Wednesday , May 22 2024

Rap Rebuttal

We recently linked to an essay claiming hip-hop dead as an art form – writer Pierre Bennu didn’t mince any words:

    I know you’ve been thinking it. And if you haven’t, you probably haven’t been paying attention. The art we once called hip hop has been dead for some time now. But because its rotting carcass has been draped in platinum and propped against a Gucci print car, many of us have missed its demise.

    I think the time has come to bid a farewell to the last black arts movement. It’s had a good run but it no longer serves the community that spawned it. Innovation has been replaced with mediocrity and originality replaced with recycled nostalgia for the ghost of hip hop past, leaving nothing to look forward to. Honestly when was the last time you heard something (mainstream) that made you want to run around in circles and write down every word. When was the last time you didn’t feel guilty nodding your head to a song that had a ‘hot beat’ after realizing the lyrical content made you cringe.

With some notable exceptions – there’s always SOMETHING good coming out in every genre – I basically agree.

While my concerns are primarily artistic, the violence and thuggery endemic in so many rap songs have far too many real life analogues, as exemplified by the recent investigation into “murder, money-laundering, gun charges and a variety of strong-arm tactics” at rap label Murder, Inc: the business seems to be as sordid as many of the lyrics.

Jeff Chang will have none of this – he thinks everything is peachy in a lengthy piece in the Nation:

    Fifteen years ago, rappers like Public Enemy, KRS-One and Queen Latifah were received as heralds of a new movement. Musicians–who, like all artists, always tend to handle the question “What’s going on?” much better than “What is to be done?”–had never been called upon to do so much for their generation; Thelonious Monk, Aretha Franklin and Stevie Wonder were never asked to stand in for Thurgood Marshall, Fannie Lou Hamer or Stokely Carmichael. But the gains of the civil rights and Black Power movements of the 1960s were being rolled back. Youths were as fed up with black leadership as they were with white supremacy. Politics had failed. Culture was to become the hip-hop generation’s battlefield, and “political rap” was to be its weapon.

    Today, the most cursory glance at the Billboard charts or video shows on Viacom-owned MTV and BET suggests rap has been given over to cocaine-cooking, cartoon-watching, Rakim-quoting, gold-rims-coveting, death-worshiping young ‘uns. One might even ask whether rap has abandoned the revolution.

That’s the argument alright, but Chang says no:

    n the new global entertainment industry of the 1990s, rap became a hot commodity. But even as the marketing dollars flowed into youth of color communities, major labels searched for ways to capture the authenticity without the militancy. Stakes was high, as De La Soul famously put it in 1996, and labels were loath to accept such disruptions on their investments as those that greeted Ice-T and Body Count’s “Cop Killer” during the ’92 election season. Rhymers kicking sordid tales from the drug wars were no longer journalists or fictionists, ironists or moralists. They were purveyors of a new lifestyle, ghetto cool with all of the products but none of the risk or rage. After Dr. Dre’s pivotal 1992 album, The Chronic, in which a millennial, ghettocentric Phil Spector stormed the pop charts with a postrebellion gangsta party that brought together Crip-walking with Tanqueray-sipping, the roughnecks, hustlers and riders took the stage from the rap revolutionaries, backed by the substantial capital of a quickly consolidating music industry.

    ….For some critics, usually older and often black, such sentiments seem dangerously close to pathological, hymns to debauchery and justifications for thuggery. But the hip-hop generation recognizes them as anthems of purpose, manifestoes that describe their time and place the same way that Public Enemy’s did. Most of all, these songs and their audiences say, we are survivors and we will never forget that.

Survivors or amoral miscreants? That is the question, and as far as the audience goes, I’m not sure what “surviving” applies to the more than half of the hip-hop audience that is white and suburban. For them I’d say hard core rap’s odes to a life of violent crime, drugs and casual sex is contrarian fantasy. But many fans, artists and those part of the business infrastructure, choose to live the lyrics. The fact that for many there is very little disconnect between life and art is the real concern of politicians and those who bash the art as dangerous; and add to that the inconvenient artistic concern that most of it is boring, derivative, and has nothing new or interesting to say.

Chang tries to link the virtues of “conscious” or “alternative” hip-hop, and neo-soul with hard core rap, but this is praising rotten apples for the virtues of oranges – no flipping way. He concludes by noting the irony in the unprecedented financial success and influence of hip-hop culture, while its “message” goes unheeded by the larger culture. But that’s exactly the point: what “message”? If the message is that violence, crime, drugs, and indiscriminate sex are a cool way to live, then I wish the larger culture was ignoring it outright.

About Eric Olsen

Career media professional and serial entrepreneur Eric Olsen flung himself into the paranormal world in 2012, creating the America's Most Haunted brand and co-authoring the award-winning America's Most Haunted book, published by Berkley/Penguin in Sept, 2014. Olsen is co-host of the nationally syndicated broadcast and Internet radio talk show After Hours AM; his entertaining and informative America's Most Haunted website and social media outlets are must-reads: Twitter@amhaunted,, Pinterest America's Most Haunted. Olsen is also guitarist/singer for popular and wildly eclectic Cleveland cover band The Props.

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