Reading Hip-hop: No Nostalgia Needed

If you’ve ever gotten the impression that the music industry is run by crooks, reading any part of Frederic Dannen’s Hit Men (Vintage, 1990) will more than confirm your suspicions. The false nostalgia some of us feel with the onset of the so-called digital age sees the past as something to which we need to return. A little research will dispel any delusions one might have about a golden age as far as the music industry is concerned. Nowhere is this feeling more prevalent than in Hip-hop. Ask anyone and they will tell you that it used to be better. Though if you ask them when exactly it was better, they’ll all have a different answer. Most will cite a time period that falls somewhere around 1988, as The Golden Era of Hip-hop is widely considered to be around that time.

A lot of the people who yearn for the years of yore are older. I was in high school in 1988, so one might expect me to feel that the best time for Hip-hop was during my formative years. I honestly don’t feel that way though. As my friend Reggie Hancock would say, “Wow, you’re so very well-adjusted about things that don’t matter,” but in many ways our attitudes do matter. A false nostalgia poisons progress, and Hip-hop is plagued with such attitudes. No one touched by this culture in the 1980s was left unchanged, but shit ain’t like that anymore. Nostalgia implies false or “imagined memories,” memories that are empty, devoid of significance that we fill in with what we imagine they were like. Paul Grainge (2002) points out an important distinction between nostalgia as a commercial mode and nostalgia as a social or collective mood. The former is often enabled by the latter as we drool over reissues of long lost demo tapes or clamor for reunion tour tickets. Thanks to recording technology, we live in an era when, as Andreas Huyssen (2003) put it, “the past has become part of the present in ways simply unimaginable in earlier centuries” (p. 1). With that said, the nostalgic friction that hinders the forward motion of Hip-hop is more about production and distribution, and more than any other genre of recorded music, Hip-hop led the way to the ways of today.

People say that Hip-hop is more than a genre of music–it’s a certain bounce in your stride, it’s the way you shake hands, it’s the ideas that circulate in your head. It’s the ideas that don’t circulate in your head. A philosopher might say it’s a way of being in the world. An authority on the subject, like the rapper Nas, says, “It’s that street shit, period” (Williams, 2010, p. 63).

Surely, the conception of Hip-hop as a lifestyle is part of the problem (as well as possibly part of the solution), but of all the things those folks invented in the South Bronx so long ago, nostalgia ain’t one of them. For those that bemoan the text of Hip-hop but miss the subtext, as Dan Charnas puts it, these words are not for you.

In his massive tome, The Big Payback: The History of the Business of Hip-hop (New American Library, 2010), Charnas charts the economics behinds the rise of Hip-hop from minor subculture to global phenomenon. It’s a far further in-depth and far more focused Hit Men, and upon reading it, anyone’s nostalgia for a better bygone era should be summarily squashed. The chapter on Ice-T’s hardcore band Body Count’s “Cop Killer” (“Cops & Rappers”) alone should be more than enough to murder any ideas that things in the music industry used to be better. Even Def Jam, that bastion and beacon of branding and boom-bap was plagued with bad management, back-handed deals, and pathetic working conditions. You’ll wonder why you ever pulled the curtain back on these wizards of your dreams.

It’s unfortunate for some and generates fortunes for others, but Hip-hop is big business. Its hard-earned lesson is this: If you don’t make money a priority, you will never have any. Mind your business lest you lose your mind. The history behind the scenes is trife, rife with broken lives and forgotten talent.

Like me, Sujatha Fernandes was transformed by Hip-hop in the 1980s. Attempting to reconcile the money-grubbing from record labels and the international solidarity felt by fans, in Close to the Edge: In Search of the Global Hip-hop Generation (Verso, 2011), Fernandes seeks the ties that bind all ethnicities behind the music and the movement. Her book is informed by her early 80s induction, all four elements of the culture, and a deep love for all of the above. Close to the Edge is about a whole world of people finding just what they were looking for. From Sydney to Chicago (including an appearance by our man Billy Wimsatt), Cuba to France, Fernandes follows Hip-hop around the world looking for the heart she feels beating so strongly in this culture.

