Inkwell: Authors and Artists
David Adam Edelstein in tha 206 (davadam) Mon 17 Sep 07 13:14
We're please to welcome Jeff Chang to the Inkwell to discuss his book "Total Chaos: The Art and Aesthetics of Hip-Hop". Jeff Chang has written extensively on race, culture, politics, the arts, and music. His first book, Can't Stop Won't Stop, garnered honors including the American Book Award and the Asian American Literary Award. He has also edited an anthology entitled Total Chaos: The Art & Aesthetics of Hip-Hop, released in February 2007. Jeff was a founding editor of ColorLines magazine, and a Senior Editor/Director at Russell Simmons' 360hiphop.com. He began writing for URB and The Bomb Hip-Hop magazines, and has written for the San Francisco Chronicle, Vibe, The Nation, and Mother Jones, among many other publications. In 1993, he co-founded and ran the influential hip-hop indie label, SoleSides, now Quannum Projects, helping launch the careers of DJ Shadow, Blackalicious, Lyrics Born and Lateef the Truth Speaker. He has helped produce over a dozen records, including the "godfathers of gangsta rap", the Watts Prophets. He was an organizer of the National Hip-Hop Political Convention and has served as a board member for several organizations working for change through youth and community organizing, media justice, culture, the arts, and hip-hop activism. Born of Chinese and Native Hawaiian ancestry, Jeff was raised in Hawai'i where he attended 'Iolani School. He lives in California. He is a big fan of Japanese curry and poi, but not at the same time. Leading the conversation with Jeff is our own Anna Cox. Anna Cox is a co-host of the Women On the Well conference and a host of the Psychology conference. She's a Psychiatric Nurse Practitioner and practices in Portland, OR. Psychiatry encompasses both art and science, and the bottom line is the narrative, from the patient to the practitioner and back again. She is also an enthusiastic participant in popular culture and is looking forward to learning more about hip hop through this conversation. Welcome to both of you!
looming tricycle menace (anna) Mon 17 Sep 07 13:26
hi Jeff, great to see you here! i was at a DJ Shadow show earlier this year, and it was really great. i've been reading Total Chaos with a lot of interest and finding out many things i didn't realize before. forgive me for revealing my ignorance here, but i had no idea that there are "four elements" to hip hop: graphitti, b-boying/b-girling, DJ and MC. there is a lot of discussion about how these elements get included in different aspects of hip hop - the theater, music, dance, and graphic arts. do you think that the four elements limits hip hop unnecessarily, or are they key ingredients, without which hip hop isn't really hip hop?
Jeff Chang (jeffchang410) Mon 17 Sep 07 14:15
hey anna, thanks so much for having me here! i'm really looking forward to this conversation. your question about the "four elements" is really a great way to set this all off. maybe some short history first... during the 1970s, youth cultural movements began springing up all around the world against the backdrop of the exhaustion of the 60s social movements. you can think of the punks emerging from the east Village in Manhattan or squatters' London, the surfers of the north shore of Oahu or the Gold Coast of Australia and the skateboarders carving up the forsaken Santa Monica/Venice beachfront. it's as if, with "the revolution" over, young people in abandoned urban spaces decided they'd just go out and make their own way of having fun. they created their own slang, street games, developed their own musical tastes and dances, all (for the moment) outside the gaze of authority or the appetites of big money. hip-hop became the name for the pasttimes the kids in the bronx invented, what we now call "the four elements", a term invented by pioneering DJ and Universal Zulu Nation founder Afrika Bambaataa. DJing, MCing, b-boying/b-girling or breaking (not "breakdancing" as pundits would later dub it and which lots of pioneers are still mad about) described the aspects of a typical Bronx party. a fourth "element" was the nascent graffiti movementthe art of spraypainting one's nickname on walls, buses, and subway trainswhich attracted a more racially, geographically, and economically diverse following, as well as fans who included art gallery curators, journalists, sociologists, even Norman Mailer. with its roots in Philadelphia, the graffiti movement, in fact, preceded the Bronx hip-hop movement, but many of the Bronx partiers were also graffiti writers, Herc and Bambaataa included. by the late 70s hip-hop was in full swing in the black and brown neighborhoods in the bronx, harlem, spanish harlem, brooklyn, queens, lower east side manhattan and hell's kitchen and even long island. not long after, it desegregated the post-disco downtown clubs where white punkers and new-wavers were exploring new avenues forward. before long, graf was being shown in high-end galleries, b-boys were working with ballet companies, and filmmakers were trying to capture the nascent movement. at this point, hip-hop began to transform, to move into genres beyond "the four elements" into theater, literature, visual arts, and much much more. i think now it could be said that hip-hop arts is among the most influential global movements of the past three decades. there is a debate over whether a piece of work is hip-hop if it doesn't have one or more of the elements reflected in it. i take the more expansive view: the actual practice of the original elements is less important than the aesthetic implications of those elements. in other words, just because we use a sans serif font in my book instead of rendering it in a tag style, it isn't any less hip-hop. does that help?
