What We Talk About When We Talk About Rap

| 12/19/2007 10:27:25 AM

Much commentary on rap music has asserted that funny, amusing hip-hop is a moribund sub-genre. In 2005, for instance, Slate reported on the then-popular “Narnia rap” from Saturday Night Live, musing that its goofy style offered what was missing from popular hip-hop. The article’s provocative subtitle—“It won’t save Saturday Night Live, but it could save hip-hop”—suggested that this brand of hi-jinks might serve as a corrective to the genre as a whole. But wasn’t Busta Rhymes goofy? What about OutKast? And, although he is not widely known, the popular indie artist MF Doom did happen to release an entire album about food. All of which is just to say that hip-hop isn’t the unilateral thug advertisement we might pretend it is.

In the Nov.-Dec. issue of Mother Jones, Jeff Chang makes the case that mainstream hip-hop could be poised to re-embrace the socially conscious and politically informed attitudes that mark its history. Detailing some of the politics that have motivated hip-hop artists past and present—he includes a get-acquainted-with-the-facts timeline—Chang argues that hip-hop’s potential as a genuine, widespread social movement faltered when corporate rap evolved into a “monoculture”—“a bland array of hosts and hostesses for the Bling Shopping Network.”

While Chang doesn’t delve into whether hip-hop lost or retained its political flavor at the local level, he does emphasize the focused activism of various local groups that have tapped into hip-hop culture, such as Boston’s Youth Organizing Project, Brooklyn’s Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, and Milwaukee’s Campaign Against Violence, which blend politics and culture, activism and rap. Observing the impact of these organizations and the more obviously political gestures of artists such as Kanye West, one wonders when we might stop imagining what hip-hop is and actually hear it.  

Michael Rowe

Michael Rowe_1
12/22/2007 12:45:44 AM

Yes, a selection bias plays a role, I'm sure. The thing, I suppose, that irks me is that the "rap song" as an artifact of contemporary entertainment is such a gravity well for boring, insipid, repetitive commentary. Slate and others (even this Mother Jones piece to a certain extent) rarely dicuss anything that doesn't have monolithic, genre-wide implications. In other words, much commentary talks only about the putatuve features of the genre, rather than songs, artists, or... lyrics. Essentially, I'll sleep better when music writers stop improvising on the basic theme of much modern reviewese: the "saving" of a given genre by a particular band. This, by the way, summarizes every mainstream Radiohead review I've ever read. Also, I think a list of socially conscious rappers is always a good idea. As long as we don't mention the boring ones. In fact, I like the rappers who don't advertise their conscience-level, the subtle MCs.

12/21/2007 8:33:16 AM

I think one of the problems might be a selection bias. Not that there are no socially conscious hip-hop songs out there, but rather that those socially conscious songs never get into the mainstream. Another sort of comment writer would here make a list of a bunch of socially conscious rappers operating now, but I refrain. Check out this YouTube video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rN2VqFPNS8w And blow the dust off of your copy of the Roots' Things Fall Apart. It seems that one oft he perennial topics of socially conscious rap has been the inability for socially conscious rap to permeate the mainstream. The album begins with a sample from the movie "Mo Better Blues" which you can find here: http://www.musicsonglyrics.com/R/therootslyrics/therootsactwonthingsfallapartlyrics.htm. In it, two muscians argue about whether the content of their music is actually reaching the audience they want it to: "The people don't come because you grandiose motherfuckers don't play shit that they like. If you played the shit that they liked, then the people would come. Simple as that." Anyway. An interesting question for me is: whether the medium of rap, qua medium, is rife for social commentary. And I believe: yes, very much so. But that's an argument for another comment. http://bmackie.blogspot.com

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