As scholars such as Tricia Rose and Imani Perry claim, Hip-hop is fundamentally a black cultural form. It is also colonized by every other. Who better to study its effects than an expert on colonialism? Jared Ball is that dude. His I Mix What I Like: A Mixtape Manifesto (AK Press, 2011) posits an emancipatory journalism based on the trope of the mixtape. From jump, he writes, “despite tremendous shifts in image and application, African America (and by extension the rest of the country and world) continues to suffer a process of colonization subsumed within a media environment more pervasive and all-encompassing than any other known in world history and against which alternative forms of journalism and media production must be employed” (p. 3). Ball concurs, as I’ve argued elsewhere that the mixtape is Hip-hop’s unsung mass medium. As Maher (2005) put it, “there wouldn’t be a rap music industry if it weren’t for mixtapes… the development of Hip-hop revolves around [them as] a singularly crucial but often overlooked medium” (p. 138). Ball goes on to argue that the mixtape is the perfect tool for the job. He certainly mixes what he likes, and his crates are deep!

When I found Hip-hop, I lived in the hinterlands of southeast Alabama. Unbeknownst to the nostalgic youth of today, that good ol’ Hip-hop from the golden age wasn’t all over the radio. If you wanted to hear it, you had to go find it. Early on, you only found it on mixtapes. Now every region has their mixtape gurus, and one of those is Atlanta’s DJ Drama. Ben Westhoff‘s Dirty South (Chicago Review Press, 2011) tells the story of the RIAA busting into his spot with dogs and guns looking for “illegal” mixtapes, guns, and drugs. They only found the former, but that didn’t stop them from confiscating those, as well as much of his studio gear, computers, and four vehicles, two of which he never got back (talk about colonization…). I use scare quotes to describe the legality of Drama’s mixtapes because, unlike the well-known bootleggers and indolent crooks, his are made in collaboration with the artists and with label backing. “During the raid,” Drama says, “there were people [at the labels] that were like ‘Why is this happening?'” (quoted in Westhoff, p. 187).

Westhoff’s book tells this and many other stories of southern artists finding their way in an industry once dominated by representatives from the Coasts. There can be no doubt in anyone’s mind who’s paid any attention at all that the South is definitively on the Hip-hop map now. The artists are too many to name here, but Westhoff tells all their stories. He dug deep and has returned with the definitive history of the Dirty South.

A chapter on the South is one of the welcome additions to the new edition of That’s the Joint! The Hip-hop Studies Reader (second edition) edited by Murray Forman and Mark Anthony Neal (Routledge, 2011), and if you’re interested in a more scholarly look at the culture, this is your new bible. Since its release in 2004, the first edition has proven indispensable, and the update is fresh. Gone are a few outdated articles, including the error-riddled Alan Light piece (Joan Morgan‘s great piece on Hip-hop and feminism is thankfully intact), and, in addition to Matt Miller’s “Rap’s Dirty South” chapter, there are new joints by Greg Tate, Kembrew McLeod, Imani Perry, H. Samy Alim, and Craig Watkins, among several others (Tricia Rose is noticeably absent). This a one-book crash-course in Hip-hop history, theory, culture, criticism, and politics.

Speaking of one-book crash-courses, Jay-Z’s Decoded (Speigel & Grau, 2010; co-authored by dream hampton) covers everything mentioned above: The growing up with Hip-hop, its moving from around the way to around the world, taking care of the business, and many of Jay’s lyrics are also broken down herein in the style of RZA’a Wu-Tang Manual. Hell, it’s even mildly nostalgic: “The feeling those records gave me was so profound that it’s sometimes surprising to listen to them now.”

While Hip-hop nostalgia in the commercial mode is not ever likely to cease as it is so heavily marketed, and each generation tries to make the next nostalgic for what they miss, our own nostalgia as a collective mood can change. Maintaining the essential tension between tradition and innovation is paramount (Kuhn, 1977), but we have to let it go where it wants. It’s the only way to see what the next generation of Hip-hop heads will create. Reading books that take the culture seriously enough to criticize as well as celebrate is one way to see past our own biases. As El-P once told me, “I don’t hold on to too much nostalgia because I don’t have to.” That, my friends, is the joint.

