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

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.

Friday, June 03, 2005

Hip Hop Activism Is In Need Of A Swift Kick In The Rear

In last week’s blog column, I mentioned author Norman Kelly and quoted a line of his from a piece he wrote that highlighted the important works of Harold Cruse and the significance of his passing. He mentioned a few words about Hip Hop’s political relevance and how he saw that the music that has and continues to change the world has become nothing more than a means to promote more consumption and not social change. In a recent private exchange I had with Mr. Kelley, these words regarding the efforts of the HSAN came about and they highlight a lot of what I’ve been struggling with and writing about in this space for almost a year:

"And HSAN is very problematic. Sneakers and reparation? The idea of using rappers to lure young blacks to civic responsibility has more to do with marketing than political and civic education. Under HSAN, young people are just another consumption demographic, not a real political constituency that has to be courted, educated, and respected."

Mr. Kelly hammers a point home that I hope the readers of this blog and others can apply to the efforts of civic participation: This isn’t a fashion we’re trying to promote here. We don’t just need the numbers at the polls; we also need those people to fully realize what they’re undertaking on all levels. The right to vote should be empowering and engrossing to all that decide to do so. We need to take better care of our efforts to encourage the youth voters to participate and not let it become some trendy movement that fades into the sunset. My wariness of the efforts of HSAN and other organizations isn’t a thing of hate – if anything, I want these efforts to be successful and furthermore, sincere.

In other news, the glorification of criminal activity in Hip Hop captivates America again with the release of XXL magazine’s “Jail Issue” where on the cover, 50 Cent and Tony Yayo are proudly announced as “convicted felons”. I’m not sure if I have a right to gripe about it but why must a Hip Hop magazine devote an entire issue to incarcerated rappers and such? This isn’t something that should impress their fans any more or less and I simply don’t see the benefit to highlighting their checkered pasts. I’m convinced that Hip Hop’s controlling hands care nothing about the advancement of the fans that will have to endure environments and situations that could land them in jail – their only concern is how does my artist look and how many of those gullible and easy to impress suburbanites are going to pick up a copy of the magazine and CD. There possibly won’t be another “conscious” rap renaissance as we witnessed in the late 80s and early 90s and I’ve decided not to hold out for it. But I can’t imagine anything going right for the genre as far as quality improvement if we don’t start using the vehicle of music as more than a means to make some CEO filthy rich.