Monday, March 06, 2006


How should a white person listen to hip hop?

I saw the new Dave Chapelle "Block Party" movie the other night. It's a loose, good-natured documentary about Chappelle putting on a hip hop concert in Brooklyn for an audience that commingles native New Yorkers with people from his adopted hometown in Ohio. The performances are extremely exciting, full of a raw energy and gutsy showmanship that has to appeal, on some level, to anyone who likes live music.

I seem to give listening to hip hop another try every few years. Fresh from reading some critic's gasping, eye-watering approval of such-and-such's contribution to hip hop, I spring for a 'classic' album and pop it into the CD player with nervous anticipation- will this be the one where I'll 'get it'? Hip hop, after all, is clearly here for an extended stay -- its era has already outlasted the heydeys of ragtime and swing and bebop and ska and disco -- so I figure I ought to try to understand what's going on. Nobody wants to be the equivalent of the snob who turned up his nose at Jelly Roll Morton in 1920 and suggested it wasn't 'real' music. Also, it's not like I'm some kind of classical music or rock purist- I love calypso and gamelan and jazz and Serbian brass band and enough other stuff to think I'm open-minded and have enough musical horse sense to know what I like.

So far, though, my experiments with hip hop have never worked out. I can appreciate hip hop classics like the works of Sugarhill Gang and Grandmaster Flash and Rakim, but it's always from a musicological distance and my heart isn't quite in it- it always felt like 'homework'.

This time, though, freshly enthused by "Block Party", I asked friends to file-transfer me some albums by the musicians in the movie and dropped $5 on a used Wyclef Jean record at Rasputin's. So, how is it working out?

Better, I guess. I find myself listening to the music fairly regularly, but it's still 'homework' in the sense that I'm consciously immersing myself in it, trying to figure out how it relates to me as a musician and listener. Also, I find that when I'm driving around listening to it I feel like I'm participating in a socially loaded activity. I'm very conscious that most white people seem to listen to hip hop as a piece of cultural ornamentation, and I honestly wonder how they can do it. So much of the music is implicity or explicitly about the 'black' experience. Dead Prez rail against the government - I can get behind that - but that anger is bound up in a general anger at 'crackers'- and that's me. I'm not a rich white man in a blue suit sitting behind a desk in Washington, but I'm a white guy - no getting around that - and excruciatingly aware that Dead Prez hate me.

With Wyclef Jean, there's a similar weird gray area. I love calypso and ska, and he draws heavily from Caribbean music, but the album I got - "The Carnival" - is incomprehensible to me. So much time is spent on introductions and weird little in-song skits and postludes that it sometimes feels like there hasn't really been a 'song'. It's like a weird large-scale collage built around the concept of Wyclef being on trial for something, a conceit that fades in and out and seems to have little bearing on the songs. Am I supposed to listen to it all at one sitting? Am I supposed to hit >> until I get to the songs I like, even though those are usually filled with pockets of dialogue also? What are most hip hop fans' expectations? Is this considered a necessary feature of the genre?

I ask because this approach to content seems extremely common in hip hop albums. Kanye West's 'Late Registration' is often interrupted by skits that, while kinda funny the first time, soon lose their novelty and grow increasingly annoying. Mos Def has a similar weakness for introductory speeches that start to feel stale. Are hip hop records meant to be disposable? Is this in the very nature of a music medium which relies %90 on words rather than melody? I mean, nobody expects a book to be infinitely rereadable.

Another thing is that rap has a density that I find exhausting over time. There's so, so much speech that the sheer volume of words becomes oppressive. Do rap fans listen to all the words for content? I figure they must since the musical content tends to be based on a looped bassline and snatches of sung chorus- listening to the 'flow' is interesting but is different from the arc and shape of a pitched melody.

Does anybody else have an opinion on this? Hip hop fans? People who hate hip hop?


Blogger sfmike said...

Trevor, I am similarly clueless and sympathetic in spirit but unsympathetic in actual listening pleasure when it comes to hip-hop.

And you know what? It's fine. The music isn't made for me and nobody's shoving it down my throat, particularly, so I'm happy that young people have their own thing that old farts like myself can feel unsympathetic towards.

Kyle Gann wrote a great essay about musical minimalism years ago in "The Village Voice" and what I remember was his belief that music goes through periods where a style becomes way too complex, and there's nowhere to go any further, so the slate needs to be wiped clean. It happened in the time of Palestrina, and Schoenberg-and-his-disciples, and it happens with pop music. I think hip-hop is in Philip Glass mode right now. It may already have its John Adams, but I don't really care.

I love your writing, by the way.

7:43 PM  
Blogger Trevor Murphy said...

Thanks, Mike. That's an interesting point about hip hop being an alternative to previous complexity- it really is slowly building up its own complexity out of the beats-and-voices of the earliest examples. I guess I feel a little anxious about it because I want to know how it works musically -- what its rules and goals are -- and none of my other musical training gives me any insight.

2:55 PM  
Blogger georgesdelatour said...

It's interesting your point about how old and well-established hip hop now is. By this time I'd have expected young African Americans to be rejecting it as the staid old music of their parents generation. Throughout the 20th century African American music was constantly on the move - from ragtime to blues to jazz to swing to bebop to soul to funk to disco. It would be bizarre indeed if in hip hop it's arrived at its final form.

I'm told that 80% of hip hop records are bought by white people - and it's mostly the same suburban white male teenagers who buy the more outrageous forms of metal. Annoying your parents is definitely part of the appeal. But this makes the relative absence of white rappers all the more surprising. The Beastie Boys were there early on. But it was a long gap between them and Eminem.

One final point. There are many non-anglophone versions of hip hop. French hip hop in particular is huge. But b-boy culture is now so heavily disseminated across the world that pretty well every country in the world - even ones with no black culture to speak of - will have someone rapping in the local language. I've heard Polish rap and Korean rap. There are even more unlikely versions out there.

12:47 AM  

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