D.L. Chandler's frequent thoughts on the world of hip hop and beyond

Monday, January 09, 2006

Pat Boone, Hip Hop Critic

The popularity of today’s hottest Hip Hop stars is neither a measure of the level of talent nor highlights the worth of the music. Some could argue that because of that popularity, critics have a much easier time dissecting the current tunes and trends that dominate the airwaves today. With a noted amount of reluctance, I admit that much of what passes for Hip Hop these days is embarrassing, rote and devoid of any cultural significance. As I’ve said before in other blogs and journals, I can appreciate some of those songs in small doses and maybe enjoy them in larger parts. However, my stance changes once those songs become part of the dreaded “rotation”. This is where we are, sadly enough. There is no avoiding the "Laffy Taffys", "Grills", "Window Shoppers" and such of the world. These songs reflect the pulse of current generation: Give it to us cheap, easy, homogenized, warmed over and simple. Oh please god, do not challenge us to think. Give us the “hot 16 and hook” formula until our brains bleed from redundancy. Of course we don’t want to hear about socially relevant issues in our music. Hell, who wants to be preached to in song?

Forgive my introductory rambling as I do have a point to this blog entry. In my usual quest to find a subject that invokes my interest (or most often, my rage), I will come across some of the most asinine commentary on Hip Hop from people who wouldn’t know the music to save their lives. In fact, read this excerpt from a Wes Vernon interview found on the Renew America website (I know, I know) with singer Pat Boone:

BOONE: Oh, man, the whole music industry has been [dragged] into the ghetto. In fact, I see it as a ghettoization ... a coarsening of the culture, led by the entertainment industry. [This applies to] music in particular, because once ... hip-hop [and rap] music came in--because it was an outgrowth of ... a street or urban culture.

That is not to be derogatory. It was kids ... doing hip-hop stuff and rap and you know, throwing themselves under the pavement and doing all kinds of crazy gyrations, and really dramatic athletic things....

It captured the attention of not only the kids, but the record executives who saw a new thing that they could make a lot of money with, so they promoted it like crazy. And they discovered that if a hip-hop or rap artist had a criminal record, and if he was part of a gang ... out of it came an overnight hugely popular NWA [which stood for] "N**gers-With-Attitude."

Then there was Two-Live Crew, with them advocating that you should get a gun and shoot a cop.

All of this gangster mentality, and the danger and the guns, "Pimps and Whores and Bitches"--and all of this stuff was actively promoted by the hierarchy of the record business. They saw they could make millions promoting performers [who] made sure you knew they had been to prison, they'd been shot up.

The guy that was on with Dave Letterman last night calls himself Fifty-Cent. The first question was, "You'd been shot nine times?" [His answer was] "Yeah." And then he talks about being in prison and being in gang wars and selling drugs. So that [supposedly] makes him a very hip artist.

So all these artists--I say artists, [I should say] these performers--are making millions, driving Rolls-Royces, and buying [fancy homes], and dragging urban and suburban kids into a ghetto culture. It's one of the most ironic, crazy things that I have ever seen in my life.

WV: About as idiotic as you could imagine. Pointless.

BOONE: Yes, I mean they wear big diamond rings, put diamonds in their teeth.... [They get] all kinds of endorsements and people around them just making them into glamorous figures. They put out a record [and for] most of it, you can't understand a single word even if they perform it [live]. You're distracted by them grabbing their crotches. They've got--they say--"skanky-looking" women behind them, chanting and making all kinds of suggestive moves. All of it [is] designed to make this rap performer--and occasionally a white performer just trying to get in on it--making him look like [someone] who is able to serve as many women that they all desire. He takes his pick of all the women, and gives them ... champagne. I mean, these are all in the lyrics of their songs.

One that I saw on "Saturday Night Live" recently ... was doing a song called "You Can Lick my Lollypop." He makes it very clear what he's referring to. This is about a four-minute number as he struts around the stage, and the background singers act [as if] they just can't wait to get to him.

The kids see this, and they play the music and they emulate it. Then they find out on Oprah and other shows that pre-teen girls are engaging in oral intercourse [in] the hall closets at school.

All of this is sort of accepted [as] exciting.

