Don't Know Much About History

by Ben Rubenstein

5 November 2007

As Lupe Fiasco learned in a recent faux pas, what you don't know won't scare you – until somebody calls you out.

Lupe Fiasco and I are a lot alike. I’m not just talking about the boyish good looks, the legendary mixtapes, and the ongoing struggle to reconcile spirituality with the street. Like others born in 1982, we both grew up with certain cultural touchstones – and missed out on some pretty important things, too.

To think, if I’d been born just a few years earlier, I might’ve known what this European Union thing was all about; NAFTA, too. Maybe I wouldn’t furrow my brow upon every reference to some dude named Rodney King, or to a place called Waco, Texas. That stuff was part of my big brother’s era, really, as was Eric Clapton’s “Unplugged” album and Sinead O’Connor’s assassination of the Pope (or something like that, I was too young to understand). 

So I can totally relate to my boy Fiasco when, in defense of his flubbing of “Electric Relaxation” at VH1’s Hip-Hop Honors show last month, he gave it to us straight: “I can’t say that I’m sorry for not growing up on Tribe, that’s just the way it is.” Fair enough, right?

Ok, not really. Truthfully, I get what Fiasco is saying, since I’ve missed a lot of music myself over the years. I don’t even blame him for screwing up the song, even if it is my favorite Tribe tune, and I get it right every time I’m rapping in the shower. But he had to know that his “explanation” was going to draw some criticism, especially within a genre that’s hyper-aware of history.

More than any other genre, hip-hop requires its followers to have at least some understanding of its past, and not just because the music is so self-referential with sampled rhymes and beats. Hip-hop never had it easy; even today, when it rules pretty much every meaningful market, the music has to fight for legitimacy in some circles.

With its life seemingly always on the line (we may be past that point, if you listen to Nas), hip-hop needs fans with devotion to the cause, and true devotion can only come, it would seem, from an understanding of what’s happened before. Hip-hop fans must constantly prove that they’re “real”, and there’s no shortage of ways to challenge that assertion. “I don’t want fans who don’t know who G Rap is”, vowed RA the Rugged Man in his anthem, “Lessons”; a similar sentiment pervades the entire community.

Every genre is insular to some extent; the hardcore fans will disregard the “newbies”, and perhaps even chuckle to themselves about their ignorance. But I find it hard to imagine that the same element of confrontation exists among communities of, say, jazz fans, as it does among hip-hoppers (of course, you also rarely see disputes between jazz musicians end in death).

Go ahead, log onto your local message board and start a discussion about the top five hip-hop albums of all time.  Within minutes, you’re bound to see someone get called out for not knowing their history. Naiveté is not typically treated with kindness, especially in the underground; the earlier you were there, the more legitimate you are. (“Most of y’all started rappin’ after Illmatic”, taunts rapper Rusty Chains on “Don’t Be Mad”).

You could argue that this insistence on historical awareness is a good thing, because it demonstrates passion for the music. But it also alienates. It’s why I often don’t feel totally comfortable at hip-hop shows, and why I’m generally reluctant to get involved in message board discussions, even on topics I’m fairly knowledgeable about; I don’t want to be called out if I haven’t demonstrated that I know All About Hip-hop.

On the other hand, knowing your history is never a bad thing, and it’s easy to study on a subject like music. How else did pretty much all of the people of my “era” come to know the Beatles so well? Music, especially great music, withstands the test of time and transcends eras. So not growing up with something is not necessarily a valid excuse for not knowing it; and if you care about what you’re doing, you should want to know about the artists and the work that preceded you. Indeed, as Q-Tip pointed out after Fiasco’s incident, it’s what artists must do—the music of the past inspires that of the present and future.

It’s not as if Fiasco is completely ignorant of history, though; he just has a different set of influences. In his post-show explanation, he talked about growing up listening to Spice 1 and 8Ball & MJG albums, which he believes deserve just as much historical status as Midnight Marauders and the like, even if they’re not part of the agreed-upon “canon” of hip-hop.

It begs the question of whether one version of history is more legitimate than another, especially when it involves something as subjective as musical taste. After all, isn’t that what an influence is – a subjective decision as to what moves you most? Choosing one artist as your influence over another doesn’t necessarily mean you’re questioning the merit of the another (and Fiasco did make it clear that he’s not “pissing on” the legacy of Tribe).

In a time when so much music sounds derivative of the past, it’s kind of refreshing to see an artist like Fiasco buck the trend – if that’s really what he’s attempting to do. Many have voiced a desire for a return to the early ‘90s “Golden Age” of hip-hop (and, interestingly, many of those people likely heard some of that same sound on Fiasco’s debut full-length, Food and Liquor), but it’s this desire to return to the past that can keep a genre stagnant. It’s honorable to celebrate history in music, and let that sound carry though.  But it’s possible, too, that holding the past too close makes it difficult for new, fresh voices to emerge.

It’s like the rookie who comes up with a big hit in the playoffs (cough, Dustin Pedroia, cough), or makes a game-winning shot; he’s just doesn’t know he’s supposed to be scared. Maybe, unburdened by the knowledge of everything that’s come before, a young artist can do the equivalent. Maybe it’ll even happen in my era.

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