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Thursday, August 07, 2003

How hip-hop makes columnists stupid 

Let's discuss the worst article I've ever read, a stupendously uninformed rant about the evils of hip-hop. Its thesis that gangsta rap's stereotypes harms the black community could be fodder for a decent article, I suppose. But the writer would have to actually know something about rap music. McWhorter certainly doesn't. (For the short version of the article go here. It's a long article.)
Our story begins, like all great stories, at a KFC in Harlem. At this KFC our hero was dismayed to find a group of teenagers behaving rudely. "These teens clearly weren't monsters, but they seemed to consider themselves exempt from public norms of behaviors if they had begun to check out of mainstream society." Who is to blame for this rudeness? Why, rap music, of course!
Here's the article's thesis statement: Many writers and thinkers see a kind of informed political engagement, even a revolutionary potential, in rap and hip-hop. They couldn't be more wrong. By reinforcing the stereotypes that long hindered blacks, and by teaching young blacks that a thuggish adversarial stance is the properly authentic response to a presumptively racist society, rap retards black success.
Heh. He said 'retards'. Continuing:
The venom that suffuses rap had little place in black popular culture indeed, in black attitudes before the 1960s.
Invisible Man. Great book. Worth a read. McWhorter traces hip-hop's genealogy to the militant spirit of Malcolm X, the Black Panthers, and blaxploitation movies. He then chronicles the emergence of first rap hit Rapper's Delight in prose that has to be read to be believed. Continuing:
At the time, I assumed it was a harmless craze, certain to run out of steam soon.
But rap took a dark turn in the early 1980s, as this bubble gum music gave way to a gangsta style that picked up where blaxploitation left off. Now top rappers began to write edgy lyrics celebrating street warfare or drugs and promiscuity.

