“As the social state is displaced by the market, a new kind of politics is emerging in which some lives, if not whole groups, are seen as disposable and redundant.”
— Henry A. Giroux, Youth in a Suspect Society: Democracy or Disposability? (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009), pp. 155-156.
They lack the minerals and vitamins which time releases
So they try to blind you with the diamonds in they time pieces
Okay, you got money, and we all can see it (great!)
Now, rhyme about something time don’t depreciate
— Hi-Tek ft. Talib Kweli & Dion, “Time,” Hi-Teknology3 (2007).
Round about midway through the last decade, no more was it acceptable to cling to that absurd conviction claiming Hip-Hop was merely undergoing “shifts” and “trends,” and that much of the remonstrations, showering down from all tunnels, were ill-begotten and untimely and but the misguided ramblings of a few East-Coast-elitists displeased with another region (the South) assuming control of the Rap music machine. With the silly and senseless parodies that came to count as true artistic creations, most who once held skepticism to any criticisms began losing faith. It was at once clear, that more than a shifty trend, the ship was sinking—thrusting all those within deep into the bottomless sea—and that a future, if at all there was one, might be greatly imperiled.
How, for instance, could rappers recklessly resurrect Minstrel themes of old, without a piece of protest from a public that likes to think of itself intelligent enough to erect ever-higher standards for the many annual Rap aspirants eager to be accepted as authentic and legitimate—“real”—representatives of Hip-Hop music and culture? How could major radio stations whittle down their playlists considerably—and fall dependent on no more than 5 or 7 songs (each blasting out exact, decadent suggestions)—and face no concerted, consequential demonstration demanding better? How could a rapper, in a music video, swipe down his credit card, spilt-through the backside of a female dancer, and have a popular TV station plug it endlessly (around midnight, of course), and have many rise up to his defense because, so the chants went, Rap is about free expression, and this man deserves no less right to express himself as Hugh Hefner or Howard Stern?
Beefs, Blings, Bricks, Bullets, and Backsides
And if the misogyny wasn’t firm enough, the ravenous glorification of violence and vapid materialism certainly broke the water. Having come through a decade that opened coffins for two of the most explosive and expressive Rap artists, it was agreed a new dawn must arise, and a new way of thinking surrender, if a future for this international cultural force was wanted. But the last decade began no better than many hoped. Two great New York rivals clashed hard to serenade the new millennium, and drew at each other for many years, until, in October 2005, maturity and intelligence steered their hearts toward reconciliation.
But as both growled and gnashed, putting their lives in persistent danger for incidents a good one-on-one session could have corrected, the only winners, as always, proved to be the major record labels, for whom both were serfs—mere lackeys on the field, walkers on the streets.
They take the strongest of slaves to compete in a track meet
For the king of the city, sing songs of back streets
Choruses of cocaine tales and black heat
Only to trade ni**as like professional athletes!
Years after Tupac and Biggie, LL and Canibus, Nas and Jay-Z, it took long for 50 Cent and Ja Rule to embrace this sobering reality, as both walked into the same trap their many predecessors had once too been entangled in; but, as always, by then the game was nearing final whistle, and anticipated revenue had already been met, and the real winners were out the door, brimming with great pride—another set of young Black males heisted, millions of fans swindled (but, by god, entertained!), and millions more in cash collected.
At every major intersection in Hip-Hop history, never has this plan failed or fall short—of pitting natural allies against each other, setting up fictional accounts that send both boiling and scribbling feverishly into their notepads, and sitting calmly-faced as they sling fireballs back and forth: and in case a fatality should occur (as past events document), retreating into total obscurity, all the while well-pleased with the ignorance of men who can move hearts and souls with complex poetical constructions, but whose humanity has been defined, and they’ve come to interpret, by narrow conceptions of Machismo.
