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Hip-Haute Couture

LL Cool J

Although "hip-hop" means different things to different people, everyone seems to be confident that they know what "it" is. Through this subjective lens, there is also a unique brand of investment and ownership in the meaning of "hip-hop".

Hat to the back, gotta wear my pants down real low /

That's the type of girl that I am.

-- TLC, "Hat 2 da Back", Ooooooohhh...On the TLC Tip (1992)

I'm the center of the bomb, I'm the part that explodes /

You are not hip-hop...go write for Vogue.

-- LL Cool J, "This Is Ring Tone Murder", Exit 13 (2008)

Every year since "the century turned 20", to quote Rakim, there's been at least one event, utterance, or trend that underscores just how far hip-hop has come and how deeply it has been incorporated into popular culture. In early 2008, I was struck by Snoop Dogg's appearance on the US daytime soap opera One Life to Live. Back in the 1980s, the idea of a rapper popping up on a soap opera might have sounded farfetched, when we were just happy to have a couple of hip-hop related movies and Yo! MTV Raps. In September 2008, LL Cool J took a guest spot on Bravo's Project Runway. The episode as a whole suggested, probably unintentionally since it's not a music show, that hip-hop's relevance and pervasiveness in the larger arena has also moved us on an individual level. There are individual consequences to hip-hop's global impact and presence in the mainstream.

First, you have to know something about the show. Project Runway is a reality television show that follows roughly the same contestant elimination pattern as The Bachelor, The Weakest Link, Big Brother, Survivor, America's Next Top Model, Paris Hilton's BFF, and countless others. Contestants show up to win a big prize and gather the spoils of victory and, something like Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None, they are systematically kicked off the show, usually one by one, until only a single person remains as the champ.

On Project Runway, we meet contestants who are aspiring fashion designers vying for such prizes as cash, a mentorship, the chance to launch an original fashion line, and all sorts of career opportunities and assorted goodies. Each episode finds them undertaking a new design challenge, limited by specific assignment parameters, strict time limits, and a budget that sometimes makes pre-epiphany Scrooge look like a spendthrift. One week the designers are crafting high fashion garments out of grocery store products. The next, they're designing outfits inspired by original photography.

Style expert and Liz Claiborne Chief Creative Officer Tim Gunn oversees the designers, giving them the details of their assignments and offering a supportive but critical eye. Gunn is just an all around cool dude too, appraising each design with a quizzical glare over and through the eyeglasses he wears mid-bridge before dispensing his wisdom. Since designing, like any art form, involves free expression and pride in one's abilities, the contestants aren't always amenable to Gunn's suggestions. "I'm concerned," Gunn likes to say about a garment in progress as he stands with a profoundly perplexed look on his face. Regardless of the designer's reaction, Gunn almost always leaves with a friendly but firm "Make it work", which is basically what keeps me watching. I just like hearing him say that one line.

After the typical contestant chatter ("Hey, I didn't come here to make friends, I came to win!"), the designs are scored by the Project Runway judges. The panel usually consists of supermodel and hostess Heidi Klum, top designer Michael Kors, Elle editor-at-large Nina Garcia, and a special guest judge. The designs hit the runway one at a time, after which the contestants endure direct questions and comments about their threads. Then the judges deliberate. Ultimately, someone has to go, prompting Heidi Klum to toast the show's elimination portion with this jewel: "One minute you're in, the next you're out!" Designers get kicked out until the winner is crowned in the finale.

The cast of Project Runway: Season 5

As a hip-hop listener, I can relate to the serial style of reality television. And the contestant-eat-contestant dynamic of reality TV definitely has similarities to rap's constant attention to announcing a single "great" rapper. Declaring oneself the "best" in rap is part of the charm.

On TV, events unfold and intertwine from the season opener to the final episode, in much the same way that rappers reference their previous releases or incorporate elements from other people's songs. As a result, partial viewing of a reality show yields a truncated experience compared to watching a show from the beginning. You can't get the inside jokes if you don't see all of the episodes, just like you can't fully appreciate a rhyme that references an older tune if you aren't familiar with the history. As with all remakes, for example, the way we view remakes of hip-hop songs is enhanced by being familiar with the original. Snoop Dogg's version of "Lodi Dodi" is cool, but being acquainted with Doug E. Fresh & Slick Rick's "La Di Da Di" gives it all a back-story, a sonic lineage.

