Hip Hop Hermeneutics

08.20.2004 | Tim Marchman | Music | 6 Comments

It takes work to make hip-hop dull. The most successful hip-hop group of the 1990s, the Wu-Tang Clan, was at one point simultaneously producing a soundtrack for a film by director Jim Jarmusch and under investigation by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms for running guns between Steubenville, Ohio, and Staten Island. (Charges were never filed.) One member of the group, Ol’ Dirty Bastard (who has since renamed himself Big Baby Jesus), has been arrested for assault, making terrorist threats, shoplifting, wearing body armor, and possessing cocaine. He celebrated the massive success of the group’s debut album by inviting MTV to film him as he cashed a welfare check.
    
Meanwhile, the RZA, Ol’ Dirty’s cousin, who is often photographed wearing gold fangs, was producing something on the order of four albums a year for the group and its various offshoots and members. These included such diverse figures as former crack dealer Raekwon the Chef and 14-yearold Shyheim the Rugged Child. And while each project maintained a distinct aura, they all had in common a bizarre philosophical underpinning compounded of equal parts apocalyptic Five-Percenter rhetoric, drugsoaked paranoia, hard-headed business tactics, and social philosophy absorbed from Hong Kong action movies. A typical verse went as follows:

Electric microbes, robotic probes, taking telescope pictures of the globe, babies getting pierced with microchips stuffed inside their earlobes
Then examinated, blood contaminated, vaccinated, lives fabricated Exaggerated authorization, Food and Drug Administration, testing poison in prison population
My occupation is to stop the inauguration of Satan, some claim that it was Reagan, so I come to slay men
Like Bartholomew, cause every particle’s physical article was diabolical to the last visible molecule.

These rhymes came over a beat comprised of a simple drum track, an ominously plucked guitar, and a woman soulfully wailing, “Impossible! You can never defeat the gods… Impossible! For you to defeat… the gods.”

The Wu-Tang Clan was, improbably, the best popular group in America during the 1990s. The above verse — not their best; there are dozens more like it on that record alone — shows more appreciation for the texture and vividness of language, more charisma and wit, than entire batches of poems from respectable magazines.

In its musical setting, this is art — deliberately obscurantist, incomprehensible to the majority of the public, and seriously intended. Marry it to the delirious self-mythologizing, outrageous crimes, and social context of its creators, and you have not just something outlandish, reprehensible, and wonderful. What you have is the most fecund and unbroken possible ground for serious study of American culture.

So far as I can tell, the authors and editors of “That’s The Joint! The Hip-Hop Studies Reader” (Routledge, 400 pages, $35) a spectacularly self-parodic anthology of ill-informed, pretentious ravings on hip-hop, do not mention the Wu-Tang Clan. Nor do they seriously consider A Tribe Called Quest, Eric B. and Rakim, Ultramagnetic MCs, Prince Paul, OutKast, Gang Starr, Slick Rick, or any of dozens of other wildly imaginative artists. Nor do the works collected note the odd fact that the hip-hop renaissance that began in Queens and Long Island in the early 1990s implausibly ended up taking its deepest root in Atlanta, a traditional hip-hop backwater.

The brave academics gathered here, who would stake a claim for hip-hop’s worth and legitimacy, have no use for the anecdotal, the vernacular, or the particular. They prefer generalizations to specifics, and any tactic besides asserting that the music might be aesthetically worthwhile. Hence we have essays on law, on theory, on politics, on identity, on race, on a multitude of topics that might be addressed under any pretext whatever.

This is not a group of people thinking about music and culture but a group of academics seeking to prove their relevance by embracing transgression. How else to explain that the musical touchstones returned to here again and again — crude, artistically null confrontationalists like Public Enemy, Ice Cube, Ice-T, N.W.A., 2 Live Crew, and their ilk — have for many years only gained the attention of rock critics, outraged moralist pundits, and untenured professors?

Any sketch comedy troupe seeking material for a send-up of the stodgy professoriate will find plenty of material. Witness the work of R.A.T. Judy, an English professor (what else?) at the University of Pittsburgh, writing “On the Question of Nigga Authenticity.”

Understanding the possibilities of nigga authenticity in the emerging realities of transnational capital is a humbling undertaking. From the pulpit to the lectern, from the television news desk to the op-ed pages of the leading papers, the general consensus is “this nigga is deadly dangerous.” It is this nigga who gang-bangs, this nigga who is destroying the fabric of society, who has spread across the country like an infestation, bringing an epidemic of death and despair to black America.

