When I’m gone, then you can joke / ‘Cos everything is real on a serious tip
— Eric B & Rakim, “I Ain’t No Joke”
This April Fool’s Day I don’t expect hip-hop to grab many headlines. I don’t foresee any artists (not even Cam’ron) intentionally blowing up my news feed with some 4/1-specific prank, nor do I expect any hip-hop-centric sites to do special features related to the day. Not that I feel the hip-hop equivalent of a dirty dime being rolled on my nose or similar hijinks is necessary. However, there should be some recognition of humor and its role in hip-hop’s development.
Conversations about the culture often focus on the pomo palimpsest art versus depraved pathology dichotomy — two extremes that leave little room for humor, yet are ironically rife with comic material. The truth is hip-hop, like most other arts, intentionally pays humor less mind because, hey, it’s not supposed to be taken seriously! But seriously. Though a sense of humor has peripherally helped hip-hop get paid, it’s about time to pay some dues.
Hip-hop developed a funny bone at an early age. From the witty one-liners of party-rocking emcees to the court jester antics of Biz Markie and Flavor Flav, the culture has been as synonymous with entertainment as it has been with self-expression from the drop. With stylistic panache and a sense of humor, hip-hop reinvigorated many familiar themes in popular music, like novelty, love, and defiance/delinquency. Wild Style-era emcee Busy Bee’s entire manner took a page from radio personality raps (“Bah biddy bah bi dang a dang diggy diggy…”) and Ali-an shit-talking not as an explicit homage to African-American oral lineage, but as a means to entertain. The Real Roxanne gave arrogant lotharios a tongue-lashing on her early ’80s namesake song, but winked knowingly the whole way through: “I told all my friends, and we all just died.”
The Beasties fight for their right.
The Beastie Boys’ misanthropic beer-swilling, breath-stinkin’, sniffin’ glue approach rehashed every brash and base rock star cliché, but was undercut with an undeniable sense of irony. Their ridiculous video for “(You Gotta) Fight for Your Right (To Party)” employed numerous comic tropes, from the geeks with taped glasses to a pie fight finale, but also repackaged them as something novel — white boys rapping! — to both comedic and commercial success. As hip-hop moved into the pop charts in the mid-’80s, humor kept step.
In 1989 two records used humor to cement hip-hop’s cause. 2 Live Crew made headlines when its lascivious send-up of “Pretty Woman” was slapped with a lawsuit by Roy Orbison’s publisher, Acuff-Rose Music. The suit, borne out of the ironic fear of a rock song being misappropriated, failed to erase the song’s existence. Instead it inadvertently added a bullet point to the group’s already inflammatory CV and a legal notch toward establishing hip-hop’s legitimacy as an art form. The argument of parody helped distinguish 2 Live Crew’s song from Orbison’s, and, more important, helped expand the definition of fair use — no small feat for a group whose livelihood was based on transforming the old into something new (invariably with jiggly butt cheeks).
That same year, De la Soul’s 3 Feet High and Rising also became embroiled in legal troubles, this time over its un-cleared use of a sample by the Turtles. Though the ruling favored the Turtles and laid a clear precedent towards restricting sample use, the album nevertheless became a classic on its own merits. After all, no conversation about humor and hip-hop would be complete without mentioning Prince Paul. As the DJ for Stetsasonic, Prince Paul started as a background player, but as a producer on 3 Feet High and Rising he moved to the fore.
“With Stetsasonic, a lot of the ideas I had for production were just too juvenile for them, since they were more serious,” he recalled in Brian Coleman’s book Check the Technique. “De la was more my age, more my style.” Equally reflective though far more self-effacing than Plugs One, Two and Three, he lightened the tone of the album. He made it clear that funny and thoughtful rhymes could complement, not compromise, dope beats. More specifically, his use of interstitial “skits”, such as the quirky game show motif of 3 Feet High and Rising and the abusive bully narrator on the 1991 follow-up De la Soul Is Dead, brought a loose narrative to each album. More important, these two cases clearly illustrated the group’s mind state, the album’s message, and provoking sheer giggles.
In spite of these developments, the Golden Age of hip-hop from the late ’80s to the early ’90s was a mixed period for humor. Eric B and Rakim’s “I Ain’t No Joke” proved to be prescient as emcees increasingly looked inward (or at least in the mirror) and cultivated images of realness and authenticity. Whether you were the gangsta or the Native Tongue, humor played a secondary role to rationalizing one’s existence. Of course, there were always exceptions: Ice Cube’s solo debut AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted famously lampooned Western European storytelling conventions on “Once Upon a Time in the Projects” and “A Gangsta’s Fairytale”. And Phife Dawg provided counterpoint to the Abstract Poetic when he sarcastically bragged about being “the Five Foot Assassin”. However, hip-hop’s comic renaissance happened more on the outside than from within the traditionally defined four elements of hip-hop.
