"Of course, nostalgia is history without moral reckoning."
August 30, 2023 5:36 AM   Subscribe

Didn’t know about Cube being an anti-vaxer and buddying-up with Carlson. Damn. Sad shit indeed.
posted by Thorzdad at 6:03 AM on August 30 [12 favorites]

Man in late 40s is dead certain that today's music is just a bunch of worthless sellouts, not like when he was coming up ✅️
posted by cubeb at 6:28 AM on August 30 [14 favorites]

Hiphop turns 30, from 2004, by the late Greg Tate, mentioned in the piece.
posted by johngoren at 6:52 AM on August 30 [3 favorites]

Man in late 40s is dead certain that today's music is just a bunch of worthless sellouts, not like when he was coming up

Uh, no. Here's his bona fides:
This isn’t some condescending view from a lofty perch. To borrow from Michael B. Jordan all those years ago: This shit? This is me, yo, right here. I grew up smack dab in the middle of hip hop culture. My cousin is Kool Keith from Ultramagnetic MCs (just saw him two weeks ago at the family picnic); Kurtis Blow is a family friend; my uncle Vernon was a well-known b-boy; several of my cousins are aspiring rappers. We were there in the parks and housing projects, at the shows, and in some cases in the street crews, from Harlem to Fort Greene, participating in the culture, pushing it forward.

Which is why I can look at hip hop at 50 and say: This is some wild shit. What the fuck is going on here? Even worse, it is now precisely what it abhorred in its incipience: conservative, white-flattering, and, maybe worst of all, predictable. Hip hop in 2023 is utterly formulaic. Check Instagram and you can see any number of white women mouthing drill verses at weddings. Everyone knows the viral dances and can replicate the flows. I never imagined hip hop would be so cute, so safe, so generic.
In fact, he's quite careful to note when the actual musicians of his youth sold out, and how, and to whom. And, to this man in his late fifties, it's an old and very familiar repeating cycle: Frank Sinatra, when he was very young, was considered to be dangerously sensuous in his performing style; Sinatra got old and made the same criticism of young Elvis; Elvis denounced rock and roll; rock and roll was in turn denounced by punk; and eventually Johnny Rotten became precisely the sort of decrepit wanker that he used to rail against. Same as it ever was, meet the new boss, etc.
posted by Halloween Jack at 7:26 AM on August 30 [42 favorites]

The author's other two pieces on Defector are pretty good too, and now I'm looking for other pieces by him.
posted by Slothrup at 7:27 AM on August 30 [4 favorites]

Of course, people have been declaring hip hop's death for so long, and with such enthusiasm, that it has become as hackneyed a trope as any in the discourse.

‘Twas ever thus, now do punk etc…

Uh, no. Here's his bona fides

The traditional counter this kind of article, and often the coda to it, is to point at all the new people coming along who have not faded from their creative prime/fallen back on past glories. It does seem conspicuous that all these bonafides are, where named, damn old.
posted by Artw at 7:56 AM on August 30 [1 favorite]

Uh, no. Here's his bona fides:

I don't care about his gatekeeping or his bona fides. The author is saying, quite clearly and at length, that hip hop WAS interesting and vibrant when he was young and when there was no money in any of it. Regardless of the eventual downfall of the artists of those elder days, he believes there used to be something good in this art form until it sold out, and now there is nothing good in it.

This is not the only point he made, but it's the point I take issue with. I'm not saying he doesn't have a reasonable concern about the danger of commodifying art. But he has not a single kind word, offers not the slightest mote of appreciation, for any new music in the genre. When you think about it, though, what else could he reasonably expect? By his own puritanical metric, the only good hip hop must necessarily be hip hop that is not marketed or publicized or paid for, which is going to make it extremely difficult to find if you are not willing to really put in the effort trawling through soundcloud/bandcamp and going to basement shows. Guess he got lucky knowing who he did back in the 80's, or else he never would have heard good hip hop at all.
posted by cubeb at 8:12 AM on August 30 [7 favorites]

Yeah, you don't even need to know that much to know he's wrong at the part where he's talking about "the loss of colloquial voice in hip hop... Any song could be by anyone from anywhere. " Only somebody who went to juvie with XXXTentacion in Florida would sound like Ski Mask. Only somebody who went to North Carolina and got into hippie shit would sound like Mavi (I say that with love, he's awesome)... there are definitely still local sounds and scenes. Has England ever listened to any younger artist? You'd never know it from this piece.
posted by demonic winged headgear at 8:30 AM on August 30 [4 favorites]

