Crosstalk: Is Hip-hop Relevant To Middle-Aged White Guys?

Crosstalk: Is Hip-hop Relevant To Middle-Aged White Guys?

Noel: So Nathan, last year, in your blog post "Hip-Hop And Generation X: A Love Story In Reverse?", you wrote that music buffs who came of age in the '80s still try to keep up with rap, but, "The very qualities that made hip-hop seem so transgressive and illicitly exciting when they were in high school or college—the misogyny, the anti-authoritarianism, the glamorization of drug dealing, drug usage, and pimping—began to seem obnoxious and irresponsible. Mainstream rap seemed mired in self-parody, obsessed with increasingly inane forms of conspicuous consumption… To keep in touch with the music and stave off the deadening ghost of middle age, they still bought a handful of the biggest, most hyped releases, but they began to wonder whether it was even worth the bother anymore."

All of that describes me to a T, and when I read it, I nodded along. But earlier in the year, in a response to Kyle's blog post "You're Hanging With Squares" (about the Jurassic 5/Dave Matthews collab), you stated the case much more bluntly: "Like Beastie Boys, Kanye, Common, Tribe Called Quest, Eminem, and a whole bunch of others, Jurassic 5 appeals to a lot of (white) people who otherwise don't particularly like hip-hop, or consider hip-hop a phase they went through in college that they can safely abandon now that they're ensconced in suburban homes and SUVs and the other trappings of middle-class domesticity."

There's a little more disdain in that remark, and I admit that when I first read it, I got a little steamed. And then I realized: What am I getting so defensive about? Just because somebody described me accurately? It would be like getting mad because you said I wear glasses.

Still, I can't help but be a little defensive, because in our business, there's something suspect about a rock critic who doesn't keep up with hip-hop. (Though the opposite isn't true: No one gripes at a Source writer for not knowing anything about The Hold Steady.) I get called a "rockist," as though my personal preferences were some kind of affront to the culture at large. Even more aggravating, when I do buy a rap album and like it, I find out that I still suck, because the rap album I bought is either elitist backpacker stuff or some huge crossover hit. The snobbiness of contemporary hip-hop fans has made it easier for me to disengage. If I can't do it right, why try?

The alternative would be to immerse myself in hip-hop and try to figure it all out, but I'm not going to do that, because I've got other specialties, both in music and in the popular culture at large. Also, you're right: I am turned off by hip-hop these days, for many of the reasons you cite, and a couple you don't.

I don't want to get too much into the clichéd complaints about rap—the misogyny and materialism, basically—because they've been hashed out so many times before. All I can really say about that is that I'm 36 years old, I have a wife and two kids, I live in a quiet neighborhood in a small Southern town, and I just don't feel comfortable blasting Clipse when I'm driving around. I get too self-conscious, both about what's being said and the way it's being said. It's not fun, at least for me.

Instead, I want to get into a couple other things that bug me about hip-hop, and I'm hoping you can explain them to me better. But first, how about an opening statement from you. Here's your topic: Why should a middle-aged white guy care about hip-hop?

Nathan: That question is almost too big to be answerable, let alone in a reasonably concise Crosstalk entry, but I'll give it a shot. I guess my first response is to posit an even bigger version of your question: Why should middle-aged white people (or folks of any race or age, for that matter) care about any genre of music? I think the answer has to do with the countless different roles music (and art in general) play in our lives.

I think everybody hungers for that glorious rush of identification we experience when we stumble across music that speaks to something deep and personal within us—that transcendent feeling of listening to someone whose music conveys what we feel or think, but lack the eloquence or talent to convey. Obviously, it's a little easier for us middle-aged white folks to get that feeling from Wilco or Belle & Sebastian rather than Young Jeezy or Li'l Wayne.

That said, I get that giddy surge of identification with a lot of my favorite rappers, from Phonte Maxwell of Little Brother and Foreign Exchange to MF Doom, Kanye West, Rhymefest, Boots Riley of the Coup, and Lupe Fiasco. Obviously it'd be nice if there were rappers out there who tapped into the anxieties of paying a mortgage or putting children through school, but there is a sizable block of hip-hop devoted to wrestling intelligently with the difficulties of becoming a responsible citizen of hip-hop and the world in a culture fixated with instant gratification and disposable popular culture.

One of the most important things art can do is engender empathy. Hip-hop allows anybody with an iPod or boom box to slip inside the skin of the street-corner hustler, coke dealer, or gang-banger. Is there a problematic element of cultural voyeurism in such a scenario? Of course, just as there's a huge amount of posturing, bullshit, and flat-out lies in most gangsta rap.

