Pop Life

Saturday, December 13, 2003


Sam's latest counter appears on his December 10 entry. I actually don't have much to add at this point, mostly b/c I think the two of us are getting closer to agreement over certain points. Sam makes an VERY important observation - contentious as it could be - with this statement:
    "I think that in the early nineties there was still a lot of remnants of 60’s black radicalism, where people would empower themselves through identity, as where today’s artist realize that they have a greater degree of equality (notice I said greater, not total) and are looking for equity. Maybe that is the defining divide between the hip hop and civil rights generation."

To paraphrase Sam, it's the difference between "freedom now!" and "free market now!" where today's rappers feel like they have their rights secure, but they want to make sure they can get their ritz on too. I think this is a great observation though I'm stilling mulling over whether it can explain everything that's happened. One point Papa Zen always makes is that with monopolization of the music industry during the '90s, you had "more money being bet on fewer horses" (or something like that) which meant that if A&Rs didn't think consciousness would sell while gangsterisms would, they're going with the thugs. In other words, the shift is as much a change in the economics of the rap industry as it is with changing ideologies at the street level. That would certainly explain why the independent market is filled with so many self-stylized conscious MCs in comparison to the majors.

Sam points out that a lot of political consciousness in music journalism can be terrible and I absolutely agree. However, I never said that music journalism needs to be more "political" per se, especially not in ways that just smack of collegiate protest agit-prop. I think magazines and journalists need to reassert a fundamental separation between editorial content and financial priorities. The two serve very different ends and are absolutely antithetical to one another. However, the choice that most glossies have followed (alt. weeklies have done much better but they're also much poorer) is to go for the money, almost to the point where an "editorial" voice is in name only.

Basically, what I'm saying, is that I don't want to have to pick up the New Yorker or LA Times or, god forbid, Newsweek and see them contributing better, critical pieces on pop music than music magazines are able to. Not that they necessarily have but the way things are moving, I wouldn't be surprised.
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Friday, December 12, 2003


raekwon don't mess with serif

This is from the Rap Matters exhibit that's going to be on display in Austin TX in 2004. It's done by Harsh Patel (that name's gangsta) and it's an interesting attempt at rethinking hip-hop through typography. Nod to Catchdubs' blog where I first saw this.
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From CNN News. I don't know why this stuff appeals to me but it just does.

    DETROIT, Michigan (AP) --More than 200,000 computers spent years looking for the largest known prime number. It turned up on Michigan State University graduate student Michael Shafer's off-the-shelf PC.

    "It was just a matter of time," Shafer said.

    The number is 6,320,430 digits long and would need 1,400 to 1,500 pages to write out. It is more than 2 million digits larger than the previous largest known prime number.

    Shafer, 26, helped find the number as a volunteer on an eight-year-old project called the Great Internet Mersenne Prime Search.

    Tens of thousands of people volunteered the use of their PCs in a worldwide project that harnessed the power of 211,000 computers, in effect creating a supercomputer capable of performing 9 trillion calculations per second. Participants could run the mathematical analysis program on their computers in the background, as they worked on other tasks.

    Shafer ran an ordinary Dell computer in his office for 19 days until November 17, when he glanced at the screen and saw "New Mersenne prime found."

    A prime number is a positive number divisible only by itself and one: 2, 3, 5, 7 and so on. Mersenne primes are a special category, expressed as 2 to the "p" power minus 1, where "p" also is a prime number.

    In the case of Shafer's discovery, it was 2 to the 20,996,011th power minus 1. The find was independently verified by other participants in the project.

    Mersenne primes are rare but are critical to the branch of mathematics called number theory. That said, what is the practical significance of Shafer's number?

    "People are going to make posters of it to hang up on the wall," said Shafer, who is pursuing a doctorate in chemical engineering. "It's a neat accomplishment, but it really doesn't have any applicability."

    As for his own standing in the world of mathematics, "I don't think I'm going to be recognized as I go down the street or anything like that."

    He said the method by which the number was found -- harnessing many computers together -- is more important than the number itself.

    "Somebody else could have found the number," he said. "You install the program on the computer and it takes care of itself." But "I get the credit, along with the people that developed the software."

