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

Thursday, March 31, 2005

If It's Broke, Who's Gonna Fix It?

Hip Hop artists of today are doing little to help themselves as I tirelessly defend them and the culture; it seems like weekly there is a new single or incident that ruins all hope for a broader acceptance. But what I’m sure I’ve yet to do on these pages was to apologize for what’s occurred thus far. I happened across this interesting, if brief, piece from EUR that is shockingly understanding of the tone in today’s music. It’s rare to witness such an open acceptance of what we’re faced with in Hip Hop now – an almost gentle understanding is present in this piece. Yet, I cannot say I’m fond of what’s that articulating. Mr. Robinson’s piece speaks of “war in the drums for the black man” – and I get what he’s expressing but war and aggression isn’t what the music nor culture need. What it’s missing is an overall standard of high quality; today’s music is all hype, pizzazz and minimal substance.

Jeff Chang's excellent book, “Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop”, is something I’m sure you’ve seen me mention several times in the space of this blog column. The reason being is it is that pivotal a work to possess as we continue to try and define the worth and importance of our ever evolving culture. Chang takes it to a deeper level than just speaking on the culture and music’s development; he smartly details Hip Hop’s cultural impact and influence – something we can witness in other countries by the day. I wonder if people really understand how much Hip Hop permeates and influences other genres of music and culture yet suffers so much from the negativity (and media focus) only to yet again be treated alien.

There is a such a lull in politically or socially charged Hip Hop as it is the time where the big labels are looking to get that first “hot” spring/summer record to dominate the airwaves and charts. On the indie scene, many acts you would figure to lead that charge are either stagnant or compelled to make music they’re usually not associated with doing (case in point: the new Perceptionists record featuring Mr. Lif and Akrobatik). Was Lif supposed to make an I Phantom part two? Of course the fans want that as it was definitely Lif’s crowning moment but concept records are so 2003 now – sarcastically speaking. I will say what a lot of others won’t: I wanted Lif to return to that concept and I can’t tell where they’re going with the new angle (and I’m not sure if I’m liking it less because of what it wasn’t more so than for what it is).

In the end, however, the onus is on us the fans and practitioners to advance those concepts and ideals into the music again. If we want music quality to improve, we have to counter the output of crap with better music. If we simply bitch and moan our way through life talking about what once was, it’s nobody’s fault but our own if it does not improve.

Thursday, March 24, 2005

Debate, Divide & Decide: Picking Sides in the Hip Hop Sex War

I imagine that when writer Stanley Crouch has exhausted all of his usual fare, he attacks Hip Hop music as a means to make a juicy read. It’s becoming a tired, tepid shtick yet he keeps going to the well with it. He’s correct that women need not buy into the misogyny present in much of today’s bigger radio hits but his condemnation is too far-sweeping and does nothing to address the many positive alternative images and messages available. See, these critiques of Hip Hop music and culture would not be so maddening if the writers and critics took care to paint the broadest strokes possible. Instead, we have these narrow-seeming men and women who come across as not only crotchety, but ill informed.

With the impending Feminism and Hip Hop conference coming up in April to be held in Chicago, there exists this heavy air that we’re preparing ourselves for a war that doesn’t need to be fought. This warlock hunt that Essence is launching has a good idea but it is such a bumbling approach as I fear it will never be taken seriously. They will struggle for legitimacy by culling opinions and detractions from people they truly feel have a handle on the taste and pulse of the culture – and it’s a false sense of assuredness in that because they never go outside what’s in front of them on cable and radio.

I would urge these champions of Hip Hop’s sexist reversal to recognize that there are writers, artists and vocal leaders who have a more centrist view of what they perceive Hip Hop the culture to be. People like the great writer Jeff Chang – who gets mentioned in this pretty thorough critique of the so-called Hip Hop generation by Phillip Martin. The betterment of the music starts by truly understanding it – and that’s precisely my main issue with the Crouches and McWhorters of the world (I totally hate when writers do that but I’m being lazy this week). If they took the exhaustive road of researching other sides first before they donned the cloak of disdain, I'd be fine with their single-minded comments.

I’m interested in just 3 things: the improvement of overall Hip Hop quality regarding both the music and the culture, less of a corporate greediness in the industry and an open forum between varying sides of the music as to increase and promote awareness on all levels. Right now, we’re doing a lot of chest thumping and finger pointing. There aren’t really any healthy discussions – just these campaigns with burning torches and angry mobs ready to tear down the tower in which Hip Hop as the Frankenstein monster rests. We have this air of contention that’s heavier than the actual issue at hand so nothing gets done if that persists.