We played against each other like puppets: swearing you got pull
When the only pull you got is the wool over your eyes
In midst of crafting threatening rhymes toward anyone insecure enough to take the bait, many rappers assuredly took time out to account the number of chains hanging from their necks, bracelets and watches fastened to their wrists, shine and size of rims spinning on their tires, the amount of cars overflowing from personal garages (and, dear god, the paint jobs glistening thereupon), the piles of raw cash stacked on either sides of their pants pockets, the make of sneaker shoes—preferably custom—dragged around with their feet, the design of clothes stashed in their closets, the brand and size and kind of wine preferred at choice-strip clubs. Opulence, for sure. But, even then, little harm was meant—and felt. Soon, however, the bar lowered—from carats to cars, human life factored shortly: the waist-size, body-shape, skin-color, hair-length, attitude-type, etc. Women now ranked as low as the 24 inch rims many bragged excessively about.
Sickening, certainly. But millions of fans lapped this up for years, unquestioning and undisturbed. It became necessary chant for anyone with dreams of acceptance: for if you happened to take pleasure more in the social crises threatening the very world surrounding you, chances of commercial success or affordable living slimmed greatly; but if you chose to join the crowd which, just like you, couldn’t wait to share with fans every immaterial facets of their splashy (though spiritually empty) lives, lifted up as substitutable for self-worth, a door at every major record label, major radio and TV station, and major concert venue held your name emblazoned, bidding: “come in and do business with—for—us.”
The bling-bling era was cute but it’s about to be done, Immortal Technique swore 7 years ago. Look back carefully, and rosters of artists never wavered through those years, never dropped the tempo of their march to the graves of immoral infantilism. Not many understood what they considered poetry could only count, to adults with the courage to think for themselves, as self-parody and an embarrassment at what had become of music—repeated loops of content-absolved incoherence shot, unchanged, through the lips of diverse dolts introduced, to an unwitting public, as artists and, the whopper of all, “creative” artists at that! Lupe Fiasco’s brilliant satirical commentary mapped this farce gracefully—
Now come on, everybody, let’s make cocaine cool
We need a few more half-naked women up in the pool
And hold this MAC-10 that’s all covered in jewels
And can you please put your ti**ies closer to the 22s?
And where’s the champagne? We need champagne!
Now look as hard as you can with this blunt in your hand
And now hold up your chain, slow-motion through the flames
Now cue the smoke machines and the simulated rain
Just as many couldn’t see their creations as the farthest from Art, many, I’m certain, would have been equally befuddled if explained to that in a few years their names would be unrecognizable to the millions of kids for which their music was once Holy Grail. It would be unfathomable that a rapper once christened the next “big thing,” and sure enough primed to sell out millions of CD copies, would in less than 5 years be restored to anonymity, with no name in the street. I wouldn’t embarrass any such rappers in this editorial—they’ve suffered too much—but the list runs endless. Today, king of the jungle. Tomorrow, unknown quarry.
The shock is hardest of all. Then sense of betrayal sets in. The artists’ rage immediately flames at managers and publicists and friends and fans and executives, unable to grapple with what is truer than all the lies (s)he once heard as matter of course: that (s)he was but a mere commodity, sold for a good price, but, like all disposable commodities, set with an expiration date, upon which usefulness (and relevance) passes off. The artist, after much soul-searching, confronts this bitter truth: that (s)he was disposable, that the music was only an immaterial part of the package—worm for fish, carrot for donkey—and now another commodity has been placed on the shelf, whose date also has been set.
One from a thousand speaks in his own voice
The other 999 imitate without choice
My sympathy forever stays with the artist, for no human being deserves to be used or abused—and, particularly, dehumanized. But how much sympathy can be invoiced for hordes of hacks who delighted in swanking about crafting whole songs in 5 or 15 minutes, and foolishly presenting this wonder-of-the-modern-world as evidence of their divine artistic abilities. For years, Hip-Hop fans took beating from scores of artists who strolled out to outdo whatever the record stood at: to pen the fastest bar, hook, verse, or entire song. Of course the thought and time put in always betrayed the ordinariness of the composition. And as the ghosts of Usain Bolt attacked the hands of so-called Rap artists, the channels of creativity began closing, reducing commercial Rap songs to futile repetitions of long-established themes.
The mind that produced “Poet Laureate II” (Canibus) certainly could not take pride in coughing up entire songs in 5 minutes. A certain patience that only great artists—painters, writers, poets—possess, patience to sit still until the right words or shadows and colors can be brought forth, has never known most involved in making Rap music. Prolific artists like the GZA—renowned for such painstaking creations as “Queen’s Gambit,” “0% Finance,” “Labels,” and “Publicity”—must have fallen into light comas upon each sighting of peers and colleagues whose bank accounts boasted millions of dollars for essentially restating what the last man dictated from some previously published script.