Killer Mike is only 48.
posted by Artw at 8:32 AM on August 30

At this point, most are talking to flatter the delusions of the new, expanded audience. To allow them access on their own terms. Anything that exists long enough in America to have a legitimate history becomes subject to this: The goal of our hyper-capitalist society is to flatten, standardize, and refashion anything counterculture into something that serves its bottom line. It could be MLK, Pat Tillman, or Che Guevara (with bling on)—depth and accuracy matter less than the salable aesthetic; the actual spirit of any movement matters less than whether you can tailor it to satisfy (and in some cases manufacture) a sense of nostalgia. Of course, nostalgia is history without moral reckoning. That’s precisely its appeal. In this case it rewards a fetishization of black culture without the burden of appreciating or even understanding it.
posted by Tom Hanks Cannot Be Trusted at 9:01 AM on August 30 [1 favorite]

Notice: totally off-topic, longish thing based on OP's title and not TFA's content.

I did not look at TFA but scanned the thread. I kind of feel like I would probably agree with @cubeb if I were qualified to have an opinion about hip-hop.

I clicked on OP because of the title. Which I am guessing is a quote pulled from TFA. Which I have issues with.

"History" and "moral reckoning" are two orthogonal things, I am thinking. Earlier this summer, The Pedant posted a meditation on historical judgement containing a line that has really stuck with me:

... one of the things historians are trained to do is to inhabit systems of value or knowledge different from our own.

Which, in my mind, is one of the main reasons for studying history in the first place: to learn to inhabit the moral landscapes of others who are foreign to you.

I have been chewing over possibly-an-insight for some weeks now, thinking about this: one of the asymmetries that Liberals/progressives/people of the Left draw between themselves and conservatives/rightists/wingnuts, is that the latter seem to have a deep deficit of empathy. They will support public expenditures to help people they know personally, but until their kid gets cancer/their niece gets raped/their brother comes out as gay, any tax expenditures to help kids with cancer/run rape-survival support systems/promote acceptance of gay people is just horrid and sinful. This is held up in contrast to the liberal or progressive or whatever desire to make the world a better place by expending resources on these things just because they are obviously inherently worthwhile.

What I am wondering is, does this supposed asymmetry really look at things from far enough away to see the picture? Because one of the other things I see among liberals/progressives/lefties/whatever we are, is a strong tendency to want to judge people of other times and places. Which is an understandable temptation, considering how much of our own "history" consists of evasions about unpleasantness and hypocrisy. But the giving in to that temptation is, I suspect, strongly influenced by a lack of practice at inhabiting the moral landscapes of others. If you honestly believe that you, had you been born in Virginia in 1830 to a slave-owning family, would have freed your human property out of the sheer goodness of your heart... I suspect you could use some practice at trying to "inhabit systems of value different from your own."

The Right's "empathy deficit," I am suggesting, is just their manifestation of this kind of parochialism, and is the flip side of the Left's disdain for the whole slough full of enslaver Founders and their hypocrisy, and the firm belief of a great many modern guys, that no way would they have been slave-rapers had they been born in Thomas Jefferson's pants.

Anyway my point is, that "History with moral reckoning" is maybe not always where you want to start.
posted by Aardvark Cheeselog at 9:01 AM on August 30 [3 favorites]

It’s like the Cube says: “SONY Pictures Inc pays a lot of money”
posted by Artw at 9:05 AM on August 30

oh cool hiphop got rockism too
posted by parm at 9:34 AM on August 30

Betteridge's law strikes again!
posted by The River Ivel at 10:05 AM on August 30

I don't know enough about the music to say anything about it but I'll tell you this line really struck me hard: "Culture is about collective communion, uplift, and rescue; culture is not about the solitary production of an approximation of itself for consumption."
posted by mittens at 10:10 AM on August 30 [7 favorites]

Uh, no. Here's his bona fides:

Not sure establishing him as a genuine old head gets him out of the “old head yells at cloud” critique.

Hip hop—like the essential oil and marijuana businesses, among so many other counterculture subcultures—is clarifying that while it has historically seemed spiritually progressive and rebellious, it’s politically all over the place, prone to paranoia, drawn to conspiracy theory, and increasingly embracing self-centered crackpot pseudo-intellectualism from all corners.

