Dip it, Pop it, Twerk it
Checking it twice?
Jin - "Top 5 (Dead or Alive)" (mp3)
Latest Popmatters installment of the column went up. I fouled up and sent in my second draft too late. I pasted the prefered version below. I've also included more images because pictures can be pretty.
My trouble with the version that ran was that it was an attempt to be half-serious, half-silly, and I think it came out more half-serious, half-bitter at times. For example, point two in the 'don'ts' section, "Odd Couples," was meant to be a joke about celebrity couples, but the version that ran drifts from topic to topic (production collabos? guest spots? celebrity hook ups?). The second draft builds the joke a little better and makes clear that I am NOT clowning on work that I in fact love and adore. In a nutshell, the key difference is that the second draft reconciles the fact that the piece isn't too funny, but a little more heartfelt. That said, I should be more heartfelt and timely, I suppose...
Another point: in doing this piece, I realize that I don't come across too many music journalists that list off their favorite music journalism pieces of the year. Funny, because that's all we do is read and write about music. So, taking a cue from the Da Capo book I recently reviewed, I also included a list of some pieces that I enjoyed this year (in no particular order):
- Jace Clayton's Top 5 Problems With Top 10 Albums of the Year Lists in Mudd Up!
- Hua Hsu's "Public Enemy's It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back: 16 Years Later" in Boston Globe.
- Hua Hsu's more timely "After the Snow: Crack, Rap and 2005" in Village Voice.
- David R. Adler's Two Turntables and a Saxophone" in Slate.
- Dan Charnas' "Elvis Has Left the Building", a critical response to Nana Ekua Brew-Hamilton's "Pulling the White Strings in Dantrification.
- Etan Thomas' "Field Trip for Conservatives" speech at September's Anti-War Rally in Washington.
- Alternative coverage of Paris riots.
- Jeff Chang's "Eulogy for the Alt-Weekly" in Alternet.
- Chris Ott's "This Click's For You: The Perfect Digital Sound Set-Up" in Stylus.
- Mark Anthony Neal's "Rhythm and Bullshit?" series in Popmatters.
- Garrett Caples' "Don't Hate the Playa" in the SF Bay Guardian.
- William Saletan's "Ass Backwards" in Slate, regarding the media's response to the National Center for Health Statistic's September 2005 sex survey and its silence on the rise of anal sex (how does this pertain to music, you ask? Ask Oliver)
And now, onto the column...
Call and Response: If 6 Was '06...
I actually loathe year-end lists. Not for particularly unique reasons: I find them reductive, unimaginative and to be a conflict of interest (for anyone that reads lists for shopping suggestions, please note that many of the endorsed products were not paid for by the endorsers). I am also aware of the counterpoints: lists can be convenient, imaginative and valid purchasing suggestions, depending on how the writer approaches the assignment. To each his/her own, right? So, chalk up my displeasure to the pleasure I take in preferring to speak specifically about music.
So, why do I draw up lists anyway?
In defense, my lists are different. Instead of a "What's Hot, What's Not" approach, I liken mine to a "What Happened, And Why" process. For example, a current thread I am running is a list of songs with sample clearance lawsuits (both settled in or outside of court), all for the purpose of charting hip hop's litigious history through a nerdtastic mix. Yes, it is myopic in scope and self-indulgent. But it is a great exercise for my sense of history. And, more important, it's FUN.
Which brings us to our topic today: how to have fun with hip hop. Not in the sense of, "Rappers need to learn to have fun" (although he could stand to lighten up), but rather in how to have an entertaining yet substantive discussion about hip hop. And while I enjoy wading through the deluge of hip hop 'scholarship' out there, at the end of the day I try to find digestible and engaging ways to approach such a broad topic.
So, at year's end I did what a lot of other folks did and reflected. And, like a lot of other folks, I found myself mulling over things that I liked about hip hop's accomplishments in 2005, things that I did not like about hip hop's accomplishments in 2005 and a random smattering of things that sounded funny in the context of hip hop in 2005. So, I present to you a list of 6 points that hip hop artists should leave in 2005 and 6 points that hip hop artists should continue in 2006. Some of them are serious, some of them are silly, but all are sincere and about as on point as I can be -- just like this hip hop thing I love so much, right? So, without further ado, here's If 6 Was '06...
