Inkwell: Authors and Artists
Jeff Chang (jeffchang410) Wed 26 Sep 07 11:01
matisse--well, i'm not sure what i can add...you were there! but i think the process you raise--the act of turning a blackened advertising poster space into art--is really symbolic. here you had young artists like keith haring and the taggers appropriating these places saved for commercialism and turning them into art. from advertisements for consumer goods into advertisements for the self. (the connection between graffitiists and pop art was clear to people like basquiat and fab 5 freddy from jump, not to mention mailer and warhol.) in a larger sense, the youth that are closed out from the system by the politics of abandonment are, in another sense, set free to return with their art--whether on bus stops, walls, or subway cars. they appropriate public spaces with their negated selves. ok ok, this is all beginning to sound a little too post-moderny. but there are real life consequences. i think the current state of orange high-alert readiness against young people--from curfews to anti-cruising ordinances to sweep ordinances to, ack, 'kid nation'--this notion that we need to be protecting ourselves from wild youth, and that they need to be protected from themselves, goes back to the war on graffiti begun by nyc mayor john lindsay in 1972. this makes me want to steal a quote from 'the wire' about the 'the war on drugs', which i think is not unlike the 'war on graffiti' or the 'war on youth': carver: 'girl you can't even call this shit a war.' kima: 'why not?' carver: 'wars end.' here's another quote from nyc graf writer EWOK's words (in this great book of graf photos called 'broken windows' by jim & karla murray): 'When you push something down, it's going to pop up somewhere else. It's just natural progression.'
looming tricycle menace (anna) Wed 26 Sep 07 11:50
(the NYT reported on the hearings that Jeff is referring to in #24, here: http://www.nytimes.com/2007/09/26/washington/26rap.html?_r=1&adxnnl=1&oref=slo gin&adxnnlx=1190831695- O0Wx9yvH+T1SYIlGM0Mctw, or http://tinyurl.com/2r6ktd) i think it's very important that hip hop be free to discuss the reality of artists' lives. many of these artists come from economically and socially marginalized groups, and their point of view is valuable, even if it's uncomfortable to hear. that said, i get real tired of hearing about "bitches" and "hoes". so i do have my own personal boundary, but i still think we should as a society respect that others have differing boundaries. it's interesting how the "underground" of hip hop has ended up becoming a mostly white audience, and that this seems to be the doing of marketing depts at major record labels. there must've been some right timing there as well, since it wouldn't have taken off unless the moment was ripe for it. one odd thing that i realized recently is that 99% of the dub djs i've seen photos of are white, playing mostly black artists. has music become color- blind or is it that music is being co-opted from the musicians into the hands of those more culturally powerful, or both or neither?
J Matisse Enzer (matisse) Thu 27 Sep 07 08:21
I wonder how hip-hop culture does or might translate into political and economic power. There is no assurance at all that it will - and historically, not every cultural change has resulted in increased power for the group(s) that the change came from. In fact, just off the top of my head, I think maybe cultural innovations may have nothing at all to do with increases in political and economic power.
Gail Williams (gail) Thu 27 Sep 07 10:21
If it's generational, then as a generation ages an illusion unfolds. It looks like the cultural style comes into power since members of the generation gains power and relative wealth. But looking at the late 60s rock used for insurance ad soundtracks, etc, it may not be an anthem for any structural change. A handful of stars in the new styles and genres become wealthy and get keys to the doors of power, but may not know how to use them. It's not easy to storm the thrown in the modern world. I wonder sometimes how brilliant creative amazing expression could ever be more than decoration or fashion changes, no matter how enriching the process.
Jeff Chang (jeffchang410) Thu 27 Sep 07 13:59
anna, in regards to your point about having a line that you draw, i think it's important to note that many of us have drawn such lines for years. the ugly debate that don imus raised and the grassroots move to dump the guy represented, i think, a crystallization of a sense of "enough is enough". one thing i think is really important to point out is that the hip-hop hearings this time around--as opposed to the ones c. delores tucker and carole moseley-braun had 13 years ago--featured prominent voices from hip-hop who were also critical. here's my colleague lisa fager's testimony, for instance, who just captured about everything i've been feeling: http://blog.myspace.com/index.cfm?fuseaction=blog.view&friendID=15116190&blogI D=313595133 her bottom line: we don't blame the artists, we blame the industry. i also wanted to post this, by a white maryland politician who is also a hip-hop parent: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/09/07/AR200709070204 8.html?nav=hcmodule i think it may provide a provocative answer to your provocative question.