References:

Ball, Jared. (2011). I Mix What I Like: A Mixtape Manifesto. Oakland, CA: AK Press.

Carter, Sean (Jay-Z). (2010). Decoded. New York: Spiegel & Grau.

Charnas, Dan. (2010). The Big Payback: The History of the Business of Hip-hop. New York: New American Library.

Dannen, Frederic. (1990). Hit Men: Power Brokers and Fast Money Inside the Music Business. New York: Vintage.

Fernandes, Sijatha. (2011). Close to the Edge: In Search of the Global Hip-hop Generation New York: Verso.

Forman, Murray & Neal, Mark Anthony (eds.). (2011). That’s the Joint! The Hip-hop Studies Reader. New York: Routledge.

Kuhn, Thomas S. (1977). The Essential Tension: Selected Studies in Scientific Tradition and Change. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Maher, George Ciccariello. (2005). Brechtian Hip-Hop: Didactics and Self-Production in Post-Gangsta Political Mixtapes. Journal of Black Studies, 36(1), 129-160.

Westoff, Ben. (2011). Dirty South: Outkast, Lil Wayne, Soulja Boy, and the Southern Rappers Who reinvented Hip-hop. Chicago: Chicago Review Press.

Williams, Thomas Chatterton. (2010). Losing My Cool: How a Father’s Love and 15,000 Books Beat Hip-hop Culture. New York: Penguin.

2011: Are You Going to Eat That?

It’s December and time to reassess the year, and 2011 is a joy to revisit. It was easily my best year ever personally. I signed a book deal, spoke at several conferences with some of my best friends, got engaged to a wonderful woman, built some new bikes, redesigned my website (finally), and finished coursework and comprehensive exams on my way to a Ph.D., among other things.

This year was crazy, from the death of Steve Jobs and Occupy Wall Street to the ramping up of some sort of political happening. I also saw, listened to, and read a lot of good stuff. Here is the best of the media I consumed this year:

Album of the Year: Hail Mary Mallon Are You Going to Eat That? (Rhymesayers):  Hail Mary Mallon is the melding of word-murdering minds Aesop Rock and Rob Sonic and the laser-precise cuts of DJ Big Wiz, all three Def Jux alumni and no strangers to the raps and beats in their own rights. In the interest of full disclosure, these dudes are my friends. To be perfectly honest, if they were wack they wouldn’t be.

These three have been touring and clowning together for years in different guises, and it’s obvious when you hear how well they play together. Are you Going to Eat That? is the dopest record out this year.

Production-wise, “Mailbox Baseball” sounds like an Iron Galaxy outtake, while “Grubstake” evokes the stripped down reduction—all 808s and sparse scratches—of a salad-day-era Rick Rubin. Aes and Rob pass the mic like the Treacherous Three. “Table Talk” is a 21st-century “High-Plains Drifter.” But don’t get any of this twisted: this is not a throwback, it’s a leap forward.

It’s all good (“Breakdance Beach” is dope, though it does get grating upon repeated listens), and the skills are barn-razing and bar-raising. Whether it’s Hannibal Lector or Cannibal Ox, Hail Mary Mallon prove that rap will eat itself.

Here’s their video for “Meter Feeder” [runtime: 3:47] directed by Alexander Tarrant and Justin Metros:

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Close Second: Radiohead The King of Limbs (Waste): “I’m such a tease and you’re such a flirt…” The most important band in the world has returned with another cure for the malaise of the age. Pick one: They’ve saved rock and roll, killed rock and roll, and still emerged from the muck of the music industry well ahead of the curve. Everyone in media keeps them under the microscope to see how they will win. Again. Lean in, here’s the secret:

Radiohead makes great records.

And they do it consistently. They’re also quite adept at parsing the patterns on the horizon of the mediascape, but that wouldn’t matter if their records weren’t good. Damn good.

The King of Limbs is no exception. It’s more mellow than the sparsest parts of Amnesiac, but not nearly as insular. It might be their most even record. Thom Yorke’s voice, which I have to admit used to grate on me as often as it moved me, has gotten mature enough to carry the toughest of tunes. He is the voice of Radiohead, literally and figuratively (no small task either way), and he handles it with confidence and control.