looming tricycle menace (anna) Mon 17 Sep 07 16:22
i agree with your expansive view, plus i think it makes it more accessible to others less conversant with the elements. tag style is hard to read!
looming tricycle menace (anna) Mon 17 Sep 07 19:45
i'd like to digress for just a moment here and discuss my own background in hip hop. in the summer of 1981, Double Dutch Bus by Frankie Smith was released, and i heard it on the radio. i was sold. i was raised in a household with classical music, but in my heart, i've always preferred music with a beat, something you can *dance* to. maybe that's what made me instantly love that song as much as i did. since then, i've thrilled to men and women breaking in public, both as entertainment and in battle with each other. listened to a lot of various different crews rock the mic - Public Enemy, De La Soul, Tribe Called Quest, the Roots, DJ Shadow, Melle Mel and Grandmaster Flash, Afrika Bambaataa, Run DMC, Missy Elliot, Eve, and the list goes on. of course, i've also seen a lot of tags and other grafitti, as well as Basquiat (which might be called a classical application of tagging). i missed out on the opportunity for academic exploration of hip hop culture, since i was doing other stuff instead, but i do think that this exploration is crucial. such a powerful cultural movement should be discussed and examined for it's significance and impact on us all.
Jeff Chang (jeffchang410) Tue 18 Sep 07 14:17
ohhhh! you got your funky bus fare! (i'm going to have to resist the temptation to do the rest of this conversation in pig latin...an aside: if anyone has done a translation of that breakdown where they're going 'moozi oozle, etc. etc., my kizzerd!' i'd love to see it...) i just wanted to note that even where i grew up in honolulu, everyone seemed to know the words to rapper's delight and double dutch bus. when the hiphopsploitation flicks like breakin' and beat street came out, tho, it was like being hit with a ton of bricks. to see young kids at the time--especially youths of color--just doing what they wanted to do was just unbelievably empowering. and it was fun! one of the things about academic exploration of hip-hop is trying not to lose this sense of joy and wonder in the culture. we can talk about that more later...
