Sick or Sweet: Hip Hop and Indie-Rock
New Statesman column November 1986
by Simon Reynolds
There’s a current left orthodoxy that assumes that black
music, because it’s the voice of ‘the street’, has some
kind of natural link with socialism. Hip hop is a problem for
this Red Wedge worldview. Here’s a black subculture that
confronts racism and economic oppression not with a redemptive
vision of solidarity, equality and humanity, but with a
survivalist mentality, a masculine self-sufficiency. Hip hop’s
community is based around a spectacle of pathological
individualism. Rappers strive to do each other down in a
strange caricature of capitalism’s war of all against all.
A good example is the solipstic masterpiece that
is the debut LP by Schoolly D (Rhythm King). Schooly D
inhabits a blank, nihilistic universe, where the only authority
is the self, where the only goals are making the “sucker-ass niggers”
feel small, and acquiring the status symbols of
‘sophistication’--gold, designer clothes, drugs, ‘fine ladies’.
Musically Schooly D and partner DJ Code Money take hip hop
beyond dance, to a point where the only comparisions are
with the brutality and minimalism of avant-garde groups
like Throbbing Gristle and Swans. Most rappers bully the
listener, but Schoolly is too cool for that, lets his voice swagger,
slurring the words in an intoxication of narcissism and
contempt. What’s the pleasure in submitting to all this?
There’s a vertiginous, vicarious sense of psychic extremity,
an appeal to something unpleasant in all of us…
Some would find it disturbing to realise that black male
youth doesn’t identify with wholesome, right-on singers like
Junior Giscombe, but with the likes of Run DMC, whose philosophy
is: “If I ain’t winning, if I ain’t right there at the top looking
down at the rest… I have to win.”More evidence: Mixmaster Gee’s
“The Manipulator” on Electro 14 (Streetsounds). Here prowess on the turntables is swollen into a sick, compelling fantasy of
omnipotence. The rappers sounds drunk with power. His voice
snarls right up in your face. The bass crushes you underfoot.
What kind of an entertainment is this? Simply, what’s being
sold is a megalomaniac fantasy, for the powerless.
A characteristic of modern black pop is its willingness
to be un-black, to thieve in all directions. Mantronix, on their
new LP Music Madness(10 Records) filch from sources as diverse
as Glenn Miller and The Old Grey Whistle Test theme tune.
Their greatest debt, though, is to the fleshless, soulless electropop of Kraftwerk, who are as pristinely metronomic as ever on Electric Café (EMI).
The Beastie Boys migrate in the opposite direction,
three white hardcore punks from Brooklyn who are infatuated
with B-boy slang and attitude. On Licensed To Ill (Def Jam)
they splice and dice beats and rap with Sabbath and Zeppelin riffs
to devastating effect. Of course, they’re obnoxious, loudmoth boors
(“some voices get treble/some voices got bass/we got the kind of voices
are IN YOUR FACE”) and their objectionable lyrics revolve around beer
and cursing and crack and grossing out on White Castle’s cheeseburgers
disrepectin’ girls. But there’s a brattish exuberance and musical
mischief that I’m not strict enough to shun. If I wanted to get
I could argue that this is a radical kind of vileness, I could talk
about the politics of the Slob, about how hip hop refuses yuppie health
and self-improvement, says ‘this is me in all my beastliness and bad habits’.
About how hip hop inverts values so that ‘treacherous’ and ‘ill’ and
are good things to be. I could say all this, but that would be an
ingenious and disingenuous way of rationalizing away shame.
The Beastie Boys are an exception. White rock grows ever more
inbred, mining the narrow seam of its own past. C86 (Rough Trade)
a New Musical Express compilation of new British
indiepop shows how the beatnik delinquency of influences
like The Velvet Underground, Byrds, Beefheart, has been
replaced by a stay-at-home Englishness. The common sensibility
to be a desire to reconstruct ‘innocence’--hence the obsession with
childhood and with the Sixties. Best of this spindly breed are the
insolent Wolfhounds and all-girl group We’ve Got A Fuzzbox
And We’re Gonna Use it, whose tomboy boisterousness can also
be enjoyed on Love Is the Slug (WEA).
Indie groups tend to take the alienation and doubt of
adolescence as a kind of kind of ‘truth’ that’s lost in
adulthood’s selling-out to comfort and complacency and certainty.
accusation leveled at The Smiths--of glamourising misery and
failure--is gloriously true. Here are two more groups that succeed in
romanticizing dereliction of the soul. On Your Funeral… My Trial (Mute) Nick Cave reinvents downtrodden musics like blues and country,
finding in the Deep South an appropriate backdrop for
his tales of ruin and obsession and revenge. The Band of Holy Joy’s Who Snatched The Baby? (Flim Flam)is the latest in a series
brilliantly lugubrious waltzes and shanties, folk music infected with a
contemporary sense of rootlessness and disorientation.
And therein likes the difference between black and white pop.
White bohemian rock is downwardly-aspiring, looking to the past
for roots, for the lost ‘real’ of suffering. Black pop takes
conventional upwards aspirations, conventional sexual protocol,
and turns them into a cartoon utopia. There’s a vast chasm between
white rock and black pop, but if you’re schizophrenic enough you
can get something out of both.