Rappers have to celebrate one or the other? They can't celebrate all three? What is this evil early-80s gangsta song he speaks of?
Grandmaster Flash's ominous 1982 hit, The Message, with its chorus, "It's like a jungle sometimes, it makes me wonder how I keep from going under," marked the change in sensibility. It depicted ghetto life as profoundly desolate...The ultimate message of The Message-that ghetto life is so hopeless that an explosion of violence is both justified and imminent-would become a hip-hop mantra in the years ahead.
Where does Melle Mel say that exactly? Are you sure you're discussing the right song? "The Message" is actually about how if you become like the criminals you admire, "you was found hung dead in the cell/ It was plain to see that your life was lost". The narrative in the last verse is pretty clear. The Message apparently singlehandedly "transformed rap from a fad into a multi-billion-dollar industry".
To rap producers like Russell Simmons, earlier black pop was just sissy music. He despised the soft, unaggressive music (and non-threatening images) of artists like Michael Jackson or Luther Vandross. So the first chance I got, he says, I did exactly the opposite.
And he then produced such threatening acts as Run-DMC, who famously glorified their shoes.
The attack continues: hip-hop performers have churned out countless rap numbers that celebrate a ghetto life of unending violence and criminality.
What are his examples of these numbers? Ice T's Cop Killer! Schooly D's PSK What Does It Mean? (quoting the great lyrics: Got at the bar, copped some flack, /Copped some cheeba-cheeba, it wasn't wack.)! These songs were made before those kids at the KFC were born. This is like a rant about how much pop music sucks that uses the evils of Milli Vanilli to prove its case. Cop-killing songs are very early 90's (apparently black people felt strongly about that Rodney King fellow), and Ice-T now plays cops on Law and Order. The worst thing about using these examples is that they were the favorite targets of blowhards such as Joe Lieberman and Dan Quayle around 1991 or so. The least McWhorter could do is find a hip-hop song that was made in this century that glorifies criminality. It's not hard. But it would take more reserach than photocopying lyrics out of ancient William Bennett columns.
McWhorter goes on to make the mindblowing point that hip-hop's attitudes to women are not too great. This is noteworthy since he mentions a Jay-Z song that was actually made in the last five years.
Rap's musical accompaniment mirrors the brutality of rap lyrics in its harshness and repetition. Simmons fashions his recordings in contempt for euphony.
Well, Simmons did in the 80s, but he has not produced albums for a long time. This is McWhorter's history of recent music:
In the seventies, screaming hard rock was in fashion among young whites, while sweet, sinuous funk and soul ruled the black airwaves-a difference I was proud of. But in the eighties, rock quieted down, and black music became the assault on the ears and soul.
But in the 90's rock got loud, and a brilliant physician by the name of Andre Young discovered that if you steal Parliament melodies and rap about weed, you can become incredibly wealthy. That is the real reason why rap became a huge industry. Producers like Dre and Puffy figured out that you need melodies to be successful on the pop charts, and incorporated that sweet soul and funk into their tracks. A great way to find out about these decade-old innovations in the form is to turn on a radio. But McWhorter's history skips to the present day, though not before making an Important Point:
Of course, not all hip-hop is belligerent or profane-entire CDs of gang-banging, police-baiting, woman-bashing invective would get old fast to most listeners.
It would be nice if he mentioned the names of one of the hundreds of rap artists that don't fit his depiction, or devoted more than one sentence to this point and its implications. It would also be nice if he realised that when people make claims for the 'revolutionary potential' of hip-hop, this 'conscious' rap is what they are usually referring to. This whole argument traces back to the early 90's, when political hip-hop actually sold well. Since the decline of Public Enemy and their afrocentric ilk, leftist cultural critics have been attacking gangsta rap for the same reasons that McWhorter does. The standard complaint is that it is too apolitical. I would greatly enjoy reading an article about the politics of Big, Jay-Z, or Dre, but since I don't see anyone writing it, I guess it's up to me. Now, today's rap charts according to McWhorter:
As I write, the top ten best-selling hip-hop recordings are 50 Cent (currently with the second-best-selling record in the nation among all musical genres), Bone Crusher, Lil' Kim, Fabolous, Lil' Jon and the East Side Boyz, Cam'ron Presents the Diplomats, Busta Rhymes, Scarface, Mobb Deep, and Eminem. Every one of these groups or performers personifies willful, staged opposition to society...and every one celebrates the ghetto as "where it's at."
Some people should not be allowed to use quotation marks. I suppose desiring evidence for these claims is too much to ask for, and he's about half right anyways. I'll give him Em and 50, and I'm sadly unfamiliar with the works of the Diplomats and Bonecrusher. But Mobb Deep titled one of their albums Hell On Earth, describing the ghetto. That doesn't sound like 'where it's at'. And Busta? What does Pass the Courvosier (sp?) have to do with willful opposition to society? Perhaps McWhorter should, um, listen to the music of the groups he is discussing before he makes blanket statements.
Thus, the occasional dutiful songs in which a rapper urges men to take responsibility for their kids or laments senseless violence are mere garnish.
Maybe rappers are attempting to sneak in messages within the violence like Greeks inside of a Trojan Horse. Messages in rap songs will get to more of the people who need to hear them than the fulminations of Conservative columnists.
McWhorter goes on to discuss the bad behavior of various rappers, including this hilarious summation of P.Diddy's career:
Combs may have grown up middle-class in Mount Vernon, New York, and even have attended Howard University for a while, but he's proven he can gangbang with the worst.
Does McWhorter know what gangbanging is? Poor J-Lo. If I was the Diddy, I would sue (and then I would kill myself for crimes against music, of course). Next:
Many fans, rappers, producers, and intellectuals defend hip-hop's violence, both real and imagined, and its misogyny as a revolutionary cry of frustration from disempowered youth. For Simmons, gangsta raps "teach listeners something about the lives of the people who create them and remind them that these people exist." 50 Cent recently told Vibe magazine, "Mainstream America can look at me and say, 'That's the mentality of a young man from the 'hood.' "
Actually, Mr. Cent and Simmons are defending gangsta rap becuse it accurately depicts the ghetto life. They are not saying it's revolutionary, they are saying it's real. McWhorter's own view of what the ghetto is like is below, and as far as I can tell it sounds a lot like Fitty's. But before we get to his view, let's plow through some more inanity.
McWhorter argues against the National Council of Teachers of English, recommending the use of hip-hop lyrics in urban public school classrooms (as already happens in schools in Oakland, Los Angeles, and other cities),, because everyone knows how terrible it would be if English students find out that poetry could have some relevance to their lives. Besides, Ben Jonson was just doing it for the bitches and the bling-bling anyways. Then we have this risible assertion (skipping over a few other risible assertions; go read them for yourself):
The idea that rap is an authentic cry against oppression is all the sillier when you recall that black Americans had lots more to be frustrated about in the past but never produced or enjoyed music as nihilistic as 50 Cent or N.W.A. On the contrary, black popular music was almost always affirmative and hopeful. Nor do we discover music of such violence in places of great misery like Ethiopia or the Congo
Where to begin? Well, I doubt the plantation owners would have been too pleased with the 19th century Ice-T performing a rendition of Overseer Killer. As for black pop being sweetness and light before the big bad rappers came along, has he ever heard of a song called Strange Fruit? Or Nina Simone? Or (as TMFTML implies), the Blues, which is not exactly known for its hopefulness? And as for Africa...Let's just say Fela Kuti was fairly belligerent and leave it at that.
McWhorter then criticizes Russell Simmons' rap-fuelled political group for "Sticking with the long-discredited idea that urban schools fail because of inadequate funding".
Please tell me he didn't just say that hip-hop is bad because it tries to fund schools. At best, he's saying that rap is not apolitical, it just doesn't support the same politics he does.
So here is what McWhorter has to say about the ghetto: It was just as gangsta rap hit its stride that neighborhood elders began really to notice that they'd lost control of young black men, who were frequently drifting into lives of gang violence and drug dealing...By the eighties, the ghetto had become a ruleless war zone, where black people were their own worst enemies. It would be silly, of course, to blame hip-hop for this sad downward spiral, but by glamorizing life in the "war zone," it has made it harder for many of the kids stuck there to extricate themselves.
A "ruleless war zone"? Sounds like the lyrics to The Message. If the ghetto is as McWhorter describes, why does he fault rappers from the ghetto for describing their everyday reality? This is the main contradiction of the article. Besides, those materialistic gangsta rappers are not 'glamorizing' the ghetto. I believe the point of those music videos with the yachts and Benzes (sp?) and Cristal is to glamorize escaping from the ghetto. They glamorize wealth, as the poor tend to do.
The article ends with an anecdote as pointless as the one that began it.
At 2 AM on the New York subway not long ago, I saw another scene-more dispiriting than my KFC encounter with the rowdy rapping teens-that captures the essence of rap's destructiveness. A young black man entered the car and began to rap loudly-profanely, arrogantly-with the usual wild gestures. This went on for five irritating minutes. In the 16th century, the homeless were probably reciting awful blank verse. This doesn't mean Shakespeare is shit. This article ends with a melodramatic one sentence paragraph, which is always a mistake:
[The civil-rights era blacks] created the world of equality, striving, and success I live and thrive in.

