Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Black Music: Why Don't My Friends Like It?

Now, when I say my friends, I'm not talking about you. Don't take it personally. I'm talking generally. Though maybe I need to get more specific: How come my groups of friends can't mix? Over here, I got the crowd that is instantly going to know who I'm referencing if I make a joke about Ignatius Reilly and over here I got the crowd that knows that the song White Gurl, by
E-40, is not about white girls at all. Both groups are cool. I like them. But why so rarely do the twain meet? In other words, what keeps white intellectuals from listening to hip hop?

In his song, Hip Hop Is Dead, Nas raps:

The bigger the cap, the bigger the peelin'
Come through, something ill, missin' the ceilin
'What influenced my raps? Stick ups and killings
Kidnappings, project buildings, drug dealings
Criticize that, why is that?
Cuz Nas rap is compared to legitimized crap
Cuz we love to talk on ass we gettin'
Most intellectuals will only half listen
So you can't blame jazz musicians
Or David Stern with his NBA fashion issues

Nas has a point. Why do we view the black urban experience as a lesser-than form of expression? Well, maybe because idiots write things like this:

A few points: Ok, that song is garbage. Much space is wasted intellectualizing a terible, terrible piece of music. Second point, no the Black Eyed Peas do not represent black music, but in the world of music promotion, where an artist like Nas is categorized next to a Jay-Z, who pretty much must be like Beyonce who of course, is just like the terrible Black Eyed Peas, you feel for Nas and the slippery slope he is placed on. Another reason I detest this Slate article is that the writer falls all over himself like a hipster overexplaining why he is at the mall (Onion reference = white people). It's like when you get a compliment when you ask a friend about your cooking and they say something like "I actually liked it!" What, did you think you wouldn't? Why the actually? And why the implied actually when white intellectuals have to explain liking black music? 'I have to admit, I do like Kanye!' Do you have to admit that or do you hate to admit that? And if so, why?

Here's some of my hypotheticals about why white brainy types might, in fact, hate to admit that. First, a misperception that to appreciate music, one has to identify with the writer's experience from a personal perspective. In this sense, maybe a self-conciousness related to overintellectualized white people guilt. Am I embarrassed a little by how totally into a Tupac song I might get in my car (it's a Mazda, great gas mileage)? Yes, but no more so than I get singing along to The Gambler by Kenny Rogers (I don't have a gambling problem) or Hungry Heart by Bruce Springsteen (I am not from New Jersey) or Fancy, by Reba McEntire (I have never been prostituted by my own mother). If we take the assumption that we have to identify with the artist from a personal perspective off the table, it opens up to just relating from a human perspective.

Another misconception: Popular music (which happens predominantly right now to be black music) is stupid. Yes, a lot of music is stupid. However, I will see your criticism of Souljah Boy and I will raise you the crappy, inert stylings of Yo La Tengo half-assing a cover of Rasberry Beret. It's different when they do it, right? Cause they're winking at you. You get it. They don't realllllly like it. They just put hours of studio time and thousands of dollars of post-production into it cause, you know. Also, how come black music can't be stupid, too? Even The Clash want black people to be political all the time!:

Ken Boothe for UK pop reggae
With backing bands sound systems
And if they've got anything to say
There's many black ears here to listen
But it was Four Tops all night with encores from stage right
Charging from the bass knives to the treble
But onstage they ain't got no roots rock rebel

Now, I love me some Joe Strummer, but what's wrong with a little Four Tops all night? Being oppressed means you get to have no fun ever? Damn, sucks to be you! I think you need to call Tyrone. I'm gonna go ipod dance to some Nappy Roots in my living room.


  1. I will admit to feeling slightly self-conscious driving down the street in my Subaru station wagon, belting out Missy Elliot. (I remind myself of that scene in "Office Space.")But I still do it. And I do run this.

    As I hit my mid-30s, I started really appreciating the over-the-top super-confidence of some rappers, especially women rappers. But anymore I don't spend much time trying to discover new music. Sam, how about posting a playlist?

  2. 1) Another reason I think some people don't like rap is they foster the absurd notion that all (or most) rap is autobiographical. I remember KRS-ONE defending Ice-T's Cop Killer way back in the day and pointing out that nobody was all that alarmed when Eric Clapton sang about the time he shot the sheriff. I think there's some subconscious racism in the idea that rappers aren't creative enough to write about shit that didn't actually happen to them.
    (2) Is Yo La Tengo popular?
    (3) It warrants mentioning that "the bigger the cap, the bigger the peelin'" is originally an Ice Cube lyric.
    (4) of course the next line in that song goes "and when dealin with the Lench [sic] Mob, you gots to know Steady Mobbin' is not just the name of this jam, but a way of life". which maybe undermines what i was just talking about in (1).
    (5) but really it doesn't undermine it at all, when you think about it.

  3. Meg, I am thinking of asking Joe Kuth to do a guest blog on this subject, including playlist. He will rock it.

    1) I never thought of this. Valid point.
    2) No, of course not, I just used them as a lazy cultural touchstone.
    3) I didn't know that. You're obviously down, but this was never in doubt.
    4) Yes.
    5) Yes.