Friday, August 21, 2009

When Will Hip Hop Get That Woodstock Love?

TAN's bringing in guests and correspondents! Herewith: MGJordan on Woodstock, hip hop's lack of media respect (no Rodney Dangerfield?), and how he learned to stop worrying and love Jonah Weiner.

Last week, anyone with access to a TV or computer was treated to a display of boomer self congratulation so vast and insistent that experiencing it became compulsory—Woodstock turned 40. The entirety of the MSM stopped to remark on that glorious occasion when America’s youth gathered in the mud of upstate New York to drop acid and listen to the Grateful Dead’s poorly amplified noodling. For a single slight shimmery weekend the 60s counter-culture realized its belief in peace, love and understanding—and then everyone grew up and ushered in Reaganomics.

Yes, put me in the group dedicated to deflating the Woodstock bubble. The continuing fellation of the boomer’s moment in the sun—remember Woodstocks 1995 and 1999? (hopefully not)—annoys me to no end. But even though it’s beyond obvious that Woodstock reverence is beyond hyperbolic, it’s not necessarily its extent that irks me. Culture, to a degree, is delusion on a grand scale and that’s fine. There’s no real difference between scrawling “Clapton is God” on a London subway wall and swearing to your friends that Jigga man is the God MC.

What really bothers me about the Woodstock celebration (besides boomer hypocrisy…that’s a horse to flog on another day) is the disparity it reveals between the press’s attitude towards hip hop and the press’s attitude towards other cultural movements. This October marks the 30th anniversary of “Rapper’s Delight,” the first top 40 rap single and the song that launched hip hop culture’s global explosion. Will Sunday Morning with Charles Osgood put together a retrospective like they did for Woodstock? Doubtful.

I suppose that’s fine in a way. The appreciation gap between rock and rap doubtless has much to do with racism and classism, but it probably has even more to do with age—rock is old and rap is young. Rock, already canonized, has affected all the change it ever will—rap is rock’s kid brother, all grown up but still largely undefined by critical consensus. So I guess I’m okay with hip hop not receiving as wide coverage as rock does—how can we celebrate hip hop as a group if we haven’t really agreed yet on what parts to celebrate?

My real beef is that the press seems congenitally incapable of treating rap as a legitimate art form. Consider the lazy journalistic device of rendering articles humorous by mashing up hip hop and a “serious subject.” As offensive and nonsensical as these articles are, they’re still alive and well. Check out this NPR piece on how the feud between Jay-Z and The Game mirrors world politics. The author writes:

The Game is the erratic wildcard.

"He's North Korea; he's Iran," Lynch says. "He might not win, but he can hurt you if he drags you down into this extended occupation, this extended counterinsurgency campaign."

Why is he doing this? After Jay-Z released "D.O.A. ('Death of Auto-Tune')" The Game saw an opportunity to peel off Jay-Z's key alliance partners to form a coalition and undermine Jay-Z's hegemony.

No. Fine, Game is an erratic wild card. But what “key alliance partners” is he trying to peel off from Jay? What, he wants Memphis Bleak to guest on The R.E.D. Album? It’s just confusingly wrong. Anyone who knows anything about hip hop can recognize that this article is logically barren.

But that’s sort of beside the point, isn’t it? The intent of the article isn’t to conduct an interesting juxtaposition between hip hop and international relations. The article exists to compare a subject that is, to NPR’s audience, obviously silly—hip hop—with a subject for grown ups—international relations. The whole thing is just an excuse for suburban house wives to exclaim “well, isn’t that a riot?!”

Hip hop deserves better than that. Hip hop definitely deserves better than blogs like Snacks and Shit, which gets its name from a woefully misinterpreted Jay-Z lyric and purports to catalogue “preposterous” rap lyrics. I’m all for acknowledging that hip hop can be ludicrous and stupid, but most of the blog’s posts either aren’t funny or depend on taking a lyric outside its original context. I mean, wow, if you take rap lyrics literally they often make no sense? I guess these guys never heard of figurative language.

Rock ‘n’ roll is no less inherently silly than hip hop (“I am the eggman, they are the eggmen/ I am the walrus, goo goo g’joob”), but it hasn’t been held up as an object of ridicule since hair metal went out of style. Enough with the goofy or ironic hip hop references: hip hop, even when it’s being fun and insane and over the top, is worthy of serious consideration.

