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Thursday, April 24, 2003
black like them
Simon Reynolds takes off on an ILM thread in his latest post and goes off on how difficult it must be to be a white American who wants to be involved in hip-hop, the "most significant and exciting form of American popular music these last 25 years." It's interesting, but it's also very British (sort of the equivalent of Americans pitying Brits for not having nice big cars or something like that) and about 6 years out of date, I'd reckon. Certainly this used to be true, and was a clear source of discomfort for a decent number of white kids, and maybe even remains that. But the fact of the matter is that hip-hop being "our music" doesn't really mean "black music" anymore, at least not for most people. The idea is more that hip-hop is a culture unto itself, and as long as you remain "true" to the culture, it doesn't matter what race you are. So, for instance, we're seeing in places like Def Jux and Anticon and a lot of the other undie hip-hop (to say nothing of Eminem) the first generation of white kids who, growing up in urban areas, essentially grew up in hip-hop culture. And while rap-rock was the first (embarassing) incarnation of this, in 5-10 years you're going to see suburban white kids exhibit this same degree of trueness, I expect, since hip-hop has become the dominant mode of popular music in America lately and so they've grown up with it, too. There's a surprisingly degree of equanimity in hip-hop these days from what I can see, and while some of this is based on embarassing superficialities (dressing the part, where you grew up) there's also an element of meritocracy--if you've got the skills, you can at least get your foot in the door. Whites do enjoy a lower status on the worker end of hip-hop (as well they should, all things considered) but a white kid needn't necessarily be embarassed to like it anymore. It's accepted, and it's a far more rebellious act in terms of parental approval than being into rock.

The ILM thread doesn't really get into this though, as far as I can tell, and in fairness the whole thing is supposed to center around the whiteness of indie-rock, not about white kids in general not being able to get into hip-hop. I don't agree with a lot of what I saw on my limited viewing of the exhaustive thread--for instance, I think anyone who thinks the Rapture is only drawing on Gang of Four instead of "actual" black music hasn't heard anything besides House of Jealous Lovers, as their more DFA-heavy stuff is extremely dancy in an R&B way--I tend to agree, in a qualified way. I mean, I think it's OK for indie-rock to be white, although I'd like it to own up to that a lot more, as admission of an actual white culture could be quite interesting. The people on the thread who seem to be saying that Amerindie (great term there) is bad because it's lost contact with black music are being annoyingly reductive, and you do have to recognize that Jack White's (for instance) opposition to hip-hop is based largely on its ubiquity, not its actual content or race. Now, I have a big beef with that attitude, too, but let's not pretend it's racism. And let's be willing to admit that white music has its peaks, too.

But if you replace "black music" with "popular music" (as Reynolds would like to, I think) stamp my passport for that excursion, ma'am. It's just so strange to me to see the way indie rock divorces itself from the mainstream, and the attitude of "ew that sounds like it could be on the radio, you sold out man" (cf Pitchfork) is weirdly similar to activists' notions of politics as an all-or-nothing proposition. Just because music is put out by a corporation doesn't mean that it was made by a corporation, and just because it's on the radio doesn't mean it loses all merit. Hip-hop has a much broader view of this conundrum--see, for instance, the Majesticons/Infesticons project, which alternates one album sounding like slick mainstream hip-hop with one of undie hip-hop, entered into this imaginary feud with each other. Indie rock can be embarassing when it tries to do that, but I think that's less because it shouldn't do it and more because it doesn't know how--or, more accurately, because it has the wrong attitude towards it. Indie rock has a very condescending attitude toward everything else in culture (for instance, can you see any indie-rocker sincerely using the hook Jay-Z uses for "The City is Mine" without being drummed out of the club?), and that's one of the most annoying things about it, not least because it results in the music being stifled artistically. I like the Beatles and, I dunno, Motorhead just fine, but I don't think their talents overwhelms all other talent, nor do I think that music has to be twenty years old to be a valid reference point. Why the hell wouldn't you steal stuff from the mainstream and repurpose it? If you have a critique of the mainstream, why do you avoid it instead of engaging with it? It's that weird, absolutely maddening repulsion to anything smacking of being too popular or too well-known that makes me want to take a fucking blowtorch to my fellow hipsters sometimes, although mainly I love them.

As for myself, I admit that not everything I do sits comfortably besides a Neptunes song, but some of it does. I don't know if I want to go platinum, but I want to at least sound like I could, both because the songs are good and because I'm not afraid to limit myself to what's acceptable. The mainstream is hugely interesting, at least as interesting as the underground, and I do wish more of my contemporaries would see through the hype and try to engage with it.