The same is true of sequels to hip-hop songs, which is probably the most direct parallel to reality TV's serial structure. EPMD, for instance, continually dedicated a track on their albums to a lady named Jane who always seemed to outsmart them. If you never heard the first track, or episode, of the Jane saga, you wouldn't totally get a later track like "Who Killed Jane?"

And then there are the many lyrical references in hip-hop songs -- references to peers, slang, events, and albums and songs by other rappers. Take an example from the '90s like Naughty by Nature's "Strike a Nerve" in which lead rapper Treach (Anthony Criss) begins his verse with, "I get my daily dose of 'Cha Cha Cha' and 'Shut the F*ck Up, Hoe'." If you didn't know "Cha Cha Cha" and "Shut the F*ck Up, Hoe" were songs by MC Lyte, the line wouldn't make much sense. His reference to that second song title might even come across as blatantly misogynistic. Last year, my father was listening to Brother Ali's "Looking at Me Sideways" and abruptly asked, "Hey, who's Dorian?". In "Sideways", Brother Ali boasts:

But it ain't impossible to solve

I ain't learn jack sh*t from Dorian at all

Let me hear you abusin' the culture I adore

I'll come across the hall and get involved like this here

Things fell into place when he understood that "Dorian" was a song about Brother Ali's intervention in his neighbor's pattern of domestic violence, only to have the woman he tried to protect call the police on Ali instead of the suspected wife beater.

You don't usually find a glossary or an index in your typical rap album booklet, so listeners generally have to educate themselves about a song's hip-hop and pop culture references. That basically means more listening. The more hip-hop you listen to, the more you understand, so that each song acts as a building block in the culture's larger structure of shared meaning. Voracious listening broadens your experience and makes it more robust, which in turn presents an ongoing challenge to the idea of what's "good" or "bad" about rap. Constant exposure to more material leads to reassessments and reevaluations.

That's the happy face of the listening experience. The complications can also arise from hip-hop's culture of shared perception. The more hip-hop we listen to, and the more references we comprehend, the more likely we are to understand bits of information that would be unfamiliar and confusing to casual listeners or non-fans. From there, it's possible to start separating the audience into categories: those who "get" the "true essence" of the music and those who don't. We tend to see this a dichotomy in hip-hop's generational spats, wherein the "old school" fans are writing off the rap artists enjoyed by the "new school" as symptomatic of an unschooled and uninitiated fan base.

Becoming "initiated", however, encompasses more than learning a predetermined amount of slang. Most of the time, slang can be absorbed from context clues with relative ease, and then memorized, imitated, and normalized. On this point, I am reminded of an episode of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air in which Will Smith (playing himself in the form of a troubled teen sent to live with his well-to-do aunt and uncle) teased his straight-laced, ultra-stiff cousin Carlton (Alfonso Ribeiro) about Carlton's lack of street credibility. Thus motivated to acquire and display his street smarts, Carlton compiles his own dictionary of hip-hop words and phrases for handy use, like a stereotypical American traveling outside of the United States with a book of "foreign" phrases. Although Carlton learns the terminology -- he thought the word "diss" was pronounced "disc" but he corrected that error -- he doesn't understand the entire code of behavior the same way someone "from the street" would. Consequently, he unwittingly finds himself on the verge of getting caught up in a dangerous street rumble.

There are some situations, though, when a slang term is backed by a reservoir of meaning that's not readily apparent. Consider, for example, the term "stan", which describes a person who exhibits fanatical, perhaps even stalker-ish, behavior. A person who really enjoys Jay-Z's music might be called a "Jay-Z stan", usually as a pejorative. The term relates to Eminem's song of that name, "Stan", in which Em raps in epistolary form from the perspective of an obsessed fan. Stan the Fan loves Eminem, knows all of his rhymes, goes to his concerts, and mimics the rapper. Given that the song doesn't end well for Stan the Fan, being unfamiliar with the tune makes it a little more difficult to appreciate the layer of negativity the term "stan" connotes.

In this context, knowledge or, more precisely, the perceived acquisition of knowledge creates an inner circle, a class conflict between "us" versus "them", and a hierarchy separating those with "superior" knowledge from those who are considered uninformed. Along with a rapper's voice and delivery, the knowledge base of the audience factors into how "dope" the rapper is perceived to be.