looming tricycle menace (anna) Wed 19 Sep 07 00:11
i was talking about this topic with a friend of mine, today, and thinking about how talking about hip hop means talking about touchy things like race, class, culture, privilege, and money. then i was marvelling that two such small words - "hip hop" - carry that much weight. it's really quite amazing. the other amazing thing about hip hop is how accessible it is, on so many levels - whereever you are, there is an entrance near at hand. which is how it should be, imnsho! we may choose to fight over - *ahem* - discuss the meaning of the artwork, but everyone should be able to access it. i was reading this article in the NYT today, and it struck me how it resonated with Adam Mandesbach's (sp? don't have book in front of me!) essay on _Lit Hop_. in it he discusses how hip hop literature gets dissed by mainstream critics including those at the NYT Review of Books. then i read this (see below) and i thought "hmmm. maybe this is part of why the critics seem so dismissive?" it's not the whole reason, of course, and one could reasonably argue that the NYT is completely liberal, but there is a strongly conservative flavor to the critiques put forth by the Times, as quoted by Mr. Mandesbach. "They (a graduate student, Jesse Graham, Dr. Haidt) found that people who identified themselves as liberals attached great weight to the two moral systems protective of individuals - those of not harming others and of doing as you would be done by. But liberals assigned much less importance to the three moral systems that protect the group, those of loyalty, respect for authority and purity. Conservatives placed value on all five moral systems but they assigned less weight than liberals to the moralities protective of individuals. Dr. Haidt believes that many political disagreements between liberals and conservatives may reflect the different emphasis each places on the five moral categories. Take attitudes to contemporary art and music. Conservatives fear that subversive art will undermine authority, violate the in-group's traditions and offend canons of purity and sanctity. Liberals, on the other hand, see contemporary art as protecting equality by assailing the establishment, especially if the art is by oppressed groups." http://www.nytimes.com/2007/09/18/science/18mora.html 5 moral systems 4 elements 3 french hens 2 turtle doves & a partridge in a pear tree right? *wink*
Berliner (captward) Wed 19 Sep 07 09:02
Hey, Basquiat started as a tagger: he was Samo, and I actually liked his tagging "art" (various witty texts signed Samo) better than his paintings.
My free and simple demeanor set everybody at ease. (pdl) Wed 19 Sep 07 09:13
Being a 45 year old geezer, i tend to think of hip hop primarily in terms of the four elements (DJing, MCing, b-boying/b-girling, breaking) + graffitti. That's pretty much how i've thought of hip hop since i first experienced it back in high school when i first heard rapper's delight and the breaks. I tend to focus on music, so i primarily think of hip hop in music/dance terms with the visual element of graffitti. I was wondering if you would be willing elaborate a bit on what characterizes hip hop aesthetics outside of the four+1 elements? What makes something hip hop literature, photography, or theater--what are the hip hop aesthetics that unite them across the different media/genres? Is it primarily a matter of demographics or self identity--that specific artists identify themselves as hip hop artists, therefore their work (be it literature, photography, or theater) is considered hip hop or are their characteristics in the work itself that can be said to constitute some sort of aesthetics of hip hop?
Jeff Chang (jeffchang410) Wed 19 Sep 07 13:49
anna, i saw that same article and it was a head scratcher to me. i still wonder sometimes what makes a liberal and a conservative? some of the criticism of hip-hop has to do with what people think of as its insularity, it's "in-group"-ness, a topic that certainly has not a little to do with perceptions of racial difference. perhaps it's the flipside of the notion that hip-hop is somehow more authentic to the experience of urban youth (read: youth of color). this is a digression, but i think an interesting one: a recent university of chicago study called the black youth project shows that african american youths do indeed pay attention to hip-hop at up to 3 times the rates of white youths. but many also believe that the industry is catering, even pandering, nowadays to a white audience. captward: yes, basquiat was known as the philosopher-tagger--he tended to put up sayings and then sign his name next to a copyright logo. i find it interesting these days that the current generation of street artists employ many of the same techniques--and dealers are sometimes taking their stuff right off the street and selling them for hundreds of thousands of dollars. although i don't want to deny the artists' right to make as much as they need or want to--especially in American society, where there is no level of public financial support available at all--i find this turn a little bewildering and more than a little annoying. pdl: wow! that's the big question isn't it? so big i'm gonna do another post here...
looming tricycle menace (anna) Wed 19 Sep 07 21:58
just as an aside, check out these two (she's 8, he's 5): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2josUqMTUmE the next generation of hip hop??
David Wilson (dlwilson) Thu 20 Sep 07 19:20
I first became aware of hip-hop when my sons were young in the 80's. My first reaction was to flash on the black disk jockies from my youth. At that time (late 50's, early 60's) the AM radio was the mega-force in popular music. And it was also segregated. We called it "listening to the right side of the dial" because all the Spanish and Black r&b stations were the highest numbers in New York. I remember Jocko Henderson and the Rocketship Show that came in from Philly. Jocko had quite the rhyming, poetry schtik going, transforming street slang into his long raps. He interspersed these with the latest r&b tunes. When I went away to college in Pittsburgh, there was a dj named Sir Walter who did the same thing. It turns out that my brother's roommate in college knew this station very well. His dad owned the station so he filled me in on all the inside stuff about Sir Walter. I read some things about the start of hip-hop in the Bronx and the authors mentioned that a lot of the first dj's were from Jamaican and other Carribean families. I knew that within that tradition the music--calypso and the Jamaican forms--was a type of "newspaper." The songs reported local news and happenings *and* there was social commentary blended into the mix. Anyway, what do you make of these 2 examples that I bring up?
