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

Thursday, May 27, 2004

Consumerism, Commercialism & Indifference ...

It is often assumed that Hip Hop’s only contribution to the broad spectrum of American culture is the widespread acceptance of consumerism, commercialism and indifference to anything not Hip Hop related. However, many on the outside of Hip Hop’s circle understand that the influential power possessed by the genre’s largest stars is an intangible gift. It isn’t any surprise that Russell Simmons , a marketing mogul that many herald as a genius, has tapped into the political pulse of young people. His many successful business ventures and music connections have allowed him to advance his newest platform: political activism . Over the last few years, he’s emerged as young America’s champion for change and has managed to get stars not known for their political views involved in efforts to encourage voter participation and eliminate voter apathy. Many have quietly questioned Mr. Simmons’ sincerity – I being one of those people. I do not have any contempt for Mr. Simmons’; I simply question the motives behind his stance and its overall focus. I want ideas on how to affect political change, not tips on how to wear my Phat Farm gear. I support any person’s efforts to provide change and even shameless promotion in light of it isn’t an issue. I just hope that his effort’s agendas aren’t inconspicuous. If I have to endure another television interview with the man displaying his wares – on a topic that has little to do with any of his many products – I’m going to have to look for another voice in the Hip Hop political scene.

The question remains is if it’s working. Certainly, a lot of major companies that sponsor voter registration events are pandering for those youthful eyeballs and the advertising dollars they help to generate. Throwing a few thousand dollars to a school or youth center in the “hood‿ here and there supposedly gives them some sort of credibility with the real people. These are the folks who are in the trenches suffering at the hands of the establishment – apparently this is where apathy breeds most often. With the upcoming Political Hip Hop Convention in New Jersey, there is hope that a new progressive movement can finally take hold and be regarded seriously. This approach, while ambitious, still has the usual set of suspects and a gaggle of people who never made themselves to be political beacons before. Pardon my seemingly negative stance – I truly do hope that these men and women get this right. I still have to question it if only to understand the true underlying motive.

Sean "Puffy" Combs , record label executive and current Broadway actor in the play “A Raisin In The Sun‿, is back in cahoots with cable network MTV to host a new politically-themed showed called “Project Change ‿. Not to blow anyone’s spot but didn’t Sean Combs attend a Simmons-sponsored political event a few years back encouraging young people to vote when he himself wasn’t even a registered voter? This is precisely the worry of many active and progressive thinkers when it comes to the huge task of getting young people to the polls. If the youth voter movement paid as much attention to the facts as they do the videos and music of these beloved icons, would these events they sponsor ever take hold? We can’t foresee the future but we can hold these so-called leaders accountable. One of the qualities of being a leader is to admit when you’re faulty. Let’s hope that won’t be an oft occurring event. We’ll give them a chance to prove us wrong.

For an interesting look into Hip Hop Activism, read Don Hazen’s piece over at Alternet.

Friday, May 21, 2004

Hip Hop's Evolution

If you look back and chronicle Hip Hop’s evolution as a message tool, you can directly see the most universal theme in many a young person’s struggle: the limits of their surroundings and the desire to change that. Beyond it being one of more common themes in Hip Hop music, it has never taken root in being popular. It isn’t hard to imagine, then, the ever-present difficulty in discovering acts that have both the sonic dexterity to make poignant songs but also do so and still be entertaining.

Far gone are Public Enemy's glory days of the 1980s and early 90s. Yet during their peak, you would hear PE songs on the radio and their videos enjoyed a healthy run – certainly more than was expected. And not only was it prevalent, it sounded good as well. The message was clearly intended for Black America and regardless of how politically charged the lyrics were, front man Chuck D was dedicated to his people’s struggles first. Anything dealing with politics on a broad level was never fully articulated. It is precisely why calling certain acts political is such a vague assessment. Most acts that get stuck with the “conscious" or “political" tag are usually those that cater their sound to counter the ever-popular club oriented and radio friendly songs. What sells now is anything that catches the ear and gets folks rushing to the dance floor. Lyrics have very little importance these days. Yet it seems that when you praise an emcee’s lyrical worth and give it a label (sometimes just to highlight the content), some emcees would rather run screaming to the hills.

So why is there reluctance by some of Hip Hop’s better lyricists to embrace those tags? Why did they became so damning when in the 1980s, folks seemed proud to be known as beacons?

