Something From Nothing Art of Rap
Ice-T, Dr. Dre, Chuck D.
About a half-hour into Something from Nothing: The Art of Rap, Ice-T, the 2012 documentary’s narrator and de facto ringleader, poses the following question in so many words: Why doesn’t rap music garner the same amount of respect afforded to jazz and blues music? It’s a hell of an inquiry, one that you never really consider seriously until it’s actually asked.
Is it an issue of longevity? Jazz and blues were around well before the advent of popular music began to take shape and it doesn’t take a history major to understand that rap music is still a fairly young expression of art when compared with its black-music counterparts. Is it an issue of maturity? For better or worse, there has always been a very succinct juvenile element within a lot of the genre’s most popular and successful end-products (club-hopping, drug-using, womanizing, etc.). Or is it an issue of perception? While more universally accepted by white America today than it was, say, 20 years ago, the hip-hop culture has almost always been racially divisive within the fluid realm of social consciousness, a blatant and disturbing indicator of how judgmental some can still be when embracing foreign cultures.
In the movie, Marley Marl, one of the most important producers rap music has ever seen, made it a question of camaraderie.
“I think it’s because we’re not banded together like jazz and blues artists,” he told Ice-T. “You know, you’ll see reunions with jazz and blues artists. I mean it’s starting to happen now. We’re starting to realize it now. But you see blues artists—they have love for each other… Basically when we start respecting ourselves and showing homage and getting up there and winning awards and saying ‘I’d like to just thank Grand Master Flash. I’d like to thank Kool Herc for even starting this so I could be here getting this.’ Once that happens and we start showing compassion for the people before us—that’s when we’re gonna have respect like that.”
Marl was on to something when he offered up that passage only because the substance within it runs deep. One of the more generic criticisms the hip-hop community receives on a consistent basis is how often rappers celebrate both themselves and their crew. Eminem’s “Till I Collapse” is the perfect example, for instance, when in verse two, he rattles off his list of genre figures who have inspired him throughout his career and ultimately earned his respect as wordsmiths.
The quagmire? That song was released in May 2002, precisely nine months before 50 Cent unleashed Get Rich or Die Tryin’ in February 2003, which, as any hip-hop fan surely remembers, was a time that saw the entire culture suffer through a battle-obsessed spark that would ultimately turn into a conflict-dominated forest fire. Adding to the fuel was the popularity of an endless amount of hostile mixtapes and underground propaganda such as the Beef films that glamorized disagreement and anger so much that they inspired BET to begin its own television series based on the stuff.
The point? Even when hip-hop has wanted to celebrate others, the act of being confrontational and argumentative to competing artists, factions or record labels has consistently remained fashionable as a means of proving one’s self-worth and/or level of confidence that will forever be essential to becoming a known name in the rap industry. Thus the following must be stated when pondering Marl’s point: Don’t romanticize the art of the battle if your play for broader respect is predicated on the precept of unity. Conflict or camaraderie—you can have only one; not both.
That’s not a condemnation anymore than it is an observation. As Jay-Z once said on his Unplugged album, the true essence of hip-hop lies within the battle. Street corners filled with young city folk who take solace in going back and forth with other artists—playfully and not-so-playfully lobbing insults and witticisms at one another—will forever be at the core of the genre. That’s in its blood, and to take that element out of the equation is kind of like taking a cowboy hat off Merle Haggard’s head.
Therefore, we are left with only one logical issue that the hip-hop community has yet to truly address adequately: Ageism.
Lauren Carter, of the website The Grio, wrote an excellent piece about rap music’s elders recently and her points weren’t merely valid; they were revelatory.
“Most cultures hold their elders in high regard. It’s safe to say that mainstream rap in its current form is not one of them,” she wrote. “In today’s hip-hop landscape, pioneers are typically dismissed and marginalized by the mainstream, trotted out once a year during VH1’s Hip-Hop Honors and then conveniently forgotten. There’s a sense that aging rap artists need to ‘move out of the way’ or ‘stay in their lane’ to make way for new artists, as if classic rappers could be any further out of the way than they already are and new artists were actually worth getting out of the way for. One has to wonder why rock artists are revered well into old age while their rap counterparts are generally ignored and then branded ‘angry and bitter’ when they object to being tossed aside like yesterday’s garbage.