Jeff Chang (jeffchang410) Fri 21 Sep 07 11:50
hey everyone, thanks for stopping by! i'm sorry for the day offlist--jena 6, 50 v. kanye, and most importantly lots of kids stuff happening here in south berkeley. i'm back daily from here on out. thanks too anna for your youtube post. when i was first sent it--by my friends whom i had djed semi-professionally with in college--my jaw dropped. my kids were eating breakfast in the other room as it played, and i looked at my own dusty turntables and mixer here (over the piles of albums, 12" singles, and 45s) and felt a sharp twinge of guilt, the way a violinist dad might feel horrible about his kids who hadn't learned to read music...! so first, let me go to pdl's question, and then come back to david's in the next post. pdl, you go to the heart of the issue: what makes something hip-hop? the first thing to say is that hip-hop started off from an urgent need--for abandoned kids to have fun. no one set out to write a manifesto back then, a la the turn-of-the-century futurists, who were manifesto engines. that's probably one of the reasons hip-hop has spread so far and so deeply. it's also why it's been so hard to define. i called my anthology total chaos for that very reason. each entry, whether it's discussing hip-hop photography, hip-hop journalism, hip-hop in visual arts, hip-hop in dance, hip-hop in literature, on and on. there are lots of disagreements, even a debate over whether or not the category is even useful for artistic production. which only proves--to me--the movement's vitality. if you have nothing to argue about, it's dead. what most people will agree with is that hip-hop aesthetics reflects a certain generational shift. some have called it "post-multiculturalist", or more controversially, "post-black", some have called it "urban outsider art". i think there is a certain truth to some of the labels, but each is inadequate. hip-hop arts span a period of the height of the multiculturalism movement to what comes after--from the 80s when artists were looking to diversify what they thought of as a white male dominated field to now where the pop culture feels thoroughly diversified. hip-hop had a hand in this very process of change. so "post-multiculti" doesn't work. "urban outsider art" has been used to describe, say, the new street art movement, but it seems to pertain to what's happened in dance as well as hip-hop dancers have formed companies and moved into the theater. but if they're inside the theater, they're hardly outsiders. and urban is a funny word for "people of color". there is now a debate within hip-hop theater whether or not it has to contain, say, two of the four elements to be considered hip-hop theater. some say it must. some say it's really about generational narratives, not the forms a play must utilize. there was much criticism, for instance, of a group that tried to rewrite shakespearean plays in ebonics. but a play like rennie harris's amazing "rome and jewels", which recast "romeo and juliet" (and rethought its update "west side story") amongst 90s street gangs in philadelphia is thought of as a cornerstone of hip-hop theater. the difference perhaps is depth of feeling and intention. what joins these artists together are a sense of being the first generation to come of age after civil rights, dealing with the end of de facto segregation (and now the reality of de facto resegregation), the politics of abandonment and containment, the emergence of a new cultural diversity, and the increasing interest of corporations in youth cultures. these issues figure in much of the hip-hop arts: "keeping it real vs. crossing over and culture vs. commerce; how to move the mainstream in your direction; what is the definition of making it? re: demographics. there's a constant awareness that this is an arts movement built on afro-diasporic blackness. at the same time, there is an openness to a diversity of voices. at its best, hip-hop is cacophonous, a multitude of voices calling and responding. at its worst, it looks (paradoxically) like a monoculture. i've called 50 cent the high fructose corn syrup of hip-hop--he's selling "get rich or die trying" not just in cd form, but in the array of consumer and luxury goods he's hawking. as an artist, he's marginally interesting to me. as a self-branded center of a lifestyle economy, he's pretty fascinating... i digress, but i hope this helps answer the question.
