Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Is Hip Hop Changing or Dying?

In their book SIGNIFYING RAPPERS authors David Foster Wallace and Mark Costello criticize rap in ways no one else ever has. They do not hate rap, unlike other critics they name. Rather, they are trying to understand it. (Past tense in Wallace's case, as he committed suicide in 2008.) Wallace was an analytical wunderkind, a cogent force in reporting, with an honest and unique grasp of context and historical source code. He is writing here about Hip Hop's exclusionary and revolutionary rise in the late 1980s, when anger against the system codified into war against white values, and established a new medium of expression. Unlike punk, which was soulless and disconnected, rap had an identity, a utilitarian purpose. Its goal was exclusion, like whites who excluded blacks from their country clubs. Beyond the in-your-face violence and casual rape epithets used to taunt those outside its circle, rap attracted those who craved being on the edge. The outsider, the criminal anti-hero...loud, even fat, and sassy. It isn't even music, according to traditional definitions, the author says. You don't sing the lyrics, you shout them. There is rhythm and rhyme, but no melody or harmony. Defiant in every way, serious rap was about stomping the old way into a blood stain, more than what jazz and rock did at their developing stages. This scary edge is something Wallace admired, even if, as McCartney and Sting put it, "it's sick, self aggrandizing, and racist." As narrated by Robert Petkoff, what the book deconstructs is how most critics got rap wrong, even as they illuminate the dark vision of founding artists who totally rejected the notion of progress, and so ended up wallowing in their own depravity or (at least) lewd voyeuristic excess. What is changing serious rap now is assimilation and transformation into pop flavors. Change is inevitable to all musical genres. Elvis, appearing today for the first time, would be laughed at. So too hip hop absorbed into the commercial machine of pop sensibilities. Many rappers are now a soda pop icons. Jay Z's fans don't believe they have any hope of becoming him, (thanks in part to rap's past grim "message,") they just like imagining being him. And Jay Z admits this, even as he takes endorsement money from the corporate sponsors against whom rap once railed. So rap's change is similar to the change undergone by the wine industry, which was once all about territory and earthy individuality and uniqueness, and is now all about conforming to standards set by judges like Robert Parker, whose rating system forced everyone to "modernize" or die. See the documentary MONDOVINO, wherein "modernize" means replacing aging in bottles to aging quicker in new oak barrels, thereby losing the subtleties inherent in old wines. At one point an old vintner mentions a new one creating "a Cola-Cola tasting wine." Giant billion dollar operations are taking over all the tiny vintages, and producing the same artificially-manipulated product as everywhere else. They then give this pop juice high ratings to fool the public into changing their tastes. It's an exploitation that journalists and critics like Hunter S. Thompson took aim at exposing, even in fictional novels like THE RUM DIARY. (And as I did in my novel Fame Island.) The moral of these stories? There's only "no hope" for you the moment you tell yourself there is no hope, and jump into the boat instead of rocking it. 


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