How Questlove Failed Hip-Hop

The Hunger Strike Boondocks BET

The two-part season finale of the second season of The Boondocks was a satirical weapon of mass destruction. Explicitly accosting BET, The Boondocks presented the network as a cabal of callous, cynical, self-hating and utterly wretched black people who actively sought to undermine black American existence. Though this presentation was clearly satirical, unabashedly wearing its dense layers of hyperbole, parody and reference on its face, there was also a clear contempt for the network. In fact, in one scene the head executive of the network, Deborah Leevil, a grotesque caricature of Debra L. Lee, literally bows to a white man. This unapologetic tone works great for laughs, but it also underscores the simplicity of the episode’s argument. Rather than targeting the industry-wide media practices that make a network like BET sustainable – racialized market segmentation in particular – the show simply points to the network itself, singularly pinpointing BET as a source of black pain and dropping satirical nuclear missiles over its board of directors.

In his essay series “How Hip-Hop Failed Black America” Questlove makes a similar move, berating hip-hop for its cultural dominance, its values, its diminishing of black cool, its parallels with disco and its indifference toward black culture, yet not directly dealing with the world that made and makes hip-hop possible. In this response to his essays, I’m going to simultaneously sketch out this world and highlight hip-hop’s place and history within it.

Remembering Record Labels

In a blog post from earlier this year, I explicitly challenged the notion that hip-hop represents all black people, arguing that it never has, never will and probably never should. I’d like to double-down on that point here because Questlove’s fundamental premise is that “hip-hop has taken over black music.” To underscore this claim, he points to the late 80’s, citing musicians like Michael Jackson, Tracy Chapman, Lionel Richie and more, and highlighting how these musicians coexisted with hip-hop acts like Queen Latifah and EPMD. “Hip-hop was just a piece of the pie,” he writes with nostalgia. Nowadays, he feels that hip-hop essentially encompasses the entire pie of black music, rendering other forms of black music susceptible to hip-hop’s follies and making hip-hop itself less potent.

There is a strange gap here. While Questlove has been a member of the music industry as both a producer and consumer for nearly 3 decades, he does not cite any particular mechanisms for how hip-hop rose to its alleged dominance. Even as a mere consumer, in my blog post I was able to cite instances of hip-hop not really dominating black life, mentioning how older relatives found themselves represented by gospel, jazz, movies, television shows and R&B. Despite his years of experience, Questlove strangely fails to offer a single anecdote. For him, hip-hop’s dominance is just a fact, plain and simple. Thus, the contemporary disposition of black music is all hip-hop’s fault.

I think that this is a very strange logical leap, especially if we consider the dominant mechanism through which music has been produced and distributed throughout hip-hop’s existence: record labels. There is a reason why the major label is hip-hop’s favorite whipping boy. Major label deals and their consequences – both good and bad – have had profound impacts on how hip-hop has developed. One useful way to think about the significance of label deals is to look at rap groups where the various members have had different label deals as individual artists. Wu-Tang Clan is a prime example. With the exception of the late Ol’ Dirty Bastard, the core members RZA, Raekwon, Ghostface Killah, Method Man, U-God, GZA, Inspectah Deck and Masta Killa have all released at least 3 studio albums through various record labels. Of these numerous individual releases (42, by my count), 9 have gone gold or better. Of those 9, literally all of them were distributed through a major label.

Now this doesn’t mean that record contracts have a 100% success rate. Of the 42 albums in this sample, 22 were released through a major label, so the actual percentage of gold+ sales through record deals is 41% (9/22). And even that percentage should be understood carefully because we have no knowledge of the bottom line – perhaps the albums were given the budget of a platinum album, making a gold certification just a 50% return – and because most of these albums went gold+ in the ’90s and early aughts, meaning that they are time-stamped by a period in which music sales were relatively high.

Even with these caveats in mind, this sample illustrates the tremendous differences that a record contract can make. Unsurprisingly, the Wu-Tang members with the most fame and notoriety – Method Man, Raekwon and Ghostface – have released the most major label albums, including one with just the three of them (RZA is more famous for production than rapping, I think). Sure, this is one correspondence among many: they have also each been highly prolific, for example. But I’ll be blunt: when it comes down to it, their fame is a direct product of the power of labels, particularly the power of distribution. Distribution should be taken very seriously. It is much more than printing packaging and shipping. Distribution is the operational apparatus through which albums are made purchasable.