LL Cool J and Nina Garcia on Project Runway

What in the world does this have to do with Project Runway? Quite a bit, actually, because all of this comes to light in the September episode that featured LL Cool J. The assignment was, significantly, an exercise in abstraction as well as specificity. The field of contestants had been streamlined from 16 hopefuls to five very capable freelance designers: "Suede", who constantly referred to himself in the third person; Korto Momolu, a smart designer who later revealed her talent for playing African drums; Leanne (pronounced "Lee Anne") Marshall, whose passion for folds and ruffles eventually won her the grand prize; Jerell Scott, a flashy visionary who encountered a rough patch (designer's block, maybe?) as he approached the homestretch; and Kenley Collins, the youngest of the party of five who struggled to balance her obvious talent against her emotional baggage. With a touch of attitude and a voice rivaling Fran Drescher's on The Nanny, Kenley's screen time added the necessary drama to keep people watching.

Gunn gave them the lowdown on their latest challenge. The task was for the contestants to design for each other. To accomplish this, they were organized into five designer-client pairs. Further, the show had assigned a specific musical genre to each "client", and the designer was required to create a look for the client inspired by that genre. Accordingly, Suede would design a "Rock 'n' Roll" outfit for Jerell, Korto would design a "punk" outfit for Suede, Jerell would design a "pop" outfit for Kenley, Leanne would design a "country" outfit for Korto, and Kenley would design a "hip-hop" outfit for Leanne. This way, each person would be a designer as well as a client.

The specificity of the project is relatively straightforward. From the fashion perspective, each design was supposed to be tailored to a specific person. From the hip-hop point of view, a specific individual, LL Cool J, would be representing the genre. I'm pushing it a little on this last point, of course, because LL Cool J was one of four judges, and he wasn't there solely to provide expertise about "hip-hop fashion". He was there to give his opinion on all of the garments, which were inspired by various genres of music, not just hip-hop. The intent to widen the scope of his credentials is evident in Heidi Klum's introduction of him as "a musical innovator and style icon". Sounds like there was a little bit of spin going on there, but in terms of the way his talent and identity related to the episode, his status as a hip-hop legend was very much in play. Kenley even referred to him as "the king of hip-hop" and regretted that her "client", Leanne, would look like a "poser" in front of him because she didn't have the appropriate "attitude" for hip-hop. Leanne needed more "swagger", I suppose.

The abstraction of the exercise is demonstrated through the task of translating the image and sound associated with a musical genre into the aesthetics of fashion. This type of abstraction invites heavy reliance on stereotypes: the "Rock 'n' Roll" look that's all about breaking rules, smashing guitars, and being, as LL Cool J put it in his capacity as Project Runway judge, "loud and aggressive"; the "punk" look that's all torn, tattered, and adorned by chains, tattoos, and piercings; and the "pop" look that emphasizes sex appeal and style over substance. Then there's hip-hop, a genre that is as much a mess of clich├ęs as it is a profession of freshness. Certain word and image associations with hip-hop might seem natural: baggy jeans, oversized T-shirts, bandannas, "keeping it real", being "gangsta". And when we're not thinking of these archetypes, we still keep them active by constantly rebelling against them, as Kenley ended up doing by constantly preempting criticism of her design by railing against oversized clothing. "No," she tells Gunn when he asks whether oversized clothing was prominent in hip-hop fashion. "That's like '80s hip-hop."

But coming up with a definition for hip-hop itself is a formidable challenge. When Gunn previewed the works in progress, he asked Kenley to "pretend I'm from the moon -- talk to me about hip-hop and what characterizes it". She didn't really have an answer for that. Yet, while I'm not sure anyone has a satisfactory answer to that question, nearly everyone has an opinion about what hip-hop is, what it isn't, and what constitutes "real hip-hop". Apparently, such distinctions can be taken quite personally. Indeed, in Gunn's introduction of the musical genre challenge, he told them they were getting the "opportunity to explore the relationship that music has to fashion in a very personal way".