Jeff Chang (jeffchang410) Fri 21 Sep 07 12:02
david, i get goose bumps reading your post. while i was never privileged enough to be able to hear his on-air work, many pioneers--including dj kool herc, the father of hip-hop--cite jocko henderson as a direct and very important influence. cousin brucie and wolfman jack at wbls were also huge to them. black radio--and now also "urban radio", which btw was invented by white programmers in the late 80s as a distancing from black radio--remains a central space for hip-hop culture. (as an aside, has anyone seen 'talk to me' yet? my friends in the industry all tell me it's a must-see. my only excuse for not having seen it yet is that i have kids.) kool herc was a jamaican immigrant who grew up in the same yard that bob marley hailed from. he loved the sound systems that would come through there, and adapted the djing (that's what they call mcing in jamaica) to his own parties when he began playing. (i talk a lot about this in can't stop won't stop.) and in time, it makes sense that these parties become places for folks to talk about what's going on--the same way carnival music such as soca in trinidad or samba in rio or even mardi gras in new orleans often reflects back the feel of the time. in that sense, there's an afrodiasporic tradition of the party itself as a mode of communication that is revived in the u.s. with hip-hop.
looming tricycle menace (anna) Fri 21 Sep 07 14:49
thanks so much, Jeff, for these fascinating posts. this is such interesting, complex, meaningful stuff to think about and talk about, it's hard to even get a handle on where to start sometimes. >the way a violinist dad might feel horrible about his kids who hadn't >learned to read music...! ahahaha, the art form may change, but the guilt doesn't...
David Adam Edelstein (davadam) Fri 21 Sep 07 15:49
(If you're reading this conversation and you're not a member of the WELL, we'd still love for you to participate. Send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org and we'll post your question or comment.)
Jeff Chang (jeffchang410) Mon 24 Sep 07 10:29
hey everyone, for those of you who maybe haven't seen the book in question: total chaos :: the art and aesthetics of hip-hop, here's the table of contents... i can't say i'm expert on all of these topics, but i'd be happy to discuss and point you in the direction of people who may be. you can find excerpts and all kinds of info on the book at: http://www.totalchaoshiphop.com Section 1 ROOTS: PERSPECTIVES ON HISTORY 1 Harry Allen Dreams Of A Final Theory 2 Anthony "Amde" Hamilton of the Watts Prophets Nommo 3 Marc Bamuthi Joseph (Yet Another) Letter To A Young Poet 4 Jorge POPMASTER FABEL Pabon Physical Graffiti: A History Of Hip-Hop Dance 5 Joe Schloss The Art of Battling: An Interview With Alien Ness 6 Greg Tate, Vijay Prashad, Mark Anthony Neal, Brian Cross Got Next: A Roundtable on Identity and Aesthetics after Multiculturalism Roundtable Section 2 FLIPPING THE SCRIPT: BEYOND THE FOUR ELEMENTS 7 The Pure Movement and the Crooked Line: An Interview with Rennie Harris 8 Eisa Davis Found In Translation: The Emergence of Hip-Hop Theatre 9 Marc Bamuthi Joseph, Kamilah Forbes, Traci Bartlow, and Javier Reyes From The Dope Spot To Broadway: A Roundtable on Hip-Hop Theatre, Dance, and Performance 10 Adam Mansbach On Lit Hop 11 Bill Adler Who Shot Ya: A History of Hip-Hop Photography 12 Cey Adams, Brent Rollins, and Sacha Jenkins Words And Images: A Roundtable on Graphic Design 13 Lydia Yee, with Nadine Robinson, Sanford Biggers, Luis Gispert, and Jackie Salloum Between the Studio and the Street: A Roundtable on Hip-Hop Visual Arts 14 Paul D. Miller The City In Public Vs. Private: Through a Scanner Darkly Section 3 THE REAL: IDENTITY IN FLUX 15 Oliver Wang It Was Written: The Aesthetics