Sunday, November 15, 2009

is dance music killing off hip-hop?

In a recent New Yorker essay pop critic Sasha Frere-Jones argues that hip-hop is terming out in favor of electronic dance music, that much recent output "is hip-hop by virtue of rapping more than sound. The tempos and sonics of disco’s various children—techno, rave, whatever your particular neighborhood made of a four-on-the-floor thump—are slowly replacing hip-hop’s blues-based swing."

"On major commercial releases, this impulse is giving way to a European pulse, simpler and faster and more explicitly designed for clubs," Frere-Jones writes.

The piece takes a grim view of the electro-cized wave of hip-hop, yearning for a return to the early 1990s, when the genre found freedom in many forms -- but usually atop the drive-train of down-tempo break-beats.

"If I had to pick a year for hip-hop’s demise," Frere-Jones writes, " ... I would choose 2009."

It's a strange declaration, given its reliance on the notion of the genre's return to four-on-the-floor dance as the main reason for its downfall. Frere-Jones even admits that much of hip-hop grew out of four-on-the-floor disco 30 years ago. His is a rockist's lament for the days of hip-hop's critical summit, the arms-folded time when "n------ don't dance."

I would argue, however, that hip-hop's early 1990s heyday was manufactured by its commercial aspirations and the lure of money. In other words, what Frere-Jones so reverently remembers as rap's authentic, angry, down-tempo heyday was really its major-label manufactured grab at the brass ring. While the genre started as a mutli-ethnic street culture based mostly on up-tempo dance music and a DJ aesthetic aimed at getting people off their asses, it ended up as a brooding, anti-white, exclusive culture precisely because that's what the (white) masses wanted to buy. At its MTV-video worst, 1990s hip-hop was a young white man's stereotypical vision of blackness.

Gangsta rap and the subsequent quasi-gangster music of B.I.G., Tupac, 50 Cent, et. al. was based on a marketing plan that was eaten up wholeheartedly by mainstream audiences at the expense of some of those rappers' lives. But connections to true street sets was spurious. It was, in fact, the ill-fated flirtation that Tupac (a beat down of a Las Vegas gang member) had with REAL gang life that burned him. Any rapper who claims he's gansta should then tell you what set, what street, what neighborhood he's from. Although there are a few who would, for the most part they won't because it's a put on. It's Ice Cube-level b.s. (And, in any case, a vast majority of gang members in the United States belong to Latino organizations such as Mara Salvatrucha and 18 Street, so try to reconcile that with the image being fronted in music videos, where you don't see many shaved-head Mexican kids in "13" jerseys).

My point is that hip-hop's commercial heyday (and Frere-Jones is always defending the commercial) was based on a characterization of hip-hop, not on its true spirit. If anything, the party hearty tunes of Kanye West, Common and Black Eyed Peas are a return to hip-hop's best days -- the time when the genre was open to all. Even the 1980s protest music of Boogie Down Productions and the seething rhymes of Eric B. & Rakim still rocked a party.

So dancing equals the death of hip-hop? If anything, the genre's return to its 4/4 roots has given it a new lease on life, opening it up to the very technology that is moving pop music forward -- the technology that is making electronic dance music the leading edge of pop's evolution. This is no step back, my friends. It's a step ahead. Hip-hop fans no longer have to wear NFL apparel and brood on the sidelines. Because of Kanye, they can don American Apparel and crowd the DJ booth enthusiastically. Hip-hop has every right to claim property rights to electronic dance music and its electro ("Planet Rock") roots. This is rap coming home to roost. It's also hip-hop getting on the future express, as it should. Frere-Jones' bitching about hip-hop turning its back on its tough-guy pose is like a Rolling Stone critic lamenting rock's 1970s bonanza. Yeah, those were the days. But better times are ahead. Trust me.

[Above: Kanye West is a digital gangster].

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