Jeff Chang (jeffchang410) Thu 27 Sep 07 14:13
matisse--you know i consider myself an idealist and a hip-hop activist, so i'm a bit biased on your question. but certainly cultural power, economic power, and political power are not all the same things. they are all dialectical in fact. let's leave aside economic power for now... one of the things i've been bullish on in recent years has been the increasing efforts of hip-hoppers to translate their cultural cachet into political power. there are some intriguing results. in 2004, i was part of two efforts--the national hip-hop political convention and the league of pissed off voters (now simply, the league of young voters)--that tried to organize hip-hoppers to vote. you may remember there were also high-profile efforts from russell simmons and diddy to do the same. media barely reported this, but there was a surge of youth voting unseen since the voting age had been lowered to 18 in 1972. and what's more interesting is that of the 4 million new voters between the ages of 18 and 29, more than half were african american or latino. now i can safely say that the democratic party and the republican party didn't organize those folks to get to the polls. in fact, if they had tried, they might have been frustrated by young people's skepticism. "why should i vote, what have you done for me lately?" but millions of hip-hoppers organized themselves, and although it wasn't reported, it made a difference. btw those increases held for 2006, in comparison to 2002 the last off-presidential year. and i've covered barack obama for vibe magazine and i was amazed to find hundreds of enthusiastic supporters under the age of 18 at the rallies. it might be argued that the catalytic grassroots work of 2004 is just as important as the ongoing crises we face--the war, rising urban violence, education, etc.--in getting this new generation of young people interested again in electoral politics, after three decades of what others have called apathy, but what i've called militant skepticism.
Jeff Chang (jeffchang410) Thu 27 Sep 07 14:17
gail, i think the last post kind of said what i wanted to reply to you, but i wanted to add that i definitely hear you about the march of stylistic change. one of the things i have been interested in my work has been to connect changes in the world of culture with changes in the "material world" (not madonna's, but maybe marx's, i suppose). here's a question that i have for all of you: do you think the arc of cultural change always bends toward arch commercialism? i'd love to hear your thoughts.
looming tricycle menace (anna) Thu 27 Sep 07 14:21
well, i read both of those interesting essays. the whole idea that white people comfortably consume rap/hip hop because it's not talking about doing crimes in white neighborhoods, to white people, or dissing white women, is good to have out in the open, on the table. let's talk about personal responsibility here! i realize, of course, that i'm out of the loop on a lot of these cultural discussions, and may be coming to the discussion kind of late. i guess i'm sort of glad that i was never so unaware that i was okay with the "bitches and hos" stuff, i figured it applied to all women, and that was not, and is not, okay with me.
looming tricycle menace (anna) Thu 27 Sep 07 14:24
2 slips! will consider your question, Jeff.
Gail Williams (gail) Thu 27 Sep 07 15:20
What a great question: Do you think the arc of cultural change always bends toward arch commercialism? Thinking about this... Other forces -- including religion, revolution, state control and the forces of literacy & science have had impacts on spreading and shaping mass culture too at times. In a sense, cultural change is a pretty new thing, and so is the overpowering force of modern commericialism. Maybe a better statement would be that attention is valuable, and when there is a sweeping change in patterns of attention, some element of greed will always be triggered. Can it be resisted? The innoculation is for the cultural change to be anticommericial, anonymous, small, disaggregated, free, "worthless," local... But then it can't use the powerful channels of commericialism to spread itself. So that's the tension.
Gail Williams (gail) Thu 27 Sep 07 15:23
And I say greed, but obviously for an individual with the choice of poverty or big commericial success, greed is a mischaracterization of the need to survive. It can become impossible to resist and hard to steer.
David Wilson (dlwilson) Thu 27 Sep 07 21:19
In popular music, the technology always seems to lead cultural changes in the music. Part of the answer concerns types of markets. For example rock n'roll was race music that was produced for local and regional markets. The national market, represented by the major recording companies at first shunned rock n' roll. The independents catered to the local/regional markets and the audience forced the majors to take notice because of crossover hits. Didn't something similar happen to the development of hip-hop? Another part of the answer has to do with commodification of the music and commodity fetishism that grows up around such products.