Pat Boone – sage, social critic, philosopher, uninformed jerk. His side of the argument is quite evident yet lacks a certain finesse. It almost reeks of a latent cruelty or vehemence toward black music and culture. Was he really incorrect in his assessment? It's not as simple as yes or no. I'd argue that the images and songs we’re made to suffer in Hip Hop’s current state do not make things easy for those like myself who advocate heavily for the promotion of Hip Hop as not only a tool for change, but also high art. But that shouldn't be enough to have this sort of one-sided berating that always comes from those self-righteous "icons". Reading this passage from Mr. Boone filled me with obvious reactionary rage, so much that I wanted to light into his Reagan-loving behind (Is that “ghetto” of me, Pat?). I’m going to take the high road on this one but I’m looking at him and his right-wing ilk closer than ever when it comes to their criticisms of the music I defend – perhaps foolishly. I hope that when critics come forward against this important and viable culture in the future that they finally research every angle and not just the obvious, popular slants. Again, I’m not going to hold my breath on that ever happening in my lifetime.

Strength To You All

Saturday, November 19, 2005

Don't Call It A Comeback, We've Been Here For Years

Greetings all,

It is indeed a blessing to be connected with the good people of Black, the entire Ascent Blog team and, most of all, the Center for African American Policy. I've been off the scene trying to gather new ways to approach the real-time reporting blogging affords us; I've also been hard at work on completing my books in time for their impending releases and creating Hip Hop music as a fun but important hobby.

With this blog, I intend to act as both a voice and a beacon of information regarding Hip Hop's social and cultural effects on the environment - especially the world of politics. With mid-term elections and the '08 Presidential Elections bearing down upon us, we must start to illuminate the issues of this current, so-called Hip Hop generation of young voters and share the lessons that the older generations learned. Mistakes have been made along with much progress. With the political blogosphere being as vast as it is, we need to insure that voices like ours enjoy the same level of respect and accountability. To bring it all to a head, we need to use our collective energies we typically reserve for being the first one on the block to have the new Jordans or 50 Cent CD (or, for us older people, the first one with a stand-alone home or SUV) and start to think about how we can use that same tenacity and focus to change a world.

I am first and foremost a black man. An American of African, Native American and Caribbean Descent. With the pride of those bloodlines, I am naturally charged to be at the ready for my people. It is the true nature of my being; I want to be known as an asset to my fellow man. I want this space to help encourage action and deep thought. I want this space to inspire spirited, if not heated, dialogue. I see this as a starting point for the future. We must give ourselves to the idea that changing the way black people have been thinking along certain lines is not an easy thing. Do I realize that some of the things I will say will invoke a sense of controversy? Yes, I am quite aware of that. I'm also just as aware of the fact that much of my work in the field will come with the requisite heartbreak and letdown of all difficult struggles to improve. This does not deter me one bit.

As I go about in the world searching for the answers for not only myself but for the readers as well, I hope to uncover movements that otherwise would remain without deserved attention. I hope that my colleagues will assist me in this path as I am going to rely heavily on their experiences and gifts as well. This collective effort is born of a strong need for social clarity and perhaps justice in a mild sense.

With Peace,

D.L. Chandler

Thursday, July 07, 2005

The Choices We Make & The Things We Do

With Hip Hop, you have to realize that the music no longer bears the distinction (or stigma) of belonging to poor people or, as the cliché goes, being the music of the streets. This music is being done by DIY suburbanites, downloading hackers using “borrowed” programs on their PCs and anybody with access to a microphone, a mixer and some tables. Then you have to factor how powerfully influential the culture is to the rest of the world – there are few corners of the globe that haven’t experienced the art form in some fashion. The problem with that, however, is that you have a lot of images and ideals that are modified and become such a bastardization of what true Hip Hop music and culture is.

One could argue for the side of Hip Hop by stating that at least it’s apparently more visible than before, regardless of the buffoonery or lack of quality present in the popular offerings of the day. On the countering end, one could definitely say that because of its large influence and over saturation, Hip Hop is reaching a creative and commercial zenith and that its time to knock it down of the pedestal. When you have African and Jewish rap groups who’ve never stepped foot on America soil, yet embrace a very wholly Western thing, you hope the influences go beyond the vapid or the obvious. How could one not question that point, given the wild popularity of every current hot Hip Hop single and not one offers a nugget of anything beyond gaining sex, money and empty and tired boasts?