“While the size and makeup of rock and rap fan bases differ, it stands to reason that if quality artists in one genre can still garner radio play, media coverage and respect well into old age, then quality artists in another genre should receive similar treatment,” she continued. “Yet classic rap artists are typically treated like they don’t exist. There are few, if any, terrestrial classic hip hop stations… The Hip Hop Gods tour that Public Enemy headlined late last year was universally ignored by major media outlets, even though Chuck D is as important to hip hop as someone like Bob Dylan is to folk and rock, and Public Enemy is one of the most groundbreaking groups in all of music.” (“Why doesn’t hip-hop respect its elders?”, by Lauren Carter, The Grio, 19 March 2013)
Carter is enormously perceptive in her observation. It would be unthinkable to consider popping 40 bucks for a ticket to see Rakim, MC Lyte and KRS One complete a mega-old-school-tour, yet five generic pop rock acts (that probably have absolutely no bearing on the history or future of the medium, mind you) put together a package that drew considerably well throughout all of last summer. Why is that? Why is it accepted that some hip-hop heads refuse to rush to grab seats to see Grandmaster Caz, yet some of the most fringe followers that rap music enjoys will shell out $75 a night to see an artist such as Pitbull co-headline a summer jaunt with Keisha this summer? Is it apathy, or is it ignorance? Is it a short-sighted mindset, or is it a product of the culture as a whole?
In her piece (which, again, is outstanding and worth every second of your time), Carter eventually winds up at big business when seeking blame for why the rap climate has spiraled so far away from its elders. Corporations sell the idea of ignorance, she argues, while erring away from enlightenment or substance. That’s somewhat true, sure, but all things considered, I would argue that multi-billion-dollar companies are only about half to blame for the mainstream’s disinterest in the architects of such a revolutionary musical movement.
Who shoulders the other half? Well, it’s impossible to discount free will when considering this mess. Those who argue that Leonard Cohen is a far better songwriter than, say, Ryan Adams, for instance, will more than likely always argue that Slick Rick is a far better rapper than, say, Ludacris, for lack of a better example, and the problem of such lies more within the ugly realm of elitism than it does anything else (i.e., Those who swear by Slick Rick are sometimes more concerned with ridiculing others for not swearing by him than they are actually swearing by him in the first place). As fans, we should be more open to learning about whatever form of art we adore.
While actively seeking out historical knowledge regarding hip-hop might be a tad harder than researching the history of popular music or rock music, for instance, it shouldn’t stifle our curiosity enough to discount the people who helped turn this type of music into what it is today. It’s easy to learn about the Beatles because Beatles paraphernalia is everywhere you look. Big Daddy Kane, on the other hand? Not so much.
In this context, the complication that lies underneath the above argument is that such an outlook is perhaps based within a confrontational approach to dialogue and interpersonal communication within music lovers. The irony in that, of course, comes while noting how this is the very same type of confrontational dialogue that Marley Marl implied needs to become extinct in order for rap music to gain the type of respect it probably deserves. Thus, after all this, we find ourselves back at the same question: Why doesn’t rap music garner the same amount of respect afforded to jazz and blues music?
It’s such a revealing inquiry. For as much as it says about how strong the base of both jazz and blues has always been, it says just as much about how unstable the grounds on which hip-hop walks continues to be. Many purists tout rap music as modern day poetry with classical values, and I don’t disagree with that. The combination of wordplay, vocabulary, intelligence, wit and confidence within great hip-hop is rivaled by only the musicianship, density, versatility and connection that great rock, blues or soul music provides, or the phrasing, philosophy, transcendence and sheer ability that great jazz music conveys. The difference between the former and the latter lies somewhere within the often obtuse edicts of respect and resilience. It’s hard to grow old in the hip-hop community, and until we see someone do it with a unique level of success (Jay-Z, for one, may very well be on his way), it’s going to be nearly impossible to objectively answer the question with which we began this entire conversation.
Still, even with that answer yet to be found, the mere fact that such is being debated is a victory in its own right for a culture that continues to be one of the most subversive the mainstream has ever seen. In a way, the title on which Ice-T landed for his documentary should not be lauded for its impudence; rather, it should be commended for its simplicity. Because for something that came from nothing, rap music has worked its way into a reputation as one of the most complex and misunderstood mediums in popular culture. It might not garner the precise amount of respect it currently seeks, sure, but to think it doesn’t have a realistic chance to earn it by the time it catches up to where both jazz music and the blues currently reside… well, that would kind of be like thinking “My Melody” would have been the same without the help of Marley Marl’s legendary old school touch.
And as I’m sure even Eric B. and Rakim would attest today, arguing something like that would be sillier than trying to count the amount of clocks Flavor Flav has worn around his neck for the past 25 years. After all, Father Time might just be the one true thing hip hop will have to endure in order to finally earn its place among the most respected music in history.
Actually, it might just be the final step toward finally turning nothing into something for good.