Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Hip Hop Comments and Reactions

My last post generated some heated comments from Katterfelto and a couple of "Anonymous" posters. Ay Caramba!

The first Anonymous accuses me of saying somewhere in my post(s) that anyone who dislikes Hip Hop or Rap is necessarily a racist. I said nothing of the sort; to the contrary, I specifically said in my last post that it's fine to dislike a musical genre (and used opera as an example of a genre that doesn't work for me). It's when people dismiss a genre as valueless that I start looking for something deeper.

And, incidentally, when I said, I wonder if [Anonymous] would be so tolerant of Thelonious Monk if it were 1963? I wasn't refering to racial tolerance but rather to artistic tolerance. It's easy to love a long-accepted artistic genre; how much harder it is to find the "meat" in newer artistic forms. Improvisational Jazz (like Abstract Expressionism and Beat Poetry) was radical and alienating when it first showed up, and even today it remains fairly difficult to access. But at least no one's seriously arguing any longer about its worth.

Katterfelto accuses me of dissing opera (!) when all I said was that I don't personally like it. There's a difference between not liking a genre and dismissing it as worthless. I'm quite sure opera is a beautiful, deep art form filled with brilliant talents, it's just not to my taste.

In any case, I concede (slightly) and I back off the racist charge a bit. Many of the comments I hear from people who don't like Hip Hop and Rap -- that it is violent, misogynistic, and that it glorifies sexual promiscuity and conspicuous consumption -- are the same arguments previously used against Heavy Metal and before that good old Rock and Roll. So maybe I'm overstating the case.

That said, the willingness of many so-called Progressives to completely dismiss the possibility that there is any value to Rap and Hip Hop feels a little unclean, to me. Let's leave it at that.

Every musical genre is a language, and Hip Hop/Rap in particular is a very specific language with parameters different from most other music. It is well known that the younger you are the more easily you acquire new languages. Maybe that's why most major artistic breakthroughs seem to catch on among the young and only become mainstream when those young people grow up and become middle-aged adults fluent in the new language.

[The late Arther Koestler believed that the evolutionary concept called Paedomorphosis (also known as "Juvenilization") -- which is the notion that evolution happens through some useful evolutionary novelty that appears among the young and then carries over into adulthood -- applied equally to humans and their culture as to amphibians. Is Pop Culture, including Hip Hop, a Paedomorphic force?]

This is NOT the view taken by the original Anonymous (Don't you guys have some sort of name or handle?), who dismisses ALL Rap and Hip Hop as "talking over someone else's music." This view is simply ignorant and silly, and anyone who knows anything about the genre knows that it is a mischaracterization. Some hip hop uses sampling as an integral part of its pastiche, much of it uses wholly original music, and some uses atonal rhythm in lieu of melody (hence the frequent use of samples from avant-garde minimalists like Steve Reich and early Industrial pioneers Kraftwerk).

To the first commenter, I would recommend starting out with the widely acknowledged classics. Check online for lists of "top ten" Rap and Hip Hop albums. This is how I learned who's who and what's most highly regarded; look for the albums and artists who crop up consistently and look for reviewers who seem literate and intelligent. [Kudos once again to the web for the rise of orthogonal trust networks.]

And get over the language; much has been made in the mainstream press of the extensive use of the F-word and especially the N-word, and the truth is if you can't get past it you'll never "get" Hip Hop. A friend of mine recently told me he didn't approve of Hip Hop for just that reason; he doesn't approve of the use of the N-word. I tried to explain that "Nigger," and the related "Nigga," are broadly-used terms, meaning different things in different contexts (rather like that other versatile word, "fuck").

This site has a good overview of the etymology of the N-word, along with this summation:

Oxford Dictionary of New Words

Nigga / ’nig∂ / noun A Black man. A representation of American Black English pronunciation of the word nigger. This and other forms of nigger have been in use within the African American community and have been recorded in print since the twenties. However, recent usage of nigga, and its plural form niggaz, represents a conscious, politically motivated reclamation by blacks of the term nigger. This term, which had been regarded as typifying offensive and derogatory attitudes within the white community, was adopted by the black community as a form of self-assertion, with the aim of reducing the term’s derogation. (A similar development may be seen in the adoption of the word queer by the gay community…)

And here's an interesting review of Harvard law professor Randall Kennedy's book Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word.

By the way, I want to thank everyone for reading and caring enough to post comments. I don't pretend to be an expert on the subject of Hip Hop and Rap; I'm an outsider looking in and starting to grok the contours of the language. As I have become more attuned to the nuances of Hip Hop I have begun to encounter an increasingly dense set of cultural beliefs and trends which I am only now beginning to unpack. Stay tuned and be gentle; anything I post to this blog should be considered embryonic at best!


fk said...

ok, you fulfilled your quote of talking about hip hop. lets talk about stuff that employs your nice jewish boy roots again.

PeaceLove said...

It's my blog and I'll rant about whatever I feel like! And anyway, Jewish Hip Hop is a global phenomenon. Don't forget that the Beastie Boys and MC Paul Barman are nice Jewish boys. To say nothing of the Hip Hop Hoodios and 50 Shekel.