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Monday, February 13, 2006

I know this is just the picture that went with the story, but it's pretty much impossible to beat

Please get out of the new one if you can't lend a hand

I haven't exactly had tons of time to click around today, but I didn't notice anybody commenting on the article in the Sunday Times about hip-hop tours:

Today, for the price of $70, the Hush Tours bus whisks visitors to the Grand Concourse in the Bronx, making stops at, among other places, the Graffiti Hall of Fame at 106th Street and Park Avenue, a schoolyard featuring enormous murals by some of the city's top graffiti artists, and Bobby's Happy House, a record store owned by Bobby Robinson, the onetime proprietor of Enjoy Records, which released some of the earliest hip-hop singles.

At the Graffiti Hall of Fame, there is a Disneyish touch: Caz distributes Kangol hats and fake gold chains with dangling dollar-sign pendants to the tourists, who cross their arms and strike B-boy stances for snapshots in front of the spray-painted walls. Harlem residents have seen a lot over the years, but a gaggle of white tourists dressed like LL Cool J circa 1985 is something new.
In and of itself, this is fine, and actually kind of cool; as the owner points out, you can get a country music history tour in Nashville (and I know at least one person who had their eyes opened to country through one), so why not let people see the sites of hip-hop's birth? (Although this does make one consider the possibility of the Bronx River housing project being somehow turned into a tourist attraction, which is both unlikely and hilarious. Maybe they'll build a scale replica in Times Square?) It seems both slightly odd and, in retrospect, inevitable.

What's strange is the attitude that gets displayed on the bus. As the article puts it, the tour is "an argument about authenticity," with tour guides, many of whom are figures from the early days of hip-hop, saying things like, "Today you're going to learn what hip-hop is and what it's not. It's not just rap music, and it's definitely not just the 10 records you hear over and over again on the radio." The author does a good job of shooting down this attitude, calling it "nostalgia" and pointing out things like how the gansta rap era is now longer than the so-called "golden era" of hip-hop, asking, "Does anyone really believe that Spoonie Gee and Whodini were better rappers than, say, Snoop Dogg or Ludacris?" (He declines to note, though, the disconnect of talking about authenticity on a tour bus.)

There's one thing, though, that maybe deserves to be explicitly addressed:

"We have a real thing in hip-hop about out with the old, in with the new," Ms. Harris said. "I'm shocked about how little awareness of history there is, especially since so many people are making so much money in the rap industry. There's much more awareness of hip-hop history in other countries."

Artists like Grandmaster Flash tour regularly overseas, where they draw far bigger audiences, and Ms. Harris estimated that 80 percent of Hush Tours' patrons are "international visitors." Sure enough, a recent tour included just four Americans, along with tourists from England, France, Germany, Australia and Kenya. In this respect, old-school rappers and D.J.'s have in recent years become similar to jazz musicians, who have long experienced rapturous receptions in Europe and Japan while struggling at home to find respect and decent-paying gigs.
This hardly seems like a problem. I understand why you'd want to get a piece of that mainstream dollar, but don't try and blame it on a defect with America. The reason old-schoolers can get better gigs in foreign countries is because it's not a live art there. Certainly there are skilled practitioners in those countries (I've heard a surprisingly large amount of good French rap), but hip-hop isn't part of the culture in the way it is in America. Hip-hop dominates here, and it seems really hard to argue that this is a bad thing, that keeping the art so alive and so fresh is really worse than it actually becoming like what jazz is now (and jazz finally becoming an offshoot of classical gas). Hip-hop is just mind-bendingly vital right now, going in twelve directions at once because there are just so many damn people doing it and so many ideas left to explore, even if there are stretches where every album that crosses my desk seems to have hit the "default crunk" button on their produce-o-bot. It's one thing to say that Grandmaster Flash got screwed over by his record company. It's a whole other thing to complain about more people wanting to see Jay-Z than wanting to see him. If anything, we should be worried that old dude Jay's still drawing the crowds he does.