As a critic, it seems like one of the things you treasure most from movies is a fully realized sense of time and place. That's one of the areas hip-hop excels. I feel like I know a lot more about the South and the West and East Coasts from listening to hip-hop. I'll probably never set foot in a housing project in New Orleans, but thanks to B.G., Li'l Wayne, and Juvenile, that terrain doesn't seem quite so foreign to me, or the rest of America, for that matter. The Hot Boys are singing their life just as directly as Morrissey, they just throw a lot more slang, profanity, misogyny, and drug references into the mix. I love learning about different subcultures through hip-hop. Entire books could be written about how the differences between, say, crunk and hyphy reflect the regions that spawned each subgenre.

You could certainly argue that hip-hop—primarily the kind of mainstream hip found on BET, MTV, and top-40 radio—sells a reductive, sensationalistic, cynical version of black culture, but a fair amount of truth slips in alongside all the bullshit and calculation.

Hip-hop continues to be such a massive cultural force that you can't ignore it and still consider yourself a fully informed student of pop culture. It kills me that prominent critics can brag about having never seen an episode of The Simpsons. How on earth can you write about the pop culture produced by Generation X without experiencing something so central to how an entire generation sees itself and the world? Similarly, how can you write about pop culture without acknowledging or understanding how hip-hop has indelibly shaped and molded the world we live in? Hip-hop has irrevocably changed not just music, but also fashion, politics, race relations, music, and just about every other facet of the world.

It bears repeating that hip-hop represents some of the most infectious pop music around. It's telling that a hip-hop single tops the Pazz & Jop critics' poll pretty much every year. Ludacris, Timbaland, The Neptunes, OutKast, and Kanye West have created some of the most enduring and ubiquitous pop singles of the past 20 years. I know following hip-hop can sometimes feel like a chore and an obligation (work, in other words), but it should be fun. You don't feel comfortable blasting The Clipse round your hood. What about Rhymefest? Would you feel self-conscious blasting his music? Homeboy is nothing if fun incarnate.

Don't let the music snobs get you down. Snobs of every stripe exist to make people feel bad about enjoying anything. I try not to let the cliquishness of music snobs interfere with my relationship with music, just as I try not to let the banality of top-40 hip-hop color the way I view the genre as a whole. Your relationship should primarily be with the music you love, not with the people trying to make you feel bad about loving certain kinds of music. To use the vernacular: Fuck the haters.

Here are some questions for you: Should I feel bad about not keeping up with rock music? What else is turning you off about hip-hop these days? Speaking of regional differences, how do you think living in the South affects your relationship with hip-hop? I remember visiting Galveston once and having a very animated conversation about hip-hop with a cab driver bumping Trick Daddy's "Naaan" at top volume. My dad and sister looked at me like I was speaking some strange regional dialect, which in a sense I was. Have you listened to some of the more iconoclastic hip-hop coming out of the South these days from folks like Cunninlynguists, Supastition, and Little Brother?

Noel: Should you feel bad about not keeping up with rock music? Of course not. There's a lot you'd probably enjoy, but it's not like you don't have enough music to listen to already. It's funny, though: People who don't keep up with rock often complain that what they hear now sounds like a weak imitation of music that's already been made. Whereas I, immersed in it, enjoy the fine distinctions. (And anyway, I've never understood the "derivative" criticism anyway. The Hold Steady sounds like Thin Lizzy and The Boomtown Rats? So what? I like those bands… why wouldn't I want to hear more?)

But hip-hop, to me, does sound like a big soup of sounds that I can't tell apart. If people say, "That's hyphy," and explain what distinguishes the style, I can hear what they're talking about, but I have a hard time understanding why it's innovative.

It goes beyond that, though: I can't necessarily tell what's good and what's not. Here's an embarrassing example: That Kevin Federline song, "Rollin' V.I.P.", which I've only heard in his Super Bowl commercial. Federline's a big joke, sure, but all I know about him musically is this 20-second snippet, and based on that alone, I can't hear a qualitative difference between Federline's flow and lyrics and, say, Chamillionaire's. I wouldn't know how to begin evaluating their relative merits. (Though I'll grant that if I spent more time with each, I'd probably figure it out.)