Hip-hop creates nothing.

Not only is that unbelievably bad writing, but McWhorter just described the ghetto as a war zone. That doesn't sound like a world of equality and success. Who created the ghetto? McWhorter does not say, though he implies hip-hop is somehow responsible. Personally, I believe the existence of the ghettoes might have something to do with socioeconomic conditions, (and segregation, of course) , and the politicians that have some control over those conditions. But blaming politicians would be wrong, according to McWhorter. He would rather blame musicians for the economic condition of blacks in America.

Jesus and Me 

So I was watching Robin Williams' surprisingly refreshing standup comedy special, and he was discussing the birth of Jesus. Mary told Joseph that she's pregnant, and Joseph responds "Jesus Christ!" So Mary says "Good idea! That's a much better name than Shmuel."
It is exceedingly rare for me to hear my name on TV. It probably hasn't happened in fifteen years. And Robin Williams just had to make fun of it. My name is a way better name than Jesus.
But maybe that's what makes Robin Williams a comic genius. He mocks Asians, Texans and the French; he is an equal-oppurtunity offender. But many comedians mock racial minorities. To be able to insult his viewers by (very unusual) name is the true meaning of comedy.

Tuesday, August 05, 2003

Kids' sex book fury 

Graphic novel Ghost World misshelved. Cue moral panic.
(Link via Bookslut)

Suge Knight and Jesus: Separated at Birth? 

Of course they were.

No Significant Bats 

Some quotations from the original New York Times reviews of some classic movies:
Chinatown: a competently stylish, more or less thirties-ish movie that continually made me wish I were back seeing The Maltese Falcon or The Big Sleep. [The plot climaxes in] Los Angeles's Chinatown on a street that seems no more mysterious than Flatbush Avenue.
The Big Sleep: it has a not very lofty moral tone...the whole thing comes off as a poisonous picture lasting a few minutes shy of two hours. But, for all that, it's likely to leave you confused and dissatisfied. And, by the way, would somebody also tell us the meaning of that title, The Big Sleep.
The Rules of the Game: The distributors claim that the picture, made shortly before the war, was banned by the Occupation on grounds of immorality. Rest assured it wasn't immortality.
Bringing Up Baby: Of course, if you've never been to the movies, Bringing Up Baby will be all new to you. But who hasn't been to the movies?
Duck Soup: extremely noisy without being nearly as mirthful as their other films.
M: It is regrettable that such a wealth of talent and imaginative direction was not put into some other story.
Dr. Strangelove: beyond any question the most shattering sick joke I've ever come across. And I say that with full recollection of...some of the stuff I've read in Mad magazine...It is malefic and sick.
It's a Wonderful Life: Indeed, the weakness of this picture, from this reviewer's point of view, is the sentimentality of it.
Psycho: The one thing we would note with disappointment is that, among the stuffed birds that adorn the motel office of Mr. Perkins, there are no significant bats.

The last three zingers are by Bosley Crowther, history's worst film critic.
In other notes, did you know the crow in Dumbo is named Jim Crow?

Bush does something good! 

I always thought reducing Ameican aid to Israel was out of the question. It's nice to know that that Bush might use it to stop Israel's nastier policies.

I don't want to be Israeli anymore 

If Tom DeLay thinks he is "an Israeli at heart." With friends like these...
Saeb Erakat says the right thing:
Saeb Erekat, a Palestinian legislator, said Mr. DeLay was not helping the cause of peace by "being more Israeli than the Israelis themselves." He added, "I don't think he has sons in the West Bank or Tel Aviv, and has to worry about whether they will come home or not."

Awful 

I think this is one of the worst things Israel has ever done. Taking away people's rights to be married because of their race is terrible. Israel is really inviting the apartheid comparisons.

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