I was at Starbux yesterday having an insanely sweet discussion with a good friend of mine about the pulse of hip-hop – can you still feel it? We talked about whether or not it still had the power to capture the zeitgeist and if, perhaps, it might have been eclipsed or displaced by electronic music, with its voiceless skittishness (enough to drive me mad, which, I suppose, would be a primary characteristic of any kind of music vying to become a soundtrack for our time).

“All the artists are either in jail or in forced retirement [i.e. jail],” he said, citing Nas, DMX, Eminem and a few others he thought represented hip-hop’s subversive prime.

I on the other hand don’t get too worked up over all of the talk about the death of hip-hop. It never really spoke to me on that kind of of level, although it’s good to hear Andre 3 stacks again and I wouldn’t mind hearing something from the Eminem who could still shock and piss everybody off.

I told him that the truth about hip-hop is that it was never really as subversive as it put on. It’s really always been about money, power, parties and hoes. And at its most antagonistic, enraged point, its always been about the tragedy of being apart of a sub-culture that’s been historically denied the opportunity to pursue the money and power by conventional (read WASP-ish) means. Hip-Hop, for the most part, has always been democratic capitalism’s fiercest and truest believer, which is really the source of its cynicism and evidence that it’s ability to channel the ethos of modernity is probably stronger than ever.

This is also why its so ironic to hear, for instance, Wyclef’s subtle mock of Louis Armstrong, a veritable Uncle Tom (if he’s even known at all) to many blacks under forty. If we compare genres, jazz and hip-hop, which would you consider the greatest ‘sell-out’ success story?

There might not be another genre of music that has profited more from the economic policies of conservative Republicans and the rapid technological advancement of the late 20th-, early 21st-century (and the resulting inequitable economic arrangements they’ve left in their wakes)  than hip-hop. And there’s probably not another genre that’s as explicitly C.R.E.A.M.-ish and unashamedly commercial as hip-hop.

You really can’t applaud hip-hop’s entrepreneurship and billion-dollar ‘industrial’ status and its truth-telling power at the same time. Jazz (leaving aside its critical virtues) is a hobby by comparison. Name a jazz musician who can afford Mike Tyson’s old estate? Wyclef can afford to bank a presidential run, while Satchmo virtually worked himself to death (he lived in a relatively modest, but comfortable home in Brooklyn and may have even been neighbors with welfare recipients). Of course, my anecdotal analysis doesn’t entirely prove hip-hop’s inherent economic conservatism, but if we can examine the soul of a politician by auditing his bank account, what makes an artist and his or her aesthetic integrity any different?

Nonetheless, the conventional wisdom seems to be that rap is (or was at some point in its evolution), for whatever reason, politically and culturally subversive. Yeah, and Ronald Reagan was a liberal Democrat.

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