Who could have seen that coming?

I’m starting this comment sounding way snarkier than I want to be about things I’m sure England knows very well. I think there is value in these kinds of perspectives, even if they are a little predictable, and even without his bona fides I’ve been feeling like the mainstream of the genre has been in a bit of a rut (with some bright spots). But I’m not really looking for coherent politics in my music so much as artistic vitality, and I feel like the problem there is more a combination of commercial dynamics pushing artists to pump out a lot of formulaic tracks, with the fact that a lot of the “next generation” (or even the last) have ended up dead or in serious legal trouble.
posted by atoxyl at 10:29 AM on August 30 [1 favorite]

a lot of the “next generation” (or even the last) have ended up dead or in serious legal trouble

Not the first time this has happened, I know, it just seems like multiple people who represented scenes that were relatively fresh and exciting barely made it to their first album.
posted by atoxyl at 10:39 AM on August 30

Relevant to the topic, NPR’s Fresh Air has been replaying Hip Hop interviews all week. I have to admit that I like the cognitive dissonance of some of the harsher Hip-Hop tracks coming from my NPR show. Terry Gross is, as always, one of the greatest interviewers we have.
Shows so far:

Fresh Air for Aug. 26, 2023: Reckoning with hip-hop's past; Remembering Biggie Smalls

Fresh Air for Aug. 28, 2023: DJ Kool Herc; Grandmaster Flash; Rapper Melle Mel

Fresh Air for Aug. 29, 2023: Run-D.M.C.'s Darryl McDaniels; LL Cool J; Chic guitarist Nile Rodgers

'Fresh Air' celebrates 50 years of hip-hop: Queen Latifah

'Fresh Air' celebrates 50 years of hip-hop: Ice-T

(Links are working currently, but future users may need to search the Fresh Air archives)
posted by LEGO Damashii at 11:54 AM on August 30 [3 favorites]

I think there's so much more going on in this great piece than the sort of cartoon version ("is there still good rap music being made or not") being discussed above.
posted by johngoren at 2:02 PM on August 30 [7 favorites]

Two contemporary hip hop acts I recommend to the highest possible degree are Tobe & Fat Nwigwe and Coast Contra.

In addition to fantastic beats and rhymes, Tobe & Fat also produce gorgeous music videos in a particular idiosyncratic style that knocks me out. Here's an example, also featuring Pharrell and Olu: "Lord Forgive Me"

By contrast, Coast Contra, a quartet of fantastic writers and rappers, are best known for a series of minimalist videos they put out on youtube that are called "freestyles", though they're clearly not off the dome. They are incredible though. Here's their latest, which dropped just a few days ago:
"Breathe and Stop Freestyle"

And here they are together: "Destruction"
posted by slappy_pinchbottom at 2:10 PM on August 30 [1 favorite]

Hip hop is grandpas' music and it has been for at least the past ten years (arguably the last fifteen). There are still people doing exciting things with it in the same way that there are still people doing exciting things with jazz but it's not moving the needle culturally like it used to.

Man, if you had told me way back when that the man responsible for Cop Killer would spend the next quarter century making copaganda I probably would have been pretty mad at you but money changes things.
posted by Parasite Unseen at 2:55 PM on August 30 [2 favorites]

Don't let money change you, eh? (2000, yikes)

It really depends what you mean by hip hop. The most commercial stuff has been stuck in sound for years that I got tired of very quickly, but there's also a lot more out there to find. It won't find you in the same way it used to.

And it seems to me that even the commercial stuff is starting to make a turn back towards more musicality from autotuned asset disclosures plus yeah/woahs.
posted by snuffleupagus at 3:18 PM on August 30

Metafilter: autotuned asset disclosures plus yeah/woahs.
posted by riverlife at 3:59 PM on August 30 [2 favorites]

Man, if you had told me way back when that the man responsible for Cop Killer would spend the next quarter century making copaganda
Original Gangster is so goofy Ice-T raps about Oprah and Donahue as yardsticks of legitimacy and seriousness. He was always going to be That Guy and the line “Rappin' bout hardcore topics” never fails to make me chuckle.
posted by migurski at 6:04 PM on August 30 [1 favorite]

