Saw this article by Juan Williams awhile back, referring to an interesting Pew Research Center poll of the African-American community on AA issues. What caught my attention in this piece was what Williams chose to focus on — most notably, his comments on hip hop culture.
Williams is no fan of this culture, as he’s made obvious in multiple articles on the subject over the years. Mostly I’ve always chalked his opinion up to old age/out-of-touchness, and the usual grumbling that older folks will do about whatever bizarre subcultural fads younger folks latch onto. Juan’s parents probably complained about jazz and zoot suits; for him it’s rap and baggy jeans. Some of this is career posturing; there’s no better way for a black columnist to get read than by saying what conservative white people want to hear, as people like Michelle Malkin can attest. So I’ll be honest — I usually ignore commentators like Williams when they start getting their rant on. I’m not really their target audience.
What I am, though, is a member of the generation that grew up on hip hop. I’m not an across-the-board fan, but I nod my head. I lean back. Sometimes I buy. What I don’t do, unlike Mr. Williams and apparently the majority of black Americans who’ve decided to blame hip hop for “high drop-out rates, record black-on-black murder statistics and a record number of out-of-wedlock births”, is tar and feather a musical form as the root of all evil. Because, quite frankly, that’s silly. Of all the scapegoats they could come up with for the myriad of problems faced by the black community, this is the best they could come up with? Come on, now.
On top of that, they’re not even talking about all hip hop. If all you’re listening to is what’s in constant rotation on the Clear Channel and other “big corporate” radio networks, then you’re hearing only the tip of a massive and diverse iceberg. Most of the hip hop artists on my iPod have never gotten airtime on mainstream radio. Some of them are regional acts, popular only in certain cities or chunks of the country. Some of them are from other countries, because hip hop went global ages ago and sometimes I like my hip hop in Japanese, or Portuguese, or Arabic. It’s easy to find translations online. Some of the older artists in my iPod started out mainstream, then got pushed underground by the surge of gangsta rap in the 90s; most are still going strong. Some are newbies who distribute their work strictly online, or through CDs passed around hand to hand at parties, or through obscure labels not generally known for hip hop.
And none of them talk about bling. The guys might complain about problems they’ve had with individual women, but none of them denigrate the gender en masse. None of the women denigrate themselves. None of it glorifies prison culture, ignorance, or violence. There’s a few thugs and ex-thugs in the bunch — though more are college graduates — but even these are a cut above the 50 Cent breed of thug; they have better things to brag about besides getting shot and producing a really shitty video game. My current favorite tracks, like the Coffee Nods’ “Grown”, speak to elements of my life as a young black professional approaching middle age. These people are rapping about 401Ks of all things — and parenthood, and long term relationships, and office politics spiced with racism. I’m a writer, and in Hydroponic Sound System’s “Delirium”, they perfectly capture that feverish moment that strikes in the middle of the night where you get an idea and you just have to get up and write it down. And they rap about the fact that sometimes you can’t write it down, because you’ve got a 9 to 5 and rent to pay. This is subject matter that I suspect is a far more accurate depiction of life in black America than guns and hoes — but you’ll never hear it in the top 40.
What I’m talking about is underground hip hop, if you haven’t guessed. The underground is where hip hop started, after all, and naturally that’s where its soul has remained all these years. While the record companies and the mainstream media hype gangsta rap, bling, and booty, the true creative heart of the genre has kept on beating, evolving into political hip hop, impressionistic hip hop, religious hip hop, feminist hip hop, and a whole slew of other sub-subcultures. These are just as much hip hop as Fiddy and Diddy — moreso IMO, because they haven’t sold their souls for a buck.
Unfortunately folks like Mr. Williams don’t seem to be aware of hip hop’s true face. They don’t seem to realize that the rap they’re talking about — usually gangsta rap — is produced by companies that have made their money selling a fantasy of black urban culture to mostly middle-class suburban white kids. They don’t seem to care that sales in this category of hip hop are plummeting precisely for that reason — because the culture that created hip hop moved on to smarter things long ago, and even the suburban white kids are getting bored after nearly 20 years of the same old shit. As a fad, crap rap’s time is passing.
And the Mr. Williams of the world seem completely oblivious to the origins of the hip hop they hate so much. I’m referring in this case to the incestuous corporate media machines that power the supposed blockbusters of hip hop. For example, Black Entertainment Television is owned by Viacom. Contains no actual black people in positions of authority. (Robert Johnson doesn’t own it anymore, and even if he did, I’m not sure at what point a person switches from “black” to “sellout”.) Viacom also owns VH1 and MTV. Think these networks are competitors? I suppose they are, superficially — but since their profits all feed into a single pot, are they really? They mutually benefit from every top-40 hit, because those hits then go into constant rotation on multiple channels, driving up viewership across the board. It’s obviously in their best interest to work together on choosing which hits to promote. But let’s dig deeper. Viacom also owns CBS and Paramount, and has close ties to Tribune Entertainment, which owns big-name newspaper properties like the Los Angeles Times and the Chicago Tribune. In 2007 Viacom signed a deal with Microsoft to collaborate on promoting MTV and BET properties. Remember, Microsoft owns MSN, a top online news source. Backing up, CBS Corporation owns Showtime, one of the big cable players, and several book publishing conglomerates, like Simon and Schuster. One of Viacom’s properties, CBS Radio, is currently in a distribution deal with Sony BMG — a record company, which owns dozens of big name hip hop acts.
What does this all mean? Well, remember the old saying that there’s no such thing as negative publicity. So for example last year when the Imus scandal erupted, we saw newspapers (owned by Tribune), online and cable news outlets (owned by Microsoft), and broadcast TV news outlets (such as CBS) raise a big stink over the use of the n-word in hip hop (played on radio stations owned by CBS), and playing samples of records (owned by BMG) and videos (found MTV and BET) to illustrate their point. Viewership went up. Readership went up. Page clicks went up. Sales of ads and albums almost surely went up. Meanwhile Imus’ most recent book (published by Simon and Schuster) gets a sales-rank boost on Amazon.
So Imus makes money, Viacom and all its children make money, maybe even a few artists make money… and all for the low low price of the Rutgers’ women’s basketball team’s self-respect. And as a feel-good sop to everyone involved, hip hop gets to be the scapegoat of the hour.
Here’s the thing. That stuff you hear on mainstream radio? The stuff that’s so “controversial” and “popular”? So outrageously misogynist and violent and cutting-edge “hard”? Is a focus-grouped artificial construct cynically produced by one hand of a giant corporation whose other hands (because there are way more than two) are simultaneously promoting said product across a vast multimedia landscape. Said promotional methods include not just ads, not just hype, but “horrified outcry” and other such blatant manipulation of the media. What really slays me is that in the end, the gangsta rappers are the last and lowest-paid of the whole pile. The only people they’re fooling with all that bling BS are white children too ignorant to realize they’re getting chumped, a few (only 29% of sales, remember) kids of color who’ll probably grow out of it, racists who just need an excuse to believe every possible black stereotype… and Mr. Williams, who really ought to know better.
So. The next time any of you out there decide, like Mr. Williams, to make some denigrating blanket statement about hip hop and its terrible, epidemic effect on the black community, please make sure it’s actually hip hop you’re talking about — the real stuff, I mean, and not the musical Frankenstein manufactured by rich old white guys in suits. You’ll sound much smarter if you do.
Many thanks to JAM Renaissance, who awhile back administered my own much-needed smack to the head about what is and isn’t hip hop, and who currently runs one of the smartest podcasts I’ve ever heard from the hip hop underground, 360D Radio.