don't hate the genre
The New York Times reported this week on the Brazilian government's hip hop arts program led by Gilberto Gil. Yes, that Gilberto Gil, pillar of tropicalismo since the 1960's and minister of culture since 2003. In 2004 I was lucky enough to see both Gil and Caetano Veloso perform live though, alas, not together. That remains one of the things I still need to do before I die.
Brazil has a lot going on these days that merits the world's attention—sugar ethanol, gang culture, fighting Northern agricultural subsidies at the WTO—but in some things Brazilians are just like everyone else. Case in point—after noting that Brazilian funk is all about sex, bling, and violence, the article quotes Guiné Silva, rapper and community center director, on the attitudes of Brazil's hip hop community:
'When U.S. rap groups come here and try to be ostentatious or do the gangster thing, they get booed off the stage. We feel a kinship with Chuck D and Public Enemy but we don't have any respect for people like Snoop Dogg and Puff Daddy.' (NYT, March 14, 2007)
(I should say, for the benefit of readers who are not rap afficionados, that Chuck D represents the politically-minded strain of rap whereas Snoop mostly raps about smoking and pimping.)
Now, before I am misunderstood, let me state for the record that I consider Chuck D and Rakim the two greatest MC's of all time and Diddy among the worst, although I do give him props for broadening the model of the hip hop entrepreneur. And yes, many of my favorite raps belong to the politically militant canon. Even so, I have to express my fundamental disagreement with the quotation, which typifies the problem with hip hop criticism today: it is little more than didacticism and prescriptivism masquerading as serious criticism. (For the problem with hip hop today, see my entry of December 1, 2006.)
Too much commentary about rap these days is nothing more than a wish list for what people want rap to be. They want it to be virtuous, morally righteous, and politically conscious. They want it to get up, stand up, and fight the powers that be. And when it doesn't live up to their moral and political program, all they can do is dis it or ignore it. In short, they want rap to teach us how to live and how to think.
But we must ask, is this a valid test for art? Or is this the most intellectually outdated and critically retrograde æsthetic agenda imaginable in the twenty-first century? Do we ask the same of painting or theatre? Have we forgotten the lessons of the æsthetic movement, to wit, that 'There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all.' (Oscar Wilde, preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray) Or are hip hop critics a special class of people who don't believe in æsthetics but only look to rap for political messages?
The most common complaint, typified by Silva's reference to Snoop and Puffy, is that rap has become too materialistic, but when was it ever not about the Benjamins and partying? Let's go back to day one, 1979, 'Rapper's Delight' by the Sugar Hill Gang:
'You see I'm six foot one and I'm tons of fun
And I dress to a T.
You see I got more clothes than Muhammad Ali
And I dress so viciously.
I got bodyguards, I got two big cars,
I definitely ain't the wac.
I got a Lincoln Continental
And a sharp new Cadillac.
So after school, I take a dip in the pool, which really is on the wall.
I got a color TV, so I can see, the Knicks play basketball.
Hear me talkin' 'bout checkbooks, credit cards, more money
Than a sucker could ever spend.
But I wouldn't give a sucker or a bum from the Rucker not a dime till I made it again.'
And let's not forget that bit about the Holiday Inn.
Rap started out as music by have-nots who wanted to have, and what did they want to have most of all? Equal protection under the law? The right to a fair trial? No, Reader, what they said they wanted was color television and cash money. That's not a criticism but a clear-sighted observation. I'm not telling you what rap should be but, rather, what it is.
The obvious comeback is, well what about raps like 'The Message' and 'White Lines' by Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five? I'm not denying that there was also political rap back in the day, but selective memory should not erase Flash's parade of party songs like 'Flash to the Beat' and 'Scorpio' from history. Most rap always was and possibly always will be about satisfying appetite and lust. And I'm here to tell you that if we are ever to have meaningful hip hop criticism, we need to engage rap on an æsthetic level and we must honestly take stock of all that it is and not just what some people wish it would be.