There was a conversation I had the pleasure of overhearing recently on the train between an older Black gentleman and his White, and equal in age, counterpart. They were discussing what they felt was the problem with young people today. The White gentleman stated that he felt the problem all started when, as he comically put it, “the rap hippity stuff” started to become the benchmark for what’s cool in this country. The Black gentleman followed up by saying that the music began to form the tastes and held the rapt attention of the global youth thus insuring an almost absolute global influence. In the end, nobody knew it’d be this big and we’re still trying to contain it with misunderstanding’s fumbling hand. When are we going to get this thing right?

Thursday, March 17, 2005

All Around The World

The story of London rapper M.I.A. sounds far too intense to be true. However, the daughter of a Sri Lankan rebel happens to fuse every detail of her influences, surroundings and background into an eclectic mix of self-styled sounds and lyrics. This is precisely what I speak about often in this blog column: Hip Hop is indeed a culture that’s often dissected to be less than what it is but which influences cannot be ignored. The global impact of Hip Hop culture isn’t a shock any longer and yet, it continues to remain innovative and interesting even in the midst of a quality drop in today’s money obsessed climate.

M.I.A.’s debut LP, Arular, even happens to inject a little world politics amongst the slang-heavy and driving disc. It is definitely one of the more creative releases to come out in some time.
To further explore the global theme, check out this article from the Canadian Press about social Hip Hop’s influence around the world. Isn’t it odd how other countries use the music to drive messages to their peer group instead of talking about how flossy they are? When there’s a song on the radio the likes of the Yin Yang Twins low-brow single, “Wait”, you have to question the future of the music on American radio and television. It seems that now the daring innovators are people concerned with matters that separate messages to the beat from being an excuse to brag, command women to gyrate and glorify a lifestyle that is not even one they’re living necessarily.

I’m sure I’m coming off like a crotchety old-school cat that hates the current scene and has turned his back to the culture. Part of that is certainly true – I do not enjoy what the true shining joy of my youth has devolved to. But am I giving up on it? I would never do that. The simple fact is this: I’ve put too much time into supporting this music and culture to just willingly give up on it. I do not have a narrow view of its future as many intellectuals and critics seem to have and believe ardently. Still, I have to give myself a little chin check as well when it comes to the subject of many of my written works. In short terms, the music is going straight to hell on the mainstream side. It’s to the point now that a record truly deserving of commercial success only can insure that goal by the sheer power of its record company’s influence in marketing the product. Again, it’s not a game of quality any longer – it is simply a game of numbers.

I never heard of Brian Proffitt (many thanks to Up & Coming magazine) who is a co-founder of Hip Hop Against Racist War (HHARW). Very impressive thing they’re trying to do here and I wish their concert rally later today much success. Perhaps the trend of promoting quality music and ideas will be the next big thing. We can only hope, right?

Many thanks to the Houston Chronicle for the link to the M.I.A. story

Thursday, March 10, 2005

Rappers Are In Danger! (C) KRS-One

I’m not ashamed to note that I am in my early 30s - although my dashing and boyish good looks defy my age. Poor attempts of humor aside, I’ve grown up witnessing various phases of Hip Hop’s media coverage and the accompanying sounds of the time. From the mid 80s to now, I have had the pleasure of seeing how bumbling reporters tried to paint rap music as not only a fad but a xenophobic culture that would never go mainstream. I do believe the facts certainly betray that frame of thinking as Hip Hop’s global influence has no signs of slowing down any time in the near future.

Given the background of some Hip Hop artists and practitioners of the late 70s and early 80s (inner city dwelling “minorities‿), it wasn’t impossible for some in the media to shore some level of doubt regarding their potential for success. Yet, it happened in large fashion and nobody could stop the onslaught. In my time, the first major coverage paid attention to a Hip Hop act on a national level was Queens New York legends Run-D.M.C. In comparison to major artists of now, Run-D.M.C. was everywhere as 50 Cent and others are now – eventually leading into their own version of an Adidas sneaker shoe. Then there was the groundbreaking (and possibly rumored as I’ve heard) million dollar record deal signed by Eric B and Rakim when they defected from their first label – and chronicled by Nas on his latest disc on the song “U.A.B. of Rakim‿.

Until 1988, when Public Enemy’s oft-discussed 2nd LP “It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back‿ was released, controversial Hip Hop was a rarity; the so-called “golden age‿ was at its peak and media coverage started to peak right along with it. Public Enemy’s bold politics and loud music took this nation under its hold and had possession of it until at least the early 90s. I remember those times of protest against PE for band member Professor Griff’s anti-Semitic remarks and how the media dogged the group as often as it could. Public Enemy’s lasting legacy, however, is the over-used but relevant at times tag line that Hip Hop is the "CNN of the streets". Some could argue that Hip Hop is now the Radio One or Clear Channel of the streets as today the sound is homogenous and you can’t differentiate artists by region anymore because it’s all sounding the same.

