Hip hop isn’t dead, it’s just feeling under the weather
The awesomely named Paul Kix of Salon writes an article lamenting the increasing irrelevance of hip hop. It’s a maddening little piece that had me alternately rolling my eyes and occasionally nodding in agreement. Let’s address the chaff before the wheat, shall we?
1. If I’m doing my math correctly, Kix was born in 1981, which makes him barely 27. It seems a bit fatuous for someone who is still very much a part of the most heavily marketed generation in entertainment and business to be complaining about the current state of the music industry with a distinct “what’s the matter with these kids today?” tone. I realize that we as a society are constantly chasing our own tails, particularly when it comes to pop culture, but if someone who didn’t even enter high school until 1995 is already claiming things were better when he was a kid, we’re in a lot more trouble than we think.
2. I find it unlikely that an eight year-old, in the middle of Iowa or otherwise, would have been listening to N.W.A. This sort of claim is as dubious to me as anyone who claims to have started smoking at age seven, or willingly lost their virginity at age 12. Oh, he could have been aware that they existed, and may have even heard a track or two from them, but I must take pause with the notion that at such a young age he somehow understood what the music was about, and what an impact it had on American culture. I bought a 45 single of ‘Rock the Casbah’ with my own money when I was about ten, not because I embraced the politics of the lyrics, or knew that the Clash was one of the most important bands in the world at the time, but because I liked the video, which had armadillos in it, and which was played on MTV seemingly once every hour or so. It wasn’t until I was nearly an adult that I realized they were actually saying something.
3. Really? Honestly? Hip hop getting every last bit of relevance squeezed out of it in order to appeal to a more mainstream (yeah, go ahead and read it as “white”) market is nothing new. Back in my day (and I’m nearly 36, so I’m allowed to speak in a “GTFO my lawn” tone), there were three kinds of hip hop/rap: the underground club stuff, i.e. Grandmaster Flash, Afrika Bambaata, which nobody much listened to outside of New York City, the political groups like Public Enemy and EPMD, and the goofy novelty acts, like The Fat Boys and 2 Live Crew. Guess which of these made the most money? For Kix (and I keep wanting to spell his name with an extra “x” in honor of the hair metal band of the same name) to suggest that the late 80s-early 90s was a halcyon period of educated music consumers buying up The Geto Boys is simply inaccurate. Vanilla Ice’s To The Extreme, the album that featured the immortal ‘Ice Ice Baby,’ went platinum seven times between 1990 and 1991. That means it sold over seven million copies, and stayed at number one on the Billboard Hot 100 chart for an astonishing four months. It is still one of the biggest selling rap albums of all time. People outright deny now that it was ever that popular, but it was, you couldn’t get away from that song, and it took a lot longer than it should have to discover just what a phony tool Mr. Rob Van Winkle really was. During that same period, Ice Cube’s AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted, EPMD’s Business as Usual, and A Tribe Called Quest’s People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm were released, only the first came anywhere near cracking the top 20 Billboard chart. The average American simply was not interested in hearing ‘Welcome to the Terrordome’ when he or she could have been listening to ‘The Humpty Dance’ instead. They wanted to feel cool and with it by claiming they listened to rap and hip hop, they just didn’t want to listen to the kind of rap and hip hop that presumably endorsed rioting and killing white people.
Hip hop did enjoy a Renaissance period in the mid-90s, with albums like Snoop Dogg’s Doggystyle bringing in better numbers than Frank Sinatra’s Duets. But when the music became increasingly less about oppression and rising from adversity and more about materialism and how much ass you’re tapping, so did the genre begin a gradual downward spiral into something that Matt Taibbi of Rolling Stone accurately described as a modern day minstrel show, and it really hasn’t recovered since. Few of hip hop’s elder statesmen perform anymore, either taking on producer’s roles, or, in the case of Chuck D, removing themselves from the music industry entirely. Snoop Dogg is still out there, but seems content to release songs that seem designed specifically to be played in strip clubs, such as ‘Sensual Seduction,’ and the less subtly titled ‘I Wanna Fuck You.’ As for Flavor Flav, well…
…the less said about that, the better.
