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

Thursday, May 26, 2005

If You Don't Know, Now You Know (c) Christopher Wallace

It shouldn’t be a shock to the many fans of Hip Hop music that critics and columnists take often ill-researched potshots at the genre. It reeks of a sneering elitism that does not lend itself open to true discourse and discussion. Case in point, New York Times sports columnist Selena Roberts' recent piece on David Stern and the NBA’s current state – especially focusing on her asinine comment on comparing the Hip Hop world to the brawl that happened in Detroit with Ben Wallace and Ron Artest. This foolish attempt at cleverness is lost in her sophomoric use of analogies that don’t have a thing to do with each other. I’m sure Ms. Roberts is respected in her field; I’m new to her work. However, it may be a cold day in hell before I read any of her content again. Now, for those of you who don’t wish to register to read her comments, I’ll offer some quotes of note below:

"An industry that used to be about Michael Jordan and Nike is now about 50 Cent and Reebok as it grows tentacles to reach young consumers entranced by what violent rap artists choose for shoes. Amid this transition, with marketers zealously blurring boundaries between stage and court, it seems as if the league is hip-hop, and hip-hop is the league - especially on the night of Nov. 19, 2004. That was when certain Pistons and Pacers came uncorked in a fan-induced brawl that left the players cast as lawless thugs of the gangsta rap variety. But Thursday night, many of those same players - both Pistons blue and Pacers gold - stood in sync with a mostly white Midwestern audience in a moving ovation to Miller."

While I agree that the marketing of products in the NBA is overzealous at times, the comparisons made here do not support anything but an apparent, lily-white (yes, I said it) ignorance to something that doesn’t have to be divided into a war of races, musical genres and assumptions. What goes on in the NBA boardroom has no true bearing on what Hip Hop ultimately should be about. True, SOME "violent rappers" have had a stranglehold on the commercial side of the music for varying periods of time, but that is not indicative of the diversity of Hip Hop – using the word Ms. Roberts chose to highlight about our current NBA and its many international and multi-cultural players. If she’s to declare the whole of Hip Hop violent, then she too has lost out on an opportunity to really see beyond what the media has deemed important and relevant. Should she be left off the hook for this because she’s a sports columnist? I think not.

That lack of respect for Hip Hop by Ms. Roberts is countered by the honest assessment of the genre and culture by Mr. Norman Kelly, author of the book, "The Head Negro In Charge Syndrome: The Dead End of Black Politics", which really peers into the problems left behind by what he calls "market intellectuals". If you’ve read my column in recent months, you know how critical I am of these public intellectuals who seemingly haven’t met a camera or press opportunity they don’t like (and use Hip Hop as a point of study and lecture). Should they be penalized for maximizing their potential to earn and educate? Perhaps not but we need these same people to guide the current downswing in culture towards relevance in not only black, but youth politics as well. Mr. Kelly isn’t necessarily kind to Hip Hop in his piece where he speaks of the "emptiness" of Hip Hop but he does speak truth. I dare you to find fault with what he’s saying and I’m far from playing fan boy to this man’s words.

I really need to get on some of these mailing lists for conferences and such. Earlier this month in St. Louis, the Media Reform Conference , put together by the Free Press, was held featuring the likes of Al Franken, Davey D and others. I would’ve loved to have been a part of that. If any readers were there and can chime in about it, I’d love to discuss what was said. It seemed to be a pretty charged event although it seemed youth participation was low. If I knew this was going on, I would’ve definitely made inroads to get there. We have to unify these fronts, people. The efforts to change policy and mindsets cannot be done in vacuums. True democracy ultimately leads to true solidarity.

Saturday, May 21, 2005

Captivate The Youth With Truth...or else.

