The Contest and the Masquerade

The international state of commercial hip-hop music has been as it is for more than a decade now. By commercial hip-hop I mean that stuff I don’t listen to – and for me, that’s a wide swath of music. Some artists I’ve missed because I don’t have the time, disposable income (read as “desire to piss away good beer money”), or inclination to purchase music. Some I’ve missed because they simply suck ass. Some I’ve missed because I’m an old fart (not really, but at 38, some of that stuff just doesn’t work for me – the way Biz Markie’s “Just A Friend” didn’t work for anyone over 23). Some of the music I’ve missed because it is steeped in the wanton plantation materialism that characterizes much of the genre. And then there’s the question of “women in a state of perpetual undress.” That’s how Nikki Giovanni described hip-hop videos to a room of college students back in 1990-something.

She was right then – and that was during hip-hop’s Golden Age. It was after the line of demarcation for me: the Self-Destruction video. For me, that video marked a high-water point in this genre. The external shots were done in Harlem in Marcus Mosiah Garvey Park. I could see this park from my childhood window. I could walk there any day of the week – in a blizzard or in heat stroke weather. It was all of five blocks away. When that video was shot, it marked one of the last times (there was a similar effort on the West Coast) that so many different artists came together for something so positive. And here is something of note – the majority of the artists in that video never engaged in the sort of prurient lyrics and activities that were so scorned by the likes of C. Delores Tucker. When you think of KRS-One, Public Enemy, Kool Moe Dee, Mc Lyte, Doug E. Fresh, Heavy D., Stetsasonic and others you DO NOT think of all of the negativity that has come to define the genre. In fact, the biggest critiques of hip hop at that time were of sampling and political radicalism.

The Stop the Violence Movement did not morph into a new, wider political movement that would be funded by the resources of producer-moguls like Russell Simmons and Sean Combs. It was did not become a broader initiative to transform black life in America. I do believe it was a significant part of the feeling and energy of the time, but that feeling faded and that energy dissipated. Perhaps most importantly, many of those fans “aged out.” It wasn’t that we didn’t still hip hop, but after awhile, I didn’t love going to the record store on Tuesdays. And, if hip hop truly is this cyclical regional thing, as it seems to be, the next generation of elite rappers did not come from New York or the east coast. And that was not a bad thing, by definition, even though some people thought it was because of mindless parochialism. That next generation came from Cali. And the things that followed have been recounted fairly consistently since the emergence of NWA.

Not all that was “East Coast” at that time was good. No one has contributed more nihilism and objectification of women to the genre than Harlemite Sean Combs or his protege the Notorious B.I.G. And there is no question that this art form cannot be understood without their contributions. And therein lies the rub.

Hip-hop is a contested field. Artists with positive messages and videos have been pushed to the very edge of the genre. How did this happen? In part this happened because of “natural tastes” where folks gravitated to a different sound. For example, when Dr. Dre and other rappers hit the scene with multiple hard bass lines and varied beats on a single track, it was a fundamental line of demarcation from what preceded it. Think back to Vance Wright or DJ Mister Cee rolling through an entire track with one beat. The materialism of many New York rappers gave way to a professed gangster ethos on the left coast. And over time, some real bad guys on both coasts and every stop in between entered the game. And those artists with positive messages were pushed further and further to the fringes. They didn’t stop making music. They didn’t stop being creative. They didn’t stick to the same styles. They stopped getting promoted. They stopped selling records. They became yesterday’s news.

The genre was hijacked.

And that brings us to the Republican Party, the Bush Administration and the Constitution of the United States of America. I’m no great fan of the Constitution or the phukkers that wrote it. If it was so perfect, they wouldn’t have amended the damn thing so many times. With that said, it provides for a great many of the liberties I’d rather not live without. It is also being trampled under foot in a way that has been well documented. I won’t go into all the details here because I believe the Democrats are just about as reprehensible. Though I will say, the Bush administration appears to have demonstrated a singular incompetence.

Now, it is clear that the Constitution has been hijacked. It’s not a complete hijack, but some serious work has been done. The same can be said of hip-hop. It hasn’t been completely hijacked, but redemption poses a daunting task for those who love the “old girl.” And that’s not work that Americans are unwilling to do for the Constitution – and it’s not work that young people and used-to-be-real-young people are unwilling to do for hip-hop. But, some folks want to throw out our baby with the bath water. And that’s the masquerade.

