Saturday, February 23, 2008

You can help write a lecture!

So I'm writing a lecture tomorrow that I won't have to give until middle of March...

The subject is essentially the impact of hip-hop/gangsta rap on the suburbs in the late 1980s early 1990s. I was going to check out Bomb the Suburbs, but guess whose institution doesn't own in?

My question to you fine fellas, is when did you first become aware of hip hop? What was the song or album that introduced it to you? Finally (and this might be a bit too much), but what does hip-hop/did hip-hop then mean to you?

11 comments:

Nate said...

I'd probably point to Run DMC's "King of Rock" album as my focal point. What really impacted my foray into rap music, however, was not necessarily one album or artist, it was "Yo! MTV Raps."

Being a white kid groing up in a white middle-to-lower class neighborhood in east Tennessee meant having family & friends that were predominantly listening to rock, country, or, for the really rebellious, heavy metal.

I had never heard of rap music until I stayed up late one Friday night and tuned into MTV. There, I was greeted by Fab 5 Freddy and a host of musicians whose names sounded foreign. There were no David Lee Roths, no Vince Neils, no; there were Big Daddy Kanes, Kool Moe Dees, Flavor Flavs. And the music that they produced was unlike anything I'd heard before.

And trust me, if you wanted to really be rebellious in my neighborhood, most kids opted for heavy metal. But in white middle-to-lower class east Tennessee, heavy metal ain't got shit on rap music.

I remember the most pissed off my dad got, ever, about my choice of music, was when I went through the house spitting Public Enemy's "Prophet of Rage," particularly this verse: "Yo, Griff, get the green, black and red 'n'/ Gold down, countdown to Armageddon." Dad stopped me and asked what I had just said. Me, thinking this was an opportunity to show my cultural awareness, repeated the verse, and then added, "You know? The colors in the African flag." He immediately banned me from listening to rap music in the house, and if he caught me with a rap tape in my headphones, he'd throw away all my rap tapes.

Rap music, to me, meant a certain level of freedom to express my concerns. Not that the lyrics of struggling in the ghetto captured what it was like for me to battle against the machinations of the white man, but that the angst & anger of feeling like you were held down could be used as weapons against your oppressors. And through school, at home, and even in some jobs, I got strong lessons that oppression and race issues were mutally exclusive.

Now, rap music is unfortunately a shell of itself, and the funny thing is, you can almost blame the white market. White people that I talk with will either immediately dismiss rap music, or exhibit their wealth of knowledge on the subject that extends only as far as whoever was on the radio when they got out of the car. Alternately, most black people I talk to have forgotten what rap music was like in the beginning, how it had a message, and rappers didn't talk about platinum and rides and jetplanes, 'cause they didn't have none of that shit. That's what made them great rappers. The Delta had the blues, but the streets had rap music.

Today's rappers, man, most of them have no idea what they're doing. We're looking at individuals who write one lyric, repeat it, surround it with words that don't make no sense or impact, lay it over a prepackaged Audiofile 2000 computer generated beat, designed from algorithms that have calculated all the great beats in all the world & have homogenized these into one "boom-bap, boom-bap, boom-boom-bap, b-boom-bap" rhythm that's carefully designed to be pleasing to the ear, sell the rights for the song to a car company or videogame advertisement firm, THEN release the single, and then sell the rights of use to the song to iPhone or Alltel so that it can be downloaded as a ringtone for $1. It's not about the album anymore, it's all about how my phone can ring to show people around me that I have listened to the radio in the past three weeks.

Here's an experiment. Go up to 10 black people, ask them to name 5 rap songs that are popular today. Then, ask them to name the members of Strong Arm Steady; what coast is Planet Asia from; under what nickname does Freddie Foxxx record; or, just say, "What up, Fatlip?" and see what the response is (anything other than, "Coolin'" is wrong).

I got carried away, been a long day. Hope this helps.

Ron said...

Thanks for the story. I'm going to be using the anecdote about the African flag.

Sidebar: if you want to flip for a good book, pick up a used copy of "That's the Joint! The Hip-Hop Studies Reader."

Ron said...

The creative juices are flowing today and I'm sharing spare thoughts on this post. Someone needs to write an article entitled "21st Century Hustle: Rappers and Reality TV" about how Flava Flav, Snoop Dogg, and other such rappers have used reality TV to further their brand image and sell more records. Nate's take on the end of the first season of Flava of Love is spot on in retrospect.

Nate said...

Hm ... I've been looking for a paper to write ...

Ron said...

