Wednesday, February 16, 2005


sage rages

Yeah, it's me (O.W.), delurking from daddyhood for a moment - call it parental decompression. Thanks to Junichi, who's been making Pop Life - dare I say? - better than I ever managed to do in any consistent way. I loved his email observation to me:

"You got some sharp readers, but definitely a few haters. I can't help but think that most of any negativity stems from (90%) jealousy of you and (10%) the fact that you're Asian American. Seriously. Just a thought."

O-Dub has haters? Say it ain't so, J! My favorites are the ones who can't tell Junichi and I apart. Maybe all Asians are alike?

Anyways, before I jump back to priming the Diaper Champ, a few stories we've been tracking here at home.

1) For a long time, I've been trying to figure out why it is that 95% of so-called "underground" hip-hop (a blurry term these days but for good reason) leaves me bored to the point of despair. Kalefah captures part of my moribund enthusiasm in his scathing review of Sage Francis' recent show in New York. As he opens, "Why is it so hard to be an underground hip-hop hero? Perhaps because the mainstream hip-hop heroes have already claimed so much of the best turf for themselves," and from there he basically lays into Sage for being so anti-everything, that he rarely finds any compelling to say for himself that's not in reaction to some perceived shortcoming in mainstream hip-hop.

Now personally, I think K sort of misses the larger reason why Sage has such an impressive core audience - the emo-rap angle, as tired as it may sound, is still an essential element to why white rappers like Sage, Atmosphere (yeah, I know, he's only half-white but bear with me), Buck 65, Aesop Rock, etc. have such loyal followings. However, he's pretty much on point with this simple observation: "it's still no fun to listen to," which nicely sums up the limitations of so much underground hip-hop these days. It's self-importantly portentious and neglects the basic pleasure principle that's powered pop music the last 100 or so years.

This isn't to say that fans of Sage or his peers don't find pleasure in their music, but rather, the production of pleasure may not be the foremost item on these artists' agendas. This can, no doubt, launch us all into a lengthy debate over whether or not pop sensibilities have become the new rockism or what have you, but putting aside all that heady intellectualizing for a moment...I just wish I could find a way to be more emotionally satisfied with more of today's underground artists. The fact that I'm not has likely to do more with me than them but given that I've had this same conversation with many others who nod in empathetic assenet, maybe it's really not me, but them.

Time to light up the comments!
(credit: J-Smooth)

2) Then again, just to prove that my uber-nerd ticket is still punched, I had a giddy good time watching the new video for Quasimoto's "Rapcats". It's the visual equivalent of an Edan song, with dozens of clips borrowed from different rap videos and publicity stills. Geeked out goodness, for real.
(credit: HHH)

3) Back to controversy. This cut n' paste montage of Jay-Z lyrics insinuates that Hova is "not a writer/but a biter." The DJ plays a series of rap lyrics by other artists (Biggie figures prominently) and then plays the near-identical version of Jay-Z reciting the same lyrics.

On one hand, this is nothing new - rappers quote from one another all the time and it's seen as a mark of respect - but considering how staggeringly long this clip runs, you do have to start wondering if there's not something to the implied criticism being made here. After all, if Jay-Z's supposed to be one of the nicest to ever grab the mic, wouldn't hip-hop's authenticity ideal demand that most of his best lines actually be, you know, his? And not something he twisted up from Biggie, or Big L, or Ice T? As others have noted, Jay-Z's one of rap's most prolific artists, so maybe it's not fair to condemn him on the basis of counting up the number of times he's "borrowed" lyrics but I don't think that defense is enough to put the debate to rest.

I'm not knocking Jay, mind you...[some might argue that] his reputation has been based less on his lyrical imagination and more on his flow (even 60 Minutes wreckonized), but given hip-hop's particular obsession with originality (no biting allowed!), how does one reconcile Jay-Z's recyclings of notable quotables with the respect afforded to him as one of rap's finest?