My thoughts on the matter of Rap Genius haven’t changed and the responses to a recent NPR article have only further solidified my stance. In the article, an NPR intern outlines why he isn’t very moved by the “classic” Public Enemy album It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back. After giving the album a listen, in essence, the intern says, “This is old and I appreciate it, but I prefer the [really] new stuff.” Unsurprisingly, the resulting animosity didn’t take long at all.
As someone who writes about hip-hop despite getting involved with it kind of late compared to my peers (My middle school was overwhelmingly Black), I really hate this reaction. Granted, this intern’s introduction to rap was Drake circa 2010; mine was Ludacris circa 2001. That being said, so what? From a fan perspective, both of those moments in hip-hop (and every moment that has been and will be) is equally as important (or not important) to the genre. As I have said previously, being a fan of a genre doesn’t mean being a goddamn historian. When a “history” is required to access a genre, we end up with Rap Geniuses, people who promote exclusivite and arcane experiences of rap at the expense of all other experiences.
For example, look at Rap Genius’ explanation of a Jay-Z line from “No Church in the Wild.” Jay says, “Socrates asked whose bias do y’all seek.” Rap Genius says,
“This is essentially Jay’s take on the Euthyphro dilemma: a conflict between two biases or opinions. If the gods love something because it is pious, then there must be an objective goodness intrinsic to the universe. If something is pious because the gods love it, then goodness could roughly be seen as arbitrary or subjective. Jay seems to ignore the fact that Socrates rejects the second part of the dilemma and advanced the notion that objective truth could be discerned through reason (i.e. the Socratic Method). He’s not alone: both members of The Throne seem to advance a slightly revisionist take on Socrates.As a side note, was Socrates was sentenced to death by the Athenian government for “corrupting the minds of the youth” and chose his method of execution (poisoning via hemlock)
This is horse shit. If Freud were alive today, he would say something along the lines of, “Sometimes a bar is just a bar.” Translation: sometimes niggas just be rappin. Even if Jay-Z himself told me that Rap Genius’ explanation was spot on, that wouldn’t matter. Hip-hop thrives on a diversity of meanings and experiences. If someone hears that line and just wants to dance, so be it. Trying to reduce hip-hop down to one meaning and one experience and one demographic is preposterous and absurd.
I want to believe the platitude that “Before you can contribute to a conversation, you have to know what was said before you arrived,” but I feel that this line of thought always benefits the people who spoke first. The people who arrive late(r) are silenced and told to wait their turn, but oftentimes either that turn never comes or when it does, it is met with condescension and rejection. The reaction to this NPR letter is a case in point. Because this intern admitted that Drake was his introduction to hip-hop, people legitimately believe that he is unqualified to speak about hip-hop. What the fuck?
I love hip-hop, but I hate the way hip-hop fans treat it. If we really care about hip-hop, we have to stop excluding the people who aren’t as familiar with it. Their experiences with the genre are just as noteworthy as ours. I definitely think that we should call bullshit when outsiders present themselves as experts, but when an outsider admits to being an outsider and we still metaphorically deport them, we’re only hurting ourselves.
Honestly, if you look at the origins of hip-hop, arcane knowledge isn’t what it was all about. When DJs in the Bronx went to record stores to find records with cool break beats, they weren’t looking for things people wouldn’t recognize. In fact, they didn’t care about recognition at all. All they wanted was music that would make the “party people” keep the party going. Whether you like it or not, the party is now worldwide. You can have your “classics” DJ play old Public Enemy records while you grimace and contemplate the political climate of 1989, but when you go to the restroom, don’t scowl at the chick who came to the club to listen to dubstep remixes of Drake. She’s just trying to have a good night. Aren’t you?