The responsibility for hip hop’s current down period does mostly lie with lame white people, who, as Kix correctly points out, do seem to attach themselves to any song that inspires a dance craze, for no discernible reason. You thought that little nugget of trivia about Vanilla Ice was startling? Try this: more than eleven million copies of the ‘The Macarena’ were sold between 1995 and 1997. I think that bears repeating: eleven million. It is the best selling single debut of all time. No one can explain why, but that doesn’t negate the fact that it’s true. As far as hip hop, or at least, the hip hop that’s about shaking that junk in your trunk and waving your arms in the air like you just don’t care, white people embrace it because we have a deep-seeded fear of getting old, or at least being perceived as stodgy and boring. We white folks will do whatever we can to stay on top of what’s hip with the kids, sometimes at the cost of every last shred of our fucking dignity, because it makes us feel young and cool. And if we feel young and cool, then we must look young and cool to others, right? While perusing YouTube to see visual evidence of some of the current dance crazes mentioned in Kix’s article, I stumbled across this clip of the aggressively perky, very thin, very blonde, extraordinarily white Kelly Ripa getting her flygirl on during an episode of Live With Regis and Kelly.
The clip is so profoundly lame, my right eye actually started to twitch after the first twenty seconds. There are few things less attractive than a white woman past a certain age (and I say this fully aware of the fact that Ripa is only two years older than me) trying to act “street,” and yet there are people in the audience hooting and carrying on like they’re watching Queen Latifah doing ‘Ladies First’ at the Apollo back in ’89. Presumably these are the same people who felt funny in their pants when the equally white Blake Lewis “beat-boxed” in season 6 of American Idol. People love this sanitized, watered down, safe alternative to hip hop, and it is precisely why stuff like that is allowed to continue. No one puts a lasso around people like Kelly Ripa, or forty year-old men who just gotta get funky to ‘Fergalicious’ at their nephew’s bar mitzvah and tells them “Stop it, you’re making an ass out of yourself, and you’re making me ashamed to be Caucasian.” To paraphrase George Carlin, stick with your faggoty waltzes and polkas.
The blame for the current state of hip hop can’t lay entirely with Whitey, however. No small amount of responsibility must be attributed to iTunes, and the music industry’s refocus on pushing singles as opposed to entire albums. Thanks to iTunes selling individual tracks off of both new and less current albums for just 99 cents a piece, you no longer have to buy the whole shebang, which is good, because let’s face it, even the best albums aren’t completely playable from the first track to the last. But at the same time, in this era where everyone’s fifteen minutes of fame has been trimmed down to about nine, singles have to be marketed hard and furiously, preferably with some sort of angle already attached to it, such as, hey, a dance craze. They explode onto the music scene, burn brightly for a few months, and then disappear just as quickly. Take Soulja Boy, who Kix seems to name as the current Grim Reaper behind the death of hip hop. His song ‘Crank That’ was a top hit of 2007, inspiring not one but a number of dance crazes, and yet the album on which the track can be found has yet to move one million units. Oh sure, a lot of folks, no doubt many of them white and lame, wanted the song as a ringtone for their cell phones, but nobody really gave a damn about what else he had to offer, if anything. Webstar, the genius behind the “Chicken Noodle Soup” song Kelly Ripa got down to above, doesn’t appear to have anything else in his catalog but multiple remixes of that particular song, including a karaoke instrumental. No doubt both of these performers have made plenty of money for their efforts, but, given the fleetingness of their success, and that success having ridden on songs with choruses that consist almost entirely of someone repeating the phrase “chicken noodle soup” ad infinitum, it’s no wonder that hip hop is a little hard to take seriously as an artistic outlet these days.
Which leads us to the question: can hip hop be saved? Well, of course, any music genre can be saved, with the possible exception of that disturbing, thankfully brief trend of Swedish dance pop/techno groups in the mid-90s. If it could survive Vanilla Ice and ‘2 Legit 2 Quit,’ it can survive this. Performers such as Outkast and Cee-Lo Green have long begun expanding their horizons beyond finding that next hooky beat and rhyme, which is an excellent sign of where the future of hip hop is leading. The sooner other performers follow suit and understand it’s a genre worth saving rather than cashing in on as quickly and easily as possible, and as soon as white people stop trying to latch onto every new trend with the desperation of rats on a sinking ship, the faster hip hop can redeem itself as a source of street poetry and art borne of adversity, rather than the source of wedding reception music.