These are worthy discussions and debates but I tend to think these talks lack depth because we’re too busy being split down the middle on what each side thinks is right or wrong. We (the so-called Hip Hop Nation) do not take the criticisms of our detractors well and become defensive. Our detractors are usually closed minded and closed off to the world we’re both immersed in and represent. The grand divide starts there and usually kills any hope of progression into a discussion that can and should provide ultimate change. Should more message-driven Hip Hop enjoy the same airplay that the dance and radio-friendly singles of today receive? It’s debatable because I’m finding that a lot of that music with a message doesn’t have the key component that many fans search for endlessly these days: The Dope Beat.
It is said that the underground set and sound is stuck in this elitist, lyrics-first ideal that in turn, the track suffers from the lack of the same sort of attention. I won’t validate that but I can attest to the fact that much of underground music has become a caricature of itself in a mere few years. We applauded (and I still do) label CEO and rapper El-P of Definitive Jux fame when his former group, Company Flow, introduced the term “Independent as F*ck”. Now there are many imitators of that ideal and they’ve forgotten how to make good, compelling music that you could still bump in the whip – or least play loudly with pride.

Message music is necessary and in the rock and punk worlds, it enjoys a lustful fan base and plenty of groups willing to go against all grains to make music they feel is important – regardless of fame. Hip Hop artists and hobbyists need to follow the example of gaining a foothold on both the creativity aspect but also be entertaining on top of that. If we intend to infiltrate the airwaves (again, as we did in the late 80s and 90s) then we have to follow the steps of our predecessors and stop letting our pulse get dictated to us.

Or we could just let the entire country nod like zombies to the same old thing. The choice is all yours.

Thursday, June 30, 2005

On: Getting Off One's Own Ass & Getting Involved

Politics and Hip Hop: Mix them together and you get “hippie stuff” – well at least according to battle rapper, Immaculate out of Portland, Oregon. Ah yes, that’s just the kind of respect I’ve been fighting in doing this blog column for as long as I have. I guess I can’t blame a lot of young hip-hoppers for their view of what organizations and others try to attempt in making the ideal of politics and the arts a true union. Sometimes it works, such as our efforts showed in the polls that more youth votes than ever were recorded. Sometimes, it doesn’t as the originally clever yet, with time, increasingly vapid slogan, Vote or Die, became the “flavour de now” (I made that up all on my own) for all non-voters trying to get their democracy on.

Wearing slogans, a still unproven (at least in our arena) tool of propaganda but yet it isn’t going anywhere – much like R. Kelly – and why should it? I haven’t a true reason for wanting it gone, save for the fact I’m currently looking for the young men and women who, like me, are afraid of an increasingly conservative moral code that’s being forced and injected into our lives. And instead of getting slick with the slogans, rallies and all that fly stuff I’m all for trying to get ourselves into the lobbyist positions and really get into the faces of the lawmakers instead of in their inboxes and voicemails. Pipe dreams, D.L. – this is the common refrain of my like-minded yet sour peers. I can’t deny the weariness I feel in trying to convey to my fellow MCs and Hip Hop practitioners how relevant we can make my generation (X) and the ones behind us. The power that entertainers hold and how they truly set the pulse of the trends of the world – that is such unbridled energy.

Yet, like many a battle rapper, some often rely on cheap jokes about progressives who can’t seem to rock hard enough to even tip an easily winnable victory for the Democratic side of the fence. We’re a point of conservative sarcastic jabs of humor and we haven’t much of a counter – a shame since we have some loud mouth people on the left that could do some real solid work. They could take lessons from Poor Righteous Teacher frontman Wise Intelligent in another very insightful interview, from writer, Alex Fruchter. It may be some of the most poignant and painful interviews I’ve ever read. Wise Intelligent lives up to his weighty namesake and delivers what I feel needs to be the manifesto for all poor and oppressed people catching hell from all angles. I challenge to read that piece and not feel a lump rise in your throat – especially if you consider yourself a cog in the great machine of Hip Hop music and culture.

I hate to close this piece out on some old race type discussion but this is real – Hip Hop is and will always be a music and started by people of color and smothering pride. Yet those artists who push the more positive of messages tailored to reflect the black inner city experience and struggle usually are entertaining, a gang of white and suburban kids of all hues who will never factor in that demographic of the desolate. We are not suffering the last days of Hip Hop but there is an apocalypse of sorts afoot. There is just a bevy of garbage on the radio but let’s face it, the beat’s hot as John Madden’s back fat, jack. We’re grooving and shaking our holy good damn sense away yet here’s a man in Wise Intelligent who can’t say he owes us (the fans) a hit because he’s not getting the support from the audience he’s trying to reach and, nobly so, save. But have we in recent times really placed a premium on genuine kindheartedness and earnest hope for change? We’re slowly devolving, people, and the evidence is as clear as turning on one of your favorite music entertainment cauldrons with the witches of programming twirl themselves yet another boiling pot of sewage for the airwaves.