That’s why the embrace of rap music by mainstream critical outlets—Pitchfork, The Village Voice, Slate, The New Yorker—is so important. Reading Jonah Weiner painstakingly explain the ins and outs of rap to a rap illiterate audience may grate on the nerves of serious hip hop heads (see comments here), but at least Weiner’s articles propagate the idea that rap is a legitimate art form. Maybe with a few more Weiners (and a few more Nathan Rabins and Sasha Frere-Joneses), hip hop will eventually get the mainstream respect it deserves.



  1. This makes me wonder about the cachet/tradition of the whole Woodstock thing. Like just sitting out in a field, taking LSD< shrooms etc, and listening to music for days. Wad that a white thing? Was it a 60s thing? Was it a rock-and-roll thing?

    Maybe hip hop was saddled with a less motivating drug culture - weed. I mean obviously they were smoking Grass, at woodstock, but maybe shrooms would have opened up our minds to finding hip hop festivals/shows groovy also. As is, weed and liquor just led to in-fighting until no one was interested.

  2. and def a good call-out on NPR's tee-hee of ocmparing rap to political theory.

    When the guy wrote it he spent his whole lede talking about how it was a joke, and then NPR wants to platform it with some straight-faced/stoic analysis. pfft, to their patronizing.

    i didn't see how npr handled their woodstock coverage....

  3. TrendsMan8/21/2009

    Very interesting blog. You're right, the origins of hip hop/rap have been largely ignored. This is partly because the generation which is responsible for hip hop /rap has been largely ignored until now. Sugar Hill Gang and other pioneers of hip hop/rap, and its early fans and supporters were members of Generation Jones (born 1954-1965, between the Boomers and Generation X).

    Google Generation Jones, and you’ll see it’s gotten a ton of media attention, and many top commentators from many top publications and networks (Washington Post, Time magazine, NBC, Newsweek, ABC, etc.) now specifically use this term. In fact, the Associated Press' annual Trend Report forecast the Rise of Generation Jones as the #1 trend of 2009. Here's a page with a good overview of recent media interest in GenJones:

    It is important to distinguish between the post-WWII demographic boom in births vs. the cultural generations born during that era. Generations are a function of the common formative experiences of its members, not the fertility rates of its parents. Many experts now believe it breaks down more or less this way:

    DEMOGRAPHIC boom in babies: 1946-1964
    Baby Boom GENERATION: 1942-1953
    Generation Jones: 1954-1965
    Generation X: 1966-1978

  4. One can tell that hip hop doesn't receive the same sort of critical analysis that is given to rock simply by looking at the example of how Lupe Fiasco's last album was reviewed. Critics looked at songs individually, rather than looking at how they all work together. The only songs that were viewed to connect with one another were the ones that were obvious. No critic picked up on the fact that his whole album was a commentary on how commercialism, capitalism, and greed are a disease and that he did this by weaving in several allusions to Washington Irving.

    I didn't read one review that picked up on this, but if he were a rock musician, he would have been hailed as the new Bob Dylan or Bruce Springsteen, etc. Instead, and I don't mean this as a diss, Time magazine called Lil Wayne the Bob Dylan of hip hop when essentially every song of Wayne's is a commercial for how great he is with little commentary on the world.

    In rock, it's possible to receive credit for the literary elements of one's work, but in hip hop, one only receives overwhelming positive accolades for self-aggrandizement. Anything else is often viewed as being too clever for one's own good. That difference, in itself, stunts the growth of hip hop because let's face it hip hop is pretty old but has changed very little.

    In what other musical genre, would an artist like Common revert to, at age 40, nursery rhymes about sex in an effort just to remain relevant? When he says "I'm gonna touch you where the sun don't shine," it's hard to imagine he's speaking to another mature adult.

    One reason hip hop fails to get the merit it deserves is that it is so tied in with being a commercial venture, a stepping stone to something bigger, which means that in popular hip hop one often is just making commercials for one's self, in order to keep one's market share. Woodstock, whether one likes it or not, was a huge risk financially for everyone involved, and it is difficult to imagine any hip hop artists participating in such a venture.