Kenley's "hip-hop" outfit on Project Runway

That personal focus quickly turned to Kenley's adaptation of hip-hop culture. She dressed her client in a "leather jacket, a top, and a high-waisted jean". Other contestants were skeptical of Kenley's effort, Korto and Jerell most vehemently, based on residual drama from previous episodes between Kenley and her competitors. Korto's voiceover went, "We all see this floral blouse that Kenley has. We all know that ain't hip-hop. It's damn near 'country'. So...we're not gonna tell her. We're gonna let her believe that's hip-hop." It was kind of like listening to the story Charlie Murphy told on The Dave Chappelle Show about how Prince, the musician, challenged Murphy and his "crew of flunkies" to a game of basketball and how they all laughed when, instead of changing into athletic attire, Prince and the Revolution came out in the "blouses" and ruffled, Amadeus-like clothes they wore to the club.

In terms of taking things personally, Kenley wasn't having anything to do with Gunn's preliminary critique, and she was adamant in her defense of her work. At one point, Gunn took her responses for rudeness and asked that she not mistake his attempts to be supportive as him being "snarky". The interesting part is that Kenley resisted Gunn's expertise because she felt secure in her vision of hip-hop, and in her ability to relate that vision through her fashion choices. "I can't really listen to Tim at this point," she said to the camera. "And what does Tim know about hip-hop anyway?" In a later moment with the camera, she added, "I definitely know more about hip-hop than Tim does." According to her logic, then, Gunn's lack of hip-hop understanding meant that he was unequipped to assess her handiwork. Kenley seemed to regard herself as a hip-hop "insider", at least to the point that she believed her knowledge of the genre should trump Gunn's "insider" status in the spheres of style and clothing.

Her sense of ownership over the abstract idea and essence of hip-hop carried over into the show's evaluation segment, where Kenley's dress was deemed inadequate. Here, she continued to cling to the authenticity of her hip-hop design against the critiques of the fashion experts, but also in the face of LL Cool J's rejection of the garment. "No," was his response when asked whether he thought the outfit embodied the "hip-hop" vibe. About the high-waisted jeans, he said, "It's a problem." When the judges deliberated amongst themselves, Michael Kors thought the attempted hip-hop ensemble was mundane. "That outfit," he declared, "looked like something that you'd go buy at a mall. It was a perfectly fine leather jacket, a tank top, and a pair of really unattractive jeans." In the elimination portion, with Kenley on the chopping block with Suede, Heidi Klum summarized the collective view of Kenley's hip-hop entry: "There was no glamour, no bravado, and you missed the attitude of hip-hop completely." Kenley, however, remained unconvinced by the feedback.

Now, LL Cool J is surely entitled to be mistaken about fashion. While he might have a clothing line in conjunction with a well-known department store, an actual fashion designer might understandably question a fashion-related critique from him or from any of the other rappers who moonlight in the clothing industry. I would, however, give weight to his opinion about whether a particular design embodies "hip-hop" or would appeal to hip-hoppers.

LL Cool J is, after all, a huge name in hip-hop circles and, despite a sizable chunk of his post-Mama Said Knock You Out (1990) musical output, he's routinely considered one of the best rappers to ever pick up a microphone. He likes to call himself "The G.O.A.T.", or Greatest of All Time, which is not surprising coming from a guy whose very stage name is an acronym for "Ladies Love Cool James". I disagree that he holds the G.O.A.T. title, but his opinion on the matter carries weight with me, even if it is self-serving. To paraphrase one of the man's own rhymes: even when he's braggin', he's bein' sincere. Given all of this, I find it remarkable that his opinion about whether something fits the definition of "hip-hop" wouldn't automatically be taken as gospel.

This, I think, speaks to hip-hop's power and appeal on an individual level because, although "hip-hop" means different things to different people, everyone seems to be confident that they know what "it" is. Through this subjective lens, there is also a unique brand of investment and ownership in the meaning of "hip-hop". That tension, between individual claims to authenticity and hip-hop's diffusion across our social constructions (race, class, age, national borders, etc.) imbues the enjoyment of hip-hop with the same type of vibe we see in reality TV. It becomes competitive, rather than collaborative ("I'm not here to make friends, I'm here to listen to real hip-hop").

In this way, we feel empowered to recognize legitimacy and "realness". As illustrated by Project Runway, it can make us both confident and immovably stubborn. As hip-hop has grown from its marginalized beginnings to having an almost ubiquitous societal presence, the question is whether our "ownership" entitles us to anything at all. Do we really know what we think we know? Maybe we will open our fists to discover we're no longer holding onto what we considered to be "real hip-hop". If so, perhaps the best we can hope for then is to hope that we've been united all along by a similar set of ideals.

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