Let's not beat around the bush. Most objections to rap come from the misogyny, homophobia, materialism, and violence typically found in the lyrics. I deny none of these claims. Indeed, rap lyrics are a veritable cornucopia of ugly content. Consider one of the starkest examples possible, 'Gangsta Gangsta' (1988) by NWA:
'Do I look like a mother-fucking role model?
To a kid looking up to me,
Life ain't nothing but bitches and money.'
Ugly? Sure. But can we frame a more enlightening critical question than, Yes or no, is rap music sometimes ugly and unpleasant?
At this point, most defenders of rap will choose the classical defense, i.e. the argument that Greek tragedy, Shakespeare, etc. are full of uncomfortable content and violence. Although fairly obvious, that can still be a powerful defense of art in general, despite how overused it is. Yes, a lot of great art takes us out of our comfort zones and asks us to face difficult questions about who we, the human species, are and what we are capable of. There is drama in confronting the darkness. We ought not be too delicate to hear and see things about ourselves that we find unpleasant.
Sure, I buy all that, but that argument only works for rap's singularly great achievements as art. No, I want to defend rap more broadly, not just the handful of cases that any of us would readily accept as art. A better question to ask about rap, high or low, is this: what does it draw on and what does it do with that? What critical and æsthetic operations does it perform on the cultural traditions from which it proceeds? Or, more simply, a question we can ask about any art form: how does it transform the stuff it steals?
For me, the most important traditions underlying rap's lyrical content are bawdiness and the outlaw. Rap's discourse of pimping and ho's has a lot in common with the work of Rochester and Swift's dressing room poems. The first rappers to make a specialty of bawdy talk were 2 Live Crew, not the greatest MC's but clearly working in a similar vein as the aforementioned English poets, if not exactly in a direct line of descent. More directly, American traditions of the outlaw, common in popular song, came to the fore in rap in the late 1980's, not coincidentally in the west. One thinks readily of Jimi Hendrix's 'Hey Joe' or Johnny Cash's 'Cocaine Blues', two first-person narratives about men who shot their women dead.
Artists don't speak literally for themselves when they perform in character (and yes, some rappers remain in character far too much of the time). To portray violence in song is not to perform or advocate violence. Gangsta rap is by now an established genre drawing on a fairly stable body of source material: outlaws and bandits, bawdy talk, pimps and prostitutes, gang culture, Brian De Palma's Scarface, drug dealing, street life, and boasting. The originality of the art lies in the operations it performs on this genre material.
When gangsta rap started, people typically defended it on the grounds that it represented the authentic voice of witness: it was testimony from the streets by people otherwise silenced. I happen to think people were also listening because they were excited by the moral ambiguity of listening to shameless tales of crime and wrongdoing, but perhaps that was just me. Whether we want to imagine a lost, pure heyday of politically militant gangsta rap or whether we want to acknowledge that it was always already self-consciously constructing itself as a genre, æsthetic revolutions ultimately do tend to evolve into sets of genre conventions, and there's nothing wrong with that.
That rap's tales of hustling now seem more mannered than militant is a typical outcome in art. Is there still originality and creativity in American rap these days? Recent albums by Ghostface Killah and Clipse suggest there is, although first-rate new work is becoming rare. But that is a question worth asking about art: is it still original and creative—not, do I agree with what the artist says? Reader, if we only accepted art whose content we agreed with, we'd burn down much of the Met tomorrow.
I'm on the left and all, but there is no place for the dogmatism of easy liberalism when it comes to the arts, let alone rap, the most intellectually demanding form of music today. Appreciating Eminem's assonance and 'Stan', his great epistolary rap, or marvelling at the way the Wu-Tang Clan mixes martial arts, super-heroes, and post-Scarface cocaine entrepreneurs does not mean we are not committed to fighting misogyny, homophobia, war, and all the other evils in the real world. It means that we recognize that art is something else: strange, perplexing, and outside our normal morality. If we limit ourselves to only admitting artists whose literal content we agree with, we will be all the poorer for it.