of Hip-Hop Journalism 16 Kevin Coval "L-vis Is A Pioneer" or Legacy, the VH1 Special 17 Dave Tompkins Burn Rubber on Plastic Bubbles: The Art of Dave Funkenklein 18 Danyel Smith Black Talk and Hot Sex: Why Street Lit is Literature 19 Juba Kalamka and Tim'm West It's All One: A Conversation 20 Joel Tan Homothugdragsterism 21 robert karimi how I found my inner DJ 22 Joan Morgan and Mark Anthony Neal A Brand New Feminism: A Conversation Section 4 WORLDWIDE: HIP-HOP ARTS BEYOND BORDERS 23 Suheir Hammad Brooklyn 24 Staceyann Chin Falling For Bob Marley 25 Eli Jacobs-Fantauzzi Inventos Hip-Hop: An Interview 26 Shaheen Ariefdien and Nazli Abrahams Cape Flats Alchemy 27 Raquel Cepeda Afro-Blue: Incanting Yoruba Gods in Hip-Hop's Isms 28 Cristina Verán with Darryl DLT Thompson, Litefoot, Grant Leigh Saunders, Mohammed Yunus Rafiq, and JAAS Native Tongues: A Roundtable on Hip-Hop's Global Indigenous Movement Section 5 NEXT ELEMENTS: HIP-HOP ARTS AND FUTURE AESTHETICS 29 Walidah Imarisha Untitled Poem 30 Roberta Uno Theatres Crossing The Divide: A Baby Boomer's Defense of Hip-Hop Aesthetics 31 Eric Arnold, with Rachel Raimist, Kevin Epps, and Michael Wanguhu Put Your Camera Where My Eyes Can See: A Hip-Hop Film Roundtable 32 Codes And The B-Boy's Stigmata: An Interview with Jeffrey DOZE Green 33 Revolution: An Interview with Brett Cook-Dizney 34 Rha Goddess Scarcity & Exploitation: The Myth & Reality of the Struggling Hip-Hop Artist 35 Danny Hoch Towards A Hip-Hop Aesthetic: A Manifesto for the Hip-Hop Arts Movement
Gail Williams (gail) Mon 24 Sep 07 11:19
Wow, that sure covers a lot of territory! Last year I saw an amazing circus production which seemed to my ignorant eye to incorporate a lot of hip-hop choreography. It was stunning. Quite a few WELLperns went to the performance in S.F. together and threw a party for the performers after the event. Here's a promo clip they did for that show. To my eye, here a lot of hip-hop movement meets with classical chinese circus acrobatics, and these young Montreal performance rebels happily scooped it all up and applied their circus discipline. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0RCwvS1gWUk Years ago a ballet director in San Francisco was one of the first to incorporate young kids who could break (adoring critics said "break dance" at the time) into a formal ballet production. That was loved, but as a blast of fresh air and an anomally. I'm wondering to what degree this strand of culture is still outside the "mainstream" (if it is), and what's still cutting edge on the choreography side of things now.
My free and simple demeanor set everybody at ease. (pdl) Mon 24 Sep 07 18:04
thanks for that explanation, jeff. It seems sort of similar to my peanut gallery take, which is that hip hop is a cultural movement and that hip hop art in whatever medium is an outgrowth of that movement--as opposed to a more rigid aesthetic movement that has more definite characteristics.
David Adam Edelstein (davadam) Mon 24 Sep 07 21:16
To that point, this section jumped out at me, where Mark Anthony Neal is quoting Tricia Rose: "Tricia Rose has this great conversation about the underground of hip-hop and the underground of actual people. The underground of actual people don't listen to underground hip-hop. They listen to 50 Cent. So no matter how much folks castigate mainstream hip-hop and discuss the value of the underground, the underground's not reaching the folks that need to be reached anyway." First, that brings up a question for me: if underground hip-hop isn't reaching the folks that need to be reached, isn't that a failure of underground hip-hop? The second question is that Neal is obviously talking about rap music here; does that division exist in other parts of hip-hop? Is graffiti inherently underground?