I think the reality TV really is a stunning indictment of the rap industry. At least, for me, it settles the producer/consumer issue regarding hardcore rap. Sure, there are grains of truth in the rap lyrics of Ice Cube, nWa, etc., but the intensity of the rhetoric and reaction is disproportionate to the evil. The people get pissed (and rightly so) at police brutality, but is it enough to justify the reactions that come from the albums? I don't know. But everyone knows that controversy sells, so artists turn up the volume and we get Copkiller, etc. People outside the community, in turn, see this as reality.

Ice-T has always said that rap is a hustle. Artists selling what people want to hear. Now, the trick is tracing the impact of the music to see if the hustle led to any political action or what not (that's another paper). It has definitely stereotyped subsets of the white and black community in the search for "authenticity" when the product likely was never authentic to begin with.

Nate said...

Well, there's been more than a few rap tracks out there where the artist has called out his faceless rapping peers for talking about shit they ain't never lived through. One remark comes to mind, that if a rapper really did all that killing and extortion that s/he was talking about, they'd be in prison, not on a record.

Of course, look at the last 5-8 years for examples of rappers who apparently tried that lifestyle on for size, only to end up the way of all criminals. Of course, the hip-hop media can easily spin this into "the authorities targeting rap music, i.e. black artists, and as an extension, black citizens," but then, I don't think, say, rockabilly songs talk about getting drunk off 40s and bust caps & splittin' wigs in the streetz, g.

Ron said...

So the question becomes did the white suburban communities accept the Gangsta Rap version of things as authentic and, if so, what ramifications did that have on American race relations in the 1990s and 2000s? I mean....we had kids in my high school who wore their jeans backwards during Kris Kross so if they eat that up, what about the rhymes of Ice Cube?

Nate said...

There was a story in an old Rolling Stone (my pal Sam used to have a subscription when we were roommates in college) about a murder in a small town in Kansas or some such, and it was gang related. Trick was, the gang was made up of 4 white guys and a black guy. The four white guys killed the black guy over some trivial slight, I'm sure, but there was a stark image described in the story, of the leader of the gang (a teen, incidentally) in his room, flanked by a Confederate flag and a poster of NWA's "Straight Outta Compton" album cover.

For more general examples, I'm not sure how to answer that. On the one hand, the gangsta rap image could make your average whitey MORE afraid of black people, but then to embrace something so paradoxical to the characteristics of white living would make some individuals appear absurd.

E.g. those kids wearing their backwards pants; one of my melanin-deficient high school track team members who would wear a leather African medallion; the white kid in the "Trading Spouses" skit on "The Chappelle Show;" and, lastly, Eminem.

An aside, and honestly, should we get reported for this one, I swear I will file a civil suit against any and all parties responsible:

I grew up knowing (and I still know to this day) people who use the term "nigger." I know black people have a tendency to use this term considerably when referencing each other. Now, on occasion that a person around me says the word, sometimes they'll follow it up with a sloppy rebuttal, to the tune of, "Well, a 'nigger' doesn't have to be a black person, 'cause there's white 'niggers' too."

First off, please tell me I'm not the only person who's heard that said.

Second, I always debate this, saying that since "nigger" was a misappropriation of the term "Negro," in referral to individuals of African descent (probably derived from any number of language roots, be it Spanish, Italian, French, etc). And I defy anyone to find a case of a white person brought from Africa and enslaved. So, since white people can't be Negroes ....

Which brings me to my next favorite phrase: Wigger - n. Supposedly a word developed to describe a white person who takes on the characteristics - mannerisms, dress, or style of speech - of a black person, esp. a young urban male. In other words, "wigger" is an approximate of "white nigger."

Except .... for the linguistic lesson described just previously. This is kinda like a Miller's Analogy:

"nigger" : "Negro :: "wigger" :: ?

The answer must be "Wegro."

Rev. Joshua said...

"Well, a 'nigger' doesn't have to be a black person, 'cause there's white 'niggers' too."

I've heard this often enough, usually extended to further define "white niggers" as "white trash." I point out that hardly anyone ever actually uses "nigger" as a derogatory reference to white people considered to be trashy and that given the implicit meaning of the word "nigger" in reference to black people, it would be better to call trashy black people "black trash." Further, I go ahead and let them know that their use of the word "nigger" in derogatory reference to any black person is explicitly racist regardless of whatever backwards context they're trying to apply it and that what they think is an appropriate excuse is not at all valid and anyone who believes it is stupid.

And also, "niggers" are never within earshot when these people use the word, which is surely a coincidence.

Jake Palumbo said...

