A slight change of plans here—I had wanted to talk about this recent Conor Friedersdorf piece about the lack of conservative rap critics as part of a three-part essay called “Paradoxes of Conservative Pop-Culture Studies,” but I realized that to really to do that, I would have to talk about rap more than a bit, indeed, enough to demand a Rock Songbook post or two. This means a momentary change of plans with the Songbook also, but I promise I will be getting back to 1960s Rock take on Love I left off in December soon.
Rap ain’t Rock. In my Rock Songbook posts I have had on occasion to talk about various pop music genres that aren’t rock but which are commonly conflated with it, contrasted with it, etc., as I did with the posts on disco, or with various ones distinguishing R+B and rock n’ roll from Rock. That’s what I’m up to here.
Now rap obviously shares with rock an emphasis on rebel attitude, and upon heroism—in that respect, Rock and rap are unlike all the sorts of pop music, such as disco, that are primarily focused on dance-floor fun, but this similarity must not be made too much of. The base music of rap, hip-hop, shares quite a bit with disco, indeed grew directly out of it, and the identity/rebel/heroism focus of rap is a very specific one—rock rages in a broadly indistinct or middle-class mode, often against modernity, but rap’s poetic world is “lumpen-proletarian,” and its archetypes and formulas are all about expressing certain notions of blackness and manliness.
But before I go any further, I want to confess a good deal of ignorance about rap, particularly from the mid-90s on, and yet… …to also indicate a certain degree of appreciation and knowledge.
Personally, I associate rap with the summer of 1989, the time I was in Northwest Pasadena serving in something called the Pasadena Youth Program, sponsored by some local churches and InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. Hip-hop had been entering just about every young person’s musical consciousness for the last several years, and major leaps forward in sampling ability and other techniques made a number of the acts of that time undeniably fresh sounding, even to those who had resisted the sheer spare-ness (i.e., lack of musician-involvement) of the really old school hip-hop. Public Enemy, De La Soul, N.W.A., etc., really were delivering tasty new sounds.
1989 was the same summer that Spike Lee’s race-relations film, DO THE RIGHT THING came out, I had just read Malcolm X’s Autobiography for a class, my IVCF chapter was more and more seeking to explore the implications of “multi-ethnicity” for campus ministry, and as a college radio DJ I had been exposed to more of the best rap than most white suburbanites—that is, a number of threads came together for me at that time to allow me to be a right-on-the-sidelines spectator of the rap youth culture phenomenon. This only intensified for the next few years, since the IVCF call for multi-ethnicity and urban renewal inspired my wife and I enough to orient our church-attendance, residence, and a good deal of our socializing too, around a multi-ethnic church in East San Diego. What is more, my standard work-schedule would soon be substitute teaching one day in an inner-city high-school, and the next in a suburban one.
Those experiences eventually had their frustrations, some aspects of which I’ll share below, but in 1989, not only was the music “fresh,” but so were my just-forming ideas for inner-city ministry, teaching, and life. My favorite rap songs, i.e., the best ones I’m familiar with, are from around that time:
1) EPMD, “You Gots to Chill” (one of the remix versions is also great)
2) Public Enemy, “Don’t Believe the Hype”
3) N.W.A., “Express Yourself”
3) De La Soul, “Say No Go”
4) Eric B. and Rakim, “Follow the Leader”
5) Roxanne Shante, “Go On Girl”
6) Boogie Down Productions, “The Bridge Is Over”
7) Digable Planets, “Where I’m From”
And of course, who doesn’t love Grandmaster Flash’s “White Lines?”
What are y’alls favorite rap or hip-hop songs?
I’ve got no time for links today beyond the EPMD and Roxanne Shante, the latter of which always seemed neglected to me…but that shouldn’t stop you!