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Wednesday, December 10, 2003


Josh Kun pens one of the most brilliant dissections of race in contemporary hip-hop I've read in a LONG time. This sticks a sharp knife into the gut of those who think race doesn't matter anymore in hip-hop and then twists it for good measure.
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Tuesday, December 09, 2003


not parker bros approved

My fellow chinky-eyed bro' David Chang has created a game called Ghettopoly that's attracting considerable attention and controversy, not the least of which is because Urban Outfitters (in what has to be a business decision as ill-advised as Abercrombie and Fitch's t-shirt fiasco) is selling the game, just in time for the holidays!

Chang answers his critics on the WWW site. I'll post it at length:

    A Message To The Haters
    Ask yourself; Is Jay Leno a racist because he made a comment about Asian people eating dogs? How about Snoop Dog, on his TV show on MTV, is he a racist too?

    What do you think when Rappers rap about "Chinky eyes" or "eyes slanted like", should they be called racist also. Or how about the broken English Asians who are portrayed in Black Movies, are the people who laugh, all racist?

    Should we also ban every single comedian who cracks jokes about Asians?

    For those of you who say, "why don't you make Chinkopoly ?" The word Chink is a Racist word, Ghetto is not. The last time I checked, there may be one Asian rapper on MTV, even then you would probably ask me who he is.

    Simply, there would not be enough interest in the American market place, because being an Asian in this Country is not consider too "Hip". Did you ever see an Asian action figure? And those that say "OH OH, he used the word Ghetto" that must mean he thinks all African Americans are just the images than that are in the game.

    There are all ethnic groups portrayed in Ghettopoly. Including Asians, Irish, Jewish, Hispanics, Whites, and Italians, just like any "Ghetto".

    It's a shame that when the news media decided to turn something into a story, they only speak of the black properties that's in the game. They always fail to mention cards and properties that are of other ethnicity. Remember, the game is called Ghettopoly not Blackopoly. The word black is not even mentioned anywhere in the game PERIOD.

    I hope from this message some of you should know that I am not a racist person, but someone who decided to make a game that we all can enjoy and relate to. And what is so wrong with a game that not made by your everyday corporations.

    When I play with a traditional board game with my friends, it simply does not appeal to me much. To your dismay, Hip Hop Culture is what I gravitate towards, so naturally when I decided to make a game, I want to give it an urban edge.

    Stereotypes are everywhere, when you flip to MTV or BET you do not often see the same images and lyrics, rappers rapping about sipping on 40's, pimping hoes, smoking the chronics, slinging crack rocks, wicked jump shots.

    So with that said, I think before you pass judgment on my game, you should just see it for what it is. It is just a game. It's not so different from what's already out there in the entertainment media in America.

    So if this game should be banned than there are tons of other forms of entertainments that also need to be banned. Just because you don't find this game funny and original, it does not give you the right to call me a racist or worst yet, try to ban it. However you do have every right not to buy it.

    I also think that some of you, not all, who wrote and called me all those nasty names are simply mad because you didn't think of Ghettopoly first. I am sorry that my last name is of Asian decent, maybe if my last name was different, some of you might not be so harsh.

    David Chang

Chang actually raises a few points worth consider: one - that if he was black, reactions would be different. Two - it's not like racialized stereotypes began with his game. That said, neither actually remotely justfies the rampant racism that's all over his game. Ok, so he doesn't single out blacks - he singles out EVERYONE, which just means there'll be at least four different groups of folks out there looking to serve him a beatdown (wait until ADL gets into the game). The game is patently offensive to EVERYONE and while Chang could argue that he's creating a parody, the spirit of his game isn't to problematize these portrayals but to feed off of them. Like a big, fat, bloodsucking leach. Way to go Dave - you're an equal opportunity asshole. Enjoy your ill-gotten gains while you have them and wait for the karma train to come back around, full bore.