Just to establish a baseline here, I'm not completely ignorant. I started listening to Grandmaster Flash, Run DMC and Beastie Boys in high school (Class of '88!), and in college (Class of '92!), I was deeply into A Tribe Called Quest, Public Enemy, De La Soul, Ice-T, and even NWA. But for the past 15 years, I've been basically buying one or two rap records a year, following whatever the prominent critics say I should like. Using that guideline, I've found acts I dig (most notably, Blackalicious, OutKast, and believe it or not, Jay-Z) and others I just don't get (like Eminem, and nearly anything Danger Mouse has been involved with).

You mentioned Rhymefest, which I think was my only 2006 hip-hop purchase, unless Gnarls Barkley counts. And while Blue Collar sounded fine to me, I didn't love it. The lyrics seem more essentially "positive" than a lot of modern rap, but there's still too much profanity for it to go into rotation in our family sedan, and Strokes sample aside, I'm not hearing much I haven't heard before. (Not that "derivative" is a bad thing. See above.)

But here's my biggest problem with Rhymefest, and one of my major problems with hip-hop as a genre: When it comes to the popular arts, I like to think in modified auteurist terms. I don't look for a single authorial voice behind every pop song or movie, but I like at least to ascribe some responsibilities, and point out what's distinctive about, say, the production of an album, or a movie's screenplay, or the performances. (While bearing in mind that there's nearly always some collaboration involved in any end result.) But when it comes to hip-hop, I'm stymied. So many songs feature one artist "featuring" another artist, as produced by a third artist, using samples from a fourth, fifth, and sixth. If I say, "I like Rhymefest," what am I really saying? That I like Kanye West? Or Mark Ronson? Or the hooks they sampled?

Am I just way off base here? Is the insanely collaborative nature of hip-hop really one of its strengths?

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Nathan: Nobody's going to call Chamillionaire the second coming of Public Enemy, but I think it should be noted that his hit song "Riding Dirty" is essentially a protest song about racial profiling. That's one big difference between him and K-Fed. K-Fed couldn't do a song about racial profiling without looking like a reject from Three Times One Minus One. Heck, even without doing songs about racial profiling, he still looks like a reject from Three Times One Minus One.

I agree wholeheartedly with your assertion that the more invested you are in a genre, the more you get out of it, and the more you see in individual artists. I can't say I've ever listened to a Chamillionaire album, but I can nevertheless tell that he excels at the rapid-fire sing-song flow popularized by Midwestern acts like Bone Thugs N Harmony and Twista. That style of flow requires massive technical skill, especially if you want people to understand what you're saying.

Besides how can you feel disappointed or let down by a genre if you're so minimally invested in it? That would be like me listening to the last Killers and Bloc Party albums twice, being underwhelmed, and declaring that rock music is in a major creative slump. I share your frustration with the production-by-committee nature of most major-label hip-hop.

At the same time, I think it's fascinating when an act boasts such a strong personality that it can put an inimitable stamp on material despite working with a different producer on damn near every track. Rhymefest and Ghostface Killah both fall into that category for me. What's the difference between Rhymefest making a Just Blaze or Kanye West beat his own, and Howard Hawks twisting and contorting various cinematic genres to suit his singular sensibility?

You might look at Blue Collar and see a bunch of random producers, but I find the album's roster pretty fucking fascinating in its own right. There's Just Blaze, the drama king who has been experimenting playfully with song structure as of late, integrating lots of weird left-field touches like the Rocky and Muhammad Ali homages in Ghostface's "The Champ" or the hilarious, irreverent parody of Martin Luther King smacking down sub-par rhymers in "Dynomite ('Going Postal')." Then there's the fact that Rhymefest blatantly owns up to co-opting a stale, bare-budget Kanye West beat in "Brand New," or that Rhymefest ghost-wrote for Ol' Dirty Bastard just before his death, and Dirty repaid the favor by crooning "Build Me Up Buttercup," which Mark Ronson turned into another big pop-rock/rap mash-up. (Incidentally, if you dig Mark Ronson, you should check out the song "Oooh Wee" with Ghostface and Nate Dogg. It's a perfect fucking pop song and graces the "Saturday night in Manhattan" montage in half the films released in the past three years.) Ronson's sound and aesthetic indelibly reflects who he is and where he comes from, just as Chamillionaire's subject matter on "Riding Dirty" wouldn't sound authentic or convincing coming from anyone who didn't have to worry about the cops pulling them over because of the color of their skin. Again, the more invested you are in the music and the culture, the more you'll get out of it.