Wu Massacre

Depending on the label’s investment in an artist, this apparatus can be exquisitely thorough. For instance, whenever there is a new Justin Bieber song, he appears on the front page of the iTunes interface. This is no accident. Labels understand that the front page is a valuable position, so they arrange for the song to have heightened visibility. The same goes for physical stores. Labels have been known to sell albums to record stores at slightly lower prices if the stores agree to display the albums more prominently or on a higher shelf. For established artists, labels have even been known to design their tours around cities where albums have historically sold more copies. Though they are not foolproof because people actually do listen to music (I hope), these kinds of direct interventions in the marketplace have profound effects, especially when they are concentrated toward one artist or act or market.

One particular effect is the flexible allocation of resources. Because labels do not have infinite resources, when they concentrate their capital toward one artist/one market, this is at the expense of other artists/markets. Thus, even when labels participate in multiple markets, they don’t tend to have coinciding release dates. They consciously decide when to release albums, considering their fiscal projections for distributing the album as well as looking at other factors, like the release dates for competitors. For example, Roc Nation is never going to release a J. Cole album, a Jay Z album and a Rihanna album all on the same Tuesday, even if all three artists turn in fully mixed and mastered copies of their albums at the same time. More than likely, they will release Rihanna’s album first, then Jay Z’s, then J. Cole’s.

The consequence of that release order may be that J. Cole’s buzz dies down because his hit single drowns in the ever-flowing stream of new Nicki Minaj songs. Consequently, when he releases another single and it does relatively poorly, the label decides to allocate more money toward Rihanna, subsequently limiting J. Cole’s possible talk show and radio appearances to promote the album. Eventually his album is released and it does poorly, so the label drops him. It may be hard to have sympathy for this fictional J. Cole or even the real one, but if you replace him with an entire genre, like jazz or blues, it becomes clear how punishing labels can be. Though labels decide how to intervene in the marketplace, individual artists and entire genres ultimately pay for those interventions, especially if there are negative effects. In the case of hip-hop, during its coming of age, other forms of black music were cast aside in order to concentrate resources toward hip-hop. In other words, hip-hop didn’t take over black music. Black music was left behind. And I’d be willing to bet that it was left behind precisely because black people have questionably been assumed to be its only viable listeners.

I Never Saw Luther Vandross on TRL

When I interviewed the rapper Skyzoo a few years ago, he mentioned being deeply inspired by Chi-Ali, a rapper who he saw on Yo! MTV raps as a kid. I never watched Yo! MTV Raps because I wasn’t even born during the first two years that it aired, so I don’t have anything to say about the show’s content. That said, the existence of shows that were exclusively dedicated to rap is worth considering. In my own lifetime, before Youtube, I can recall watching Cita’s World, Rap City, Direct Effect, Sucker Free and MTV Jams (it was a crappy show before it was a crappy channel). In contrast, for other forms of black music, I solely recall watching Midnight Love and Soul Train. That’s it. And Midnight Love came on at midnight, while Soul Train came on on Saturdays at noon, so these other forms of black music were culturally and temporally marginalized.

This marginalization was not accidental. Artists like Whitney Houston, Prince, Michael Jackson, Diana Ross and the Isley Brothers were all still signed to major labels, and they continually toured and appeared on television, but they were notably quarantined. I never saw Luther Vandross appear on TRL. I never saw Anita Baker on 106 and Park. I never saw Kevin Aviance on the cover of Vibe. These are not just errors of history. They are the effects of conscious efforts to construct and maintain markets. And because these markets (and subsequently the artists and genres they contained) were not consistently maintained, some fell into disrepair, obscurity and ruin.

