Hip hop is discouraging to talk about because I feel like I have to battle uphill just to introduce this shit. I guess a lot of the stuff you hear on the radio isn't very good, and people develop an impression that this represents the limits of an entire artform or some such crudeness.
However. Somebody interested enough in music and life to read things on the internet about them probably has given this genre some consideration. There's certainly at least one category of hip hop that's popular to throw down on, and it's, you know, the 80's stuff. It goes like this: you need a certain amount of historical cred to reference, say, Eric B. and Rakim. You can look back on the album now and see that whoever conceived of this music must have been a visionary, because of the context of what came before and what came after.
I'm not accusing any given community of supporting old-school hip hop disingenuously or simply to achieve hipster cred or something like that. I'm saying that hindsight is 20/20 and it's easier now to look at 3 Feet High and Rising and say that it's a masterpiece now (and say it accurately) than it was in 1989.
Now it is 2010 and we've been through virtual reality and Charlie Kaufman. Postmodernism is part of our cultural DNA at this point, isn't it? We have a collective understanding that a given work of art may not work independently of the other media it relates to. So maybe we're in a better position to understand what is going on with this rap thing.
When I was going to a liberal arts college, somebody published a school-newspaper opinion piece about hip hop. The premise was roughly this: The best rap music is about the experience of being black in America. Okay, I know it's sort of an inflammatory thing to even refer to, but I think the counterargument is worth exploring.
Ignoring the potential bigotry evident in the claim, I think the whole "this is what your subject matter has to be" thing is kinda weird. In film school they talked about that, and the idea was that the best films are about film itself, albeit usually in a sneaky way that you have to be an obsessive formalist to grasp. I think maybe it had to do with Kant's categorical imperative or something, I couldn't really tell you, I didn't believe them so I didn't pay as much attention as I could have.
But I sort of get it. You might have heard of this flick called Citizen Kane, which is a movie that might seem like it is about William Randolph Hearst but of course it's really about how good Orson Welles is at writing, directing, and acting. So yeah, some would say it's the best film they've made so far and I would say it's more about the medium itself than any particular subject matter. I don't think it's about politics so much.
So if you are a rap artist and you are going to be political, I suppose you are usually rhyming about being black in America. I mean I know there are hip hop artists who rap about Bush and Newt Gingrich and stuff but I'm trying to use inductive reasoning to link my claims so bear with. As we've learned from Citizen Kane, it's better to be about yourself than about some external topic. (In this case, of course, "yourself" is a rap song itself, not a black American who raps). But what does it really mean for hip hop to be about itself?
This is what I think it means: hip hop's natural inclination is to be about time. The passage of time, the past, the future. Because whatever you are rapping over is something you tore from its time and place. The past is simultaneously worshiped and decontextualized/destroyed. The future is foreshadowed but only as a reconfiguration of the past once again, and this carries its own melancholy weight.
Am I suggesting that all rap artists start rhyming about the Flux Capacitor (see: MF Doom - "A Dead Mouse")? Naw, I'm saying that by its very nature hip hop can't help but be about this temporal stuff. Dig: Biggie's "Back in the Day" is both about what the past was like to 1993 and what 1993 is like as the past now that it lives there. Or take some party raps, and recognize the amount of nostalgia capitalized upon in the lyrics and the beats. Or consider A Tribe Called Quest:
"Back in the days when I was a teenager
Before I had status and before I had a pager
You could find the abstract listening to hip hop
My father used to say it reminded him of bebop
I said, well daddy don't you know that things go in cycles...."
The past within the past, huh? I really don't think I'm making this up.
So earlier today I was turned onto this fairly incredible record called Shut Up, Dude by Das Racist. They are very meta. The casual listener will be able to recognize about half of the samples they use, which is sort of rare in post-Paul's Boutique hip hop. At one point they reuse the hook from Madvillain's "America's Most Blunted" and make fun of Doom and Quas, at another they rather impeccably impersonate Ghostface and the RZA. They reference Dada and the Can. You heard that thing they did that was popular on youtube, "Combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell".
And you read much of this and say, they are just kidding around, but I assure you this is absolutely brilliant music that can be taken completely seriously. It is a tapestry woven from a wild grab bag of cultural tropes, suggesting that nothing is real and all is permissible. This thing has been on endless repeat for a few hours now and I'm pretty sure that I have no idea at this point if Billy Joel really existed or if he was just a nightmare from which Das Racist hasn't woken up.
If you put a gun to my head though, I would admit that the album's entire reason of being is to discuss the experience of being, well, brown in America, and that this is inextricably linked to the temporal pastiche. Whether complaining about "Arguing with white dudes on the internet" or communication lapses with the Spanish-speaking kid at White Castle, it's all about how the racial conversation is marginalized in a culture completely overwhelmed by commercialism and materialism. The fevered rate at which cultural references assault your brain demonstrates this. See, there is a point to that Pizza Hut song after all.
And the more I listen, the more the race dialogue itself starts to seem like one of Das Racist's bizarre dreams. Like when you finish the album and wake up from the dream racism won't exist anymore, because it's too interconnected with the rest of this internal universe in which nothing is real. A less flowery way of putting it would be to say that Das Racist proves the ridiculousness of racism by linking it to the arbitrary nature of our culture.
So check out the tunes, and realize that hip hop has the power to save the world.