Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Rap is not pop. If you call it that then stop.

In the immortal words of Q-Tip, this heading seems to have potentially fallen on deaf ears somewhere along the way for a lot of people. For all my musical grand standing and occasional knowledge parading, I never feel properly equipped to pontificate about the state of hip-hop's past present or future. There is something about being a near 40 year old white dude that makes it feel a bit poserish to profess any level of authority or proficiency with respect to hip-hop, even as a well versed, cross genre competent, music nerd obsessive.

Then I saw this recently....


There is always a risk, particularly when discussing hip-hop, of coming across as the old guy who just "doesn't get it".  Feeling pretty safe here however, in saying that this foolishness represents not only everything that is wrong with contemporary hip-hop, but perhaps music in general. 

Somewhere along the way, hip-hop artists and music nerds very quietly decided to become part of the same club (hair metal still doesn't get to be in the club by the way), but rap evolved from a sub genre and actually almost became the vehicle for a danger and daring that was long since lacking in traditional rock & roll music. I have huge respect for the pioneers like Run Dmc, but let's be honest. The beats and rhymes are slow and other than fond memories, hip-hop has come so far as to almost render early 80's and prior rap music virtually un-listenable. Try listening to "Freaks Come Out At Night" by Whodini and ask yourself if it holds up.


What does hold up is most Golden Age era hip-hop and the current rhyme based music that it inspired. I would loosely pinpoint the era as late 80's through early 90's. There was a tremendous cross section of styles even within this period, ranging from political militant right through to the party fun stuff. The common theme through it all though, was a a level of care and respect for craft. There was a level of experimentation and obsession with skill development that seems long since relegated to independent or sub-mainstream hip-hop. In fairness, hip-hop as a result of its evolution, is sometimes held to a higher standard by music nerds, for always needing to say something interesting. Just because 50 Cent was shot in the face, does not mean he has anything interesting to say.  It just means he's very marketable. On the flip side, because KRS and Chuck D had lots of interesting things to say, should a whole genre be held to a similar standard? Probably not. It would be nice though.


I would love to know what The Roots think when they see a video like "Racks". The opening line from LL Cool J's "Bad" is "no rapper can rap quite like I can". Do these cats even care about being the best? When people referred to (and still do refer to) Rakim as the greatest MC of all time, it seemed like the kind of title a guy wanted to hold onto, so you would keep finding new things to rhyme about in interesting ways. Making a video where you're firing bills around with no skills at all would be damaging to your cred and the crown. 


There is an irony that bragging and chest pumping now resides in crappy mainstream hip-hop, and is less prevalent in clever and relevant contemporary hip-hop. I have no issue with well placed non-contrived profanity in music, but what if you could make a slick hip-hop recording, loaded with word skill, crazy hooks, interesting beats and all without one f-bomb or the need to release "clean versions" of tracks, along with lyrics that are respectful to women. Wait... a Canadian hip-hop artist did that last year....


Like all modern mainstream music now, a sub-par offering is the reality for what a volume based hip-hop audience can expect. Gone are the days of the Much Music or MTV video charts showcasing artists like or influenced by the likes of A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul, Gang Starr, Public Enemy, Mos Def, Pharaohe Monch, Eric B & Rakim etc etc. The arseholes in the Racks video get to continue behaving like arseholes and being artistically bankrupt largely because a lot of young white dudes like music about cash, bad booze, bad dental work and mysogyny. It's good business, but it's bad art.

Good news ... there are cats out there making a lot less money still "get it".