Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Talking Loud and Saying Nothing

"Wack MC's have only one style, gun-buck! But when you say 'let's buck for revolution', they shut the f--- up..." KRS-One, "Ah Yeah", 1995.

So, in the aftermath of the judicial verdict in the Sean Bell case (New York City) and the pending lawsuit in the death of Maurice Cox in Los Angeles, folks in hip-hop circles are wondering about the seeming lack of outrage from most of hip-hop's premier recording stars. Both cases involved an unarmed man who was killed by a barrage of bullets fired by police officers.

Allegedly, 50 Cent meekly eked out a neutral answer when questioned on BET's popular 106 & Park show. In fairness to 50, Curtis Jackson is officially (as in, his tax returns) an entertainer.. as are, well, pretty much all of the hip-hop singers out there. To be sure, they can perform their songs (in the studio, anyway) with charisma, conviction and clarity (regional accents aside). Yet when it comes to, say, giving interviews, a lot of today's artists come across as just barely astute enough to even really hold an extended conversation about their own careers and lives, let alone social-political topics. Reaching back to the so-called 'golden age' of hip-hop (the exact dates are amorphous, but are generally considered circa 1985 - 1994) rap personalities like Chuck D, Ice Cube, Ice T, Big Daddy Kane, KRS-One, Salt N Pepa, Queen Latifah, Daddy-O and Luke could hold a conversation-- even if one didn't agree with their points of view, at least one couldn't say that rappers were, by default, ambivalent types.

Today's hip-hop/rap stars tend to portray themselves as something other than entertainers, ostensibly for marketing purposes-- i.e., hustler, killer, dope dealer, pimp, etc.-- but unless they're just crazy ignorant like that-- and some of them are-- most tend not to actively participate in the activities they rap about on record.

Based on various interviews and workshop panel appearances, the education level of a lot of today's rap elite speaks for itself-- and it isn't all flattering. Not to imply that they're all unintelligent-- I would argue that most are intelligent, and yes, book-smarts aren't literally everything. But let's face it-- just like the general public, how many of these guys (and, uh, the girls, too) probably even read a daily newspaper? How many take the time to have some genuine "insight" on local issues where they're from (let alone national/global topics)? how many of them would even vote, if their legal status allowed? A lot of rappers have issues with felonies, so the attitude is like "I can't vote anyway, so whatever"..

So does Snoop Dogg, Game, et. al even care about a Sean Bell case? I would give them the benefit of the doubt and argue that, deep down, most do. Still, as much as the 'average' rapper of today considers themselves as careerists first, most of them are on some "I-want-your-money-but-I-ain't-a role-model" vibe, and though all would likely vehemently deny this, seem to have psychologically accepted the notion that black/minority life doesn't mean much, tacitly accepting second-class citizenship.. just look at the whole dynamic of "don't snitch & don't trust the police", a mobster's mantra that has trickled down from prison culture into the general public.

Based on the thematic/lyrical content of the most popular hip-hop songs out, many-- and possibly a clear majority-- of today's rappers will give a casual co-sign to the excesses of the urban underworld-- the pimping, drug-dealing/murder culture, rationalize it as "people are just doing what they have to do to survive" and some will claim not to blink when they get a prison sentence for however long. It's curious, then, to note that one issue today's stars will get passionate about is over the file-sharing/illegal-download/burning issue: "y'all are violating, y'all are costing me my gwap! (money)". Never mind that mixtapes, in and of themselves, are effectively bootleg releases (which at this point have been quietly endorsed by major labels as unofficial marketing plugs).

Proper CD sales have been shrinking for several years, compared to the rise in individual-single downloads from legal outlets and music-based cell-phone ringtones, which have become a major percentage of an artist's overall music sales. The major labels have downsized staff, artists on these labels are feeling increased pressure to deliver competitive sales. So has big money put a muzzle on rappers when it comes to speaking on issues social relevance-- beyond the strip club?

"Like a dull knife just ain't cuttin'/ We're just talkin' a lot and sayin' nothing.."; James Brown, "Talkin' Loud and Saying Nothin'", 1972.

Monday, May 12, 2008


May 3, 2008 @ the Fox Theater, Detroit, was the “Pioneers of Hip-Hop” concert, running from 8 p.m. – 12:30 a.m. The first act was the Sugarhill Gang—at least, the current ‘official’ lineup- four guys and a DJ spinning the discs: The only original member remaining is Big Bank Hank, with others filling in for the original Master G and Wonder Mike (according to Melle Mel’s website, the pair are currently touring as a duo, “The Original Sugarhill Gang”). The group warmed up the crowd spinning excerpts from recent hip-hop hits, then going into “8th Wonder”, “Apache”, and eventually “Rapper’s Delight” (and an encore of the latter closed the set).

The next act was Kurtis Blow. First doing some call & response ad-libs over the “Christmas Rappin” instrumental (via DAT or CD), he then performed “AJ Scratch”, “If I Ruled the World”, “Basketball” and “The Breaks”. He peppered his set with some b-boy moves, and announced that 2008 was his 25th anniversary as an MC.

The following act was the sole female performer, MC Lyte, whose voice can currently be heard in a Tide detergent (!) commercial. Lyte, backed up by DJ K-Rock and a drummer/bass combo, performed “Stop Look Listen”, her verse from “Self Destruction”, “Paper Thin”, “Ruffneck”, “Poor Georgie”.

Next up (“I believe that’s me”) was Big Daddy Kane. Wearing a tangerine shirt, jeans and white fedora hat, Kane went through a set of abbreviated renditions of “Nuff Respect Due”, “Warm it Up”, his verse from “Symphony”, “I Get the Job Done” “Ain’t No Half Steppin”, and “Raw”. Toward the end of his set, Skoob Lover came on stage and he and Kane revisited some of their old dance routines to the crowd’s enjoyment.

“Six minutes, Doug E. Fresh, you’re on…” Doug and the get fresh crew (Chill Will & Barry B on the turntables) largely kept the crowd rapt with excerpts from assorted 70’s and 80’s soul and funk jams, even TV theme songs (thousands of black people singing the “Cheers” theme- priceless). He book-ended his set with “Keep Rising to the Top”, “The Show” and “La-Di-Da-Di” (with a throng of concertgoers onstage).

“Now that Whodini’s inside the joint..” Jalil, Grandmaster Dee, Ecstacy were up next (along with Ja’s brother Dr. Ice from UTFO), and they performed several signature songs, starting off with “I’m a Ho”, then going into “One Love”, “Five Minutes of Funk”, “Freaks Come Out at Night”, and “Friends”. Jalil poured out hennessy and champagne to people in the front row, announcing that 2008 was the 25th anniversary of Whodini.

Last but not least, the teacher finally took the stage. BET Hip-Hop Awards I Am Hip Hop honoree KRS-One was joined by a DJ and a young crew of breakdancers; his standards performed included one-or-two-verse renditions of “Sound of Da Police” (dedicated to Sean Bell), “Love’s Gonna Getcha”, “MC’s Act Like They Don’t Know”, “My Philosophy”, "Criminal Minded remix 2008", “Hip Hop vs. Rap (a capella)”, and “Step Into a World”, but the Teacher seemed to mostly focus on freestyles and poetry interludes over instrumentals such as “Above the Clouds”, “All About the Benjamins”, and “Shook Ones pt. 2”. Sound problems seemed to happen about midway through the Blastmaster’s set, but he soldiered on. Clearly he could have gone longer, but the promoters started turning on the house lights at 12:30… ah well.. Still, an excellent show overall, I hope they come back soon, especially KRS-One.