I actually loathe year-end lists. Not for particularly unique reasons: I find them reductive, unimaginative, and to be a conflict of interest (for anyone that reads lists like a suggested shopping list, please note that many of the endorsed products were not paid for by the endorsers). I am also aware of the counterpoints: lists can be convenient, imaginative, and valid purchasing suggestions, depending on how the writer approaches the assignment. To each his/her own, right? So, chalk up my displeasure to the pleasure I take in preferring to speak specifically rather than broadly when writing about music.
So, how is it that I manage to contradict myself every year when I draw up lists, anyway?
In defense, my lists are a little different. I like to think of them as a compromise between standard best-of lists and the point-counterpoint debate constantly being waged upstairs. For example, a current thread I am running is a list of songs with sample clearance lawsuits (both settled in or outside of court), all for the purpose of building a nerdtastic mix of litigious hip-hop history. Yes, it is myopic in scope and mostly indulgent in the greater scheme of things. But it is a great exercise for my sense of history. And, more important, it’s FUN.
Which brings us to our topic today: how to have fun with hip-hop. I say that not in the sense of, “Rappers need to learn to have fun” (although he could stand to lighten up), but rather in how to have an entertaining yet substantive discussion about hip-hop. And while I enjoy wading through the deluge of hip-hop ‘scholarship’ out there (ha!), at the end of the day I try to find digestible and engaging ways to approach such a broad topic.
So, at year’s end I did what a lot of other folks did: I reflected. And, like a lot of other folks, I found myself mulling over things that I liked about hip-hop’s accomplishments in 2005, other things that I did not like so much about hip-hop’s accomplishments in 2005, and a random smattering of things that sounded funny in the context of hip-hop in 2005. With the goal of presenting ideas that pertain specifically to 2005/2006, I filtered them down. Now, I present to you a list of six points that hip-hop artists should leave behind in 2005 and six points that they should continue in 2006. Some of it is serious, some of it is silly, some of it may even be inaccurate, but all of it is sincere and about as on-point as I can be. Just like this hip-hop thing we love so much, right?
Leave That Noise in ‘05:
1. Don’t Believe the Hype.
Once upon a time, a person said something. A crowd gathered. Another person didn’t like what that first person said, so he responded. The crowd grew larger. That first person felt offended by what the second person said, so he raised his voice. The crowd swelled. This exchange went back and forth, but the crowd soon lost interest and moved on to another person who just happened to say something . . .
The media often singles out hip-hop for using such disagreement and suspicion to justify violence and make commercial gains, yet conveniently forgets that no history remains immune from such irrationality. To hip-hop’s credit, it is one of the few arenas where conflict has its own genre and DVD series. Out of such competition, some artists have even produced exceptional work (e.g., BDP’s “Bridge Is Over” v. Shan’s “The Bridge”). However, the vast bulk of beef has been relatively Grade D. UTFO’s “Roxanne, Roxanne” inspired a number of responses, the majority of which few remember. Backpackers love to regale each other with tales of Casual/Hiero butting heads with Saafir/Hobo on KMEL, but anyone that actually heard that battle surely remembers better instances of freestyling from each party involved. Craig G and Supernatural’s feud brought out the worst of their personalities as the unquestionable freestyle champs resorted to sneak attacks on the other. And to call “Takeover” or “Ether” the apices of Jay’s and Nas’s careers, respectively, is simply ludicrous.
Yet 2005 may go down as the year that hip-hop bathed itself in this unglamorous reputation. Taking a quick lead from the Eminem v. Benzino Sauce and G-Unit v. G-Unot campaigns, the attention-hungry took it to the low road and racked up headlines: The Lox v. P. Diddy; B.G. v. the Hot Boys; Lil’ Flip v. T.I.; Lil’ Flip v. Paul Wall; Lil’ Flip v. Slim Thug; Mobb Deep v. Nas (again); Benzino v. Ozone; Funk Flex v. Spinbad; Bow Wow v. Will Smith; the Game v. Some Dude; and a Soccer Mom v. Chamillionaire. Oh, and 50 Cent v. the World. In one of the most ig’nant developments for both the artist (for submitting to it) and the audience (for stoking it), beef has reached its logical conclusion as a marketing tool.
