With all my years listening to music, the thousands of albums and CDs I’ve bought, the countless MP3s I’ve downloaded and traded with other like-minded music fanatics, it’s generally accepted that with this mass of music in our lives, crossing dozens of genres, it’s perfectly all right not to like a given genre – often for no other reason than the sound of the music isn’t to your liking.
I don’t like most kinds of jazz. I’m not well-versed enough in classical, but what I have heard, aside from piano pieces and a few dozen orchestral and choral pieces, I can live without. Most kinds of latin music leave me cold, although a song will come along occasionally that hits me the right way. Polka, klezmer, ragtime, speed metal. Hundreds of kinds of “world” music from regions of Europe, Africa, South America and the Far East – although I sometimes like that stuff when I hear it, especially the African stuff that sounds like James Brown.
The list of music I like, or at least listen to regularly, is much shorter than the list of music I either don’t like, or like but don’t have the inclination to pursue more than a passing interest. I gather the casual music listener is totally unaware of the vast sea of music out there, spanning centuries and continents … and it’s all right not to have any interest in or despise some of it. It’s impossible to grasp all of it.
So why is it that when I say I don’t like hiphop music, some folks feel an urge to attach a racist stigma to my dislike? I liked hiphop for a year or two in the mid-80s – some of the Sugar Hill stuff that was floating around at the time, Afrika Bambaataa, Run DMC’s first two albums, etc. I had the albums to prove it, although I let them go a long time ago. By about 1988 or so, hiphop seemed really tired and clichéd to me. Even the stuff I liked, I liked it because I was trying to shoehorn the music into my life. It seemed like the good liberal thing to do. Even now, I can hear one of those old hiphop songs and like it in passing, but in reality, I’m not rushing out to buy a greatest hits compilation or download the song. I can live without it. About the only hiphop song I have an urge to own, and do own, is “Just a Friend” by Biz Markie. When gangsta rap rolled along in the form of NWA, I thought, fuck it, had enough, I can officially lose any interest in this loathsome crap and go on living.
In the old days (in my case, the 70s), popular musical trends would expire in the course of a half decade or so. In other words, when I was in high school in 1980s, there surely were hippies around, but they were considered a bit musty, and a joke. If you were a kid pretending to be a hippie, you were way off, probably stoned much of the time, and clearly out of the loop with other kids. Chart-topping trends didn’t last more than a few years. With that musical upbringing, I thought for sure hiphop would be played out by the early 90s. Gangsta rap seemed like a real slimy, stupid kind of music that signaled the end.
But, lo and behold, the music industry figured out how to sell this junk to white kids, who didn’t and still have no idea what the music is about. So, here we are in 2007, with this mess still having a stranglehold on the Top 40, albeit the industry is dying partially because of it as, apparently, kids are finally getting tired of it. Imagine if disco had dominated the charts for 15 years instead of three or four. That’s the kind of desperate, inexplicably wrong-headed stagnation that has become reality for the music industry since the early 90s.
Hiphop, in many ways, is like any form of black-based music that came before it in that it’s perceived a cultural signifier. With forms of music like jazz and the blues, not such a big deal. The stuff may be a little raw in comparison to what white folks were listening to en masse at the time, but nothing really shocking. Ditto R&B, soul and disco. It should also be noted that these forms of music complemented each other – they were around at the same time and gave a very full, complex picture of black culture.
But hiphop made it a point of “keeping it real” by using the ruse of “this is how it is” in explaining why the music had to turn so violent, graphic, misogynistic, materialistic, profane, etc. And it had very little competition from any other types of black music. Wherever you do find black folks en masse living where those songs come from, most of them not rappers, they’re not having a whole lot of fun, nothing is glorified in their every-day lives. As for “keeping it real,” if you mean to tell me Otis Redding, Chuck Berry and Louis Jordan had easier lives because they chose not to document crime, greed and/or violence in their songs, you’re desperately wrong. (I’d wager their pre-Civil Rights lives were much harder than those of your average rapper. They just weren’t socialized to be obsessed with anger and misery.)
I have no problem with this hard-edged stuff existing, or even with it having a recognizable fan base. But it never should have become as popular as it has, for anywhere near as long as it has, especially when it’s been sold under false pretense, using that decades-old umbrella of black culture to sell a cartoonish way of life to both its own and all these white kids. The black kids will be overly influenced to see this way of life as acceptable, which must get old when you’re 25 and borderline unemployable. White kids will shrug it off, like a pre-adolescent fascination with professional wrestling, and place it in a rear-view mirror by college age.
Don’t get me going on phony white assholes pretending to be gangstas. It’s not fair to say they’re pretending to be black. They’re not pretending to be Bill Cosby or George Washington Carver. They’re mimicking the most over-the-top aspects of urban African American culture that are being sold to them in videos and magazines. I spend a decade in the Bronx, one of the harder urban environments you’re going to find in America, getting all sort of intricate, insightful, detailed takes on race relations that you can get only through personal experience, only to go to rural and suburban white America to find these slobbering buttholes pontificating on what it means to be black? Based on songs they heard on a CD? As opposed to having even the most minute experience of ghetto living, the kind of which I’d been around for nigh on a decade?