Today’s media obsession with Hip Hop – especially the violence – isn’t a shock. It makes for great stories and reporting. Unlike when I was coming up, the kids and old heads of today can log on the Internet and see Hip Hop unfold nearly live. We’ve become a microwave culture expecting our information fast, hot and filling. Who cares if anything lacks substance or relevance – we want to know and we want to know NOW! Take for instance this current quasi-disagreement with label mates 50 Cent and Game. Not only was it over absolutely thin reasons, but it nearly escalated into people dying over words – mere words over radio airwaves. And then you have folks saying beef or diss records kept on wax is good for Hip Hop? How? Nobody has yet to explain in a sensible way why that’s good for anything other than to drum up sales and media attention for the artists involved.

This is the type of behavior that lends credence to the words of jazz critics and scholars like author John McWhorter – who I maintain still doesn’t know what he’s talking about. It also helps support statements such as the Reverend Al Sharpton’s suggested 90-day ban of rap music on commercial channels although I do believe there are more pertinent issues in the community the Reverend could equally focus on. Beating up on Hip Hop isn’t going to help change it. Let’s face it, the marriage of violent behavior and Hip Hop will have more reoccurrences and the music’s legend will continue to spread. The Federal Government will continue to waste dollars investigating Hip Hop (isn’t this a laugh) to discover illicit activities. The problem isn’t Hip Hop and never was. There are various positive messages and artists but they’re not as sexy a story as, say, Game and Fiddy trying to murder each other or rappers uttering controversial statements with all microphones and lights on. The issue is that there are certain individuals that have chosen to break laws and act as if they’re above them or engage in activity of almost a daring-to-be-caught sort. Demean them. Damn them if you have to. But do not attack the entire whole of Hip Hop – not when there are so many opportunities abound for the camera to turn the lights up on some folks in the genre and culture that are bringing forth positive images and contributions.

Thursday, March 03, 2005

Can Hip Hop Transcend Its Already Lofty Heights?

I can appreciate a writer such as the likes of Jeff Chang. I’ve been reading his work and blog on and off for the past year – coming away impressed for the most part each time. This interview with Mr. Chang gives a little insight about the man and how his mind works – but I encourage you all to peruse his work whenever you can.

Hip Hop music and culture is so amazing in the fact that it unifies a lot of individuals from varied demographics yet there is never a lack of cohesion (at least when everyone’s on the same page). There are plenty of active Hip Hop groups across the country – just like this group in Detroit – that champion the virtues of Hip Hop and unifying all the sub-genres within the genre.

Again, the beauty of Hip Hop is that it is multi-layered in both sound and approach; there is something in it for everybody. Like partisan politics, there is the “aboveground‿ (read: mainstream, commercial acts) and the underground (read: groups that’ll never move units). For Hip Hop to survive on the lower tiers, the divide has to be narrowed. I’m not satisfied with what’s on the radio save for the occasional Nas single of late. But the days of groups of both sides sharing air time are dwindling fast as the Hip Hop music industry is disgustingly consumed with sales and not quality.

Armond White, film reviewer for the New York Press, recently wrote this piece recalling Public Enemy’s groundbreaking It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back. You may ask yourself, “Why is a film critic discussing a Hip Hop LP at lengths and then comparing it to the Sex Pistols?‿ Why couldn’t PE’s second album stand out on its own without comparison – because frankly, there isn’t another piece music in the world quite like it? He is correct; to listen to PE makes one recant the tension and desire of hope for the times. At the time, I was 15 and confused as hell about my station in the world. I was considered bright but I felt forgotten and left behind. I studied the civil rights movement and their successes and failures; I would read anything that dealt with revolution (I discovered Marxism at the time). The entire experience was pivotal for me and I know I am not alone in that experience. Mr. White, however, seems to turn the blind eye to the likes of Mr. Lif, El-P, Tahir and maybe even dead prez – although it seems as though the last group mentioned have devolved a bit from their earlier stances. There are plenty of vocal and active MCs – I’ve written about them in this blog column at lengths. Mr. White speaks of a “political and cultural promise‿. But I hope he does a little more research in his next attempt to wax in remembrance of a time of Hip Hop old.

I have a question to pose to you all. Do you want the intelligentsia – namely the Black Intelligentsia – to introduce novel ideas in bridging Hip Hop and academics? Or do we join forces as a huge Justice League of sorts to combat the evils and downward spiral of Hip Hop? I don’t think it’s impossible for academics to apply Hip Hop’s lucid ability to embody youth culture and yet be one of the most diverse social settings ever. But do I see it working? Only if the egos of those involved can be checked and understand the true need for collaboration and not try to bully their ideas ahead of anyone else. This piece from Harvard University’s Kwame Owusu-Kesse details in brief how that could and should happen, but I still feel it misses the heart and soul of what we need. Hip Hop isn’t in need of repair nor does the political and social aspect of the culture suffer on the grassroots level. What truly is at hand is steady undercurrents of change abound and all of us – the academics and Hip Hop proponents – need to find out our roles and stick to them.