clap clap blog: we have moved

Monday, September 15, 2003
Mark at k-punk and Jonathan at quarks and charms reply to my post about the problematics of loving Dizzee Rascal (hopefully by including the word "problematics" in that link I'll get quoted in a critical essay sometime soon. Send me an e-mail if you do!). I don't know if I can muster a substantive response, but I guess I should at least clarify a few things.

First, a few little things: I only know about gutter garage from what I read in the blogs, but contrary to what Mark says, it was certainly my impression (from Simon R., at least) that the new form of garage was strongly influenced by Dirty South bump, and you can certainly hear a lot of the mealy-mouthed verbalizations thereof in GG, just as you can hear the remnants of garage in the vocals of "21 Seconds." Mark says, "In many ways, Dizzee couldn't sound LESS like US hip hop: it's not only the idiolect and the accent, but also the ruffness of the sound, which have no parallel in the US." Well, he could sound less like US hip-hop by sounding like Blur, but snarkiness aside, he sounds a lot like the undie folks we're all pretty used to by now; there's certainly more of a dance-music (gabba?) heritage to it, but the noise elements aren't that different from El-P's stuff. The voice we all agree is unique, but that's equally true of Flava Flav, so...Mark also writes, "And it's not as if US hip hop has much to shout about at the moment." Geez, really? I'm pretty happy with it. If you're inclined to dislike mainstream pop (as Dizzee's fans seem to be--no offense meant, but it is a pretty fair characterization, yes?) then the fact that hip-hop is the mainstream over here will result in some pop-in-rap-form that will put you off, but I'm pretty damn happy with everything from Outkast to Jay-Z's recent stuff to Mr. Lif to Missy Elliot (Missy fucking Elliot!) to instrumental stuff like Prefuse 73 and RJD2. It's the usual suspects, sure, but aside from the fact that I'd never pretend to be able to introduce anyone to great new hip-hop, it says something that I can rattle off a list of great stuff that easily, yeah? And this is to say nothing of all the underground stuff I don't have my lilly-white ear to.

And Jonathan says: "I'm not so sure that there is a rise of the US-style MC over here- So Solid, Heartless, Gal Flex etc etc make damn sure we know they are a crew/collective/gang. Dizzee made a point of thanking his crew [Roll Deep] at the Mercury awards." I don't think this is accurate at all, although the rest of the post is excellent: almost all US MCs rise with crews, and only break off with them for marketing purposes. I have an example as close at hand as the Diplomats, Cam'ron's crew, and I could also pull out D-12 (Eminem) and the assorted members of the (shudder) Bad Boy Family. I mean, Diz saying "Roll Deep!" in the beginning of "I Luv U" is, if anything, an ancient rap tradition--think Jay-Z slipping "Roc-A-Fella" into every vacant space of Life and Times, Vol. 2. The crew is a pretty ingrained part of US hip-hop, springing from the founding when taggers traveled as members of a crew and there were breakdancing teams, etc., etc. The crew's a pretty big part of US hip-hop.

More broadly, though, I guess the "bristling" is a result of me reopening the old wound of, as Mark puts it, "the US anxiety of influence." And I can understand that; I guess when I made the original post I should have been more careful. But I also think that maybe the fact that I wasn't able to link to Simon's posts, the ostensible subject, made things a bit less clear. Those posts were (unless I'm misremembering) saying how sad it must be to be a USA white teenager and have mainstream culture be dominated by hip-hop--and loving it, but being unable to participate in it. And let's be honest, now, that's a bit of a condescending Brit view itself, which was why I took issue with it. So the whole point of my original post was that this situation that Simon had described and gently mocked for American crackers now seems to be playing itself out in the ranks of white UK critics.

Which is OK! The major misunderstanding seems to be that they think I'm saying this is meant as a knock against the UK whereas it's simply an observation. I'm not saying one is better than the other. But I do think there are certain facts we need to cotton to before we can continue the discussion.

First off, like I say above, Dizzee is doing hip-hop. It may have come from a different place than US hip-hop, and it might not sound like Nelly, but neither does Aesop Rock, and that's still hip-hop. And hip-hop was, no way around it, invented by Americans. Now, this doesn't necessarily mean it's better, and indeed, one of the reasons US indie kids get slightly anglophilic is because they UK seems to have a knack for taking debased US genres and re-presenting them to us as something new and, often, better. Again, this might sound like a knock if originality is your primary critical value, but it's not mine, and I certainly don't mean it as a bad thing. Like I say, it's proven pretty useful over the years (see: the blues, Detroit techno), and hell, I bet more Americans are listening to the Beatles and Stones than Elvis and Little Richard.

Second of all, the UK very simply has a much different racial situation from the US. There's no doubt that Britain's situation is shifting towards America's, but it's far from kind of mix that you'll find in most US communities. (Which--again, disclaimer--does not mean that America's racial politics are better than the UK's, just different, especially in that they have far different factors to consider.) London is better, but even there, even in South London, it feels a hell of a lot different from even my own neighborhood in Brooklyn: there are just simply more white people. Simon even says as much in one of his Merc posts: "it’s easy to forget that most bits of the UK don’t have any black people or Asians…" Yeah, it is, and since we all seem to be in agreement that both US hip-hop and gutter garage are black-dominated forms, this matters.

So when I'm accused of imposing "American cultural politics...on Britain," if that's true then I clearly should not be doing so. But I hope that's not the case, because as I say above, what I'm documenting is not a static state but a shift, and a shift that I see taking UK music fans, especially UK critics, closer to the situation American fans have been dealing with for a while. And the reason I bring this up is because I think we've dealt with it badly. Very badly. We've created this bastard undie/backpacker culture where it's OK for white people to rap, but only if they adhere to a ridiculously purist set of standards about what hip-hop should and shouldn't be, especially considering that they didn't start the damn thing in the first place, and where black artists actually seem more exoticized than they are in the mainstream. And that sucks. We went through a period where a music fan could reasonably say "I like everything but country and rap" and not look like a jackass, which still seems to be the case in the UK judging by the BBC comments (and hey, I thought you guys liked Linkin Park or something? You know they rap, right?). That's clearly no longer the case, but I don't think we've ever fully recovered, since we still feel fine saying "I hate that pop shit" (pop=R&B/hip-hop) and seem more comfortable liking rapping whiteys. I don't know quite where to place the blame for this; the idiot, um, "rockists"--at least the ones who still insist you have to Use Real Instruments etc.--deserve some of the blame, but so do the people who refused to see hip-hop as both a part of pop music/culture and to see pop music as Kinda Sorta OK Sometimes. So the situations are different (the geographic distribution of more open-to-the-music minority cultures is worse in Britain, but they do have an established set of reference points which should probably help) but I think many of the possibilities are still there.

I'm a bit burnt out now so I won't get into the anxiety of influence UK-bred bloggers have over US ones such as myself, but suffice to say that is a motivating factor sometimes.