Hate to get into the downer stuff after posting a list like that, but I want to explain why I had lost interest by 1995. Music-wise, little seemed to be developing, but it was much more than that. It had something to do with the lingering aftertaste of the Rodney King riots, with how the gangsta-rap and porny-hip-hop styles seemed to be gaining more and more ground within the genres, and a great deal to do with witnessing up close, especially through my substitute teaching, how so many kids were getting sucked into crude and genuinely foul language patterns, and worse, into wanna-be or all-too-real gangsta-ism. Rap youth culture began to seem like a plague.
Indeed I had begun to actively detest the stars of the rap scene. I associated Dr. Dre with a particular black boy at my church becoming a pot-head after getting caught up in Dre’s The Chronic, and with the anguished prayers of church folk, mine also, for that boy. I associated Ice Cube with a horrifyingly ridiculous speech I heard in a classroom by some handsome full-of-himself black 12th-grader, about how Ice Cube was his hero because he had inspired him to avoid crack and gangs, as if it were some heroic thing for this guy who apparently had pretty middle-class parents to avoid falling into those, and as if Ice Cube had not in fact glamorized the gang life, overt misogyny, etc. The hip-hop that really took a stand against those sorts of sicknesses, such as you heard with De La Soul’s “Ghetto Thang,” and which did not footsy with the b.s. “reality-reporting” excuse, was losing the popularity contest. The critics might extol various consciousness-raising rappers, but the word on the street, the word I heard gaining ground in school-yard after school-yard, in rap after rap, alas, it would have to be Nigga.
De La Soul’s second album (late 1991?) seemed symbolic of the feeling in the air…and my recollection is it didn’t sound that great, either. But however grim things began to look by 1992, 93, etc., I can’t accept that as the fully-unveiled truth about rap; that is, I can’t talk about rap without fondly remembering a certain charge and hope one really could connect to it, indeed had to connect to it, in 1989.
And as for the music simply, you don’t take my word for it: here’s some excerpts from one of Friedersdorf’s non-conservative rap critics, reviewing an anthology of rap lyrics put together by Adam Bradley and Andrew Du Bois:
The first Run-D.M.C. album arrived in 1984, but within a few years the group’s sparse lyrical style came to seem old-fashioned; a generation of rappers had arrived with a trickier sense of swing. Hip-hop historians call this period the Golden Age (Bradley and DuBois date it from 1985 to 1992), and it produced the kinds of lyrical shifts that are easy to spot in print: extended similes and ambitious use of symbolism; an increased attention to character and ideology; unpredictable internal rhyme schemes; enjambment and uneven line lengths.
As the Golden Age ended, hip-hop’s formal revolution was giving way to a narrative revolution. So-called gangsta rappers downplayed wordplay (without, of course, forswearing it) so they could immerse listeners in their first-person stories of bad guys and good times. Shakur and the Notorious B.I.G. created two of the genre’s most fully realized personae; when they were murdered, in 1996 and 1997, respectively, their deaths became part of their stories. …As the anthologizers blast through the nineties (“Rap Goes Mainstream”) and the aughts (“New Millennium Rap”), their excitement starts to wane. They assert that the increasing popularity of hip-hop presented a risk of “homogenization and stagnation,” without pausing to explain why this should be true (doesn’t novelty sell?), if indeed it was.
Well, well, well. “Their excitement starts to wane??!!” Sometime in the late 90s or early aughts?
I’m tickled because while I admit my own–deliberately chosen–rap ignorance, I really do believe, as thoroughly as Roxanne Shante did about her female-MC supremacy, that nobody has explained as thoroughly as yours truly why those five words really ought to serve as the motto of the rock story, and of the pop-music story generally, from the mid-90s on. Everyone vaguely whines about music being cooler back in the day, but only my Songbook, building on the work of Martha Bayles, begins to spell out the reasons why. But prosy me, I just can’t lay out my superhero status in my field in the vivid way Roxanne could lay out hers in hers—you gotta do some of the work yourself.
Critics and rappers, rappers and critics. So I’ll leave you with the question I’ll be exploring next: is there a real need for conservative rap critics?