The youth vote – in particular the black youth vote – has been and will continue to be the area where civic participation could acquire the most in regards to a spike in numbers each election and voting cycle. The Black Youth Vote organization held an event last month – an annual event in its fifth year. I’ve worked with the BYV in 2000 when I was an editor for another politically themed web portal and the experience was quite rich. The dynamics of the time when I was working with this website were such that I had a definite focus on politics that touched on issues affecting the black community. I partnered with a lot of similar groups and we tried in earnest to tip the scales of what would be the most controversial election in my generation’s time. The wind was really knocked out of our sails just like what happened in 2004’s election and the question still remains. Is reaching out to popular entertainers and music artists the proper approach in strengthening voter blocs in the youth demographic?

Numbers indicate that the youth vote numbers were at record highs so we can definitely record the victory in that arena. However, there still exists a lack of true voter education – something I continually stress in any conversation about this matter. The next wave of celebrity participation has to employ a cadre of entertainers and icons that are actual voters, do know what the issues are and can effectively speak on those issues without sounding like cue card readers. Possible? Sure it is but the difficulty of that reality is the stars are being used for one thing: Their fame and notoriety gains them attention for the most minute of things. As I’ve said before about popular rappers and their ability to captivate the minds of the people, if these entertainers were savvy as, say, Jeanne Garofalo, the world would stop as a result of all the information they’d be able to convey with ease to their many fans – and not with a sales pitch in tow.

To sort of mark a side conversation into the world of race and voting, there is an interesting and heated primary senatorial race happening in Maryland. Former head of NAACP Kwesi Mfume is in an opposing stance with Jewish congressman Ben Cardin. There are many subplots revolving around the intense racial tension surrounding this race. Even Hip Hop mogul Russell Simmons (who’s learned to be come less of a peddler and more of a preacher) is in the mix with this one. Political races are usually filled with unkind words and allegations when there is a party opposition but all of this is coming from a Democratic primary standpoint and the barbs are really flying. If Mr. Mfume does secure the primary for himself, what other words will he have to endure? The man’s accomplishments should overshadow his faults but when you’re in public service, the public’s memory of your dalliances do not fade easily or are forgotten by your opponent. Stay tuned for this one as it proves to be explosive by the end.

Friday, May 13, 2005

I Know Rap, My Man..I mean HIP HOP! (c) Madlib

Whenever I’m around a group of people and the unusually hot topic of today’s Hip Hop scene comes about in discussion, the gathering suddenly becomes the “D.L. Chandler must explain and account for Hip Hop’s follies” show. It’s not a position I covet because I find that no matter how many detailed facts I give, it’s nearly never enough to satisfy the rabid nature of disdain from the Hip Hop detractor. I don’t even enjoy the many moments I prove a person wrong about their narrow perception of Hip Hop – they still harbor that “its not even real music” mentality. What Hip Hop has suffered from most (in my view) is its increasing notoriety and seemingly infinite controversies – and by controversies I do mean the murders of 2Pac and Biggie, the free speech war withstood by the 2 Live Crew, protests from the law enforcement agencies and even a federally sanctioned “Hip Hop Police” detective squad. Many could argue Hip Hop shot itself in its own foot with these happenings so why should it be considered high art with such an infamous track record?

I never play the race card in this column; I recognize that many with an ability to discount an entire group of Hip Hop detractors (especially dealing with a genre and culture so reflective of Black and Latino influences) would and could do so. Not a soul in America or abroad can deny what Hip Hop’s roots are as far as the many influences from the dances, the beats, the rhythmic rhymes and styles of fashion. Isn’t it fair time to say that Hip Hop culture has paid its penance to society and should enjoy its many fruits of labor? Is it truly Hip Hop’s fault that vapid lyrics, easily remembered hooks and canned keyboard beats are the flavor of the year for the last few summers? Is it true, like many rappers feel, that because a bunch of young black people make a ton of money at this that it threatens the fabric of this country’s elite? (On a sort of matter of fact side note, Lyor Cohen is about as black as the snowcaps in Aspen. Does he count?)
The fans have as just much stake in the elevation and failure of the music and culture. The lyrics we repeat over and again are just as much our fault as it is corporate pressure to make hits. The hit songs of the 80s and early to mid 90s were dictated by the consumer. Now, the consumer is given a limited amount of choices and has to pick the lesser of two evils – or whichever track has the hot hook and expensive video. The underground scene is thriving and rich with so many innovative producers and MC’s but what happened there is that the complexion of that scene is so wholly different than the Hip Hop scene of the 80s and 90s. It’s nearly segregated in some ways whereas Hip Hop shows of past were more mixed in hue. At a recent MF Doom concert (a well-received MC and black man well into his 30s), I was one of 8 black people (not including the acts performing). I note this because young black people today have a far easier time with this microwave culture of getting it cheap, easy and free from the endless barrage of video shows on cable and music file sharing programs. They aren’t going to the shows for some reason unless its one of the larger acts that the world has deemed popular and necessary.