Jeff Chang (jeffchang410) Tue 25 Sep 07 21:47
gail--wow, great stuff. some of the street runs seem parkour influenced. do you know parkour? it's also call free running, and it's basically an attempt to place one's body into the furthest reaches of the built environment. it's not coming from hip-hop per se, but it's certainly related in the way it is an underground movement that is about reclaiming public space. (it also bears obvious parallels to skateboard culture, sans skateboards!) as far as the cutting edge of choreography goes, i love the theatre work of rennie harris' puremovement and rubberbandance group from montreal. i don't claim to be an expert but if you have the time, here's a piece i put together on rennie and the evolution of hip-hop dance into dance theatre: www2.colum.edu/center_for_arts_policy/documents/rennie_harrris.pdf pdl--i can get with that great summation! david--the point that mark made in that article is really fascinating and there are lots of explanations. it goes to the question of what happens to hip-hop when it moves away from the "core audience", in this case, read: urban black youths. in fact, i've been speaking with a writer who is doing a story on the whitening of the underground, a subject i'm very close to because of the work i've done with dj shadow, blackalicious, lyrics born, and lateef the truth speaker since the early 90s. i think that audiences for the underground have whitened, and the reasons are complex, mainly having to do with 1) distribution and 2) how aesthetics get racialized. let's take distribution. when we started putting out records in the early 90s, our audiences were overwhelmingly non-white. but by the late 90s, major labels had signed many of our peers from the underground--acts like common, mos def, talib kweli, the roots--and begun crossing them over to white college radio audiences. by 2000, national distribution had been completely consolidated into the majors. independent distribution as we knew it in the early 90s was very much dead. even if you were an indie label, you would have to deal with distributors owned by majors. so the majors began to dictate where records would be sold, and they determined that "underground" acts belonged in college towns. at first this wasn't so bad: artists began doing tour circuits that netted them great advances in largely white college towns, think portland, madison, seattle, austin, etc. at the same time, the middle dropped out of the industry, a result of the larger trend of media consolidation. so the only way to really make a living if you weren't on a major was to tour. (and the only way to really make a living if you were on a major was to net product endorsements--shoes, clothes, etc--but i digress.) the audiences that could afford to attend these shows were usually wealthier. and the venues were rarely accessible to the core audiences. in fact, because of rap's rep for violence, most clubs in most big hip-hop cities wouldn't book rap acts unless they were "underground", that is, drawing a decidedly non-core audience. these days you see it play out this way: rap acts that reach core audiences don't tour unless they are a part of a superstar arena tour headlined by someone like jay-z or eminem. rap acts that reach underground audiences do the tour-van circuit. unlike rock, there is no in-between any more. now the other aspect of this question is the relentless desire for stylistic change that always runs through hip-hop. at some point, underground stylists could no longer compete with stylists on major labels. and to core audiences with short memories, underground acts began to be seen as the artists catering to a white backpacker kids. it's a downward, reinforcing spiral that has essentially segregated the audiences for hip-hop. the second question deserves more and i'll try to get to that in another post. but suffice it to say that nowhere else in hip-hop is the artform as thoroughly and complexly organized in its commodity form as rap. and the result of this complexity is divided audiences. so i don't blame the artists for not reaching the folks they need to reach. i blame the corporations who have segmented the diversity of rap with their niche market mentality.
David Adam Edelstein (davadam) Tue 25 Sep 07 22:24
Hoo, lots of questions provoked there, but it's too late for me to form them coherently. Instead I'll ask a somewhat provocative question -- is 50 cent even hip-hop? Or is that pop music with rapping?
David Wilson (dlwilson) Wed 26 Sep 07 08:14
The more you write about hip-hop culture , the more it sounds like the reception bebop got in the late 40's and early 50's. The social world changed. Blacks fought in the war; they worked in the wartime factories; massive migration north and west. The music reflected these changes. At the time swing was the popular music in America--dance music. The new stuff started to explode within the big bands. The modernists weren't playing for dancing anymore. Of course, they could if they wanted to. The sense of "cool" as a state of being emerged with the attendant slang, folklore, clothing, gestures etc. Most of the white audiences and critics were appalled. The war of words of bad revues and bronx cheers started up. Somehow the new musicians were violating the "covenant" that the audience had with them. There was a marked attempt in the media to stamp out this objectionable music and behavior. Same shit. Different time.