It is always tempting to narrate the rises and falls of musical genre on aesthetic grounds, in terms of coolness and meaning and style. After all, the structural realities that make music possible are rarely visible: music is experienced as music, not the arbitrary machinations of corporate investments and whims. And even artists paint over these structural realities, often vaguely speaking of either song popularity or song quality as if these are unaffected by outside mechanisms. That said, in the same way that there would be no car industry if the US government hadn’t spent decades building highways and untold billions subsidizing American car companies (through bailouts as well as tax breaks), hip-hop as we know it wouldn’t be hip-hop without major labels concentrating their resources on keeping the genre afloat. This doesn’t mean that hip-hop is merely a puppet genre or that the record industry had some evil, conspiratorial agenda. Most recognizable genres are subsidized by the behemoth record industry( In fact, we can see these subsidies happening to “EDM” in real time). It just means that because hip-hop came of age in a marketplace where black music was already circumscribed, labels’ investment in hip-hop necessarily came at the expense of other forms of black music. Structural racism is to blame, not hip-hop’s values.

Of course, hip-hop’s collective values could certainly use some work. I’m tired of hip-hop continually producing the same narratives: rags to riches, remaining rich, being rich, becoming richer, regaining riches after momentarily wearing rags, reminding haters why they’re not rich, recanting respect for other rappers because they sold out to become rich, remembering discounts at Rich’s before it was acquired by Macy’s, etc. Hell, I’m also tired of hip-hop’s gonzo journalistic perspective. In fact, when I reviewed Common’s new album for Paste, my criticism was essentially that the album fails because he raps about himself too much instead of getting inside the mind of other people or other genders (or other species, like Aesop Rock in this song). And the worst offender for me personally is hip-hop’s continued misogyny. The fact that radio versions exist and do well is perfect proof that songs don’t require these words (or more importantly these sentiments) that intentionally and instinctively diminish women.

But all of these practices are ultimately aesthetic, so no matter how successfully hip-hop manages to purge itself of its entrenched iniquities, the fact remains that hip-hop exists within an ecosystem in which black media is already under tight restraint. And I’ve never broken out of handcuffs before, but I’m pretty sure that no amount of finger-wagging, self-scrutiny, nostalgia or brutal satire, will singularly enable escape. Say hip-hop no more, son, it’s bigger than that.

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Kodwo Eshun on the Nonexistence of “Black Music,” How to Understand Black Culture and Why Sun Ra’s Music Isn’t Allegorical

Taking a leaf from This Cage is Worms, I’d like to pull some interesting quotes from Kodwo Eshun’s book More Brilliant Than the Sun, which I finished reading a few weeks ago. Though I didn’t directly cite it, MBTS was very formative for my recent article, “Is Rap Really Black People’s CNN?

On the Nonexistence of “Black Music”

“The Automator perpetually folds the mind into origami. Listening to The Automator reminds you that HipHop is computer music. Trad[itional] HipHop continues to install a painful binary machine, a rigid funk canon that cuts right through you, and polarizes your flux. But after Kool Keith’s, The Automator’s and guest producer Kut Master Kurt’s ’95 album Dr. Octagon, this restricted aesthetic feels like emotional amputation, like terminal insularity elevated to a fraudulent ethics, an ethics known as Black Music.

Which is why the term Black Music so often sounds stupid, so dated and pointless, a phrase only used by the most retarded r&b cheerleaders. Black Music: the term clamps the brain because it omits the role of the machine, because it blithely ignores computerization by locating all of HipHop back in the all-too-human zones of the soul of the street.

To use the phrase Black Music is to presume a consensus that has never existed, to assume a readily audible, pre-synthetic essence which machines have externalized, manufactured and globalized.

p. 37.

On Understanding Black Culture

“I look at black culture much more as a series of material that’s been agglomerated on one hand, and on the others, it’s much more like a series of techniques. A lot of the producers and engineers I talk about see themselves as scientists or technicians. I tend to think of black culture then as an instrument or an environment that they’ve invented. I’m very much looking into synthesizings, looking into new black synthetic versions. I can never think of a unified black culture out of which everything comes. To me everything now looks like it’s synthesized. There’s obviously stuff that’s been around long enough so that it feels solidified, calcified, but actually it’s all synthesized. Because I’m looking at emergences, and by definition they’re going to be really synthetic, like [Detroit] Techno. Because I bring the machine into it. It makes things much more complex because instead of talking about black culture, I’ll talk for instance a lot about Ghanian drum choirs, or talk a lot about the African polyrhythmic engine, the polyrhythmic percussion engine. And those will be very particular African traits. Sound is a sensory technology, so I talk a lot about black technologies. They’re machines – and if we’re talking about 19th or 18th century Africa, then they’d be machines built a long time ago and passed down. But in the present, it’s like more black culture is this series of machines built here and there. The dub plate was one, built in Jamaica. The Breakbeat was another, built in New York.”

p. 191 – 192.