Every day networks like Fox, MSNBC and others subsidize conversations on politics when they should actually be having conversations about crime. You have a criminal administration which trumped up a rationale that has resulted in the deaths of over 650,000 people. It doesn’t get more serious than that. That Halliburton has packed its bags and moved to Las Vegas, I mean Dubai, should be insult enough. It doesn’t get much more absurd than this. I tried to get the contract to run America’s port system but couldn’t get the contract because my company was based in Las Vegas – I mean Dubai.

Hip-hop has been demonized as a genre in a way that the Constitution has not.  Neither was born perfect.  And, at this juncture, hip-hop is not likely to have as much blood on its hands – if such a thing can ever be said about a human activity that does explicitly require murder.

Certainly the Constitution is more than a piece of paper with signatures…and it is more than a bunch of late phukking amendments. Isn’t hip-hop more than sampling and more than nihilism and viddy-hoes. If the Constitution is also the right to bear arms and the right to freedom of assembly, hip-hop is also about DJ’s selling mix tapes outside of clubs at 4a.m. and out of the trunk of cars. It’s about artists like Public Enemy breaking free of corporate distribution deals. It’s about more than myopia of the mainstream media. It’s not all about the masquerade. The hip-hop community has been engaged, in some form or another, for about two decades in ongoing conversations about those efforts to hijack the genre, about nihilism, about crime and misogyny and dope slingin’ and bling blingin’ and bullshit singin’ and whack samples and stolen beats and out of control beefs. But a funny thing happened along the way…the cash cow for all this degeneracy changed colors. And while the consequences of ill behavior continued to “disproportionately impact black youth” (that’s a phukked up saying but it’s been used so much is should almost be italicized and spelled in French), the principal purchasers (or “slingo/blingo-traffickers” if you will) are “white” kids. And now, there are studies out that indicate Black kids have had their fill.

Now, how did that happen? I suspect it happened in part from this ongoing, national dialogue about the quality of the art form and the nature of the hijack. Much of the criticism of the demise of hip-hop is “on wax.” KRS-One and Rakim and Nas and so many others have chronicled this fall from grace for years. It may be that their lament – combined with the widespread loss of life attributed to narco-trafficking by gangs (and all of that collateral damage), police brutality, and the general fragility of human life – has brought us to this moment. It may be that our children are simply tired of subsidizing premature autopsies.

Sadly, the same cannot be said of the leadership of this nation and Fourth Estate. Perhaps the press should be referred to as the first collaborator. There are so many millionaires in the press with “so much to lose” that the lives of 650,000 hardly seem a steep price to pay for gas and the capacity to force the Chinese and Japanese to deep throat on US debt. While the bodies pile up, Americans are invited to “play hard ball” and “meet the press” and engage in superficial conversations about ideology – while the hijackers flee to safety or simply hide in plain sight. Entire generations of pundits and bloggers have been raised on the myth of ideological difference masking collective criminality. Left and right come together all the time – but sometimes you have to be an authentic outsider to see it.

4 comments

  1. I knew hip-hop/rap had hit a new low when I heard the lyrics to a song pushed into the ears & pysche of our black youth by none other than E-40 – telling my brothers and my sisters to “GO DUMB”…(Hyphy;Bay area genre)

    Hijacked is certainly correct…and with diamond grills, rented whips, and groupies galore as the pay-off…it’s no wonder standards of true MUSICAL ART/Genius are non-existent.
    Every now & again tho, I come across something worth listening to on MySpace Music…where a few unsigned/Independent talented do what they can to “make it” in this commericalized celebrity & entertainment-obsessed American culture.

  2. I don’t have a New York-centered bias in terms of the groups that I like – I can appreciate music from anywhere. Sean Combs has as much to do with this degeneration of the genre as anyone. As you say, though, it’s part of American culture…contiguous with the glitz and glamour of “Dallas” and “Dynasty” – from Alexis Carrington to Tony Montana – straight/flat line (as in connected, as in dead – game over).

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