Like you, I feel like I'm fairly well-versed in a lot of genres I don't necessarily write about with any frequency, and since I'm well-schooled in The Beatles and Sex Pistols and David Bowie and The Kinks and Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald, it's hard to listen to contemporary rock and not just hear watered-down versions of the all-time greats.

I think that's one of the reasons it's important to keep an open mind and open yourself up to new music even if it falls outside your comfort zone. Heck, especially if it falls outside your comfort zone. That said, I realize that in a lot of ways, I'm a hip-hop traditionalist. If you're a rockist, then I am what someone has dubbed a "Pete Rockist"-someone who'd rather listen to soulful, comforting old-school Native Tongues production than the angry, incendiary sounds of someone like El-P.

If you're looking for hip-hop auterists, you need look no further than MF Doom or Madlib, both of whom have created a prolific, formidable canon that can't be mistaken for anyone else's. There's a great big wonderful, diverse world of hip-hop out there, and I think it'd be a shame if an entire generation closed themselves off to it just because they were underwhelmed by the latest OutKast or Jurassic 5 album.

To shift the debate a little, let's address the middle-aged elephant in the room. Hip-hop is no spring chicken, and it's fascinating to see albums like Dr. Dre's 2001 or Nas' Hip-Hop Is Dead that are as haunted by the past as the Beales in Grey Gardens. Jay-Z's last album was a bit of a snoozer, but I found it weirdly brave that it's so transparently the work of an insanely wealthy middle-aged man. I'm almost surprised he didn't rap about his IRAs and the crazy fluctuations of the New York housing market.

Would you say that your estrangement from hip-hop has been gradual? Can you recall any kind of tipping point? What would hip-hop have to do to win you back?

Noel: The tipping point? Probably when I moved in with the woman I went on to marry, back in the mid-'90s. My wife likes R&B and pop and prog and indie-rock, but the harder the edge, the less she's into it. So I listen to a lot less punk and avant-garde noise than I used to, and a lot more reissues of long-forgotten folk-soul albums from the early '70s.

Of course, marrying Donna also coincided with the rise of gangsta rap and Puffy and the East Coast/West Coast wars, so maybe I would've lost interest anyway. My two favorite rap acts are still Public Enemy and Beastie Boys, the former because they're so provocative, and the latter because they're so joyous. (And both are musically innovative, which helps.) The more rap began to rely on pure exploitation—big sampled hooks, spurious true-crime stories—the less I cared.

Also, in keeping with the point you made about the genre getting old, I confess to being a little turned off by the rapid turnover of so many top rap acts. My auteurist approach to pop requires some long-term commitment to an artist's career, and hip-hop—like Britpop, another genre that frustrates me—tends to reward those who peak early. The biggest acts come blazing in with intriguing new personalities and moderately fresh sounds, and they get splashed all over MTV and magazine covers until no one ever wants to see them again, let alone hear what their second, third, and fourth albums sound like.

Which brings up another kind of quirky problem I have with hip-hop: It strikes me as wasteful. Because it's a DIY genre, and because CDs are so easy to make and distribute, the sheer number of rappers with product to pitch is staggering. (And since I can't always tell what's good and what's bad, that's especially daunting for me.) Plus, the form itself seems to prize loquaciousness over concision, which means that rappers pack their songs with lyrics, and don't always care whether they're a clean fit. A lot of rap songs do tell a story or explore a single idea, but a lot are just a torrent of clever phrases and self-aggrandizement.

I should clarify that I'm mainly talking about the mainstream when I mention self-aggrandizement. I understand that there's a big world of underground and alternative hip-hop with distinctive personalities, and while rapid burnout and word-heaviness is still a problem with the alt-crowd, they shouldn't be blamed for the rampant egotism in the genre.

Because when it comes to the mainstream, I've listened to debut albums by rappers where they're already complaining about how success brings out the haters. And that attitude has crept into all levels of popular culture. You could stick a microphone in the face of a linebacker for a undefeated championship team, and he'd still say, "People doubted us all year." There's a presumption about it all I find infuriating, this idea that the whole world is stopping to hear the latest about, say, Lil' Kim. (Then again, maybe everyone else in the world really does care what rappers, athletes, and celebrities are up to 24-7. I saw this AP headline the other day: "Paris Hilton Looks Bored At Vienna Ball." Man, stop the presses!)

So while some of my problems with hip-hop are inherent in the genre, a lot may just be trends that change over time. You ask me what hip-hop can do to win me back? Maybe tighten up some musically, and maybe look outside its own community more, for inspiration and lyrical material. Should it change? Not necessarily. By and large, I'm not really making any value judgments here, just describing why my personal taste runs the way it does. I trust that what's supposed to be good in hip-hop is actually good, and that I'm just missing out.