Leave That Noise in '05:
1) Don't Believe the Hype:
Nakagawa says "No" to American beef
Once upon a time, a person had beef and said something. A crowd gathered. The person to whom the beef was directed didn't like what that first person said, so he responded. The crowd grew larger. That first person felt offended by what the second person said, so he raised his voice. The crowd swelled. This exchange went back and forth until the crowd lost interest and moved on to another person who just happened to say something... Media often singles out hip hop its excessive use of disagreement and violence, yet conveniently forget that no history remains immune from such irrationality. To hip hop 's credit (or discredit), it admittedly is one of the few arenas where conflict has its own DVD series. However, out of such competition, some artists have produced exceptional work (e.g., BDP's "Bridge is Over" v. Shan's "The Bridge").
That said, the vast bulk of beef has been relatively Grade D. UTFO's "Roxanne, Roxanne" inspired a number of responses, few of which rank with Shanté. Backpackers love to regale each other with tales of Casual/Hiero butting heads with Saafir/Hobo on KMEL, but anyone that actually heard that battle surely remembers better instances of freestyling from each party involved. Craig G and Supernatural's feud brought out the worst of their personalities as the unquestionable freestyle champs resorted to sneak attacks on the other. And to call "Takeover" or "Ether" the apices of either Jay or Nas' discography is simply ludicrous. There is a difference between "notable" and "best" moments.
Yet, hip hop in 2005 bathed itself in this unglamorous reputation. Taking a lead from the recent Eminem v. Benzino/Sauce and G-Unit v. G-Unot campaigns, the attention-hungry took it to the low road and racked up headlines: The Lox v. P. Diddy; B.G. v. the Hot Boys; Lil' Flip v. T.I.; Lil' Flip v. Paul Wall; Lil' Flip v. Slim Thug; Mobb Deep v. Nas (again); Benzino v. Ozone; Funk Flex v. Spinbad; Bow Wow v. Will Smith; the Game v. Some Dude and a Soccer Mom v. Chamillionaire. Oh, and 50 v. The World. In one of the most ig'nant developments for both the artist (for submitting to it) and the audience (for stoking it), beef has reached its logical conclusion as a marketing tool.
Unfortunately, 2006 has started with a disappointing bang. As Spine so eloquently wrote on 19 January, "Apparently unaware it's a trend that was played out nearly five years ago, a publicity-hungry Cam'ron makes a record dissing Jay-Z." While kids wonder whether Jay will respond or what Cam's next move will be, simple perspective proves more productive. Keep the beef in '05, no one here is looking for it.
Postscript: And it only gets worse...
2) Odd Couples:
Certainly, hip hop deserves credit for its humblest asset, the collaboration -- for a discussion of its pluses, check the next list -- but hip hop also has a tendency to abuse the hell out of it. From duets with dead rappers to Disco D producing a deadbeat dad, one yearns to periodically remind hip hop, "Really, you don't have to turn on the red light..." And while I love to see hip hop journalism gettin' its Star swerve on -- who doesn't enjoy a good C-lebrity airing out their odd better half? -- I hate seeing the Best Ensemble Award go to Gwen "That's my sh*t" Stefani. Really, hip hop shouldn't slip itself a roofie when Nelly Furtado walks into 2006 with one of the most anticipated albums. You'd think the hip hop generation would've learned by now that you just can't trust 'em (via C&D). The end result is always TLC: unpretty.
I actually don't have a solution for this besides being careful about how we represent hip hop in this country's eyes. That, and certain artists could attempt to challenge themselves (you know who you are) with their collaborations. How many Luda guest spots or Fatman Scoop drops does it take to make your track fiyah? Like a cowbell, Nate Doggs of the game can only be used sparingly. That said, maybe the answer lies in life experience. What better source for creativity than human experience? In the words of Chris Rock, "Why don't you go out and get kidnapped, have some new shit happen to you?'' But, really, I'm just sayin': use caution. But not too much...
3) Kidz Hop:
Jay and his latest protegéThe first time I heard "Straight Outta Compton", I got shook. Little boy in short pants shaking the piss right out of his body. Now, I turn on the TV and I see the Game, Eazy-E's motheruckfing heir apparent, tatted and t.o.'d... and carrying a toddler. I switch the channel and breath a sigh of relief when Three 6 Mafia announces their latest anthem... which features three kids playing the part of "Young Three 6." Shutting off the idiot box, I turn on the radio and tune into everyone's favorite rapping-producing-messiah, only to switch it off in disgust when he bleats that he's "for the keeeeds." Really, it's bad enough that this level of stupid-dumb-retardedness has to exist, but does hip hop need to subject itself to the Ewok effect? What was once revolutionary creativity has become alternately cuddly gimmickry. There's a difference between "So Fresh and So Clean" and "So Pleasant and G (rated)." Hate it or love it? "Hated it!" says Blaine Edwards. Maybe Spike Jonze should spearhead an intervention with Juelz and Mr. West. Nelly should also be included in that conversation -- that blue hoodied child felt desperate. For the sake of credibility, don't lose your edge. Otherwise...