Unfortunately, 2006 has started with a disappointing bang. As Spine so eloquently wrote on 19 January, “Apparently unaware it’s a trend that was played out nearly five years ago, a publicity-hungry Cam’ron makes a record dissing Jay-Z.” While kids wonder whether Jay will respond or what Cam’s next move will be, simple perspective proves more productive. Keep the beef in ‘05, no one here is looking for it.
(Postscript: Leaking a track on satellite radio is dumb, dumb, dumb, dumb….)
2. Odd Couples.
While it deserves credit for its humblest asset, the collaboration (for that discussion, check the next list), hip-hop has a tendency to abuse the hell out of it. From duets with dead rappers to Disco D producing a deadbeat dad, one yearns to periodically remind hip-hop, “Really, you don’t have to turn on the red light…” Worse still are the non-music-based collabos that fill journalistic content. Case in point: C-lebrites airing out their odd better halves. The end result is predictably TLC: unpretty. Worse still is that hip-hop culture in effect slips itself a roofie, leaving Gwen Stefani with the credit of coining, “That’s my sh*t” and Nelly Furtado with one of the most anticipated albums of 2006. Really, you’d think the hip-hop generation would’ve learned by now that you just can’t trust ‘em (via C&D). But I digress.
I actually don’t have a solution for this besides using better judgment and straightening priorities. I mean, what’s it going to take to get certain artists (you know who you are) to challenge themselves? Do you want a moratorium placed on Luda guest spots or Fatman Scoop drops? Like a cowbell, these Nate Doggs of the game can only be used sparingly. That said, maybe the answer lies in life experience. What better source for intrigue than the human memory? In the words of Chris Rock, “Why don’t you go out and get kidnapped, have some new shit happen to you?’‘
3. Kidz Hop.
The first time I heard “Straight Outta Compton” and “Cop Killer”, I got shook. Little boy in short pants shaking the piss right out of his body. That was hip-hop. Now, I turn on the TV and I see the Game, Eazy-E’s supposed heir apparent, tatted and t.o.‘d . . . and carrying a toddler. I switch the channel and breathe a sigh of relief when Three 6 Mafia announces its latest anthem, which features three kids playing the part of “Young Three 6”. Shutting off the idiot box, I turn on the radio and tune into everyone’s favorite rapping/producing messiah, only to switch it off in disgust when he bleats, “Kanye’s for the keeeeds”. Really, it’s bad enough that this level of stupid-dumb-retardedness has to exist, but does hip-hop really need to subject itself to the Ewok effect? What was once a revolutionary hurricane has become cuddly gimmickry. C’mon, don’t make my heat syrupy and sweet, so pleasant and G (rated). Hate it or love it? “Hated it!” says Blaine Edwards. Maybe Spike Jonze should spearhead an intervention with Juelz and Mr. West. Nelly should probably be included in that conversation, as well that blue-hoodied child was a desperate move. Consider what’s at stake: credibility. Although it seems that some other folks still feel threatened….
4. Hip-Hop. Literally. Like, I Mean It.
“This Saturday Night Live routine”, Sasha Frere-Jones wrote (in reference to SNL‘s “Lazy Sunday: Chronicles of Narnia” skit), “Is pretty much my nightmare, like people telling me they really like Danger Mouse, even though they don’t usually like rap.” While the sketch proved to be a highly adept satire, gaining enough popularity to even become an iTunes free download-of-the-week, the send-up also succeeded by confirming a non-hip-hop audience’s perception of hip-hop music: overblown drama, mundane subject matter, and social deviance, all to the beat of cacophony. Josh Levin even went so far as to suggest that the parody provided a welcome relief from ‘the real thing’. “People aren’t forwarding this video because it’s a parody of what’s bad about rap”, he wrote in his “The Chronicles of Narnia Rap” for Slate (23 December 2005), “They’re sending it around because it’s an ode to what can be great about it.” In this manner, “Chronic(les)” sticks to the stump mockery of hip-hop culture (though Oliver Wang cleverly pointed out, “J-Zone and Paul Barman are no doubt asking themselves why they never thought to write songs for SNL skits”).
