Mouse rant blog vent mouse.

Sunday, August 08, 2004

Peace, unity, love and having fun

Just saw the movie Scratch, and even though it's a few years old, it will totally give any viewer some optimism. It's fun viewing for anyone, from those who are deep into hip-hop to those who weren't quite aware that the turntables are a bone fide instrument in their own right now. This is absolutely required viewing for the kid in your life who thinks that he/she likes hip-hop but only listens the the same old unimaginative gangsta rap. It's also required viewing for the tightass who believes the racist lies that hip-hop is nothing but violent and sexist crap.

The movie is a documentary tracing how the turntables evolved into an instrument in its own right. But it's about way more than that. It's a powerful rebuke to those who have turned hip-hop into a music called "rap", drained it of its positivity so that it's not threatening to the corporate hegemony, sold it to suburban white kids whose own racism blinds them to the fallacy they are buying into, and hoodwinked music critics by using their fears of being seen as "unhip". I've never been too involved in hip-hop myself, but I always liked it and bought records I liked. But the way that our corporate-driven society ripped at, undermined and co-opted hip-hop closely parallels the mauling of punk rock. (Don't forget what They want you to forget--punk and hip-hop were extremely friendly in the late 70's and early 80's. Punk learned positivity and how to groove from hip-hop. I am not informed about hip-hop enough to know what it got from punk, except perhaps to say that it probably helped develop DJ culture's greatest strength, which is to reappropriate everything, from jazz to rock to classical music, for its own ends.)

The full-on corporate press that damaged both punk and hip-hop so badly happened so fast that if you blinked, you missed it. The corporate Them managed to redefined both subcultures before they had a chance to define themselves to the mainstream. Hip-hop got redefined as "rap", with an emphasis on the MC and on the lyrical content. And once the MC was front and center, it was a short jump to offering the biggest contracts to the MC's who spouted the most appalling lyrics and selling "rap" music as a pre-fab way for spoiled white suburban kids to rebel without actually confronting the real powers in our society. (I am saying all this with full realization that many gangsta rappers are talents in their own right and that shouldn't be taken away from them. They have a place at the table. But they aren't the fucking table.) And of course, the racist elements in our society are only too happy to help with the process. Watch Bill O'Reilly scream and whine about rap music and you swear that you are in 1955, listening to some preacher yelling about how the white children are being ruined by listening to "colored" music.

But hip-hop is a culture--over and over again you heard people point this out. You could see the lights turn on for me and my friends hearing this, as we are always insisting that punk is a culture, not a sound. It's incredibly frustrating to flip on the television and see some crappy band that avoids political controversy like the plague but has some tattoos and has some basic understanding that catchy riffs are fun to listen to get described as "punk". Punk is political--it's rebellion--it's rejection of our cultural impertatives to be a brainless consumer--it's embracing music's ability to speak to the culture as it is, not as it's pushed on us. It needn't be explicit. My favorite band of all time is The Ramones, who only embraced explicit politics in the 80's and even then against the wishes of Republican partisan Johnny Ramone. But their political importance reaches beyond that. They took on the very idea that the record industry had a right to dictate what was the "in" music and what was not, and they won. Preening hipsters who wear the clothes that Madison Avenue dictates are not punk, no matter how rarely they wash their hair. Punk is the rejection of that.

And as soon at punks rejected that, the rejection was turned into a sales pitch of its own. It happened so fast that some people think that that punk is inseparable from the sales pitch. It's okay to reject their opinion, believe me. The corporate fucks who are threatened by street culture are hoping that you buy the lie that there is no such thing as genuine street culture. Apathy is good for profits. If you don't believe there's a difference between indie labels, street culture, etc. and prepackaged corporate products, then you will just buy their products without thinking.

(None of this means that true rebels haven't published on major labels. Sadly, it's way more complex than that.)

Both hip-hop and punk have gone underground and evolved on their own. Both influence on the prepackaged, corporate-accepted, major label product that you can see on MTV. The relationship between street culture and corporate-packaged culture is complex and ever-changing. Anyone who understands that in the slightest will get a kick out of watching the musicians in Scratch try to work this out for themselves. And if you've never really considered all this before, I would recommend the movie as a good place to start. Plus, you get to hear some badass songs and see how an instrument was invented and became widespread.

52 Comments:

Blogger Earnest said...

While I love the movie Scratch, I have to admit that I have always hated the "rap vs. hip hop" argument popularized by KRS-1. Yeah, the DJ was the catalyst for the music, but I doubt it would still be around if not for the DJ (DJs aren't exactly selling lots of albums now). Hip Hop would've gone the way of disco had the rapper not taken over the role of "toastmaster," expanding on the toasting and boasting the DJ was doing. That's what evolved into rap as we know it and what made the music viable. It's also why the rap "battle" will always be a pillar in hip hop. For better or for worse, rap is the music of hip hop, whether it's commercial, underground (though there hasn't been a real underground talent since Eminem), conscious, or gangsta.

People often talk about the cross-currents of punk and rap, using the Beastie Boys as an illustration. I think that the two movements were similar but didn't share much beyond being contemporaries. Both forms of music were a democratization of music at a time when making and recording music was much more expensive than it is now. Also, they were both born around the same time as the Gen-X, post-modern aesthetic-- they were intertextual, self-conscious, and ironic. That isn't to say that there wasn't some crossover audience; I just think to make more of it is just a little revisionist.

When I was younger, I loved when people began discussing hip hop as a culture, but now it bothers me. It seems to me that hip hop culture has cannibalized black culture, which means that if a black person makes a movie, writes a book, or does anything, it is always first considered in the hip hop context. Whatever I do, I don't want it to be considered hip hop unless it is hip hop. Hip Hop is the music I listen to, not the story I write or the video I make.

A great CD To listen to is Rap Archives Vol. 1. It consists of live recordings from around 1981 through 1989, features some great rap battles and one great DJ performance, and a live version of an Afrikaa Bamabta and the Zulu Nation song. It will show you why rap was as popular as it was as early as it was in hip hop's life.

8/09/2004

 
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I agree with you 100% on the black/hip-hop thing. I wish that people, particularly music critics who really should know better, could get past simplisticly equating musical styles/cultures with race.

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