“It takes me a while to write sometimes because I’m always reconsidering words,” revealed the GZA in a 2006 interview. “I go line-for-line. Every time I write I try to go line-for-line. It’s a puzzle to me. That’s how I write: this has to fit here and that has to fit there.”
Two years later, he again outlined his work ethic, and the high bar of quality set for his craft: “I like the patience that I have. I once said on the “Crash Your Crew” song, I seen a million try to set a flow/ Thousands at shows/ Observed with the patience of watching a flower grow/. So, I have a lot of patience when it comes to writing. I mean every rhyme that I write, I usually draft five or six or seven times.” (Exclaim!, Nov. 2008.)
This talk must sound foreign to countless artists comforted for years that a first draft is best because it speaks to the most specific details of the heart’s cries, and that needless tinkering for grammatical or dramatic accuracy borders on artificiality or Nerdism, and can only drive away “real” Hip-Hop fans. To this end has rubbish been approved for 21st century Hip-Hop standard. And with many major record label executives sub-literate to any conception of Art—since artists are put on excruciatingly tight schedules that smite the mere possibility of contemplation-before-creation—artistic integrity is an early casualty.
In today’s climate, Prince Paul could never launch A Prince Among Thieves on a major record label. The time required to assemble a line-up of epic quality, to program a storyline of classic complexity, to produce the record with success true to the integrity of his vision, would all be denied. The thought alone—to create operatic Hip-Hop, and craftily insert dialogue, character, plot, flashback, narrative at every turn—would more than likely elicit slammed-shut doors at the offices of the Big 4 record factories.
The force of compromise is often stronger than the public acknowledges (and gives artists the credit for battling). A man with a message, and a strong belief in how that message should be offered publicly, who is then informed his message is unfit or too intelligent for the key-demographic the label plans to market to, can spiral out of control—as many Rap artists unfortunately have, through their careers. The microphone then serves as instrument to punish the rage and fury—the I-have-had-it-up-to-hereness—built up within meetings where White executives claim to know more what Black and Brown audiences deserve—and what flies above their heads. Nothing here is pretty, and what comes off often irritates, as Talib Kweli fired—
And you see that there microphone
Ain’t no place to work out your self-esteem issues
Do that sh** when you alone!
I beg of Kweli, and those in his camp, to be more compassionate of artists suffering deflated egos, robbed of their sense of worth. When denied any sense of agency, sense of ableness to speak against the wicked doings of the rulers in high places, it’s easy to rather jingle about how many Rolexes wrap their wrists, than how timely the moment is for true social change and true revolution of values. It’s easy to rather scribble rhymes about countless lives they’ve physically and personally—without the jail-time one would expect and hope for—sent over hell’s gates, than address increasing inner-city violence, a racist and classist economic system, or a Prison Industrial Complex built on the backs of children and adults priced with little opportunity since birth.
Unplug it on chumps with the gangsta babble
Leave your 9s (mm) at home and bring your skills to the battle
None of this, however gory or ghastly, deviates from script: for most Rap artists are little other than slaves to a system they lack full understanding of. When a rapper entertains young masses—millions around the world tuned to this endless stream—with tales of gang exploits, drug sales, court cases, illegal businesses, and steel-like toughness, only one side emerges victorious—and neither the rapper or the fans had a shot to start with. The rapper is blessed with chump compensation, and fans (many of them from suburban families) are transported to a high upon which only Scarface and The Godfather has thus far been capable of lifting them.
While the song plays and the beat goes on, however, both artist and fan are denied slices of their humanity: artists find their dignity missing when told their capital function in life is to crank out destructive and pathological representations of reality, and overrule any possibility of inner-city Black and Brown kids struggling and overcoming. Struggling, here, represents the end to many means—an ongoing, mindless activity disconnected from any sense of hope and change. Nihilism and fatalism are fetishized over—as worthy answer to constant disappointment over failed struggle. Fans, whether poor or privileged, are robbed of the importance poets once served in society—as prophets and oracles, drawing up inspiration for a better tomorrow and a better today, exposing the inhumanity of life to force radical change. When artists find more value in embodying and embellishing, rather than erasing, decadence, a line has surely been tipped over.