Radiohead was never as joyfully abrasive as Sonic Youth or The Flaming Lips, but The King of Limbs reminds me of the releases of the former’s A Thousand Leaves and the latter’s The Soft Bulletin. All three records are still weird in their ways, but they’re also far more subtle than the previous work of their creators. Radiohead have always been masters of subtlety, and with The King of Limbs, they’ve earned their Ph.D. It’s such a tease and such a flirt.

Even Closer Third: Ume Phantoms (Modern Outsider): If ever a band were poised for the next level, Ume has been teetering there headlong for the better part of the past few years. Phantoms is the kind of record that neuters naysayers and emboldens enthusiasts. Lauren, Eric, and Rachel are some of the friendliest folks you’re likely to meet, but on stage they are ferocious. While Eric (bass) and Rachel (drums) are the stable and able drivetrain, Lauren (guitar and vocals) is the high-octane, internal combustion engine, careening ahead on the edge of control. Theirs is pop music in the sense that it’s explosive. Their live shows are where the real, volatile magic happens, but Phantoms captures their energy serviceably. For further evidence, here’s the video for “Captive” from Phantoms directed by Matt Bizer [runtime: 4:01], the most shared video on MTV.com:

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Runners Up: Wolves in the Throne Room Celestial Lineage (Southern Lord), Seidr For Winter Fire (Flenser), Cloaks Versions Grain (3by3), Jesu Ascension (Caldo Verde), Big Sean Finally Famous (GOOD Music), Knives From Heaven s/t (Thirsty 3ar), Pusha T Fear of God/Fear of God II: Let Us Pray (GOOD/Decon/Re-Up), Random Axe s/t (Duck Down), IconAclass For the Ones (deadverse), Crack Epidemic American Splendor (self-released), Deafheaven Roads to Judah (Deathwish), Panopticon Social Disservices (Flenser), Graveyard Hisingen Blues (Nuclear Blast).
Most Overrated: Opeth Heritage (Roadrunner), Kanye West & Jay-Z Watch the Throne.

Live Show of the Year: Deftones, June 4, 2011, Austin Music Hall, Austin, TX: Say what you will, but it’s absolutely unfair to lump Deftones in with bands they have next-to-nothing to do with (e.g., Limp Bizkit, Korn, Tool, et al). Deftones are as sophisticated as they are heavy and as beautiful as they are aggressive, as much like the Cure as they are Clutch. Their live show confirms all of this and more.
Runners Up: Mogwai, May 16, Stubbs, Austin, TX; Wolves in the Throne Room, September 27, Red 7, Austin, TX.

Comedian of the Year: Louis CK: No one else comes close.

Event of the Year: South by Southwest: SXSW is always a blurry blast, but this year was especially good. I got the opportunity to speak at Interactive and run around with friends seeing great music the rest of the time. You know who you are. Here’s to next year.
Runners Up: SF MusicTech Summit, Geekend Roadshow Boston.
Most Overrated: TEDxAustin.

Book of the Year: James Gleick The Information (Pantheon Books): James Gleick always brings the goods, and The Information is no exception. This is a definitive history of the info-saturated now. From Babbage, Shannon, and Turing to Gödel, Dawkins, and Hofstadter, Gleick traces the evolution of information theory from the antediluvian alphabet and the incalculable incomplete to the memes and machines of the post-flood. I’m admittedly biased (Gleick’s Chaos quite literally changed my life’s path), but this is Pulitzer-level research and writing. The Information is easily the best book of the year.
Runners Up: Insect Media by Jussi Parikka (University of Minnesota Press), The Secret War Between Downloading and Uploading by Peter Lunenfeld (The MIT Press), The Beach Beneath the Street by McKenzie Wark (Verso), remixthebook by Mark Amerika (University of Minnesota Press), Marshall McLuhan: You Know Nothing of My Work! by Douglas Coupland (Atlas & Co.).
Most Overrated: Ready Player One by Ernest Cline (Crown).

Educator of the Year: Howard Rheingold: Howard’s homegrown Rheingold University started this year and quickly established an impressive online curriculum. I took the first class and joined the very active alumni in continuing our co-learning with Howard’s help. It was through this group that I got the opportunity to speak to David Preston’s Literature and Composition class — one of the best experiences I’ve had in education.