I interviewed emcee Talib Kweli in the summer of 2000 and it was during the recording of the Reflection Eternal LP. I was a huge fan of the man’s work and I definitely enjoyed his Black Star project with fellow Brooklyn native, Mos Def . During the interview, I made the mistake of asking whether or not he was a conscious or political rapper and would he be getting involved in any voter drives since it was an important election year. Mr. Kweli seemed visibly annoyed with the line of questioning – I wasn’t seasoned as an interviewer at the time. He said that any type of assumed tag people place on him would put him under more stress than he was willing to take on. He admitted that while he would never dumb down his content because he felt that the people would understand it, he did say he wanted little to do with any movement that didn’t concern his people first. He went on to say that voting does nothing to change the fabric of the nation and clearly felt justified in saying that. I don’t know what Mr. Kweli’s stances are on political and social issues now, but I do wonder if the apathy we are inundated with is being helped by this sort of indifference to the democratic process by artists or people most would expect to champion those ideals.

In a recent e-mail exchange with Nicole Powers, MASSV Club and Events Editor for URB Magazine , she too articulated how difficult it is to remove the shadow of voter apathy. She did express that during this year’s Coachella event, many artists used their platform as an opportunity to get messages across. To quote Ms. Powers, “the artistic community seems to have found their collective balls‿. As she went on to say in her e-mail, perhaps being politically and socially aware will become fashionable again once more people of prominence step up.
Hip Hop culture, as universal as it has become, is still widely recognized as an entity were black and Latino people are the leaders and pioneers. How then are we to tackle delivering a message when certain people who are witness to the message can’t even relate to it? Perhaps it will take an artist that is on the total opposite of the race spectrum.

Sage Francis , a gifted emcee and poet from Rhode Island, has enjoyed a steady stream of success since the late 90s. He too seems to shy away from labels but as one of Hip Hop’s most accessible and vocal acts, he maintains an almost cult like following. Francis was one of the few underground Hip Hop acts who embraced the Internet early on for its connective power and has encouraged downloading of his own music in the past. His most recent tour, the boldly titled F*CK Clear Channel Tour, was met with praise. A fellow colleague referred to Francis’s work as Public Enemy for White Suburbia. While I won’t support or refute that claim, Francis’s strong anti-establishment views and his educated ramblings (he graduated from the University of Rhode Island) make him an interesting person to watch in coming months.

There are so many angles and answers to chase and we will eventually take them on. For now, we have to find out why so many acts with the power to move a nation have decided to play the background. Perhaps in the coming weeks, someone will grant us their insight.

With Peace,

Friday, May 14, 2004

Consumer Culture & Hip Hop

Josh Koenig and da bookman, respectively raised two very strong points: How consumer culture is widely influenced by broadcast media and how in other countries, Hip Hop culture is employed on a more political level while in the states it is a more personal experience. Both of these occurrences shouldn't be a shock to young America; it is beyond obvious that the down-your-throat-and-accept-it nature of MTV and BET further impacts Mr. Koenig's point about media influence.

I'm sure many of you reading have been victim to the droning effects of commercials on both the radio and television -- not fully grasping why you went to the mall and spent mindlessly but in this brutal assault on our ability to choice, it does happen quite a bit. It comes as little surprise why certain musical acts enjoy success on major airways these days; every station seems to be controlled by Clear Channel or Radio One and there exists no shame in these radio stations repeating the same 10 songs every hour on the hour. Not to discredit anyone's attempt at art but J-Kwon's "Tipsy" should not have been a top 10 hit on any level but the barrage of hearing it 20 times a day has taken hold. I've even found myself saying the infectious chorus against my will.

Hip Hop's social roots are historically recorded. From the early 70s until now, it has proved to be an entity of refuge for many. Of course, Hip Hop culture is more segregated than ever and that is truly reflective of the way things are in this country currently. You have your commercial pop acts, and then there are your grimy underground acts, moving from there to the more "organic" poetic sound and so forth and so on. Each particular sound has a built in niche audience and there has been little reason to galvanize all of the forces for one. It is amazing to read how in Brazil, England and other countries how whole Hip Hop concerts are built about political movement and resistance but here in the states, we're doing summer jams for Pepsi and Budweiser. Yes, these large companies reportedly give back to urban areas and youth charities, but it is replete with the looming specter of commercialism and consumerism.

As a unifying force, music and informational sites like MFA can do a lot to bridge a slew of communication gaps. As we of the so-called Generation X get older, we have to realize that those kids coming up behind us are the youth movement now. We can't underestimate the importance of that movement and we need to construct ways to help them get involved. MFA and other organizations have the right idea in getting the youth involved in democracy and participation. Hip Hop music and culture is about being fresh, innovative and provocative. The ideas behind political movements need to mirror those same ideals. To meld movement and music, it takes consistency and a real desire to change.

We will see in the coming months if that challenge can be met.

For an interesting read, check out

With Peace,