Monday, April 26, 2004

Saga of hip-hop and mass media.
To me, part of the problem is not with Puffy, Missy, Funkmaster Flex, sampling, or the Beasties’ seeming lack of props from blacks. Rather, it often the self-congratulatory nature and general cluelessness of the mainstream pop culture media. More often than not, the press will fawn over a white rap act’s success in the pop field. But given certain historical parallels, this is really nothing new.

Back in the 1950’s, black rhythm & blues artists were regularly ripped off by record labels through shady accounting, and the free reign given to White artists to do cover versions. Many of which were often lame- how in the heck did Pat Boone and Bobby Vee get over? More often than not, no royalty money was paid to the original composer. By default, the ‘real’ money black acts made was from touring, not record sales. Then, there is the mega-phenomenon of the King himself, Elvis Presley. Despite the excesses he indulged in later in life, most people generally do not dispute his stature as “the Greatest”. Even Chuck D of Public Enemy admits that his often quoted line from “Fight the Power” was not so much a dis towards Elvis, whom he considered talented, but a dis towards the bigoted culture that boosted him but downplayed the efforts of the black artists who were Elvis’ predecessors and peers…

In the early 60’s, there was a gentle wave of black pop music from the likes of the Ronettes, Aretha Franklin, Ben E. King, and the Motown stars. But in 1964, the U.S. was bum rushed by a quartet of mop-topped fellows from Liverpool, England. The breakthrough of the Beatles, along with the swiftly following ‘British Invastion’ (the Stones, Cream, etc.), all but overshadowed the careers of the black American acts, while changing forever the atmosphere of the infant rock world. In retrospect, many people would postulate that the Beatles ‘saved rock & roll’. But from whom?

In the 1970’s, disco took a lot of flak from the (mostly White) hard rock element. But when rock acts like the Bee Gees, Rolling Stones, & Rod Stewart appropriated the genre, they reaped the full benefits of pop success with no lasting backlash- we see them on ‘Legends’ on VH-1, right, now?

Fast forward to the early 80’s- Blondie’s “Rapture” was a big hit- some journalists would go so far to say Ms. Deborah Harry & co. ‘jumpstarted’, even created, hip hop with this record. It was a new wave song that incorporated elements of the nascent New York rap scene. Her rapping was awkward, but the song was considered hip enough to go platinum. This totally ignores the fact that the culture of DJs, MCs, breaking & graf artists had been going on for years before then. A guy like Keith Haring (RIP) got more props and money for doing graffiti inspired art than the people who started it off.

In the mid 80’s- heavy metal fans and bands (Motley Crue, Ratt, Poison) had no problems railing against all things rap., But when Run DMC and Aerosmith collaborated, it was not looked at as the band being creative unto themselves, but rather Run DMC upgrading/elevating their standards by working with the then-languishing Aerosmith- and look at them now. In my opinion, Aerosmith disrespected Run DMC by not inviting them on tour at the time.

It is disturbing, that certain white critics & fans, seem to want to draw intellectual lines in sand, trumpeting these acts as ‘theirs’. In regards to House of Pain & Beasties, when their 1992 albums came out, they indirectly rode the bandwagon of post-Nirvana ‘alternative music’. Subsequently, they are adulated as being “among rock’s finest”; they become labeled as frat-boy-rap, or alternative-rock/rap; now they are above being ‘just rappers’ (i.e. Negro imitators) anymore. The same designation is not given to black/latino rap; pop/rock magazines will regularly give accolades to white acts on the periphery of the genre like DJ Shadow, Beck, and The Chemical Bros; but not, say, Prince Paul, DJ Premier, or EPMD. Who’s to say what’s more ‘progressive’, Pete Rock, DJ Quik , Gang Starr, or House of Pain? And don’t even talk about who gets on the cover first.