Site of the Year: Shut Your Fucking Face and Listen: My man Tim Baker and his band of ne’er do wells have put together a site that’s as hysterical as it is historical. Mostly focused on music, they veer off on pop culture tangents and mad rants that are always more entertaining than their subject matter. Get up on that.

TV Show of the Year: Breaking Bad (AMC): I have Tim Baker from SYFFAL to thank for this one. This show doesn’t just rearrange the furniture in the standard TV drama’s livingroom, it tosses it on the lawn and sets it on fire. I’ve only made it through the first three seasons, but my guess is that by the end of the recently inked fifth and final, this will be hailed as one of the greatest shows ever to creatively corrupt the television medium.
Runners Up: Party Down (Starz); Lie to Me (Fox).

Movie of the Year: The Muppets (Disney): I haven’t laughed so consistently through a movie since maybe first seeing Doug Liman’s Go in the theater. It’s not flawless (maybe one too many metacomments and one too many eighties references), but it is downright entertaining from titles to credits. So good to see a chunk of your chlidhood revived so well.
Runner Up: Tree of Life (Plan B).

Video of the Year: “Yonkers” by Tyler, The Creator: Written, directed, produced, rapped, and eaten by Tyler himself. I’ve already spouted my feelings about OFWGKTA elsewhere.
Runners up: Pusha-T featuring Tyler, The Creator “Trouble on My Mind,” Big Sean featuring Chiddy Bang “Too Fake,” Hail Mary Mallon “Meter Feeder” (embedded above).

So those are a few of the things that caught and held my attention this year. What were yours?

A Tribe Called Quest: Beats, Rhymes, and Strife

A Tribe Called Quest has trudged through many of the clichés of fame and ego and somehow managed to keep their classic status untarnished. The first time I heard Q-Tip was on De La Soul‘s 3 Feet High and Rising (Tommy Boy, 1989). I was instantly a fan, and A Tribe Called Quest was immediately placed on my radar. These four dudes, Q-Tip, Phife Dawg, Ali Shaheed Muhammad, and Jarobi (A, E I, O, U, and sometimes Y) all met in high school. Their first release, People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm (Jive, 1990) was little more than an excellent companion piece to De La’s debut, but there was definitely something different about it. There was a playful sophistication about the beats and the rhymes that was barely evident in such stellar hits as “I Left My Wallet in El Sgundo” and “Bonita Applebum,” but that permeated their career. While I think their sophomore effort The Low End Theory (Jive, 1991) is their best record, People’s Instinctive Travels… remains one of my most-listened-to golden era albums (“Go Ahead in the Rain” is my jam!).

A, E, I, O, U...

Quest really hit their stride on The Low End Theory. Number two on the mic, Phife Dawg stepped up and started to shine on this one as well. “Buggin’ Out” is his undisputed arrival as an emcee. Many will debate whether Low End or Midnight Marauders (Jive, 1993) is the classic Quest album, but no one is likely to argue that it was down hill from those two.

A good documentary on a niche topic as such finds itself in a tight spot. One one side, its topic must attract enough of an audience to sustain it. On the other, it must tell them things they do not already know. Michael Rapaport makes his big-screen directorial debut with Beats, Rhymes, and Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest (Rival Pictures, 2011), and he successfully negotiates said tight spot. Having been a Quest fan since day square, I’m fairly knowledgeable about their history. I collected every magazine article I could find about them in the early days (It didn’t take long for that to be an intractable task, but I still have the clips), but I found this documentary enlightening about every era of their past: the humble, high-school beginnings, the birth of the Native Tongues, the departure of Jarobi for culinary school (I always wondered what happened to the wavering vowel), the petty squabbles, the comeback, and the one album still left on their 1989 Jive Records contract. I got chills several times and verbally expressed surprise at others. It’s not only a good documentary, it’s a good movie.

As it turns out, internal beef and misunderstandings were the reasons A Tribe Called Quest fell off. Phife moved to Atlanta before the recording of their third record Beats, Rhymes, and Life (Jive, 1996), and he was the first to say that the chemistry was dead. To make the long story brief, they got back together for the “Rock the Bells” tour in 2008 for all the wrong reasons. Even their boys De La Soul said they didn’t want them to continue, citing an on-stage lack of love. Quest is all about love, and if it isn’t there, it isn’t them.

