Saturday, April 27, 2013

Melody Maker, early 1994

by Simon Reynolds

A decade ago, and a decade after the event, punk was the hot topic in pop academia. Today, hip hop is Number One in the cultural studies chart, although there are signs that rave will soon overtake it. Tricia Rose's Black Noise: Rap Music and Black Culture in Contemporary America (Wesleyan University Press) is by far the best treatise on hip hop yet. Being of a left-wing, black nationalist bent, Rose is keen to validate rap culture as a proto-revolutionary force, but happily, she's not blinkered by her beliefs. Instead she has a nicely paradoxical sense of rap's contradictions. In her analysis, hip hop simulataneously celebrates black community yet reflects the internicine warfare that sets brother against brother; it's fiercely capitalistic (rappers' obsession with getting 'paid in full') yet contains a critique of capitalism's dehumanising effects. Musically, rap pays homage to black music tradition (R&B, soul, jazz, P-funk) yet wreaks iconoclastic damage to that tradition (via sampling).Capturing rap's contradictions, Rose deftly defends hip hop against the attacks of both the white Right and the black bourgeois establishment (who see gangsta rap as a disgrace to the race, with its promotion of 'negative stereotypes' of the young black male).

There's some fascinating historical/urban geographical stuff about rap's origins in the South Bronx. Rose sees it as a cultural response to the economic policies that literally ghettoised the area. Rap's resistance is embodied in the three formal characteristics--flow, layering and rupture-- that Rose identifies running through hip hop culture from graffiti and breakdancing to scratching/sampling and rapping. Hip hop simulates the urban warzone, yet simultaneously incarnates a survivalist response to its constant threats. Hip hop is full of ruptures--scratches, ambushes of samples, breaks--but incorporates them into the flow.

My only problem with Rose's approach is that she's so keen to validate hip hop that she glosses the extent to which a big part of its appeal is that it's nasty. A lot of rap is just black heavy metal, powertrippin' fantasies for testosterone-crazed adolescents. Snoop Doggy Dogg is Sid Vicious (always a more important part of the Pistols' and punk's appeal than cult-studs academics like to believe); both appealed because they're evil muthafuckers.

Brian Cross' excellent It's Not About A Salary: Rap, Race and Resistance in Los Angeles (Verso) offers a corrective to Rose's East Coast-centric history of rap. As well as interviewing a host of names obscure and obvious, Cross provides an urban geography of LA rap, and traces its history back through blacksploitation movies, the Watts Prophets (LA's Last Poets), to street-poetry forms like toastin', boastin', signifyin' and the dozens. Some of the flava of this oral culture can be gleaned from Juba To Jive: A Dictionary of African-American Slang, edited Clarence Major (Penguin). From the 1880's verb 'knock a joe' (a convict's term for mutilating oneself to avoid chain-gang labour), through 1940's slang like 'crumbcrusher' (a baby) and 'swobble' (eat food in a hurry), through to post-rap words like 'body bag' (condom), this is a treasury of linguistic flair. My only criticism: the book should have extended its coverage to Afro-Caribbean patois.

Finally, Microphone Fiends: Youth Music & Youth Culture, ed. Andrew Ross and Tricia Rose (Routledge). Despite its Erik B & Rakim title, this isn't a hip hop book, but an essential anthology of up-to-the-minute essays by all the big names in cult.studs.. The best are Susan McLary's brilliant piece on the history of moral panics about music, from Christian thinkers like John of Salisbury and Calvin (who feared that church music was getting too sensual and 'feminine'), through Adorno (who described jazz as 'eunuch-like') to the hysteria about rock'n'roll's jungle rhythms. And Lawrence Grossberg's treatise on the recurrent rhetoric of 'rock's death', in which he concludes that something has changed. Rock is no longer the centre of youth culture. Apparently kids spend twice as much time listening to music as they did in the '70s but it's way down the list of things that matter to them; music is something they use, rather than invest in. As Grossberg puts it: "rather than dancing to the music you like, you like the music you can dance to".

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