Monthly ($3), ($5), ($10), ($15), ($30), ($70), ($200), ($500), ($1000).