Well yes, modern hip-hop is formulaic and boring. So is modern punk, and modern metal. Pick a genre that's been around for fucking ever and your gonna find that to be true. Do the kids like it? Obviously enough for people to be paying bills. I suspect if you're looking for the modern underground, you're not looking in the right place. I'm old and I know that the cool kids aren't looking for or to me for the latest cool shit. If you were part of a scene "back in the day" They're probably not looking to you either. Have fun kids, old people still don't get it, even if they did when they were young.
posted by evilDoug at 9:29 PM on August 30

I’m not sure if any other modern genre has been so traduced as hip-hop though. Punk and metal still hold roughly analogous positions, jazz is now respectable, country music is… uh… but hip-hop now means rap, and that’s now so mainstream that Dr Dre is suitable for the Super Bowl. When NWA formed, the 87 Super Bowl entertainment was Neil Diamond and George Burns. And that’s not even getting into the erasure of the community/social aspects of hip-hop. It’s true, things change, culture shifts, but this is one instance where an entirely American art form was ruined in the name of commerce.
posted by The River Ivel at 1:18 AM on August 31 [4 favorites]

Yeah, it's a little frustrating to see what I thought was a great article reduced to a discussion of whether hip-hop is "good" nowadays, as if the author is just saying that the music is degrading. To the extent that he talks about production at all, it's to talk about how it's gotten easier, which means it's become lower-stakes to get involved in making it, which makes it more accessible. And accessibility isn't looked at as an inherently bad thing, but it changes who can and can't get involved—and who would or wouldn't want to. It has acquired breadth, at the cost of innate meaning.

That happens to anything that can be reduced to aesthetics or entertainment—and it happens more quickly the more money's involved. And usually, that conversation (or reduction) to aesthetics and commerce means that, at some point, a culture's history or authenticity also becomes aesthetic. The author takes pains to describe the kinds of people he's encountered who try to either establish their bona fides as "authorities" on hip-hop—thus proving that they are doing hip hop "correctly"—or who attempt to use their enthusiasm for hip-hop as a way of establishing themselves as somehow more legitimate, more connected, more in-the-know. Authenticity becomes a worn jacket that you bought on eBay. And hip-hop, which is often explicitly about people's pasts and their cultures, offers an easy ticket to seeming authenticity, but also encourages mimicry, simulating those cultural and historic trappings the way ChatGPT simulates thought.

To some extent, yeah, this does happen to everything. It's why some people still begrudge Led Zeppelin for covering a bunch of blues songs written by Black Americans without crediting the original authors. It's why people get mad at cultural appropriation period. If there's a storied history to the kinds of complaint the author is making, it's a history of an affluent, white supremacist monoculture that sees everything else as a neat hat that it can don.

But there's another lament within this piece, and it's that so many people who were present at the origins of this counter-culture turned out to be eager to assimilate themselves into that monoculture. People whose politics seemed formed in response to that monoculture, or which seemed to critique that monoculture, were willing to become a part of it themselves. They turned conservative, they bought into bullshit scams, they pulled the ladder up behind them. And yes, this is also a story we've heard before—the one in which the rebellious youths turn into the thing they once rebelled against. It's Morrissey going Islamophobic, or JK Rowling going TERF. That doesn't invalidate what the author is saying here—it suggests that he is, in fact, talking about something important and sad and maybe even disturbing, something that runs a little deeper than hipster posturing.
posted by Tom Hanks Cannot Be Trusted at 7:03 AM on August 31 [7 favorites]

I agree with the Tom Hanks skeptic here. I don't think that this essay's central thesis (to the extent it has one) is that there is no good hip-hop music because it's become mainstream; that's a far too simplistic a takeaway. He touches on a lot, but at no point does he say "there is no good or meaningful hip-hop music anymore."

I was irritated and ready to put down a list of some current hip-hop that I think is both good and meaningful, but after I read it, I realized that wasn't really a rebuttal to the essay at all
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 10:10 AM on August 31 [2 favorites]

Even the term hip hop—which Van Der Meer and Tate knew to be multifaceted—has mostly shrunk down to mean "the popular shit people saw on TV and heard on mainstream radio." Rich Purcell, an English professor at the University of Mississippi, affirms this idea: “The hip hop I knew was a culture. It was capacious. It was unwieldy. It was more than rap. To conflate it with rap music is the easiest and most reductive way to discuss what hip hop is.”