Wow, this has become quite a thread. The full story on how I came to be a hip-hopper having came up in Morristown/Johnson City, TN would take far longer than you want to read. But basically...

Around the age of 14, with my punk rock ethics in full force, I kept finding myself drawn to the album cover of PE's "It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back." After picking it up and putting it back on the shelf 4-5 times, I decided to spring the $10 for the cassette, which I literally played so much over the next couple of years the actual tape snapped, forcing me to buy another one at age 17. Some of this is documented on the "King Of The Wild Frontier" skit on District Selectman.

Interestingly enough Nate, that was the EXACT same lyric that I was hooked on. I would wait for that line of "Don't Believe The Hype" and I'd get a chill down my back each time, without fail (I didn't use drugs back then, so I had to get a rush somehow). Not that it was the greatest lyric of all time, but the sheer power in Chuck D's voice. I wanted to be Chuck D SOOOOO bad. My infatuation with this music honestly had nothing to do with being a white kid or the mystique of black culture. I loved punk rock because I was an angry young man, and I liked the middle finger to the establishment. When I heard PE, it was like the Sex Pistols or the Clash on steroids. I don't know what it was, but somehow their presentation was so much more EFFECTIVE. Punk began to sound more to me like whiny white kids pissing and moaning for no real reason, whereas Public Enemy's music sounded as if it could literally blow up the White House.

Now it was still several years before I was a full-fledged Hip-Hop head, but the progression was very slow & natural. When I discovered Wu-Tang in the 11th grade, I had basically the same reaction I had with PE. I began collecting more and more rap albums, and by the time I moved to JC after high school and Jo$hua and I were playing in a punk band, I was spinning Redman and KRS-One far more than I was bumping shit like The Exploited. It didn't help that our neighbors across the street were also a punk band, who took the DIY and "underground" ethics to BIBLICAL levels, and the Hemophiliacs' bass player and his friends were equally irritating mad-for-no-reason punk kids. After the disbandment of the Hemo's, I was frustrated as fuck for two reasons: 1) Alot of the people I'd been in a band with up to that point were un-dedicated and lazy, and 2) I had alot of musical ideas/desires to experiment that didn't work when your band is defined to a genre. Something that also pushed me over the edge to want to MAKE hip-hop music was the freedom; you can rap over rock, jazz, funk, soul, classical, country, calypso, fucking polka as long as the beat is dope. It was also something I could do completely myself and not have to depend on others to actually show up for practice and exert themselves. Jake Palumbo was born a short time later.

Anyway, it's been roughly 8 years since then, and my grasp of Hip-Hop has continued to grow, expand and evolve. Like the (kayfabe) advice Jose Lothario gave Shawn Michaels, "If you ever stop learning, it's time to get out of this business." Well, despite the dismal state we all know hip-hop is in, the fact I can keep learning is what keeps it interesting for me. There was a time I had no regard for West Coast gangsta rap, I thought it was ignorant, but once I learned (around 19-20 years old) what makes it tick, I grew to love it and analyze it. Same with Southern rap, I used to HATE Cash Money, No Limit, etc. thinking it was the dumbest shit I'd ever heard and "so un-lyrical." Later, once I'd dissected and began to understand why it is how it is, I could finally appreciate Master P's Immodium AD-style "uuuuuuunnhhhh" chants, for the days I need some good ignorance in my life. Conversely I now think Lil' Wayne is one of the best emcees in the game, and even had a long kick with Juvenile's "400 Degreez" album, 4 years after it actually came out. Needless to say, there is good shit as well as awful shit on EVERY point of the hip-hop spectrum.

Finally, onto the issue of race. Of course, growing up in TN I have heard the word "nigger" used in 50 different contexts. Also, I was brought up to believe racism is wrong and inexcusable. That being said, our town wasn't exactly a Chocolate City, and while I can remember there being racial tensions our freshman year (I got numerous Hi-C boxes thrown at me as I'd pass by the wall adjacent the principal's office), after that blacks & whites basically just avoided each other. I too remember rebel-flag-rocking rednecks who used the word "nigger" liberally that liked rap music. Then there was the ever popular redneck disclaimer "I like black people, but I don't like niggers." Anyone who has ever uttered that statement...doesn't like black people. Period. End of discussion.