Gail Williams (gail) Fri 28 Sep 07 14:05
Do you mean distribution technology, not musical intruments there in your first line, David? That's an interesting idea. Is that technology trendline about access to urban culture for those from the burbs and beyond?
David Wilson (dlwilson) Fri 28 Sep 07 15:01
I meant distribution technology. When phonograph records first came out, the song publishers thought that they would lose out. When radio first came out the record labels thought they would lose out. When cassette technology came along, same thing. Compact disks were a boon to the record labels. They ate at the trough for years while reissuing music on lp to cd. Now digital technology is making a qualitative and quantative change in how music is developed, produced, and distributed. In each instance the dinosaurs have to be beatin-up before they realize that the technology is actually good for their bottom lines. I don't know how hip hop music and culture made it out to the suburbs to a crossover market of young teenaged boys and girls. That is a question for Jeff. But it seems to me that the marketing machines of mass media corporations still had some moves, and they were able to adapt, harness, commodify, and sell hip hop. Unlike rock n' roll they had learned not to dismiss out-of-hand cult or underground phenomena percolating in local and regional markets. I think it was generational in that the record executives were open to it, and they had the historical example of rock n' roll to refer back to. My understanding of hip hop music is that the first productions were homemade and used primitive technology that had been tinkered together in Jamaican studios and out in the public performances of sound systems. If you add the ease of reproduction (mixtapes and downloading) and you give the kids the keys to the production kingdom, you have enabled local happenings to surface. All those big dogs had to do then is bottle it and sell it. Art and quality are another thing though.
Jeff Chang (jeffchang410) Sat 29 Sep 07 22:11
Thank you all for these really thought-provoking replies. I'm going to apologize now for the radio silence. Since Friday I've been in Miami to participate in the Miami Light Project's Project Hip-Hop, an amazing weekend of hip-hop theatre and performances. I'll get back to posting regularly beginning Monday, but I did want to let anyone in the Miami/Dade area to know that I'll be speaking Sunday at 11am at Books and Books on Lincoln Road in South Beach on my two books. Please drop by and introduce yourself if you do come through!
What is going to amuse our bouches now? (bumbaugh) Sun 30 Sep 07 12:05
. . . and if you're following this conversation on the Interwebs and have a question for Jeff or some observations you would like to contribute, e-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org and we can post for you (or, become a Well member http://www.well.com/ and *you* can post for you)
Gail Williams (gail) Sun 30 Sep 07 15:06
Sounds like quite a festival. How'd the reading go? And who goes to your readings... what do they tend to ask about?
Lisa Harris (lrph) Sun 30 Sep 07 15:31
Wish I could have come to see you in Miami,. Jeff. Unfortunately I was in Central Florida for the weekend. Hope it all went well.
Jeff Chang (jeffchang410) Mon 1 Oct 07 11:52
hey everyone, i'm back from miami, which was a wonderful experience. i was out there for an annual festival put together by the miami light project called project hip-hop that features some of the best national hip-hop theater, dance, film, and this year, a brief lecture from yours truly. i really love these kinds of events because they give a chance for people to gather and really debate and discuss aesthetic and political issues, and just to kick it and enjoy some great art. the headliner this year was the bronx's fine, nationally acclaimed theater company, universes, who did a stunning showcase of their unique mix of rap, poetry, and music. if you can catch them on the road--they're in texas this week i believe--they are one of the most exciting companies around. but a lot of the fun comes from the multigenerational mix that comes together--children, community leaders, young and old artists, journalists, activists, and just fans of every possible background you can imagine. after universes' performance, we all spilled out onto lincoln road and had long discussions into the night. that's the hip-hop i've come to love.
Jeff Chang (jeffchang410) Mon 1 Oct 07 12:14
gail, david and anna, thanks for stirring up the synapses. i've been struggling with the question of whether all countercultural movements are meant to become commercialized and co-opted. this is a popular line among some intellectuals i admire: naomi klein, thomas frank, joseph heath and andrew potter. on the other side are colleagues like danyel smith, greg tate, joan morgan, and even the novelist william gibson, who seem to me to try to stake out a principled engagement with countercultures. i don't consider myself naive or innocent--i'm published by major houses, my friends work with major labels, i've worked for some of the corporations i criticize. but there's also a part of me that, fox mulder-like, just wants to *believe*. and i take solace in w.e.b. dubois's insights about 'double consciousness'. it would be intellectually dishonest of me to act like the purist i wanted to be back when i was in my 20s... ok, let's go to the question of technology. i am on board with david's reading of the music industry and technology, and i suspect that there's a fantastic conversation to be had here about whether the industry has turned into a dinosaur obsolescence by being so reactionary to new technology. what do you all think? and just one last thought: with regards to the point that i think gail was alluding to in terms of personal technology, lots of times the question of race and technology has been framed in terms of the digital divide. i would never deny that the digital divide is an important issue to address. but i do want to note that hip-hop has been an amazing example of the opposite trend--socially disenfranchised populations exploring the implications of new technologies and making them stylish, from spraypaint to sound mixers to sneaker soles to pagers to samplers to cell phones to blogs long before they reach the mainstream...