I think his is what has disappointed me with most of the 50th anniversary commentary I’ve seen, and he even admits to doing it here — it focuses exclusively on the music (rappers in particular) and ignores the other elements of hip hop.
posted by jimw at 12:44 PM on August 31

People whose politics seemed formed in response to that monoculture, or which seemed to critique that monoculture, were willing to become a part of it themselves.

The thing here is - KRS-One performing for Eric Adams? Okay, that’s a pretty straightforward sellout. Performers with inchoately “anti-establishment” politics shaking out as some variety of conspiracy theorist you can no longer respect? Rather predictable, and in fact premonitions have been there all along. I’m not sure it’s an irony that things end up that way, I kind of think it’s an inherent weakness of a particular idea of what it is to be counter-culture and anti-establishment, of things that are “spiritually progressive and rebellious” as the author says. All those guys assuredly still think they are the anti-establishment ones, too!

I agree that there’s a lot going on in the article. I just feel like on this particular point it doesn’t get all the way there on asking “wait, how much of this is even really surprising?”

(I don’t think things that are spiritually progressive and rebellious are bad, either, but I think it’s best to go in with the understanding that it’s mostly vibes-based from the beginning)
posted by atoxyl at 1:06 PM on August 31 [3 favorites]

The article doesn't have much to say about the actual music at all, which I thought was part of what made it interesting.

There's a section where he compares Hip Hop and Jazz. Now, the discussion I'm used to here is about the lifecycle of art forms: a form is created, that form is expanded in many different ways which are considered new versions of that form, and eventually the form becomes closed. The thesis is that Jazz became closed sometime around midcentury, meaning that new innovations are more generally understood as Jazz + something else instead of Jazz qua Jazz. You can then talk about how it seems that rock music is probably approaching a similar transition as it steps out of the cultural center and hip hop ascends to it.

When we start comparing a genre to Jazz, that's the comparison I've come to expect, and it *is* a discussion that's about the music itself; the rules and boundaries of the art form and whether they are still allowed to change. So it seemed significant to me that that's not the part of Jazz's lifecycle that he had in mind, but rather the cultural transition that happened to both Jazz and Hip Hop as a broader (whiter) audience started paying attention.

The author's thesis seems to be that Hip Hop was an emerging cultural movement in the black community, and that the music of hip hop going mainstream removed its ability to serve as a coherent cultural movement.

In my (perhaps idiosyncratic) understanding, there's a significant difference between a culture, which is the dominant practices of a community at a particular time and place; a counter-culture, which understands itself as growing to replace the previous culture within its community; and a subculture, which sets itself apart from the dominant culture but does not expect or aim to replace it. The counter-culture of the 1960s failed to replace the dominant culture, and it's failure to do so and subsequent collapse meant that majority white artistic movements in the aftermath understood themselves in subcultural terms. I'd also connect the shift from counterculture to subculture to changing communication technologies that fractured and problematized the idea of a monolithic dominant culture in the first place.

At any rate, my point is that the collapse ("selling-out") of a subcultural movement can look similar to the collapse of a counter-cultural movement, but impact and scale differs.

I'm less familiar with artistic and cultural movements in the Black community. Synthesizing my own understanding with the article, I'd say that that same fracturing that enabled white subcultures to form also provided conditions for the formation of a novel artistic culture within the Black community. I'd say that the author understands hip hop as the dominant culture within his community, or at least as having been a very strong counter-culture. That the white community adopting (parts of) hip hop damaged its ability to function as a coherent culture, which is both tied to and separate from individual leading lights of the movement becoming asshole rich conservatives.

Is that all accurate? I'm not nearly familiar enough with this history and community to say. I do wonder if there might be an analogous transition of (counter-)culture fracturing into subcultures.
posted by vibratory manner of working at 1:13 PM on August 31 [4 favorites]

Two contemporary hip hop acts I recommend to the highest possible degree are Tobe & Fat Nwigwe and Coast Contra.

Eric Jamal in particular is ridiculously talented but I can't shake the "cool youth preacher" vibes I get from the CC lyrics. That's on me, I guess.
posted by juv3nal at 10:24 PM on August 31

vibratory manner of working, I appreciate your counter-culture/sub-culture distinction. It feels relevant to me as a member of queer community for 40 years, but I won't say more so as not to move the conversation off the specific topic of hip-hop, rap music, and Black artistic achievement/assimilation.
posted by Well I never at 2:09 PM on September 3 [1 favorite]

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