Which is precisely why this safe isht needs to stop. To suggest that a parody song (“Mack on some cupcakes?” Maybe I’ll go pimp some pumpernickel next) fulfills some supposed void (“Maybe [“Chronic(les)”] points up what’s missing in mainstream rap an awareness that it’s OK to be goofy”) is uninformed at best. What? Hip-hop doesn’t have a sense of humor? What were the catch phrases of the year? “What??” “Yeah!!!” “Bye, N*a!” Oh, I’m sorry, I thought Kurt Cobain said that. For this supposedly downtrodden populace, I submit David Banner’s “F*kin’” (err…I mean, “Touchin’”): Pure evidence that hip-hop loves to have fun. The beat turns you out in all the right ways while Banner sings with isht-eating glee. But, to paraphrase Louis Armstrong, “If I have to explain it to you, you will never understand it.”
Perhaps a better illustration of this “cognitive dissonance” is the year’s Mantan show, R. Kelly’s Trapped in the Closet. From rockist send-ups to a Cliff’s Notes summary, countless decided the best way to interpret Kelly was to transcribe his work in a manner that everyone (...) could understand. I suppose this point flew over my head because Robert Kelly has been funny and deranged for the duration of his decade-plus career. And apparently it takes a child rape acquittal and a midget crapping his pants for the rest of the nation to figure out there may be something funny in that brownie.
I hate to be a censor, but I am also a hater. Until you understand the humor of the situation, please leave the safe spins in the garbage bin. Same place where your Weird Al discs wound up. Of course, for every idiot outside of hip-hop that needs to shut the eff up is an idiot inside hip-hop that needs to shut the eff up…
In a sign of hip-hop’s newest level of ig’nance, documentaries were needed to remind folks of the ravages of concentrated cocaine hydrochloride (1 More Hit) and blood diamonds (Bling: Consequences and Repercussions). Hua Hsu posits an interesting theory for this latest surge in hedonism: “It’s the 1980s again in the streets, all me-first, get-rich-quick flash.” Which is an unfortunate delusion, because that is far from the case (links via Notes and Poplicks).
6. Stop Ig’nance.
- Stop Snitching.
- Stop ‘Stop Snitching’ campaigns.
- Stop unsolved murders of rappers. (The San Francisco Bay Guardian, 16 November 2005)
- Stop sending rappers to death row. (AllHipHop News, 11 January 2006)
- Stop rappers from going to jail. (Philadelphia Weekly, 10 January 2006)
- Stop saying “No Homo” it’s gay.
- Stop doing bar/t mitzvahs. (MTV.com, 15 November 2005)
- Stop Ig’nance with a capital I. (New York Daily News, 19 January 2006)
Keep Keepin’ on in ‘06:
1. Give the Drum Machine Some.
As a devout fan of the Silver Age when MPC samplers and SP1200 drum machines fertilized production, I suppose it seems contrary that I would be so lax about legal clampdowns on sampling. Call it moving on, but I find it difficult to hate on production circa 2005. After all, when Dre and SA-RA share area codes and make such divergent and invigorating music, I can say with fair certainty the sky is not falling. From the club explosion of Lil’ Jon’s tireless laboratory of crunk to Jay Dee’s blunted out drip beats for headphones, tones and sound effects have become our new cultural signifiers, our ‘sampled’ points of reference. Play this game: what Nintendo games do the old Chamillionaire-Paul Wall beats remind you of? Even if you are stuck on those crispy classic breaks, hip-hop’s portfolio has diversified enough to offer choice, from ubiquitous session kit player ?uestlove to the explosive pads of Rich Nice. While OutKast’s The Love Below still confuses some with its production excess, these subsequent innovations in created sound continue to move hip-hop music along. So bring on the Owusu & Hannibal matrix lover’s rock and the snareless snap of Dem Franchize Boyz.