By the way, my old housemate and up-and-coming public intellectual David Leonard pens a provocative look at the controversy and its wider social implications.
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My professor Patricia Hilden mentioned reading this NY Times article on artist Thomas Hart Benton's "Year of Peril" posters which followed the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941. The series, eight paintings in all, are fascinating, disturbing representations of the dangers of fascism from both Europe and Japan. His portrayals of Japanese, in particular, are grotesque in their caricature, presumably fueled by the anger and disgust Benton felt following Pearl Harbor. His painting in particular, entitled "Invasion" is particularly visceral in its impact: apart from the obvious racial/sexual paranoia being struck by seeing two Japanese soldiers about to rape a blond, white woman, another soldier seems to be phallically bayoneting her presumed husband/brother/father in the mouth. Yeah, subtle. What's interesting about the NY Times article is that author David Brinkley never once makes mention of the use of ethnic/racial stereotyping in Benton's images - a rather obvious detail to many of the series' posters, a fact my prof raised to me and it does seem strangely missing from Brinkley's piece. Either way, view the slide show that the NY Times provides - heady imagery to be sure.
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a good read at any time

My friend Alicia, whose book recommendations I religiously trust, spoke so highly of Audrey Niffenegger's The Time Traveler's Wife that I went out immediately and put it on my library hold list. It wasn't quite as popular as The DaVinci Code (where I'm somewhere around 100 out of 231 people waiting in queue), but it still took nearly a month to come into my local library. I picked it up yesterday but avoided reading it for most of the day because 1) I had dissertation work to do and 2) it just looked long and I never like starting a book that I don't think I can reasonably finish in one sitting if I absolutely had to.

Like an idiot though, I didn't start reading it until 1am and pretty soon, it's 2am and I finish Part 1 (roughly 250 pages) at around 3am which would be a logical place to stop - it's late, I've gotten through half the book in two hours (I skim at times, I know, cheap) but I'm so hooked at this point that I pull a When Harry Met Sally and jump to the end. Well, that's simply no good because now I'm moving backwards through the chapter to figure out how the narrative got to where it ends - which is beautifully by the way...reminds me a little of Ondatje and The English Patient except that I can't get that schmaltzy Christopher Reeves' movie, Somewhere In Time out of my head (truly an unfortunate connection). I end up skimming the entire second half and then slowed down to read the last few chapters again.

I finally had to stop at 4:20am but slept poorly and ended up waking up at 7am and finished the second half before 9am. Yeah, I know, stupid of me but I'm like that with books. A good one will just keep me suckered in the whole way through until I hit end...this is precisely why I should never start a book at 1 in the goddamn morning.

You can read a basic synopsis of the book at the link above but my take on it is that The Time Traveler's Wife is actually a fairly conventional "you had me at hello" love story between two star-, or I guess here, time-crossed lovers. The twist is that the narrative is told in a fantastical, fascinating way that maniacally jumps around with time and place. It's tempting to call Niffenegger's narrative structure a gimmick but it actually worked for me - after all, she's trying to convey the sense of chaos that exists for someone who is randomly being thrown out of time at any given moment. In that regard, I think she succeeds quite well in forcing the reader to deal with the incongruous experience such a phenomenon would entail.

I would suspect there has been much talk about making this into a movie which could both be a really fascinating process or something utterly terrible (I suspect the latter). I kind of like that it doesn't work as a film - I like that, as a book narrative, it takes you places that would lose something if you tried to represent it visually.

I do think the book loses some momentum in its second half - our two protagonists Henry and Clare have now "found" each other in the same time frame and like all great love stories based around the tension of the unattainable, once they hook up, the narrative threatens to jump the shark. Niffenegger does a decent job in navigating around that but the first half is definitely more of a rush while the second half slows things down more deliberately in order to get to the payoff at the end. The ending is decidedly heavy on the schmaltz factor, with a healthy dose of Titanic-esque monologuing at the end but I'm kind of a sucker for that stuff anyways and in my limited prose experience, I thought it was written quite well.

All things being equal, this was an incredibly satisfying read - one of the first books I've read in as long as I can remember that almost had me on the verge of bawling like a little kid (which, if you really knew me, is a miracle since I NEVER cry. Ever.)

Postscript: I've been trying to figure out why I find the ending so affecting (and don't worry, no spoilers here) and besides just, you know, melodramatic prose, I realize that the book ultimately confirms - from my read at least - that there's a benevolent logic to the universe. Call it God or destiny or whatever, but Niffenegger introduces a subtle element of the Divine that, despite my agnostic self, appealed to me.
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Of course, as bad as hip-hop journalism is, it will always be exceeded by the unbelievable stupidity of mainstream white journalists who think it's funny to be a minstrel for a day. Read Brent Batten's appallingly misguided (not to mention racist) column from last week's Naples Times.
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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. Yeah...you 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 to...um,
>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.
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