J Matisse Enzer (matisse) Wed 26 Sep 07 08:33
Maybe you can explain a little how you see Basquiat's work as feeding into what became Hip Hop? Something maybe about the reclaiming of public spaces? Back in, um, 1977 or 1978 I overlapped in high school* with Jean-Michel Basquiat and I totally remember seeing the "Samo" tags in basically every subway station in New York. I believe that at first there were maybe three guys doing it, but Jean-Michel just took off with it. "Samo as an alternative to 9 to 5 living..." and things like that. Almost always these graffitis** were done on the blank black framed spaces left by unsold advertising space in the subway stations - which was an added quality to the art work itself. *A unique alternative public school that was 100% work-study at that time: City As School - http://www.city-as-school.org/ ** graffiti may be considered art without permission.
Jeff Chang (jeffchang410) Wed 26 Sep 07 10:23
david--there's an old debate amongst hip-hop fans of a certain age (roughly folks in their early 40s to those who are just now hitting their 30s) about what's rap vs. what's hip-hop: the idea being that rap is crossover commercialized junk and hip-hop is the real authentic deal. personally i was big into this (it's sort of the same debate that came up in punk--like, is green day really punk? and before that, are the replacements punk if they signed to a major? and before that, are the clash punk if they signed to a major?) but got cured of it in the late 90s. lots of folks don't like 50 Cent and were rooting for him to lose against Kanye. i dig kanye, i don't dig 50 as much. but it's pretty clear to me that it's all rap, it's all hip-hop. there's stuff you like and stuff you don't. one of the reasons, frankly, i got to this point was to acknowledge that people's tastes are always weird. you might like the clash but dig barry manilow on the side. you know? but it was also important to fight the battle in the early 90s because fans of hip-hop were worried about whether it would be co-opted by big companies (see vanilla ice, or maybe don't...). but hip-hop arguably crossed over in the mid-90s while maintaining its "street cred" and that took a lot of wind out of the argument. these days, i hold out hope that artists will get it and move their work in more socially conscious directions. this was the subtext of the congressional hearings yesterday, i believe, on both congressman bobby rush's part, and on the part of hip-hop artists who testified, like master p and david banner. the media actually got it wrong--they framed it in the old free speech vs. bad speech way. but i thought david banner was the most rational. he said, look, this is what i rap about, i'm the stephen king of pop music. i hear you about trying to change the culture, but don't make it impossible for me to say ugly things. that's about the realest defense, not just of hip-hop, but of art, that we are likely to hear. for the record, it's true that david banner has done strip club anthems like "play" and hardcore songs like "like a pimp", but he's also rapped very thoughtfully about poverty and racism in mississippi, where he's from. he's a college grad. and he was perhaps the single most important person to organize rappers and hip-hop activists in the south in the wake of hurricane katrina to donate and go down and do work for the victims on the gulf coast. yet he doesn't brag about this work. he's the anti-bono.
Jeff Chang (jeffchang410) Wed 26 Sep 07 10:29
dlwilson :: i think you're exactly right. that was exactly the connection that many in hip-hop were making in the late 80s and the early 90s when hip-hop was still, in a sense, a vanguard movement. some sampled monk and coltrane, others drew inspiration for their rhymes from ornette coleman and sonny rollins. (i'd recommend checking out, for instance, the freestyle fellowship, a highly influential but somewhat forgotten l.a. group from that era.) it's interesting that now bebop has become canonized to the point of repertory and ken burns specials. many of us often worry that this is what has happened to the "underground", that artists there are no longer pushing aesthetic edges but are in fact trying to remake some sort of a "golden era". that's not true of all artists who are not on major labels, but it has also contributed to the sense that the "underground" has become the wrong kind of insular, rather than the right kind of insular.
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