Again, apologies for this getting put on hold a while…
Martha Bayles wrote Hole in our Soul in 1994, but most of the key elements of the rap story were in place by that point. That is, as we saw in the previous post, critics admit that rap’s “golden age” was over by then, and what remained ahead were developments of refinement, diversification, or “homogenization.” The developments emphasized will depend on the rap critic’s point of view, but most would admit that no game-changing twists to the genre occurred.
Indeed, it’s looking more and more like 1994 might have been the year to write the authoritative book on American popular music, since it was right around then that the recycle-ment pattern that characterizes our era began to make itself felt.
Good music-sense in our era requires one to discern the basic outlines of the regnant pop music genres, even amid the shifts and alterations of recipe highlighted by the typical critics and publicists, and then with each genre to say, “Here it is, and by and large, it will remain this way. What is it up to? What does it, intentionally or not, do to us? Do we still want that done to us? Or should we?” Of course, most critics and fans have remained caught up, at least in the terms they use, in the old Hegelian-in-spirit expectation for pop music bringing us social/spiritual progress, and the concomitant refusal to admit the reality of genre.
Bayles’s approach to rap is to consider Where It’s From, musically, sociologically, etc. And this of course raises the question of Where It’s Going, or at least, Where It Was Expected to Go. Let’s follow her in that, and then say a few more words about What It Does to Us. This will take two or three parts.
She begins by discussing how hip-hop grew out of the situation of the 70s Bronx. It was an attempt to get past the predictability of disco, and more importantly, a development out of two potentially positive things. The first of those two is funk. Given its provenance in James Brown’s work, and more widely in that of a variety of jazz musicians of the late 60s, such as Grant Green, Jack McDuff, Lou Donaldson, etc., there is of course reason for Bayles to be quite positive. She does note some of the sour Frank-Zappa-like cynicism that was expressed lyrically and otherwise by the George Clinton bands, but always with Bayles it’s the state of the music that matters more than the lyrics. IMO she might have been more critical here of the music itself—there’s a certain addictiveness and single-mindedness about the funk groove that I find troubling in some way. There can be something of a stoner aura to that, but there’s something else I can’t quite put my finger on. No-one can deny the towering greatness of James Brown—Bayles wrote a not-to-be-missed article on his career and its relation to rap back in 2005—but my sense is that funk’s downplaying of, and even hostility to, melody and song-structure needs more critical comment and exploration.
Rap’s second more-or-less positive source was the Caribbean DJ-tradition. Hip-hop pioneers Kool DJ Herc and Grandmaster Flash were from Jamaica and Barbados, respectively, and they brought something particular to the Bronx:
…the Caribbean DJ has been much more of a celebrity-performer than in the U.S. Since most islanders were too poor to buy records or record players, and most radio stations were controlled by the upper classes with a highbrow fastidiousness worthy of the BBC, DJs travelled the countryside with their record collections…and their souped-up “sound systems,” competing for the trade of outdoor celebrations and dance halls. …from Jamaica came the practice of remixing “break” versions of American soul and R&B hits, twelve-inch records on which the favored instrumental part would be prolonged…also from Jamaica came “dubbing,” the practice of removing the vocal part, so the DJ could substitute his own vocal presence…in the stylized manner known as “toasting.”
The story of how Flash and others in the Bronx developed these techniques further, discovering “punch phrasing,” and scratching, is pretty fascinating and inspiring, really.
But there are also some negative elements to the development and reception of the new style. The first is that the music, i.e., early hip-hop, in certain aspects reflected what I will call musical poverty, or more specifically, it reflected technological shortcuts substituting for musicianship in an era increasingly afflicted by the latter’s absence. In my main Songbook post on Bayles, I noted that
…our society has fewer musicians who really have the “Afro-Americana” chops, the swing and such, and fewer opportunities for apprenticeship in those traditions. What is undeniable is that by the late 70s, and becoming ever-more obvious through the 80s, 90s, and aughts, is that…those musicians became scarcer, as did the audiences who could appreciate them.
