clap clap blog: we have moved

Thursday, November 10, 2005
Yo, I found this sick break on some vinyl I got in a thriftstore in Santa Ana...

Janine points us to an interesting Boston Post article (bugmenot) about Def Jam Left, which will I guess be Jay-Z's boutique label for undie hip-hop. Since I've already compared two of his contemporaries to the developmentally disabled, let's start with the positive:

As Jay-Z told Billboard, the label is designed to be ''an artist-driven label with very low deals so people are not pressured by first-week SoundScan [sales], so we can build artists."
This certainly sounds great, although it's maybe worth noting that if any artists get developed at major labels these days, it's hip-hop artists. That said, Jay's A&R choices have been far from inspiring (both as Def Jam president and as a mentor previously), and if there's any better indication that he's simply looking to get a share of that college kid market, it's signing the uber-respectable Roots.

But what's more questionable is nonsense like this:

With Def Jam Left, and his inaugural signing of the Roots, Jay-Z has created a boutique label for rap artists with more on their minds than the run-of-the-mill topics stifling mainstream rap. For the most part, commercial hip-hop is where rock was in the early 1990s before Nirvana and its seminal 1991 album ''Nevermind" flushed away all that brain-dead hair-band nonsense.
There's so many lazy assumptions here it's almost impossible to parse, so let's just zero in on the subtext. The key error in the analogy here is that Nirvana didn't simply differ from Warrant in that Warrant was singing about fucking and Nirvana was singing about...uh, how everything sucked, I guess. (What was Nirvana singing about?) There was also a pretty big difference musically[1], as I think everyone would agree. But there's no mention here of bringing in "forward-thinking" producers[2] to go along with the "socially conscious" rappers. The implication being that you could finally "get" people to listen to raps about global warming if only they could get Just Blaze to give 'em a beat.

But how would this be an improvement over what folks like this writer perceive as the present model, i.e. get a great beat and people won't care so much about the actual rapping? If you think people aren't listening to the words anyway, then what the hell does it matter if the rapper is talking about? If the listeners are so undemanding as to listen to lyrics critics perceive them to not actually care about, why would they care about undie lyrics either?

This seems foolish. You can say "once there were mainstream audiences for both N.W.A and A Tribe Called Quest" but the fact is that even if you took the vocals off, anyone could tell the difference between Straight Outta Compton and Low End Theory. I'm not sure that would be true with the oppositions being proposed here--after all, Kayne did produce songs on both Jay-Z's and Common's albums. In other words, it seems insulting both to mainstream and undie hip-hop to assume that the latter's been unsuccessful simply because the producer suck (I do tend to think undie producers suck, but then I don't particularly like the MCs, either) and the former's been successful despite the fact that no one likes the rappers. This last point is clearly wrong, and not a bit short-sighted: even if they don't like the lyrics per se, there's a musicality about the vocals of lots of mainstream rappers--call it "flow" or whatever--that is a big part of what makes them appealing. "In Da Club" would be great even if he was reading his grocery list both because the beat's great and because of his voice, which is far more compelling than it deserves to be.

It's just all a little too reminiscent of the perpetual indie-rock daydream that if only our bands got promoted, man, everyone would recognize how good they are and they'd be successful. Well, no. For one thing, lots of bands get heavily promoted and don't do well; there's lots of luck involved. For another, the band that I think comes closest to this dream, the New Pornographers, clearly lack the kind of straighforward lyrics that would be necessary to have a radio hit, neither simple enough nor ridiculous enough to really connect. Ditto for undie rappers. I'm not saying there aren't scattered travesties, nor am I going to claim that A&R people aren't generally morons. But to claim that there's this huge untapped underground that just needs a major-label push to break through a la Nirvana seems way off.

[1] Although if you want to be that way, you could argue that in some senses it was just a recentering of influences--early pop-metal's debt to certain strands of punk and 70s hard rock was often noted, and arguably Nirvana just took it back to a different set of inspirations while also adding bits of 80s college-rock.
[2] Like the ones detailed in Making Beats, which I've been meaning to write up a response to for some time.