Don’t let it get twisted, it ends well: all beef squashed, Q-Tip rockin’ it solo, Ali Shaheed Muhammad still makin’ beats, Phife doing well, and Jarobi cooking good food. Props to Rapaport for bringing their story to the screen. Go’head witcha self.

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Here’s the trailer for Beats, Rhymes, and Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest [runtime: 2:22]:

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Boombox Apocolypse: From Mixtapes to Mash-ups

The turntable is easily the most iconic cultural artifact associated with Hip-hop, but the advent and adoption of the boombox had as much to do with its spread and tenacity. Before raps were on the radio, they were on the tapes. Think of the turntable and the microphone as the senders and the boombox and the cassette as the receivers: without recording and playback, Hip-hop wouldn’t have lasted long. The already choked socioeconomic conditions from which it sprang could’ve buried it like so much tape hiss. Two recent books explore the technology of Hip-hop beyond the turntable.

Never put me in your box if your shit eats tapes. — Nas

When Hip-hop migrated to the middle spaces between the coasts and big cities, it did so via cassettes. Mixtapes were such an integral part of its spread that I felt weird when I first bought a “Rap” CD (The same could be said for any other underground movement of the time: punk, hardcore, metal, etc.). When it was shared and heard, it was done so on scratchy cassettes. Sometimes these tapes were played in cars, home stereo systems, and Walkmans, but they were more importantly played in giant boomboxes, each occasion allowing producers taking advantage of different aspects of sample-based recording (for a full discussion of these differences, see Schloss, 2004). Unlike today’s iPods, the presence of the boombox was also a public presence. Just as we gather around some screens and stare at others alone, we once gathered around the speakers of boomboxes. When I got my first Walkman and stopped lugging around my Sony boombox, it was a blessing to my back and the sanity of those around me (most notably my parents), but boomboxes remain a part of the iconography of Hip-hop.

Lensman Lyle Owerko set out to document this aspect of the culture with The Boombox Project: The Machines, the Music, and the Urban Underground (Abrams Image, 2010), which is not only a visual history of early Hip-hop street technology, but an oral one as well. Everyone from the usual suspects like LL Cool J, the Beastie Boys, Adisa Banjoko, and Malcolm McLaren, to the less-than-usual like DJ Spooky, The Clash, Chad Muska, and David Byrne display and discuss their boomboxes.

The Boombox Project illustrates that the reception of Hip-hop is as important as its inception, and that the boombox played a major role in its early days. It was the site and the sight of the sound in the streets. Here is the book trailer for The Boombox Project [runtime: 0:40]:

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From mixtapes to mash-ups, Hip-hop is the blueprint to 21st century culture (This is the crux of my Hip-hop Theory — much more on that soon). What used to be done via mixers, faders, and turntables is done via software, iPods, and the internet. In the hands of the indolent and uncreative, sampling is dull at best and disturbing at worst — but so is guitar-playing. The tools are neutral. It’s what you do with them that counts. Can I get a witness?

Yes! No one has explored this undulating landscape more than Aram Sinnreich. His Mashed Up: Music, Technology, and the Rise of Configurable Culture (University of Massachusetts Press, 2010) is one half theory, one half practice and establishes an argument that sampling is the latest legitimate form of musical expression, an argument that seems silly to both sides of the debate. Busting a sextet of binaries, Sinnreich makes quick work of complex terrain, mixing media theory and musicology, as well as copyright and counterculture. Mashed Up is the most complete book I’ve seen on our current culture of convergence.

In honor of the boombox, indulge me for a few more minutes and check out this video from The Nonce. It’s “Mix Tapes” from their 1995 debut World Ultimate (Check for cameos from members of Project Blowed) [runtime: 3:34]. Dope:

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References:

Oworko, L. (2011). The Boombox Project: The Machines, the Music, and the Urban Underground. New York: Abrams Image.

Schloss, J. G. (2004). Making Beats: The Art of Sample-based Hip-hop. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press.

Sunnreich, A. (2010). Mashed Up: Music, Technology, and the Rise of Configurable Culture. Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press.