Now, at the age of 27 and having lived in more diverse places since then (even JC was a step up from Motown), I've become friends with numerous black folks over the years. Wow. Give me a fucking certificate. I think alot more people would be able to get over the hump of race relations if they would just quit tripping about our differences and realize we're basically all the same. We like food, TV, the opposite sex, video games, sports, trying to make $ and come up, etc. Our basic needs/wants/desires are all the same, which is why I get particularly irritated @ BET Comic View-type comedians whose whole schtick is "Black people and white people are DIFFERENT!!! AWWWWW!!! BLACK PEOPLE LIKE HOT SAUCE, WHITE PEOPLE LIKE MAYONAISE!!!"

What if you're like me, and enjoy both hot sauce and mayonaise?

So, I'll really try to wrap this up soon), the issue of white emcees. Music consumers might be stupid, but they're not dumb. If you're obviously faking the funk, you'll be sniffed out as a wannabe faster than "Cool As Ice" tanked at the box office. If what you've got so say is ill and true to yourself, then people will respect you. Even black folks. I was asked in that Awful Show interview about "being white" and the question tripped me up becaue honestly I really hadn't given it thought in a LONG time. I rarely even mention being white in my lyrics. I can't point to a single occasion since I've been seriously pursuing a career in hip-hop that I feel I was "hated on" for being white. I've been hated on for being from TN, hated on for being abstract, hated on for "being arrogant", etc. But no "reverse racism" that I can ever recall. Eminem gets credit for breaking the "color barrier" that was technically broken by the Beasties, 3rd Bass, etc, but Eminem was simply a better emcee than anyone else out at the time, and he happened to be white. If you look beneath the surface, for 10 + years now Cage, Non-Phixion, Necro, El-P, The High & Mighty, Paul Wall, RA the Rugged Man, Jedi Mind Tricks, etc. have had careers that dwarf mine.

After VH1 came out with The White Rapper Show, I had alot of people tell me that "you coulda beat anybody on that show." What I had to correct people on, is that a) I wouldn't have been on that show anyway, as I'd have become corny by default, and b) the whole point of that show was to get white rappers on there who were inexperienced and looked as uncomfortable around black people as humanly possible. If they picked 8 white kids who could really spit, and carried themselves respectably, then you'd have no show. Cause their target audience is people who still pop for the "black people & white people are different!!" motif. People (black, white, whoever) who know whats up realize that shit is corny.

Finally, the issue of white people/"wiggers" using The N Word. Unless you're imitating/making fun of someone, just don't do it. For example we knew a white kid named Mad Randy who dropped the The N Word the way most people say "and" or "the." I physically can't do an impression of him without saying it. But satire aside, no matter how down you are or how much of a Ghetto Pass you might have legitimatley earned, you're not gonna be able to say it without looking like a redneck or a wannabe. Although in New York at least, people don't seem to care. I see white kids saying "nigga" around black folks all the time, and none of them seem to give a shit. I know we're a Super Blue State, but damn.

I'm pretty sure that if I said "nigga" around my black friends, I wouldn't get my ass whooped. But the fact that I just don't use it seems to go alot farther. And if I hear one more white kid try to defend their stance by trying to explain that there's a difference between "nigg-er" and "nigg-a", I'm going to shoot them. That just makes you look like an even bigger noob.

Interestingly enough, Ill Bill (former Non-Phixion frontman and one hell of an emcee in my opinion) just dropped a song called (literally, I'm not joking) "White Nigger." Now, being Bill is 6'7", 250-ish and amped the fuck up, I'm pretty sure he doesn't have to worry about someone stepping to him over that title. Which if you actually listen to the song, it's about him growing up in Glenwood Projects, as a white Jewish kid, getting flack from both white & black kids for being a white hip-hopper, plus simultaneous backlash from the hip-hop kids because he was a heavy metal fiend. The general message is that racism of any kind is wrong, and that everyone's just as racist as everybody else. An eye-grabbing title for sure.

Bottom line, Hip-Hop is the greatest, and Hip-Hop sucks. No matter who you are, if you're honest and real, there's a place for you somewhere on the map.

Nate said...

You bring up an excellent point, on the white emcee tip. It seems as if every time a white rapper comes out and hits it big, every media outlet jumps on the whole "ooh, look at the white guy trying to make it in black people's music." See, the aforementioned Eminem, as well as some of the hype around Bubba Sparxxxx. This line of thought always used to piss me off, 'cause I'd always think about the Beastie Boys, 3rd Bass (which are in my top 5 all-time rap crews EVER), House of Pain ... hell, even Lordz of Brooklyn gets mad love in this household. But unfortunately, no one mentions the quality, only the Snows, the Vanilla Ices. What da fux up wit' dat?

And I admit, I'm very ashamed that I got "Don't Believe the Hype" crossed with "Prophet of Rage." It has been a few years since I last listened to "Nation of Millions."