Change, damn it, change.

Friday, June 24, 2005

All That Glitters Isn't Gold: Kanye West Speaks Out Against Diamond Industry

Kanye West strikes many as an arrogant and conceited individual who clearly hasn’t learned the fine art of humility and presentation. That could be true but after hearing his story at the end of his 1994 Grammy Award-winning College Dropout LP, you respect that he’s overcome a heaping mound of resistance and struggles. In his new song, “Diamonds”, West re-worked the original version of the song to highlight the ills of the diamond trade in Sierra Leone. According to this report, the diamond industry has taken an offensive stance against the track, of course employing damage control tactics and such. Good for Kanye because this is precisely what his detractors need to witness – a man admitting he needs to learn more about a terrible tragedy and is willing to help educate others. Now will it slow down the diamond industry and the lust that many have for the coveted jewels? There isn’t any way to tell so far but this issue of conflict diamonds is one that could use the celebrity status and attention that Mr. West surely commands.

The oddest thing about Hip Hop is the many glaring contradictions and surprises from some of the music’s more colorful personalities. Are we as a people so caught up in the façade of fame that we can’t allow a person to change and actually have stronger convictions that go beyond owning “ice” and “bling”? There are so many good stories like this that seemingly get overlooked in favor of buffoonery and scandal. The reports of Philly rapper Cassidy and his murder case have received light years more media attention that what Kanye is attempting with his song. Even if the sincerity of the song is false somewhere down the line, that song now belongs to the universe, to paraphrase R&B singer Roberta Flack. There’s no taking away from Kanye’s good intent and what the message the song and video conveys. Perhaps we need to take into account the flaws of man and not use them to paint false pictures of people. Everyone in this world is a walking and living dichotomy of ideals, failures, hopes and dreams. It’s fitting that the much-maligned genre of Hip Hop music and all of it’s glorification of the material has one of its brightest stars voicing concerns over something that the rap world hinges its visual reminder of success on.

It never lasts long however, this reverence and acknowledgement of a man’s good deed. In Hip Hop, many of those in the media tend to only remember the last bad thing you did versus the first bit of good that’s done. In a quickly changing-to-conservative world, the fight to be outspoken against capital gain at the expense of human life is a daunting one. We should all applaud one man’s effort – no matter how meager – and follow suit. Be bold, be brash, be outspoken.

Friday, June 17, 2005

Is There A False Marriage Between Music & Political Activism?

When I speak to people about music, political activism, civil participation and Hip Hop, there is always this dull pause from the person I’m conversing with – it’s become a bit of an inside joke for me and my friends who engage in that type of deal. Sort of like that “pregnant pause” newly re-hired L.A. Laker Coach Phil Jackson spoke of before deciding to helm the famed NBA team again. I’m sure folks think that because of my involvement in this realm of writing and participation for the past few years that I’m a de facto expert on the subject of all things political and Hip Hop related. I don’t have a host of ideas to correct the state of things; I’m stuck waiting until 2007 because then the campaigns begin to actually heat up. On a national level, my so-called “expertise”, as it were, comes into play heavily because of the campaign and outreach tactics used by both sides. What the kids are listening to, wearing on their backs and so forth is always an important gauge as how to promote candidates and ideas.

A controversial point often comes about when I’m bouncing of my ideas in the realm of debate and discussion (my friends and associates call this bouncing I do “starting arguments so that I can run my big mouth”): I do not enjoy this forcing of civic participation onto young people by luring them with music and making it all look “cool” and I especially (and perhaps harshly so) do not like this false marriage of politics and Hip Hop. When I was the senior editor for a now defunct website dealing with minority politics, I struggled with it every day I went to work as my bosses expected me to entice Gen-Xers with Hip Hop themes and articles with a political slant. For the most part, “political Hip Hop” is such an oxymoron. Socially conscious Hip Hop would be a better term – not a term I’m in favor of, however. The truth is this: the politically charged Hip Hop of the 80s and early 90s dealt with inherently black and minority issues – just like Chuck D coined the overused phrase of rap music being the “CNN of the streets”. Those streets housed the tales of the working poor, the disenfranchised, the uncounted and, more importantly, people of color. Even they no longer have a relevant voice in regards to popular entertainers championing their plight. So with this broader focus I try to take here, I'm usually stuck wondering if I'm reaching people beyond my race.