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Apologies to the late, mighty Hangar 18 for stealing their title for this post.

Hip-hop Then & Now: Chuck D, Common, and Joan Morgan Come to The University of Texas at Austin

On February 10th, 2011, Chuck D, Common, and Joan Morgan assembled in the brand new Student Activity Center at The University of Texas campus in Austin. It was an evening comprised of in-depth discussion, astute analysis, and the usual gripes.

If you know me, you know that Public Enemy is one of my all-time favorite groups regardless of genre. Their It Takes a Nation of Million to Hold Us Back (Def Jam, 1988) is not only what I consider the best record ever recorded, but was crucial in my lifelong fandom of Hip-hop (my own first book is named after a Chuck D lyric from the record). Chuck and P.E. were essential to my getting through high school and undergraduate studies.

Common has been one of my favorite emcees since I first heard Resurrection (Relativity, 1994) in the early 1990s. Not only was he the first rapper out of Chicago that I heard (peace to E. C. Illa), but he seemed to be keeping the Native Tongues torch burning bright at a time when they were fumbling (no disrespect; they got their grip back). He has taken risks, pushed boundaries, and remained successful where others follow trends or fall off.

Joan Morgan is a bad ass. She’s been doing Hip-hop journalism since before it had a name. Her presence and insights in this talk were invaluable, and I wish we’d had more time to hear from her (I’m hoping to interview her for the site at a later date; fingers crossed). Her angle is vehemently feminist, nuanced with knowledge, and tempered with truth. When Nicki Minaj became the topic of discussion, she was one of the few people I’ve heard speak on the Regis Philbin incident. That story should’ve been in everyone’s face, but it was invariably buried.

If nostalgia is the longing for a past that never existed, then the SAC Ballroom was full of just that. Joan asked if the crowd thought that Hip-hop was better “then” than it is “now,” and most of the hands in the room went up. I find this very troubling. I was one of the few, including our three honored guests, who actually there “then” (I heard students around me say that they didn’t know who Chuck D was until they looked him up after hearing about this event). I continue to argue that Hip-hop is better now. Sure, everything that came out then was that next new shit. The genre was young and finding its way (I would also argue that it still is), so there was plenty that hadn’t been done or heard yet, whereas now those styles have been done and heard. But for every Public Enemy and Common, there was an MC Hammer and a Vanilla Ice. Go back and listen to the average record from 1984, 1986, 1988, 1990, 1994 — pick a year: Most of them sound dated and not near as complex and interesting as the worst thing out today. Sure, there are exceptions, but as a whole, Hip-hop is better now. It just is. Thinking that you missed the best of it is problematic on many levels.

Chuck mentioned the fact that fans now have access to the past in a way that the fans of then never did. This is a key insight. Technology curates culture. You cannot assume that the next generation doesn’t know about something from the past. They might not grasp the historical context of say “Fight the Power” by Public Enemy, “Wicked” by Ice Cube, or even “Fuck the Police” by N.W.A., which were uncompromising responses to volatile times in our nation’s history, or to grasp what it was like to hear The Low End Theory, Straight Outta Compton, Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) — or It Takes a Nation of Millions… for that matter — when they dropped. But you can’t assume they haven’t heard them or seen the videos. It’s all out there.

On the other hand, Common blamed technology for the lack of creativity and “feeling” in current Hip-hop. This argument troubles me as well. It’s a non-argument that leads to an infinite regress. Hip-hop’s detractors claim that sampling — whether with turntables or sequencers — isn’t really making music. They claim that at best it’s lazy and at worst it’s theft. No one at this talk would agree with that, but it’s the same argument. Saying that technology takes away the human element and therefore the feeling of music or that it makes it too easy thereby giving someone an unfair advantage is the same thing as claiming that sampling isn’t a viable way to make music in the first place. It’s all about what you do with it. Heads know better.

These are not new issues, and I was hoping we’d moved past them. Hip-hop — then and now — is still the most interesting thing happening in music. I will always love H. E. R.

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Here’s a handheld video (no cameras were allowed) of the Q&A session with Common, Joan Morgan, and Chuck D in the SAC [runtime: 8:13]:

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