2. Steady Mobbin’.
Just as collaborations in hip-hop can easily become a point of predictability or ridicule, they can also be its source of strength and community. A strong counterpoint to auteur theory, thank hip-hop for truly keeping it real by realizing that art for the public can and should not be made in solitude. While only devoted fans tend to pay attention to Rhyme Syndicates and Dungeon Families, this past year’s mass collabos proved fruitful. Big Boi and the Purple-Ribbon All-Stars drank purp and sang about being on that “Kryptonite” while Luda reminisced with the Red Light District about “Georgia”. Better still were the cross-record bin collaborations, such as Shadow showing his hyphy side to Keak da Sneak for “Three Freaks”, Diplo turning out Gwen’s “Hollaback Girl”, and, of course, that whole West-Brion fling. Call it the new hootie hoo see how beautiful it can be when we all just get along? Looks like 2006 is off to a nice start.
3. Body Rock Versus Bothered Rock.
The idea is to keep approaching rock collaborations with caution. Case in point: appearing in the “Twisted Transistor” video as the members of Korn was a hilarious send-up of both rock and hip-hop video tropes; however, having Korn lead singer Jonathan Davis produce a track on Biggie’s Duets album? (MTV.com, 06 October 2005) Time and place, people. Otherwise, don’t body ya self.
4. Take That, Rewind It Back.
As the hairline continues to lean back, older artists struggle to stay relevant…oh wait, that’s every genre. That said, hip-hop has not exhibited the kindest sense of regard for its elders. While Aerosmith still headlines stadiums, the remaining members of Run-DMC had been relegated to running the block. Perhaps taking a cue from rock audience’s love of nostalgia, yesteryear’s rappers took fans back in 2005. Foregoing modern missteps, Reverend Run preached old school aesthetics on Distortion. Meanwhile across media, VH1’s midlife mess of a Hip Hop Awards show received a defibrillator shock when BDK reminded all the young ones the importance of entertainment was anyone hollerin’ for T.I.‘s pimp swagger then? On the b-side of the dial was Sadat X’s Experience and Education, a heartfelt reflection on years of little recognition, sans bitterness and filled with the same ol’ nasal flow. Granted, the resurrected Fresh Fest drew a sparse crowd and Heavy D and Craig Mack made only modest appearances on the mixtape circuit, each artist simply did what they did best in the first place. (AllHipHop News, 21 July 2005) Hopefully both artists and audience recognize the breadth of the market and that both old and young can share its space. Better still, let both generations go toe-to-toe when LL does the same with Juelz. Don’t stop the rock and put E-Fizzle back on top!
5. Ask Not What Your Label Can Do for You, Ask What You Can Dew fo’ Sef’.
Ideally, I would like to see labels offer comprehensive benefits packages to their artists. Wouldn’t that be a true indicator of commitment? Well, even the rockers couldn’t catch this break, so Sheryl and Don took it to the stage with the Recording Artist’s Coalition and have subsequently lobbied on behalf of artists’ publishing rights and backed the Future of Music Coalition’s Musicians’ Health Care Initiative. Unfortunately, word hasn’t really spread to the hip-hop community, or at least its living segment of the four hip-hop acts on RAC’s roster, two are dead (“Estate of Lisa ‘Left Eye’ Lopes” and “Estate of Tupac Shakur”). And considering how old this hip-hop thing is getting, wouldn’t you agree it’s about time to hook an MC up with an HMO? Frankly, I want to see Saigon taken care of properly. (HipHopGame.com, 18 January 2006) Holla, “We Want 401(k)!”
6. Believe the Hyphy.
Dre. Saigon. Jay and Nas. Nas and Primo. Hyphy takes Crunk. Snap. Kelis. Q-Tip. M1. Idlewild. The Coup. Count Bass D. SA-RA. Damn, and these are mostly old-timers I know the kids got something better cooking…
Once again, consider these as suggestions and opinions. As my yoga instructor says, “Don’t think of goals, because goals are either met with success or failure.” And I am not trying to make or break hip-hop in any given year just trying to see it move along. So, here’s to 2006: keep diggin’, y’all.