Gail Williams (gail) Mon 1 Oct 07 18:54
Years ago i did a college paper on adoption of new ideas and focussed on the dissemination of fashion information in 19th century America. (A few real patterns from Paris by boat, the rise of mail order catalogs with pictures, all kinds of fun things to consider as the new way to look good would slowly spread into the interior, reinterpretted by local seamstresses, etc.) In the research for that little paper, I picked up some very interesting texts about how style is transmitted. The latest tech, be it railroads or text messages, is sure to be part of the vector. Seems to me that hasn't changed. A couple of ideas caught my attention. - An author who asserted that the court of Marie Antoinette *invented* the fashion cycle with its arch disdain for last year's style, and that since then, fasion change has served as a placibo for revolution. Not so effectively for Marie, but stronger since then. (We look radical compared to people x years ago, so we have evolved and rebelled!) - Carnaby Street fashion in the 60s, just pre-hippie era in London, changed the entire clothing world. Top-down designer ideas were the way of the world until then. At that time, London designers started looking at kids on the street for fashion ideas. That has not stopped since. That might mean that the "co-opting" cycle kicked in in the designer clothes world at that time. It had kicked in to some degree in the music world back inthe jazz and rock&roll eras, I'd guess. If those ideas are valid, then high fashion and high finance has a thrist and a use for the creativity of the street, and this functions in part in preventing the blossoming of an extensive underground. I don't say this in a parnoid way, but in a pattern-observer way. So sending new tech out to the streets and seeing what comes back is a reasonable intentional strategy these days. Just a thought! So Jeff, your book blurb mentions the future of hip hop. What trends are you seeing?
Jeff Chang (jeffchang410) Tue 2 Oct 07 20:14
that's brilliant. i've begun doing a bit of research into, of all things, sneaker culture. in 1986, run dmc had a hit called 'my adidas'. their manager, a guy named russell simmons, invited adidas officials to the concert at madison square garden, and when run dmc performed the song, they asked the crowd to hold their sneakers in the air. the sight of thousands of kids holding their shelltoes above their heads just floored the adidas reps. run dmc signed a million dollar sponsorship deal in weeks. that, plus spike lee and michael jordan teaming up to push nike, were sort of like carnaby street moments. now adidas and nike--much less so reebok, which was the #1 company at the time--actually have high-end designers routinely designing $1000 sneakers for the elite fashion boutique market... there's a natural cycle of style that occurs in hip-hop. every 3-5 years or so the styles turn over, and it corresponds to the cycle of style in the neighborhoods--which are literally driven by 16 year-olds. when they grow up and move on, the next cohort of folks transforms the style--so that over the course of a few years, there's another shift that has been completed. it goes to everything from coloring in clothes to slang to musical styles to dances. if you have access to some urban 16 year olds, esp in nyc or la or miami, you're seeing and hearing the styles that will filter out to the malls and the mainstream over the next two-three years. i think the future is global. i'm doing a big piece right now on m.i.a., a british sri lankan refugee, and how her particular style and point-of-view seem to point the way forward. she's been hyped quite a bit, perhaps overmuch, but behind her, i hear a large world waiting to make their mark...
David Adam Edelstein (davadam) Wed 3 Oct 07 12:19
I'd like to thank everyone who participated in what's become a very interesting discussion on hip-hop culture and beyond, and especially Jeff for joining us and Anna for driving the conversation. We're turning our official focus to another topic, but this conversation doesn't have to end as long as there are questions to discuss.
looming tricycle menace (anna) Thu 4 Oct 07 15:55
thank you, Jeff! thank you, David! it was great fun being a part of this interesting and invigorating conversation.
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