There are a lot of things to admire about the new Village Voice/ Greg Tate piece on the 30th Anniversary of Hip Hop
, the least of which is the discussion that it’s generated on message boards and in blogland. I’m all for the writer-as-provocateur stance, and I don’t disagree with everything that Tate says. He’s realized that hip hop is essentially aspirational, that it’s opened up new pan-African channels of communication, and that hip hop has been largely estranged from its original raison-d’etre.
But…but Tate, as much as we all respect him, is off the mark in several regards. His initial slip-up is regarding hip hop as a singular, homogeneous entity. It’s a dangerous approach to take, especially considering that hip hop is more diverse and de-centered than at any time in its existence. It’s hard enough dealing with say Kanye West and Lil’ John using the same terms, much less the various off-shoots and fringe elements that have stretched hip hop further and further apart, both aesthetically and thematically. With that said, I can play along with his central conceit for the sake of this argument.
Since I’m a lazy essayist, from here on out I’ll pick it apart point-by-point.
“What we call hiphop is now inseparable from what we call the hiphop industry, in which the nouveau riche and the super-rich employers get richer, some say there's really nothing to celebrate about hiphop right now but the moneyshakers and the moneymakers—who got bank and who got more.”
The lazy rhetoric devise of “some say” aside, what bothers me about this is that hip hop is not merely a vehicle of the rich. Shit…it’s put food on my table for the past year-and-a-half, not to mention the various rappers, graphic artists, producers, designers, promoters, journalist etc…who live off of hip hop. Would this be possible if mainstream hip hop wasn’t the most popular music culture in the world? Hip hop’s popularity is a mixed blessing, but it has elevated those of a certain race and of a certain mindset. Perhaps said mindset has been diluted, but that’s a function of integration.
“Problem today is that where hiphop was once a buyer's market in which we, the elite hiphop audience, decided what was street legit, it has now become a seller's market, in which what does or does not get sold as hiphop to the masses is whatever the boardroom approves.”
Did a boardroom approve Madvillain, or the latest Saigon mixtape? Hip hop, more so than rock did at a similar stage, has retained its connection to the street.
Lastly, as much as Tate posits that hip hop is essentially both a legitimation of racial stratification and a representation of neo-cooning, I just don’t totally buy it – although I don’t entirely reject it either. I do believe that both hip hop/ pop culture are a mirror of our culture – and in some ways, a reflection of our collective aspirations or some collective sub-conscious as much as a mirror of our day-to-day reality. And, with that in mind, much of the criticism that Tate hurls at hip hop should be placed squarely on our shoulders. We’re the type of country that hordes wealth, preemptively attacks benign countries, and finds social and personal worth in material possessions. Is it any great surprise that we have the blinging militarism of G-Unit, the queasy misogyny of Cam’ron, or the pious, religious faux-persecution of Kanye West? In politics, we hide our darker secrets under the blanket of self-righteous, delusional rhetoric; but in popular culture (and hip hop in particular), our most base impulses, and in many cases our guiding impulses, are there for everyone to see.
Not to get too tangential here, but I hate when liberals complain that the election was stolen, or that Bush somehow duped and manipulated us all. Bullshit…we as Americans knew what we were getting, and that’s what we chose. It’s not a pretty picture, and hip hop is not always an appealing reflection, but it’s largely accurate. The sort of hip hop that Tate wants to hear (or see) just simply couldn’t exist in this country. We are hip hop, and it won’t change until we change.