Sunday, December 07, 2003


Here's Sam's latest reply, posted on his blog.

>I think that there was a tremendous moral
>reckoning within hip hop both during the Biggie and Tupac gangsta
>years and immediately after their deaths.

Where is this "moral reckoning" in hip-hop today? People wrung their hands and said, "man, we have to stop this encouragement of beef, we need to stop promoting all this materialism and violence, blah blah blah." And then a month went by and it was back to business as usual. Actually, it was even worse. I think people became so accepting of hip-hop's materialism, misogyny, misanthropy, etc. that critiquing it became seen as passe.

Whether it is journalism's job to offer a critique is certainly a philosophical question and Sam points:

>And what became of the great mid- to late-90s battles? The
>conscious MC's won, while the conscious critics lost (for the most

This actually seems to support my point - that any kind of critical take in criticism became frowned upon. And moreover, I rather disagree that the conscious MCs won. Compare 2003 with 1990 and clearly, so-called "conscious rappers" are now a small, tiny minority of the overall hip-hop field. Kweli, Mos, the Roots, etc., are exceptions not the rule. Keep in mind, I don't necessarily bemoan the changes in hip-hop...unlike other nostalgia-ridden folks, I don't need hip-hop today to sound like it was when I was a teenager, which is precisely why groups like Little Brother never inspired much in me.

My concern is that music writing slipped even further into unabashed cheerleading since the mid-90s when it really should have gone the other way, especially given Tupac and Biggie's deaths. Why does the Source and Vibe read like Teen Beat in blackface these days? Actually, maybe one of the only good things to come out of Benzino's disingenuous attacks on Eminem and 50 Cent comes from the fact that it's at least introducing some level of critique back into the game.

>And in many ways I agree with that dynamic. can't escape
>from engaging with the outside world, and everything is inherently
>political and so forth...but one thing that I've learned from my
>short time writing about hip hop is that there are certain things
>that you can and can't approach, and it is sometimes best if the
>artists address these issues themselves, and leave it to us,
>critique their critiques.

No offense but that's a cop out and it's one that practically every journalist who has ever written on hip-hop has been guilty of (myself included). Who says that it should be up to artists to provide the critique and not us? I mean, what's the point is calling our profession "criticism" when we're not in a position to offer a critique? We're afraid of offending our interviewees, which could in turn, lead to us being alienated from our editors and publications, which could lead us to being blacklisted writ large, etc. etc. I mean, I'm sensitive to this too. When I interviewed Master P a year and a half ago for the Source, I knew I had to ask him and his family about C-Murder - the fact that he had been arrested and locked up on 1st degree murder charges. And while I got surprisingly candid responses from the Miller fam, part of me wished I didn't have to get into this because I was afraid of what the repercussions could be of "stirring things up."

But in hindsight, I realize that if I wasn't allowed to ask those questions - either by my own reticence or higher powers - I wouldn't have been doing a very responsible job for my readership or my own sense of journalistic values. Artists aren't here to be coddled - they're not children even when they act like them. However, I think the culture we've developed in the music journalism world (and this is certainly not limited to hip-hop alone) is that we leave this all well enough alone so as not to alienate the artists (or more importantly, their ad-buying labels).

To put it another way entirely, the fact that there are "certain things we can and can't approach" is part of a corrupt value system and in bowing to it, we're only complicit in its perpetuation.

Sam asks:
>Oliver, is it the Source's duty to address the value-issues or
>"consciousness" surrouding hip hop culture, or is it there chargin
>to engage the music and individual narratives of the performers?
>I'm really asking this, because it's a line I'm not sure where to
>draw. You could make an arguement that they don't do either very
>well, and I would agree.

The easiest way to answer this is to pick up a copy of the Source from 1991 and compare it with what you read now. They are VERY different magazines (not unlike comparing today's Rolling Stone with an issue from the '70s), not just because the music has changed, but because the editorial mission of the magazine has changed - from reporting on music and musicians to becoming more lifestyle mags. That shift is one of the main reasons why many of today's music mags have lost their punch. You can't have a lifestyle magazine that's critiquing the lifestyles, whether implicitly or explicitly. In comparison, a magazine that REPORTS on things would actually include some level of critical engagement simply because it is reporting on what's actually there, not picking and choosing what facts to include and which to gloss over.

In regards to this question of short form vs. long form journalism, Sam responds:

>While I love a big, sprawling piece, I also
>love compaction in writing (it's a realistic way of engaging with
>the audience), and some of my best pieces have been those that have
>had a modest word count.

I think economy is a wonderful thing in writing. One of my favorite quotes on writing comes from Thomas Jefferson: "The most valuable of all talents is that of never using two words when one will do." I also would assign any writing class Robert Christgau's "Rock Records of the 1970s", which to me, is one of the most compelling guides to how to write short and succinct music reviews without sacrificing quality of comment. However, how many people would go to the movies if they could only watch 20 minute shorts instead of feature-length movies? Or read short stories but not have access to novels? The sole mission of music journalism is not to simply act as a consumer guide, but it's also to weigh in on the larger import of music in our society and lives. You simply can't do that 100 words at a time.

Last but not least, Sam throws down this gauntlet (it's all good baby pa, I ain't mad at you):

>I'll get to the rest of what Oliver said later, but I will say that
>I still think that Oliver is looking at the past in rose colored
>glasses. There were individual spots of brilliance in the golden
>days (and that is what is now remembered), but there was also a
>whole lot of shit. Anyone remember how the mainstream music media
>used to engage with hip hop? Rolling stone anyone? It's not great
>now, but it was horrible and often racist then.

I never said mainstream music mags are any better or worse now in covering hip-hop than they used to be. But I would seriously challenge the presumption that rap journalism in HIP-HOP magazines has improved. Moreover, I don't think things were perfect 10 years back but I think things have gotten worse now. The past, to me, isn't sepia-toned - it was ugly and a mess in many ways - but you got the sense that people were trying to work through that mess and get at something more. I think most publications stopped trying and opted instead to pretty things up but without actually addressing the complexities that the last gen had to contend with.