As James Brown notes, records and DJs are just cheaper and easier to deal with than musicians, even though one’s dancing needs could be met by them, in a pinch. And, I would add, the pinch might become permanent. The DJ-centered sound might become what one expects and develops a taste for.
Inner-cities are not the best places to receive music education, especially when the programs are cut, and disorder frightens away the better teachers and makes music-room security impossible. We should also note other 1970s/1980s factors: decreased church-going, decreased black migration from the blues-and-gospel-drenched-South, and as the Specials put it (sure, with immediate respect to the UK context), increased crime and violence perhaps making it so that Bands won’t play no more (too much fighting on the dance floor). So the musical-skill poverty that began to descend upon all classes and sectors of America during the 70s, was experienced nowhere so starkly as in urban ghettos like the Bronx. Horn-sections and such were not at the disposal of the hip-hop pioneers, and the initial result was a pretty spare sound, however complex their rhythmic landscapes were compared to disco’s. The contrast to the “resources,” i.e., the swingin’ musicians, that labels like Motown, Stax, and such regularly brought into the studio could not be more vivid. Bayles says
…hip-hop was low-tech by necessity, not choice. The pioneers’ objection to disco was not that it was made by high-tech methods, but that it was vapid and repetitive. So as soon as they arrived in the studio, they embraced sampling as the easiest way to incorporate great rhythm “breaks” into their own records.
I.e., the enrichment of the hip-hop sound took place not by bringing contemporary musicians in, but by using the sound-bank built up by older musicians. A technological short-cut. Bayles is not against hi-tech sounds per se, as she points out that Stevie Wonder was one of the first to adopt synthesizers, and that his employment of them never sounded robotic. Her point with rap is that while its sound did not remain spare, the flexibility that had been second nature to the funk, soul, and R&B groups, was not recovered. And this reliance on sampling thus also posed a peculiar problem for any protective and possessive attitude towards black musical identity:
…contemporary “black” styles are easier than ever to steal: Instead of spending years singing in church or performing on the chitlin circuit, the white appropriator need only master the studio.
“Only master the studio” is putting it too strongly, but it does seem likely that it was easier for, say, Marshall Mathers to become Eminem than it was for Eric Clapton to become Eric Clapton. As far as my non-expert ears could discern, the beats and sounds laid down by the likes of the Beastie Boys or the Chemical Brothers in the late 90s were as solid as anything black hip-hop groups or mix-masters delivered. That is, the argument is that with hip-hop, less apprenticeship is required to obtain the standard level of competence. And if that’s right, beyond whatever pressure that puts on black identity maintenance, it points to a deeper inferiority compared to the older genres of Afro-American music.
So hip-hop was a heartening response to, but also a dismaying reflection of, musical poverty. What is not at all heartening is that its fans increasingly remained content with, and even became addicted to, key aspects of that poverty. Rapping and scratching are types of musicianship, sure, and there is a type of composition going on when a rapper develops his rhymes with a certain rhythm and timbre in mind, but beyond that, the musician’s place in hip-hop remains a tenuous one. Singers or horn-players, when brought into the mix, are usually more of an ornament than an essential element. They are not integral to the conception and development of a piece, the way they often were with older forms. Moreover, if my wish to be proved wrong on this by way of future development is ever granted (scroll about 2/3 of the way down in my disco essay), I am sure that many will dub the resulting style with a label distinct from hip-hop.
But back to the origins. We have remained silent so far about, alas, what might be the biggest thing. There is no avoiding the fact that over time, hip-hop increasingly became a reflection of a more serious sort of poverty, an inner-city pathology of the soul in some ways unique to the American experience, because it was at bottom a black-identity pathology, one of the “hates that hate bred.” And hip-hop’s willingness to stylize this anger, against self and other, meant it could be sold to folks outside black America to be used for their own purposes. So that’s next.