I’m sure readers of my blog column could color me a hypocrite given my usual fare in this space – go right ahead if you please. But understand this: like many of you, I am struggling to find out how to meld all I know in order to help the fabric of the country I’m quite proud to live in – but not always proud of. I want to find that credible balance of how music can be a message deliverer and not a marketing tool. I want to find the path to gaining knowledge in song and verse but not sacrificing quality or talent. I want all of this to work because I simply do not know how to do anything else with the talent I’ve been blessed to showcase and hone in the bits of HTML code and graphics you see before you. I will continue to press on with my mission: to educate, enlighten and promote all the good that Hip Hop is and making sure that it isn’t whored by those who don’t treasure it – only using it to gain young eyes and ears for commercial consumption. In the meantime, I’m learning the same hard lessons. Let’s continue to walk together.

Saturday, June 11, 2005

Is Hip Hop Activism A Reality Or A Passing Trend?

There exists this undercurrent of political Hip Hop activism yet the racial and gender lines still matter much in determining the relevance and potential of Hip Hop in popular American culture. A critical point emerges in these talks of music and politics, however: When do we find that point when gender issues, racial matters and talks of economic empowerment sound good to the beat again? This line of thinking (of which I do not feel I’m alone in sharing) is a strong question that many writers and authors need to take inventory for. Popular Hip Hop tunes of today celebrate excess wealth, sexual promiscuity, objectification and other themes that do not and will not advance the music to higher heights. With that said, when do we find ourselves prepared to move for the demand of music that promotes a countering view to what is heard now? It’s possible; the consumer has more power than he or she knows yet nobody is championing loudly enough for the surge of counterpoints and varying themes to appear.

Author Bakari Kitwana seems to think that closing the generation gap and perhaps updating the politics to a current Hip Hop generation-specific theme is what will bring about the changes needed that will hopefully improve the fabric of not only Hip Hop music, but youth activism and politics as well. This piece from freelance writer Jeff Hagan for the Plain Dealer features an interview with the author and Kitwana expresses a view that is clear to any current Hip Hop fan: Although Hip Hop is deeply influenced by African, Caribbean and Latino rhythms and culture, the music has been embraced by whites and, for the most part, seemingly with a purist’s angle. Just this past Thursday, I was at a party hosted by Scion which featured DJ Premier of Gangstarr fame. Every “b-boy” (breakdancer) was white; there was one b-girl and she was the lone black face in the circle. Oddly enough, Pete Rock’s younger brother, Grap Luva (Of I-N-I fame) was angered by the lack of participation and rushed the floor – nearly resulting in a fight. There was a tension of epic proportions in the room that night. (Check out this interesting piece on Scion's marketing angle here:
Speaking of tense, this opinion column from Pop Matters writer Ben Rubenstein is one of the most pointed detractions to the nearly messianic (to some) messages of Public Enemy and, for the later generation, Immortal Technique. I find it odd that Mr. Rubenstein takes umbrage with those artists (what with his prefacing everything with so-called and “conscious”) and that he thought himself “part of the problem” as he explained his disdain for Public Enemy. I don’t think Chuck D’s vehemence was born of a hate of affluence but certainly race matters were definitely strained then; it seems as if nobody remembers that Public Enemy’s first release was in 1987 – nearly 20 years ago. Sure, the messages resonated with a great many people then and still do but there are so many other angles and approaches now. What I don’t find odd is how kindly his pen treated the Anticon and Def Jux collectives (Mr. Rubenstein, I’m quite black and I’m a fan of both collectives with many white members). There’s this sneering Right-leaning tone to his words and if I never read another line of his, I don’t think I’d be heartbroken. However, I’d be willing to debate to the wee hours with this man should he want to partake in that.

While I’ve never been the largest fan of west-coast MC, Paris, I’ve always respected that he was educated and uncompromising in his views. This interview conducted by LA City Beat reveals that the former MC turned producer is working with the aforementioned Public Enemy on their new LP, "Re-Birth of A Nation". The impressive tone in Paris' words have always been the one hallmark of his that is not only captivating, but assures his place as a relevant, if gruff, voice in the critique of today's Hip Hop scene. His words ring true: large corporations are throwing acts large sums of money and in turn the artists do nothing to add value to a steadily declining artform. Will our criticism reverse the trend? We cannot answer that but we should remain relentless in our disdain in the failure of improvement. No, we shouldn't eliminate these acts from the public eye - fans have right to buy and listen to whatever and whomever they want. But is it too much to ask for an upswing in quality and themes? Not at all.