Laughter and ridicule are the only sane options. I didn’t think it was possible, but they make their parents look cool in comparison. People wonder why I get particularly down on these buffoons, there’s your reason. They’re false. Kids are prone to being false, especially in the name of cool, I can forgive that, but race relations, particularly the loaded and misguided takes they’re being instructed to have on them, seem like a very wrong thing to be that insincere on. Everything about them reeks of white self loathing. The sense of privilege. The faux rejection of their middle-class culture (which they’ll openly embrace as adults). If there’s one breakthrough lesson black folks learn that alters their lives, it’s that self loathing gets you nowhere. That’s the main lesson we should all be learning from African American culture – as opposed to adopting a similar sort of self loathing that they've been culturally saddled with for far too long.
It’s this monochromatic, stifling sense of ersatz culture associated with hiphop, and shoved down our throats for nigh on 17 years, that makes me dislike the music more than anything. If hiphop had maintained that original sense of fun, and social critique without glorification of negative stereotypes, I’d be a lot more comfortable with it. But, Bill, it’s one of the few genres coming up with new production techniques. No – the electronic production touches and such were well-documented by white American and British bands in the 70s and 80s, sorry, it’s not new. There’s not a sound made in hiphop by its best producers that doesn’t have an antecedent in alternative and new-wave music. That’s more savvy producers doing their homework with new-wave albums. But, Bill, you haven’t heard the good, grass-roots stuff. You can play me the good, grass-roots stuff, and my verdict will most likely be that these guys simply didn’t get signed by a major label. Over 20 years of hearing this stuff, motherfuckers, stop trying to convert me. But, Bill, you can’t truly understand current African American culture without understanding hiphop.
I got news for you. I can’t understand it anyway because I’m not black, the same way they’re not going to understand my culture. I’m fine with that. I can learn about it, read about it, talk about it with black folks across every social spectrum, empathize with it, take things from it, but I can’t be it. Nor do I want to. I don’t want to pretend to be it either. The only lasting lessons I truly learn about black culture are from personal experiences, thousands of them at this point, good and bad, not from a god-damned CD.
The only reality I’m willing to endorse is respect – that people can easily live around each other if they respect each other. Don’t even have to like each other. Just respect each other. And I’m not gathering that people into hiphop “culture” have a whole lot of respect for anything outside that, yet demand we all acknowledge it as legitimate culture – when it’s grown far too fucked up and misguided in very important ways to ever be that. It’s a marketing creation more than a culture, designed to capitalize on a teenage sense of dislocation than in any way define a great and lasting culture. There is no long-term plan for hiphop. It’s all about kids buying shit. Same way it’s always been in the music industry. Call it temporary culture, if you will – like some sort of Peter Pan fantasy world, it dissolves when kids grow up. The only adults you'll find keeping the faith are those making money off it -- or the hiphop equivalent of grown men attending KISS concerts in full make-up.
I recall in Prince’s prime, probably around the time of The Black Album, he had no compunctions about running down hiphop in the press – he just didn’t care for it. Seeing as how the guy plays dozens of instruments, is capable of playing any style of music and could make an entire album on his own, he’s entitled to his opinion. But son after that, during the great shift from basic music form to holy culture, he had rapping on various tracks. (I think “Alphabet Street” might be the first one – a great song, with a silly rap by his then muse “Cat” that adds nothing to the song.)
At that time, there were plenty of music critics ignoring hiphop because, like me, they just didn’t care for it, no offense. Now? You could surely freelance as a writer and get work. But there’s no way you can be an editor or staff writer and not deal with hiphop in some way that insinuates that you either like it and/or grasp it as a fan. Unless you work for a country magazine.
And speaking of country, you are perfectly free to find country music a load of shit and joke about it. Oddly enough, although country music probably sells as much or more than hiphop, publications don’t expect their staff writers or editors to be well-versed in it. No one’s going to can you for making fun of it, or think you’re a bigot, even though your intentions may be no different from someone disparaging hiphop out of pure bigotry. The things I’ve heard said about country music, supposedly by educated people, if you substituted the word “nigger” for “redneck” would be no different from a racist rant in a rural bar.
And you know what? I like it that way. I like that people have that sort of freedom to be able to have a negative opinion of a type of music, informed or misinformed, and not be branded a bigot. That sort of freedom is liberating, honest and right. Whether or not you’re a bigot for disliking a certain form of music mostly associated with a given race or ethnicity is irrelevant to me. It’s irrelevant to all sane people, even those who love that kind of music. I guess my ultimate point is that the music industry and media supporting it are not sane, and not right in positioning this one kind of music as being beyond reproach, when there is plenty to reproach in all kinds of music. Culture should be fluid, not a sacred stone we must all worship at the foot of. There's been very little fluid about hiphop over the past 20 years. Then again, the same could be said for a vast majority of popular music of any type. All I demand is the freedom to recognize that and not have anything but my sense of taste called into question.