19 February 2006

What's The Matter With Hip-Hop?

That's a pretty open-ended question, and of course it makes the rather large assumption that there is something wrong with hip-hop. Every time I've made this suggestion in the past, various friends have been quick to chasten me, to point out that for every ignorant, macho, sexist, racist, homophobic wannabe gangsta rapper, there is another highly intelligent, astute and clever artist working in the same medium.

And this may well be true, but I haven't seen much evidence of it. I myself was an early fan of NWA, and can still recite several of their raps by heart, but it was always a guilty pleasure. As hilarious and insightful as their lyrics could be, they also confirmed practically every negative stereotype about black culture and created a few new ones as well. I've long contended - and I know I'm not alone in this - that hip-hop is the contemporary version of the minstrel show. The only difference is that in the 19th century version, whites put on blackface makeup to ridicule and humiliate black people; now black people are allowed to play the clowns themselves. I suppose that represents some sort of progress. But not much.

"Oh, but you're just getting old," is another argument I get. "Pop music was always about shocking the bourgeoisie and pissing off your parents. Hip-hop is just the latest chapter." And there may be some truth to that - I certainly am getting older, maybe even old - but there seems to be a qualitative difference between outraging public decency by wiggling your pelvis as the 50's rock and rollers did, and a culture in which firearms often play a bigger role than musical instruments.

I can take the constant string of bitches and hos and motherfuckers, the crass, clownish materialism, the hypermacho sexual posturing. It's often quite funny, though as I said, it makes me uncomfortable that much of the humour relies on portraying black people as barely removed from the jungle. And it makes me even more uncomfortable to see the racist implications of white, middle-class suburbanites enjoying rap based on this double standard: i.e., it's okay for black people, and maybe even a few white trash guys like Eminem to act and talk like that, but there's this unspoken understanding that "normal" people, i.e., white, middle-class folks, would never dream of it. Except for a joke, of course.

What it really comes down to, I guess, is that no matter how many times hip-hop apologists tell me that it's providing vital social commentary, that the rough edges are merely symptomatic of hip-hop's ghetto origins (even though it's been pointed out again and again that nearly all of its biggest stars tend to be from middle-class origins themselves), is this: how come you guys have to keep shooting each other? There have always been rivalries between rock bands, and probably between jazz groups, and for all I know, chamber orchestras, but hip-hop seems to be one of the only ones where it's almost impossible to get some artists (or fans) together on a regular basis without someone getting shot.

Of course these are rough times we live in - allegedly - and I suppose a shooting here and there could be overlooked, but there are so many of them. And worse, the hip-hop "community," such as it is, seems determined to accept and embrace this way of life, all the rhetoric about "Increase The Peace" notwithstanding. I don't know which I find more contemptible: some moron gunning down another moron because, "He disrespected me, man," or a whole posse of morons then closing ranks to protect said morons. This is what we're suppose to respect and embrace as "hip-hop culture?" More like a recipe for turning America's ghettoes into little Somalias, ruled not by law, but by warlords with the biggest mouths and the biggest guns.


Chris A. said...

There is a culture of violence in the hip-hop world (especially in the New York scene, where there are a number of small feuds bubbling up). Shake-downs and shoot-outs are not uncommon, as you point out. So wouldn't one want to minimize one's involvement, to give others less credence for beef, by keeping quiet? It seems less a matter of "closing ranks" and more a matter of self-preservation.

Larry Livermore said...

You make a good point, and I'll admit that were I to find myself part of a scene where my life would be in danger for performing the basic duties of a good citizen, then I too would be tempted to keep quiet.

But the larger question remains: why would I want to continue to be part of a scene where "shakedowns and shootouts" are routine? A "culture of violence" is a sick culture, and it has a way of infecting everyone who comes in contact with it. If the valuable aspects of hip-hop can't be separated from the moronic, gratuitously violent aspects, then I think it's time to question how valuable they actually are.

Gar said...

There's a lot of idiots in hip-hop these days. It's inescapable, though you have to wonder to what degree mainstream, music corporations have perpetuated the images of violence to simply sell records to over-testerone laden adolescent boys. After all, marketing studies have shown that the #1 consumer of hip-hop music is your average white boy from the suburbs.

Lucky for us "true believers", there's still artists like Mos Def, Talib Kweli, Common, Blue Scholars, Binary Star, One.Be.Lo, Dead Prez, The Roots, Slum Village, and Common Market around making good music...