4) Literal Hip Hop:
Insert your own caption"This Saturday Night Live routine", Sasha Frere-Jones wrote of "Lazy Sunday: Chronicles of Narnia", "Is pretty much my nightmare, like people telling me they really like Danger Mouse, even though they don't usually like rap." While the sketch proved to be a highly adept satire, gaining enough popularity to even become an iTunes free download-of-the-week, the send-up also dwelled in a non-hip hop audience's perception of hip hop music: overblown drama, mundane subject matter and social deviance, all to the beat of cacophony. Josh Levin even went so far as to suggest that "Chronicles" was even better than the real thing. "People aren't forwarding this video because it's a parody of what's bad about rap", he wrote in his "The Chronicles of Narnia Rap" for Slate, "They're sending it around because it's an ode to what can be great about it." In this manner, "Chronicles" sticks to the stump speech mocking hip hop culture (though Oliver Wang cleverly pointed out, "J-Zone and Paul Barman are no doubt asking themselves why they never thought to write songs for SNL skits").
To suggest that this hackneyed parody ("Mack on some cupcakes?" Maybe I'll go pimp some pumpernickel next) fulfills some supposed void ("Maybe ["Chronicles"] points up what's missing in mainstream rap -- an awareness that it's OK to be goofy") is uninformed at best. What? Hip hop doesn't have a sense of humor? What were the catch phrases of the year? "What??" "Yeah!!!" "Bye, N*a!" Oh, I'm sorry, I must've been too busy taking myself so seriously that I forgot that hip hop music is still entertainment. For those still convinced hip hop is simply too downtrodden, I submit David Banner's "F*kin'." I mean, "Touchin'." A beat that turns you out in all the right ways while Banner sings with isht-eating glee -- who says hip hop doesn't wanna have fun? But, to paraphrase Louis Armstrong, "If I have to explain it to you, you will never understand it."
Perhaps a better illustration of this "cognitive dissonance" is the year's Mantan show, R. Kelly's Trapped in the Closet. While obviously overloaded with self-delusion and Springer imagery, thank the non-hip hop world for chiming in with rockist send-ups and a Cliff's Notes summary. Apparently the message was that the best way to interpret Kelly was to transcribe his work in a manner that everyone (...) could understand. I suppose this joke flew over my head because Robert Kelly has been funny and deranged for the duration of his decade-plus career, but it took a child rape acquittal and a midget crapping his pants for the rest of the nation to figure out there may be something funny in his brownie.
Ok, I know I'm being naïve in getting all in a huff and yelling at folks who don’t know about hip hop to shut the eff up... But that is what I'm sayin', ha ha. Hey, we all know where Weird Al discs wind up, right? Like everything in life, learn the knowledge first.
5) Trap Hop:
Guess what? It snowed all year long! And some people loved all that ice! Now, guess what? Crack sucks! And ice is out!
In a sign of hip hop's newest level of ig'nance, documentaries had to be made to remind folks of the ravages of concentrated cocaine hydrochloride (1 More Hit) and blood diamonds (Bling: Consequences and Repercussions). Hua Hsu posited an interesting theory for this latest surge in hedonism: "It's the 1980s again in the streets, all me-first, get-rich-quick flash." Which is an unfortunate delusion, because that is far from the case (links via Notes and Poplicks).
