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Meditations on Hip-Hop: Of Disposability, Death, and Destiny (Pt. I of III)

DISPOSABILITY

 

“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

Pop

Artists

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.

Pop

Music

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

Pop

Culture

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: Tolu.Olorunda@gmail.com.

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