Friday, January 18, 2013

On Criticism in Hip Hop

I hadn't really listened to the new album by Chief Keef much. I don't really pay much attention to what's popular and what's getting all the buzz until months later. Then I usually give it a few spins and then I usually move on, maybe taking a song or two with me.

I started catching Keef's name on Facebook a bit and then I learned of this blow-up between a number of critics over Twitter about the quality, or lack thereof, of Keef's album. I listened to it a few times. I didn't love it, but I didn't hate it. I thought the production was much stronger than most of what's on the radio these days, but that the lyrics and Keef's flow were both lazy and pretty much things we've heard over and over and over and over. And parts of some songs really did that too much, such as the extensive over-repetitive nature of "Hate Bein' Sober," and "Laughin' to the Bank," that was like nails on a chalkboard after a while. Overall, I guess I lean pretty heavily toward "dislike" on the album, even though there were a few tracks that I thought were good, if not great (like "Love Sosa" and "Citgo").

Much more interesting than the album is the racial politics surrounding the criticism of the album. If I'm understanding the buzz I'm hearing, people who have heard it largely break into three camps: 1. "The fans" or the people that are buying the album. I generally don't go with crowdthink on music and I generally think that most (but not all) of what gets popular is appealing to the masses is lowest-common denominator stuff. 2. Intellectual white critics. Most of them seem to love it and say it's awesome and the greatest thing since sliced bread. Or at least the first rap album by a new artist that they've liked in a while. 3. Intellectual black critics. Most of them seem to dislike it, not only musically, but also on a cultural basis, suggesting that it is reinforcing of negative stereotypes. There was also the comment by Brian Bdot Miller who said: "yo @jordansarge stop writing about MY culture."

Now I agree with all of Miller's criticism of Keef and yet I don't agree with the above quoted Tweet at all. Obviously, in the big picture, I don't think that anybody has the right to tell anyone what topics they can and can't talk about. And, I 100% do understand how an African-American could be unhappy about a white person commenting on black culture in a way that doesn't respect the history and depth of both the music and the broader culture related to it.

That being said, Miller's comment seems to imply that a white critic can't comment on hip hop at all. And that's ridiculous. I have strong hip hop credentials. I remember the first time I ever heard a rap, listening to "Rapture," by Blondie, in the backseat of my parents car on Christmas Eve in 1981 while hearing about how the red light in the sky was Rudolph and picking up the first comic book I ever bought from the corner grocery store. I remember trading Maxell cassette tapes in the early 1980s with songs by Whodini, Grandmaster Flash, the Fat Boys, Kurtis Blow and others. I remember wearing parachute pants, fat rats and leather fingerless gloves as we pulled out the cardboard to practice breaking at my middle school. I remember singing "Rappin' Duke" with my busdriver on the way to that same school. I remember walking around high school singing "Proud to be Black" because Run DMC sang it and that was cool enough for me. I remember the first time I heard NWA, KRS-One, Public Enemy. I remember writing my first rhymes. I remember my first recording session. I remember the first time I stepped on stage to perform. I remember every second of the next 12 shows of original music I did. I've written more than 30 original rap songs and produced 10 original tracks. I've done 60 different rap songs at karaoke, an average of 2-3 times a week, every week for the last year and a half and I've never gotten anything but positive responses. I've rapped "Nuthin But A G Thang," "Fight the Power," "Fuck tha Police," "Bombs Over Baghdad," "Otis" and "Bonfire" and I've never gotten anything but compliments from people, regardless of their race. I've got more than 90 gigs of hip hop on my hard drive and I've listened to more than 10,000 rap songs. I've studied and I've taught black history classes to both black and white students and got nothing but positive reviews from students of all races.

The idea that I can't comment on hip hop is ridiculous.

Now I don't know if it was Miller's original intention to suggest that no white person can comment on hip hop or if he was just commenting on that particular writer. But I just want to state, for the record, that I am a lifelong hip hop fan and that I understand the music and culture -- probably more than many of the young black fans who don't know the history and wouldn't know who DJ Cool Herc was if he punched them in the face -- and that I have earned the right to comment on the music. I haven't earned the right to speak on behalf of anyone, though, or to tell anyone else how they should think. I get that I come from a place of privilege when it comes to American culture, but that doesn't mean that I haven't learned what that means and how I, as a white male, should write about those things.

I don't really like Keef's album and I don't like most of the rap on the radio these days. I think most of it is like most of the other pop music that is out there and I'll put my lyrics and flow up against most of the people on the radio who will be richer than me because I'm confident that I understand the music, the style and the history.

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