6) Stop Ig'nance:
The only accetable ig'nance
Keep Keepin' On In '06:
1) Give the Drum Machine Some:
If it ain't broke...As a devout fan of the Silver Age when MPC samplers and SP1200 drum machines fertilized production, I suppose it seems contrary that I would be so lax about legal clampdowns on sampling. Call it moving on, but I find it difficult to hate on production circa 2005. After all, when Dre and SA-RA share area codes and make such divergent and invigorating music, I can say with fair certainty the sky is not falling. From the club explosion of Lil' Jon's tireless laboratory of crunk to Jay Dee's blunted out drip beats for headphones, tones and sound effects have become our new cultural signifiers, our 'sampled' points of reference. Play this game: what Nintendo games do the Chamillionaire-Paul Wall beats remind you of? Even if you are stuck on those crispy classic breaks, hip hop's portfolio has diversified enough to offer choice: from ubiquitous session kit player ?uestlove to the explosive pads of Rich Nice. While OutKast's The Love Below still confuses some with its production excess, subsequent innovations in created sound continue to move hip hop music along. So bring on the Owusu & Hannibal matrix lover's rock and the snareless snap of Dem Franchize Boyz.
2) Steady Mobbin':
Just as collaborations in hip hop can easily become a point of predictability or ridicule, it can also be its source of strength and community. A strong counterpoint to auteur theory, thank hip hop for truly keeping it real by realizing that art for the public can and should not be made in solitude. While mostly fans pay attention to Rhyme Syndicates and Dungeon Families, this past year's mass collabos proved fruitful for all. Big Boi and the Purple-Ribbon All-Stars drank purp and sang about being on that "Kryptonite" while Luda reminisced with the Red Light District about "Georgia." Better still were the cross-record bin collaborations, such as Shadow showing his hyphy side to Keak da Sneak for "Three Freaks", Diplo turning out Gwen's "Hollaback Girl" and, of course, that whole West-Brion fling. Call it the new hootie hoo, see how beautiful it can be when we all just get along? Looks like 2006 is off to a nice start, too.
3) Body Rock versus Bothered Rock:
In the Bassment Booth with Jonathan Davis
4) Take That, Rewind It Back:
Grandmixer DXT: from originator of the scratch to pioneer in sound restorationAs the hairline continues to lean back, older artists struggle to stay relevant... Oh wait, that's every genre. That said, hip hop has not exhibited the kindest regard for its elders. While Aerosmith still headlines stadiums, the remaining members of Run-DMC have been relegated to running the block. Perhaps taking a cue from rock audience's love of nostalgia, yesteryear's rappers took fans back in 2005. Foregoing modern missteps, Reverend Run preached old school aesthetics on Distortion. Meanwhile across media, VH1's midlife mess of a Hip Hop Awards show received a defibrillator shock when BDK reminded all the young ones the importance of entertainment -- was anyone hollerin' for T.I.'s pimp swagger then? On the b-side of the dial was Sadat X's Experience and Education, a heartfelt reflection on years of little recognition, sans bitterness and filled with the same ol' nasal flow. Granted, the resurrected Fresh Fest drew a sparse crowd and Heavy D and Craig Mack made only modest appearances on the mixtape circuit, each artist simply did what they did best in the first place. Hopefully both artists and audience recognize the breadth of the market and that both old and young can share its space. Better still, let both generations go toe-to-toe, like LL and Juelz. Don't stop the rock and put E-Fizzle back on top!
5) Ask Not What Your Label Can Do For You, Ask What You Can Dew Fo' Sef':
While GZA joked about diversifying portfolios, I imagined labels offering comprehensive benefits packages to their artists. Wouldn't that be a true indicator of commitment? Well, even the rockers couldn't catch this break, so Sheryl and Don took it to the stage with the Recording Artist's Coalition and subsequently lobbied on behalf of artists' publishing rights and backed the Future of Music Coalition's Musicians' Health Care Initiative. Unfortunately, word hasn't really spread to the hip hop community, or at least its living segment -- of the four hip hop acts on RAC's roster, two are dead ("Estate of Lisa 'Left Eye' Lopes" and "Estate of Tupac Shakur"). And considering how old this hip hop thing is getting, wouldn't you agree it's about time to hook an MC up with an HMO? Frankly, I want to see Saigon taken care of properly, not so much a sequel to State Property. Holla, "We Want 401(k)!"
6) Believe the Hyphy:
Lick my funky eardrum, ya smell?Dre. Saigon. Jay and Nas. Nas and Primo. Hyphy takes Crunk. Snap. Kelis. Q-Tip. M1. Idlewild. The Coup. Count Bass D. SA-RA. Damn, and these are mostly old-timers -- I know the kids got something better (than crack) cooking...
Once again, consider these as suggestions and opinions. As my yoga instructor says, "Don't think of goals, because goals are either met with success or failure." And I am not trying to make or break hip hop in any given year -- just trying to see it move along. So, here's to 2006: keep diggin', y'all.