Fans like Chris Rock and the Wayans family used the unofficial “fifth element”, film and television, to translate their interests. Feature-lengths like CB4 and Fear of a Black Hat astutely identified familiar black stereotypes in the quickly emerging gangsta rap iconography and promptly went to work. In both movies, a wide spectrum of the culture, from the pop fluff of MC Hammer and PM Dawn to the hardcore grit of Ice T and NWA, were lampooned, but actual artists were left out of the process. Sketch comedy show In Living Color one-upped these two efforts by giving screen time to both the genuine articles, like Public Enemy and Ice Cube, and the sitting ducks, like Vanilla Ice. Though these examples hardly fit the common Golden Age narrative — NWA was being monitored by the FBI and 2Pac and Notorious B.I.G. would become leading stars, only to be dead before the end of the ’90s — these examples certified hip-hop’s ability and willingness to reflect on itself and laugh, even for a few brief moments.
The progression of humor in hip-hop from the mid-’90s to the present has been an alternately divergent and intersected path. Since the deaths of ‘Pac and Biggie, mainstream artists have evidently remained in mourning by vigilantly wearing an expressionless poker face. Nas’s sleepy eyes begat Diddy’s shaded eyes begat Jay’s empty stare begat Fabolous’s sleepy eyes begat…and so forth. Every once in a while a smile has cracked for the sound of a bottle of
Cris de Brignac being popped or at the glistening sight of spinning 22s. And, sure, fans can expect punchlines from Red and/or Meth every few years. Sometimes an artist becomes a (unintentional?) caricature, like Lil’ Jon. Then there are the annual novelty artists, like Afroman, Paul Barman, et. al. However, these are all regressions to the most banal type of humor: laugh at me, not with me.
Once again, humor finds stronger footing in new media, particularly streaming video sites like YouTube. The interactive nature of the site opens new dimensions for parodies wherein fans can immediately respond to the latest rap hit with their own creation; the industry should rejoice because the site can yield a second life for its (s)hit singles. The wholesale simplicity of “Throw Some Cheese” or the (relatively) hi-fi “Soda Boy” find new pleasures in the supremely monotonous and one-dimensional originals, thereby doubling the shelf-life of these one-hit wonders.
Better still are the select few who collapse the boundary between practitioner and audience by creating a new and unique brand of hip-hop satire. Internet celebrities like the aptly named Internets Celebrities (Dallas Penn, of DallasPenn.com and a blogger at XXL.com, and Rafi Kam of OhWord.com) find subtle connections between perceived hip-hop standards and pop culture with doc-style web shorts. The pair’s [II] week-long reporting from the 2007 Sundance Film Festival, best summarized as “grown-ass spring break”, brought an earthy presence to Utah’s French (Alps) Quarter and demonstrated the ubiquitous presence of (c)rappers.
Eric and Jeff Rosenthal of The Real make more traditional and specific sketch comedy shorts that are rich with content and details. While the brothers’ natural comic ease makes their videos generally accessible, you really have to be up on your hip-hop minutia to get the full joke — think of a cross-pollination of The Daily Show‘s writers working on The Chappelle Show. Their holiday themed short “A Hot Winter” found a new spin on the well-hided white-man-acting-black cliché by re-contextualizing highlights from the Dipset catalog and Jay-Z’s most ear-catching line in recent memory.
And, of course, there is The Boondocks. The television show breathes considerable life into Aaron McGruder’s three panels and frequently veers violently into the blackest (no pun intended) of humor. The “Trial of R. Kelly” episode is just one example of the show’s unflinching willingness to surgically expose hip-hop culture’s hypocrisies yet attempt some form of reconciliation.
Admittedly, all of this creativity spends most of the time reporting from the sidelines. The flaw in my frequent Daily Show comparison is that humor does not have the level of impact in hip-hop as it does in news and politics. And until more mainstream artists can overcome their ego trippin’ to embrace their inner ham and make another “Sensual Eruption”, we will more often than not be stuck with the familiar glut of the unnecessarily serious. Humor can expose, analyze and offset gravitas. C’mon, it’s all right to have fun, have fun, have, have, have fun…