“It is the principal function of popular culture—though hardly its avowed purpose—to keep men from understanding what is happening to them, for social unrest would surely follow, and who knows what outbursts of revenge and rage,” William H. Gass insisted more than three decades ago in Fiction and the Figures of Life. (New York: Knopf, 1970; p. 272) You see traces of this sad spectacle everywhere, even with the year-long health care debate, with many, sick to their lungs, railing against “socialized insurance,” with senior citizens decrying government-run programs as “Communist” and “Marxist.” If only their eyes were introduced to reality, and their ear drums turned the way of truth—truth that reveals the inhumane and deadly practices of gluttonous health insurance giants: gladly denying coverage to dying children and “overweight” infants—there would be, as Chris Rock promised a month ago, “riots in the streets … They would burn this muthaf**ker down!”
Those who sway the future of our planet don’t sweat bullets much, however, thanks to a public that does not “wish to know their own nothingness—or their own potentialities either, and the pleasures of popular culture … give us something to do, something to suffer, an excuse for failure, and a justification for everything.” (p. 273)
Rappers can get real cranky when sober, when pushed to stare down the truth in all its ugliness, “So, the business,” poet Black Ice revealed years ago, “feeds them all the weed and ecstasy and a little bit of paper to provide some pacification from all the bullsh** frustration they serve you.”
Now, the high is just an illusion: lies and confusion
But, just for that rush, just once, these young bucks’ll go through it
So, in essence, they’re still flooding our streets with thugs, drugs, and killing
They just using these record labels to do it
The public fares no better. When shaken out of tabloid-induced coma, bricks rush into office glass windows, buildings explode, planes crash into skyscrapers—pandemonium ensues. For years now, the rulers have fed the donkey its carrot, and blissfully led it down many rivers. And Rap music, for many, is that slim, orange, pointy, juicy vegetable. They swear greater command of what is held before them for consumption—you hear the proverbial “I know he ain’t talkin’ ‘bout me” from female fans—but reality spells differently. William Gass explained:
The objects of popular culture are competitive. They are expected to yield a return. Their effect must be swift and pronounced, therefore they are strident, ballyhooed, and baited with sex; they must be able to create or take part in a fad; and they must die without fuss and leave no corpse. In short, the products of popular culture, by and large, have no more esthetic quality than a brick in the street. (pp. 272-273)
And though lacking any “finish, complexity, stasis, individuality, coherence, depth, and endurance,” they possess that one quality requisite to claim the hearts of a culturally illiterate public—“splash.” (p. 274) The commercial, dominant Rap music content of the last decade falls in this lane—of engaging beats and superfluous styles lacking bitterly in substance. But as with a mansion of cards—no matter how well adorned or spruced up—with time the foundationless structure gives in.
Endless times have I heard the defense, “I don’t like the rhymes, but the beat is tight!” and, refusing to grab a brick and smash over the heads of these otherwise intelligent people, I walked off disturbed. How pitiful do we determine a woman whose purse has just been picked by the neighborhood conman, and, though knowing all this, responds—“I don’t like the act, but he’s good-looking”? It would sound unreasonable if the structure of popular culture did not rest on this very foundation—the unbelievable, unexplainable gullibility of an ostensibly aware public. “[P]opular culture is the product of an industrial machine,” wrote Gass, “which makes baubles to amuse savages while missionaries steal their souls and merchants steal their money.” (p. 274)
However uncool preachers might be today, sermons need to shoot off from rooftops to millions worldwide trapped in this buffooneristic enterprise, shorted for all their worth and fed deleterious values, many of them too young to estimate the total effect of the destruction until later on—at stages almost irreversible. “This muck cripples consciousness,” Gass warned. “Therefore no concessions should be made to it.” (p. 275)
[Next week’s editorial would extend this topic—of whether the “muck” has so crippled consciousness, not only of listeners but of Hip-Hop itself, that all life has been sapped, dragging away to the valleys of death.]
Tolu Olorunda is a cultural critic whose work appears in various online journals. He can be reached at: [email protected].