So spinning off of Cosby, there's a good little debate going on over at Ross Douthat's spot on hip-hop and the effects of culture. dnA chimed in on his site and basically read my mind by making the point that people who make judgments about the moral worth of hip-hop, often aren't especially schooled in the music. I was literally thinking that this morning, during my jog. I virtually never write about country music, or have any commentary on it. Know why? Because I couldn't tell a Toby Kieth song from a Tim McGraw cut. Essentially, I'd have no idea what I was talking about.
But hip-hop, evidently, requires no such knowledge and any Tom, Dick and Hank often feels free to weigh in and lambaste the entire genre, or better yet, attempt to do it themselves and lambaste it. Withness the unbounded folly that is Wynton Marsalis's Where Ya'll At? Of course this cuts the other way also--I was horrified when Nikki Giovanni got a tattoo of Thug Life in honor of Tupac. I got love for Pac, but I hated how folks weren't grappling with him and were just intent on making him a saint. Anyway for the most part, I think, very few people outside of hip-hop's most devoted fans understand what's going in the music. They think it's just some kids same some moronic phrases in time with a beat, and thus nearly anybody can come in an analyze.
I don't know if you guys know this about me, but I am an Illmatic fiend. I consider it to be the greatest statement on young black men in inner-city America in the early 90s. But, like most fiends, I've developed this opinion after numerous listenings, and after consuming hip-hop albums the way most sentient beings consume water and air. I think the second verse of "One Love"--"Shorty's laugh was cold-blooded as he smoked so foul\Only twelve trying to tell me that he liked my style."-- is a masterful employment of rhythmic timing, irony, narrative. The stark tragedy and black humor of "New York State Of Mind"--"I keep some E&J, sitting bent inside the stairway\Or either on the corner bettin gramps with the Cee-Lo champs\Laughing at base-heads, trying to sell some broken amps."--makes me shudder even after some fourteen years. I'm still not sure what Nas means when he says, "I switched my motto, instead of saying fuck tomorrow\That buck that bought the bottle could have struck the Lotto." But it's ambiguity has left me reciting it back to myself for years.
In fariness to Ross, he was specific in his criticism of Gangsta Rap, and many of his criticisms I share. I went back--for kicks--and listened to Straight Out Of Compton and was amazed at how dated and laughable it sounded. Then I played the incredibly slept-on D.O.C. record, No One Can Do It Better, and was amazed at its understated beauty. People talk about misoginy and violence-glorifying lyrics as crimes against women and young people. But most of all that stuff has been a crime against hip-hop, as its marred many a great lyrical performances. Now we are heading into a time, when the profane is all hip-hop is apparently all that makes hip-hop notable.
For me, the greatest tragedy of hip-hop is that its literary qualities were never cultivated, were never really celebrated except by the kids who could recite verses in their sleep. I think Ghostface and Raekwon will die without the larger world really getting the beauty of, say, "Motherless Child." Remember Rae's wicked intro?
Rich man, poor man, read the headlines
Niggers gettin murdered for spots and bigger dimes
Jobs and drug wars, living by gun-law
Jail-cats come home and wanna take me on
As a young one growing up broke, me and people had to sell coke
I guess we all in the same boat
You gotta hear the beat (play the video above) with it to get the full effect obviously, but this pairing of pounding drums with Rae's own concise description of late 80s, early 90s Statin Island has a visceral beauty. I swear when I was playing the video for this post, I almost broke the table banging it with my fists when the beat dropped in. But my point is that hip-hop at its best has an incredible beauty to marry words to the natural rhythm of the world. As I've written before, the beat itself puts a premium on words--can't say too much, or you go off beat--and thus you get incredibly beautiful and resonant phrases like "living by gun-law" or complete understatement and modesty like "jail cats come home and wanna take me on." If you think about it, they probably want to do a lot more than that--but the great MC, like the great artists, knows not to reveal too much.
When I was halfway through my book, I happened to be driving back from the Eastern Shore of Maryland with my son and my girl. We had left early in the morning and it was only me and the Ipod. I got to The Roots' Illadelph Halflife--their most complete album--and was taken aback by Black Thought's virtuoso performance. Of course I'd loved the record since I first heard it way back, but I felt almost like I was hearing it anew. As I pulled into New York, Concerto Of The Desperado came on, which too me is the perfect battle rhyme. There's all this arcane surreal imagry ("Hither is my death flower/Blow your tower, to smithereens") and weird word placement ("Then a sengeti cheetah, my thoughts swifte/You loose your balance when the sound hit ya.") Anyway, while I was energized by listening to this kid go for his, I was also sad that so much of the world missed, what sounded like, a testament to hard work and artistic endurance.
I came home totally inspired, as I always am by great hip-hop. I tried to fashion my memoir like an M.C. fashions rhymes, with a close attention to langauge and a constant attempt to stay with the beat which I could hear pounding in my head. If my memoir does anything, I want people to get how much I owe, as a writer, to the years I've spent rewinding the lyrical performances of Big Daddy Kane ("The Symphony"), Gza ("Liquid Swords") and Chuck D ("By The Time I Get To Arizona"). These cats (thanks to a bunch of fools who'd sell their souls for a spot on VH-1) are going down in a heap of disgrace. But, for whatever it's worth, they taught me how to think, and in large measure, how to write.
You can't understand what I mean by that if you somehow think "Cop Killer" is a representative sample of the genre.