  5. Uh, I agree with what Teach said. awesome.

    I guess to try and add on: there's a lot of lip-service from hip hop artists about these sorts of literary/artistic credentials, or endeavors (i.e. the spirit of Woodstock in lyrics/artform and in festival/actual event), but little actual will-to-action or power.

    which is to say: i'm aware of a perceptive dissonance between, to take the above example, Common, and his persona/presence/ego vs. his actual oeuvre/content. for a casual hip hop listener with a brain, all too often claims of higher artistic ideals don't ring true.

    has hip hop produced an actual Dylan, who can go poem for poem? i/most have an implicit understanding of, Yes, that is the case, but don't have the explicit ability to point to said person and articulate how/why.

    so it's not hip hop that's lacking, it's the hip hop scholarship which pokes and unpacks the wrong things.

    i guess this then circles back to the Media/Critic complex not taking their job seriously. at least with re. to hip hop.

    the not being taken seriously - for artists in search of serious empowerment - leads to a real-world short-circuiting of the impulse to create art with substance. this means the complex is at fault, but also the artists for letting the power of the complex prevail over them despite airs to the contrary.

    rappers/ hip hop has distilled that media/critics by-and-large in terms of Valuating art, is lip-service/full of shit (the woodstock sample here being a reasonable example), and so they follow suit and abide by platforms built on lip-service and bullshit. We learned it by watching you, America!

    i guess, then, the question is if the whole rubric of Artistic Integrity is bullshit, a ruse, red herring ... or if it's been diluted diffused by capitalism/american moralism over time, and just needs detox/rehab/repossession.

    , yo

  6. I agree about the endless fellating of boomer culture we get subjected to as objective truths. That's why I'm very interested in reading this new book How the Beatles Destroyed Rock and Roll dedicated to challenging a lot of boomer generation's pop culture sacred cows:

  7. T.A.N.: thanks for the compliment. i just feel that most rappers/emcees, whatever you want to label them, would do more if more were required of them. hip hop may have more linguistic potential than any other genre of music, but critics and fans really don't ask much of it. the thing that bugs me most, and i'm sticking with the common example, is that using dance beats does not require one to use adolescent lyrics as well. i always pictured hip hop as a genre that's about being true to one's self, which creates the opportunity for a wider array of voices than are presently heard. anyway.....

    And, in my opinion, i don't think hip hop has offered up an equivalent to dylan, but i'm admittedly biased.

  8. FreddyBak8/25/2009

    Um, sensitive much? Look, I'll definitely accept the premise that music critics don't take hiphop as seriously as rock and roll, that is, as seriously as they should. No question that's it's a serious art form. But guess what, compared to the seriousness of war between the U.S. and North Korea, hiphop is pretty silly. And so is rock and most other art forms. At least in the sense that we are talking about, no matter how brilliant, entertainment. Which contrasts starkly with the potential deaths of millions.

    I believe that the Beatles are the greatest musical act of all time, but if someone anaglogized their breakup to the break up of the Soviet Union (um, yeah, all I could think of on the spot) it WOULD be pretty funny.

    Lynch, who originally wrote the article comparing Game ( and who is a fan of Game), and many of the other bloggers who commented on this little analogy are hip hop fans. Beefs, although not unique to hip hop, are definitely he more interesting in hip hop - what with the lyrical expression of the diss as opposed to just talking shit to the media like Seth Rogan does about Entourage.

    Not everyone's out to get hip hop. Let's hope it gets taken more seriously soon, but let's also hope that fans don't get to taking themselves too seriously either.

    [Apologies if this came off hostile, didn't mean for it to be]


  9. As a black generation Xer (born 1969, @9 or 10 when "Rapper's Delight" became a hit), I was into rap from the beginning but they lost me when the only hits I could hear on the radio were self-aggrandizing or empty-headed, misogenistic vulgarity.

    I have fond memories of a time in the late '80s and early '90s when rap was headed in a more powerful, poetic direction but I've decided that those days are long gone. I wouldn't mind being wrong, though... But for now, I am among the many who no longer takes rap seriously.

  10. As a black Generation Xer (born in 1969, around 9 or 10 when "Rapper's Delight" became a hit) I was into rap from it's commercial beginnings. Even as a kid, I didn't have much use for the Curtis-Blow-hands-in-the-air hits that immediately followed but through high school and into college I enjoyed the progression and growth of the genre until the prevalence of self-aggrandizing, vulgar misogeny turned me off.

    I am sad to say that I am among the many who have written rap off. I can barely think of a handful of hip-hop hits in the past 20 years that weren't empty-headed rhymes. (And the videos are another matter altogether.)

    I am waiting for the time when hip-hop will once again begin to fulfill it's promise. And I'll be honest... I don't think it's going to come from black america.


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