Sunday, January 09, 2005

CYNICAL BEATDOWN

In a recent, I mentioned how much I enjoyed reading Greg Tate's recent Village Voice essay, Hip Hop Turns 30. However, some of my colleagues were not quite so taken by it. Hashim @ HipHop-Blogs.com in particular had some vociferous criticisms of the essay, going as far to level an ageism charge at Tate (i.e. "Greg Tate is an Old Man"). Much as I respect Hashim and have been in agreement with him in the past, I think his view here is off-base.

I have to say, I'm genuinely surprised at the rancor that Tate's essay has engendered since, to me, he wasn't saying anything particularly controversial. Of course, maybe that's because I agree with much of his sentiment. I think Jeff nails it on the head in his comment when he asks if there might not be a generation gap at work here. Tate's probably at least five years older than me, as is the good Mr. Chang, but I consider myself part of their generation of rap fans. And for us, I think Tate's essays speaks very loudly to our concerns over hip-hop's evolution over the last 15-20 years since when we first began listening ourselves.

It's not as if we've lost our love for hip-hop but many of us became enthralled with rap music precisely because of how it tapped into social outrage and passions, as well as being some great music to move to. That last point is important because some people assume you either like hip-hop for its social content or its sonic force and that's a false binary. If anything, hip-hop's ability to literally move people with its rhythms is precisely how it's able to speak truth to power. Being pro-rap-relevance does not mean being anti-rhythm.

In any case, Tate's essay provides a balanced approach to both celebrating hip-hop's achivements while also being candid about its shortcomings. However, if folks in the older generation can identify with both sides of that argument, I think there is a younger generation who finds that complaining about hip-hop's lack of social relevance is just something old fuddy-duddies whine about because we can't stand the fact that no one rocks kente cloth and Africa medallions anymore. (Just for the record, I never owned either but I did have a Cross Colours' t-shirt).

Frankly, I have a hard time understand this kind of knee-jerk dismissal of the issues that Tate speaks too and certainly, he's not the only one who's been criticized for sounding "old" and "bitter" (neither of which I think are true). But to me, it makes sense that there is a different sensibility at work out there, one that finds critical assessments of hip-hop's relationship to society to be tiresome and besides the point. I don't know if this is so much an "older" vs. "younger" dynamic since I think the two camps have overlap in terms of age, but especially with the rise of the blogosphere, I think we're seeing a countervailing critical voice emerging that is less interested in pondering hip-hop's social dynamics and would rather get back to the business of talking about the basics - beats, rhymes, etc. I hold nothing against that view - I like talking about hip-hop as, you know, music too - but I also think it's equally valid to talk about hip-hop as a cultural form and all the attendent complexities that come with that frame of mind.

***

I just have to say this but comparing Tate with Crouch is a gross overstatement. Crouch has never professed a particular love for hip-hop in any form. Crouch doesn't wax nostalgic for Rakim and BDP - he waxes nostalgic for Ellington and Coltrane, okay? To Crouch, rap music is a perversion of African American musical traditions and as someone like Ta-Nehisi Coates has pointed out, Crouch's anti-rap posturing is ironic, if not downright hypocritical. Tate shares nothing in common with Crouch's fervant anti-rap crusading. Read his essays in Flyboy In the Buttermilk and it's clear that Tate has a profound relationship to hip-hop in a way that Crouch would never, ever profess to have.

I also think people are off the mark in claiming that Tate's essay essentially = "hip-hop is dead." When he writes, "But from the moment "Rapper's Delight" went platinum, hiphop the folk culture became hiphop the American entertainment-industry sideshow," that's a statement of cultural fact and any good history of hip-hop with reflect as much. It is not, however, an inherent lamentation. Tate is not complaining, "aw shucks, remember when hip-hop was good? When we used to go to the park jams and see Flash and Herc battle?" What he's suggesting is that hip-hop transformed the moment "Rapper's Delight" showed that a local street culture could be transnationally profitable. That moment is partly what's helped hip-hop become such an awesome force around the world but it's also what brought hip-hop into the belly of the beast and that tension has forever remained an important dynamic of rap music's power and challenges. Tate writes, "This is why mainstream hiphop as a capitalist tool, as a market force isn't easily discounted: The dialogue it has already set in motion between Long Beach and Cape Town is a crucial one, whether Long Beach acknowledges it or not."

Clearly, Tate is NOT suggesting that hip-hop is dead, nor is he decrying hip-hop's collusion with capitalism without also recognizing what that relationship has enabled it to do. This is a nuanced argument he's putting forward here.

Likewise, people need to read this essay with his Nas review - published in the same issue - alongside each other because his arguments about hip-hop and politics get their full development in tandem. Tate is not arguing that hip-hop should get more political; he says this in the Nas essay: "Not that one shouldn't be chirpy chipmunk happy to hear any commercially viable MC produce angry, alert, unabashedly political tracks like "Message to the Feds," "Sincerely We the People," and "American Way" in these acquiescent, acquisitive times. Only that the absence of such strong sentiments in current Black political life makes the studio version seem flat and manufactured." His critique is really of the failings of Black public politics (a complaint that has been on-going from all sectors for 20+ years now) rather than forcing hip-hop to shoulder that burden.

I think the point of what Tate is arguing however is that hip-hop has unquestionably transformed Black public life in the last 30 years but he wants to know, besides making a select few people rich off of it (but probably not wealthy in the Chris Rock "rich vs. wealthy" dichotomy), what hip-hop has done to actual improve the community from whence it came. Again, not a new argument, but one that I think needs to be continually asked since as hip-hop has become so lucrative - especially as an identifiably Black cultural form - it seems to me to be a valid question to ask where those resources are being channeled especially since it seems that many Black communities are worse off now than they were 20-30 years ago in terms of: access to health care, quality education, social justice, economic parity, housing equality, etc.

***

Getting back to the generation gap, and I really don't mean to pick on Hashim here but this statement really stood out to me on his blog: "I want my comedies to make me laugh, my music to make me dance. That's it. Don't put the weight on someone else."

My jaw kind of drops at that statement since it seems incongruous that it'd come from someone who created a site called "hiphop-blogs.com," whose very existance suggests that music inspires people to actually think about it rather than just shake their tushy to it (again, see above comment that the two are not mutually exclusive). Seriously, is that what people think? That hip-hop is only good for the ass but no longer relevant for the mind?

To treat hip-hop as entertainment only seems to divorce the music from its very social roots. I'd like to think, idealistic as this may sound, that hip-hop (like jazz, the blues, etc.) was always about incredible creative expression but not solely for the sake of entertaining people. It wasn't like those musics were designed to be replace politics or social mobilization; instead, they helped speak to the cultural context in which these other things were happening. Hence, think about the relationship of "Strange Fruit," to the social tensions of the 1930s and 40s or James Brown's embrace of Black Power in the late 1960s or the relationship between reggae and British race relations in the 1980s, and so forth. Again, it's not that we replace politics with music or that we cease to treat music as entertainment...but you have to recognize that cultural forms are incredibly powerful forces. Certainly, the State treats many expressive practices as things that need to be censored, controlled or eliminated - is that because they fear entertainment or fear what that "entertainment" helps inspire in people?

Anyways, I know this conversation is bound to continue and I look forward to what's said next. All respect due.