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.