Another example is the Insane Clown Posse. A duo who hail from as they tell it, a fairly integrated Detroit neighborhood. They themselves admit to pretending to be gangbangers early on but got beat up by the real gangs. To listen to their style, it’s clearly gangsta influenced (ice cube 1992). Combined with punk/metal music and horror-show imagery, it’s like pro-wresting meets the Geto Boys. Which is a ‘striking’ image, but no more shocking than digital underground’s antics. The dedicated among their fans casually refer to each other as ‘ninja’, a corny code word for you-know-what. As it so happens, their records appeal primarily to the citizens of trailer parks and suburban townhouses, rather than the inner-city dwellers that they partially swipe their image from (who’s goin’ chicken huntin? We’s goin chicken huntin!) When their major label debut was pulled in 1997, they got all types of free publicity, and became free speech rap rebels of the moment. But I wonder, how many rap albums by people of color, before and after the ‘Cop Killer’ scandal, got the same treatment, only it didn’t make Time, People, Entertainment Weekly, or MTV?

The ‘hair metal’ crowd isn’t as vocal anymore; but you still have more than enough young rock fans willing to voice their venom at hip hop (rap sucks! It’s not music! It’s all sampling/negative!) I find it amazing that so many of these kids can say that, but are clearly fascinated by 90’s rock bands, Limp Bizkit, Korn, Rage, 311, who clearly have a hip-hop influence. but same white kid fans say they hate ‘rap/hiphop’.

Recent chart favorite Eminem has been touted, not so subtly, as rap’ s ‘great White hope’, to ‘fill the void’ of a perceived dearth of White rap performers. What with the 5 major music labels being White-run and/or owned, there could certainly be more White rappers out there if it were perceived as a profitable effort (but, as it stands, they’re already making much loot off the backs of Black performers). Much ado has been made of his rhyme-battling ethic, and the years of dues-paying obscurity that he went through. Which, essentially, doesn’t make him much different from other performers who did the same; but of course, his being White (in the mostly Black/Latino social subcultures of hip hop) makes it look all the more courageous- the presumption is, as a white kid, he has/had a vast assortment of options in front of him besides trying to be a rapper. His penchant for dirty punchlines has earned him the tag of ‘witty satirist’, and in one journalist’s assessment, “(he’s a necessary) counterpoint to the progressive styles of The Roots, Lauryn Hill, and Erykah Badu, (who themselves were) reactionary counterpoints to the ubiquitous gangster style”. His endorsement by label mentor Dr. Dre’ is considered the highest validation of his talents. In one sense, his trench-mouthed extremism could be compared to that of Kool Keith or Redman (but neither of them have been as quickly embraced by the rock intelligentsia and gotten a Rolling Stone cover shoot less than 2 months after their debut). His music does not particularly have a rock n’ roll bent, but he gets regular rotations on alternative-rock radio. Why is it that white performers doing this somehow get treated as if their creative ethic is somehow more sophisticated?

When I listen to Alternative radio, almost the only rap I hear is the Beastie Boys (or Everlast), which is a group I happen to like. But it’s as if performers like Public Enemy, De la Soul, Tribe Called Quest, even LL & Snoop, couldn’t get arrested. Supposedly, there is no color barrier. In my opinion, if the designation ‘alternative music’ supposedly embraces everything that didn’t get the wealth of radio accolades in the 80’s (like so-called ‘college rock’, i.e. punk, ska, avant-garde), then rap should be a part of that mix.

Ultimately, I don’t hate white rappers, and I don’t believe they are unqualified from making a contribution to the hip-hop atmosphere; but it irks me when I see Mark Wahlberg debut with one hit to his name (“Good Vibrations”), then get fashion model gigs & acting jobs straight out the box. At the same time, hip hop veterans like Will Smith, Queen Latifah, Ice Cube, and LL Cool J have to ‘prove’ their acting credentials whenever their projects come out, to the same mainstream critics, who don’t give a hang about rap, but apparently are willing to give ‘certain’ people the benefit of the doubt.

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