In fact, reading your points about collaboration makes me sure that I am. Please go on. Defend the wordiness and flash-in-the-pan-ness to me. I'm betting you've got a good take.

Nathan: Damn, Noel, my point originally was to re-ignite your passion for hip-hop, but I'm so dispirited after reading your post that I'm strongly considering abandoning hip-hop myself. As you said, rappers certainly didn't invent crass consumerism: They're merely transmitting a materialistic virus rampant throughout our society and pop culture. Again, I think it's important to look at context here. I hate to generalize, but a lot of rappers come from places of extreme poverty and hopelessness, and when you grow up in a society that tells you in a million different ways that your life doesn't matter and that you never really stopped being two-thirds of a person, then money, success, and their conspicuous display are going to matter a whole lot more than to someone who grew up upper-middle-class in Orange County.

For MC Flash In The Pan, the victory worth bragging about isn't that he's created a body of work that will stand the test of time, it's that he got from wherever the fuck he came from to having a major-label deal. Chances are it's never going to get any better than that for poor MC Flash In the Pan, so he better enjoy it while he can: He probably won't be receiving any royalties, and it's doubtful his label has any real interest in him as a long-term proposition. To me, a rapper's faux-omnipotence, like rap's misogyny, is really an expression of powerlessness: I have no real control over my career or how I'm marketed, but as long as I'm in the booth, I'll pretend I'm God. Similarly, rappers don't understand women and fear their sexual power, so they overcompensate by pretending that women are worthless sex objects. It's kinda pathetic, really. In hip-hop, as in the rest of our culture, there's a self-fulfilling aspect to supremely over-the-top bravado. 50 Cent rapped about being the King Of New York and a major competitor to Jay-Z and Nas when he was still MC Who The Fuck Are You Again? and suddenly, the media started treating him that way.

Honestly, Noel, I don't view loquaciousness as a big problem in hip-hop. Have you been pumping a lot of Aesop Rock or Busdriver as of late? As for flash-in-the-panism, I think a lot of that has to do with the way music is marketed and covered in the media. One of the nice things about doing the hip-hop issue in January was talking to three labels that have been pursuing a unique, idiosyncratic vision for at least a decade without showing any signs of artistic or creative fatigue. Then there are venerable veterans like De La Soul, which never stopped putting out good albums, though the press pretty much started ignoring the group ages ago.

I think a lot of major-label rappers suffer from the industry's unofficial one-strike-and-you're-out rule: If you don't hit it big the first time out, you're probably headed to Koch. You asked earlier what it necessarily meant to say you like Rhymefest. And here's my belated answer. It means about a hundred possible things: You saw him at Intonation and were blown away by his songs and charisma. You love the way he undercuts the social consciousness of his lyrics with goofy humor and big pop hooks. (Which I so do not see as a problem. For me, at least, sampling isn't just a legitimate art form: it's central to how I perceive music.) You think it's great that he bucked hip-hop's materialism by defiantly naming his album Blue Collar. Yet in the industry's eyes, Rhymefest is an absolute failure, a guy who couldn't translate his connection with Kanye West into any kind of sales. You can bet that Rhymefest's budget next time out won't be blue-collar, it'll be nonexistent.

There's longevity aplenty in the underground, but I think there'd be more major-label lifers if labels stopped treating rappers like disposable commodities. Noel, a lot of the reservations you voiced are shared by people within the hip-hop community. I like to think of intelligent patriotism as hating what's wrong about America just as much as you love what's right about America. Accordingly, I think the mark of an enlightened hip-hop-head is someone who hates what's fucked-up about rap just as much as he loves what's right about it. There's a verse by Phonte Maxwell on the DJ Drama mix-tape Separate But Equal called "Can't Let Her" that sums up a lot of what every middle-aged hip-hop fan feels. In it, he raps about hip-hop being "too damn young" for someone who's just "too damned grown." Toward the end, Phonte cops to being happily unhappy with contemporary hip-hop, which describes exactly how I feel as well. I love what hip-hop can be and has been, even though I'm continually mortified and saddened by its shortcomings, of which there are many. All the same, I'll never stop fighting for it to be the best genre/cultural force/lifestyle it can possibly be, so that someday I can hopefully be just plain happy with hip-hop without any of the reservations we've spent this entire Crosstalk hashing out.

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