More likely, it is this fellow who is being paid well to project a goonish image. A writer with any sense of humor would draw the line further: To project the image of the thug, perfectly decent and well-off young men actually become thugs. But Mr. Judy, with one eye on his dog-eared volume of Fanon, draws the line backwards, theorizing rap into a pattern of traditional black narrative and resistance, which “traces the development of gangster rap as a rupture in this morally legitimate tradition of resistance, whose origin is not in the form of rap itself but in a moral malaise engendered by the conditions of capitalism’s hegemony over all aspects of life.”

If by this last phrase he means gangsta rap can be traced to some small-time hoods on the West Coast and in Philadelphia laundering their drug profits and shrewdly appraising the white market for black buffoonery, he is correct. Otherwise he has amply demonstrated that he hasn’t the least idea what he’s talking about.

Mr. Judy is done one better by Todd Boyd, a professor of “critical studies” (surprised?) at the University of Southern California. In his “Check Yourself Before You Wreck Yo Self,” he writes approvingly of the terrible gangsta rapper Scarface’s bold rejection of hip-hop convention: he “has even rejected the usual female sexual subservience by stating, ?F—- the bitches / I want money and the power” to demonstrate his complicity with the excesses of late commodity capitalism within the drug culture.”

Somewhere the great rapper Trugoy the Dove sits glumly wondering why no treatises are written of his dazzlingly original group, De La Soul. But Mr. Boyd is on to bigger game.

[The] rejection of victimization for an empowered critical agenda goes against the grain of African American public etiquette. But unlike conservative cultural African American critics such as Clarence Thomas, Stanley Crouch, and Shelby Steele, Ice Cube takes a position that cannot be easily co-opted. He uses this self-critical posture as an instance of cultural empowerment.

My favorite Ice Cube line has always been, “Ice Cube will swarm / On any motherf—-er in a blue uniform.” My favorite fact about this über-hard gangsta is that, despite growing up in a bad neighborhood in Los Angeles, he took a degree in architectural drafting and then decided to make a profitable career for himself exploiting gullible fools like Mr. Boyd. Cultural empowerment indeed!

The game is given away in the namechecking of Messrs. Thomas, Crouch, and Steele — three men who have nothing in common with one another besides the color of their skin and their refusal to pay Jim Crow-era obeisance to the Democratic party or to Ice Cube. This cynical and shoddy anthology is not an exercise in, as ubiquitous blowhard Michael Eric Dyson claims in the foreword, “serious work from the critics of hip-hop that engages hiphop with intellectual rigor.” It is the same old con-game being played by the same old cons: left academics defining their ideological rivals by using art as a wedge.

It’s easy to champion Scarface and mock Stanley Crouch for not getting it. What would be more difficult, but worthwhile, would be to look Mr. Crouch in the face and tell him that you think OutKast, even if they aren’t the Charles Mingus Jazz Workshop, make fine music that’s worth his attention. That aesthetic judgment might be mocked as naïve, or as merely contrarian.To argue it would take honesty, and some courage. Putting together this anthology took none.



All in all, this is a great article. I'm not a huge hip hop fan although I once was, and I believe Mr. Marchman has hit this topic perfectly. The true word magicians, the true free stylers, the true rap artists have been replaced by gangsta rap stars without an ounce of talent who sell CDs with their contrived persona and nice-sounding baselines. When you get down to it, they aren't much different in their tactics from syrupy pop stars like Britney Spears and that newest curse upon our ears, Ashlee Simpson.

I do have one point of contention: Public Enemy should not be lumped alongside Ice Cube, NWA, etc. Public Enemy has always had a political message at the heart of their music. Although I heartily disagree with their political message, it exists nonetheless. Consider songs like "By the Time I get to Arizona," which is about Arizona's refusal to celebrate Martin Luther King Day, or the self-explanatory "9-1-1 is a Joke." PE even went so far as to bring their own Afrocentric commandos on stage with them for a while, which may or may not have been simple pandering to the popular Afrocentrism of the day. I am not the only one who thinks PE has a message, though. As much as I hate to say it, Chuck D is a popular speaker and one of Air America's first radio personalities. Once again, I heartily disagree with his politics, but look at the record.
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