I don’t spend my days exhausting my mental resources on trying to change minds; I simply offer what I know to be a still good music and culture and I latch on to what makes it so for me. I will continue to share that with people but it comes replete with limits: I will not debate into the wee hours of the night with anyone about the value of Hip Hop – especially when I can detect that no matter what, they’re going to believe what they do. If I can’t expect compromise in the face of unyielding criticism over something I cherish, I don’t think I should have to endure sneering ridicule and such to prove how much I’m in support of Hip Hop.

Friday, May 06, 2005

Hip Hop Culture From The (Under)Ground Up

In the start of my first forays into melding activism and Hip Hop in the Washington Metropolitan area, I met one of the most interesting persons in William "Upski" Wimsatt. Billy, as I’ve grown to call him, was a dynamic speaker, energetic activist and, at that time, a brand new author. Some of you may recall his books "Bombing the Suburbs" and "No More Prisons". Between 1999 and 2000, I had a chance to pick this man’s brain and he always encouraged me to keep up with the writing thing. He probably doesn’t know how much his encouragement has sustained me. We had this now defunct organization known as the D.C. Hip Hop Federation and while that movement has died, there is a rather large Yahoo e-group (SpreadLove) that was born of our earlier efforts. We would meet at an area non-profit that Billy worked and concocted all these grand schemes that sadly never got off the ground. Still, those times are some of my fondest memories. I hope some of our Canadian readers had a chance to check out Upski at this recent talk of his.

Wimsatt’s example of direct exposure to an element that he could’ve possibly been denied access to because of his skin and background shows that we must, at the very least, be willing to risk ridicule and criticism from people we wish to be our peers. I’m fond of saying that brotherhood, like trust, is something one must earn. In the realm of Hip Hop culture, there is a wariness of the "new kid" as you’re not sure if you’re going to relate to them or not. I remember when I did my brief stint in a small graffiti writer crew how I had to essentially "earn my stripes" with these men. It’s funny to think how protective we were of the culture and now, anybody with a cracked Fruity Loops program and cheap microphone can claim Hip Hop as ardently as anyone – and even feel justified in doing so. Hip Hop in my time was definitely more about waiting on the elders and masters to deliver the goods but everybody and their mother wants to be a hack MC or producer. I don't want to even start on the "toy" (read: novice) graf writers of today. The DIY movement in music period is to blame although some of those efforts are worthy of respect.

A recent conference featuring Public Enemy’s Chuck D and west coast former MC Yo-Yo showcased just how repetitive we must be. Hammering home the point of being politically active and taking charge of the polls is a message that will never get old; Chuck D speaks to this toward the end of Mr. Chery’s piece. Broken records, some would say but you cannot underscore the importance of what he’s saying. You cannot underscore enough the words of Yo-Yo regarding what sounds and images commercial radio and television choose to promote in Hip Hop. The times are critical and message music is soon to become a dinosaur if this trend continues. As I’ve grown up in this culture expecting it to teach and guide me, I’ve had to learn the hard lesson that I also have to be just as active in gaining my worth and knowledge in other arenas as well. The passion and expectations we heap upon Hip Hop and the personal responsibility that every non-fan, Hip Hop detractor or fire breathing politician demands needs to come from the pulsating core within those tightly wound Hip Hop circles.