On why he studied AfroFuturistic music

“There’s the key thing which drew me into all of this: the idea of alien abduction, the idea of slavery as an alien abduction which means that we’ve all been living in an alien-nation since the 18th century. And I definitely agree with that, I definitely use that a lot. The mutation of African male and female slaves in the 18th century into what became negro, and into the entire series of humans that were designed in America. That whole process, the key thing behind it all is that in America none of these humans were designated human. It’s in music that you get this sense that most African-Americans owe nothing to the status of the human. African-Americans still had to protest, still had to riot, to be judged Enlightenment humans in the 1960s – it’s quite incredible. And in music , if you listen to guys like Sun Ra – I call them the despots, Ra, Rammellzee and Mad Mike – part of the whole thing about being an African-American alien musician, is that there’s this sense of the human as being a really pointless and treacherous category, a category which has never meant anything to African-Americans. This is particularly true with Sun Ra – just because Ra pushes it by saying that he comes from Saturn. I always accept the impossibility of this. I always start with that, where most people would try and claim it was allegory. But it isn’t allegory: he really did come from Saturn. I try not to exaggerate that impossibility, until it’s irritating, until it’s annoying, and this annoyance is merely a threshold being crossed in the readers’ heads, and once they unseize, unclench their sensorium, they’ll have passed through a new threshold and be in my world. I’ll have got them. The key thing to do is register this annoyance, because a lot of the moves I’ve described will provoke real annoyance, the lack of the literary, the lack of the modernist, the lack of the postmodern. All of these things should provoke a real irritation, and simultaneously a real relief, a relief that somebody has left all stuff behind, and started from the pleasure principle, started from the materials, started from what really gives people pleasure.”

p. 192-193.

More Brilliant Than the Sun is currently out of print, but I might know a guy who has a pdf, if you’re interested.

Is Rap Really Black People’s CNN?

According to hearsay*, Chuck D of Public Enemy  once said, “Rap is CNN for black people,” basically claiming that rap broadcasts what goes on in black people’s lives. It’s an interesting quote, especially since it implies that the real CNN isn’t a reliable source of happenings in black life (or maybe any non-white life), but I’ve recently grown skeptical of the quote’s accuracy and of its sociopolitical usefulness. It all started when I heard this interview of writer, critic and filmmaker dream hampton last summer. Discussing her longtime relationship with hip-hop, hampton details why she’s recently moved away from hip-hop, saying, “I’m done with hip-hop being a central organizing tool for my ideas,” and concluding that hip-hop “doesn’t have the right to be the cultural arm of black America.”

She arrived at this conclusion after years of battling rappers and rap fans on the symbolic front as far as misogynist language and on the domestic front in terms of how women in hip-hop were personally treated by men. This quote says it all:

“I don’t hear Chuck D talking about how Flavor Flav abuses black people, because it turns out black women are black people [too]. Again, I’ve been doing this police brutality work forever. Often the victims are boys and men. And women show up. Sisters, mothers, daughters, women who have no relationships to these men show up and and show up for these men. We rally, raise our voices, organize and when it comes to domestic violence, when it comes to all the ways we’re abused…far more women are gonna be assaulted in their homes than men are gonna be assaulted in the street and yet that same outcry doesn’t exist.”

To put it bluntly, hampton is saying that hip-hop largely doesn’t care about black women and from her twenty years of experience, it most likely never will. This isn’t a shocking statement if you listen to hip-hop either closely or marginally, but in addition to giving insight into hip-hop’s deeply entrenched gender exclusions, I think hampton’s statements also point toward some other entrenched exclusions.

For instance, as far as I know, the first and possibly only hip-hop album that my mom ever purchased was The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. My aunts and uncles have probably never purchased a hip-hop album. The same is imaginable for their friends and so forth. My first personal introduction to rap came from a random Coolio cameo on some early ’90s Muppets show. Aside from occasionally listening to the radio, my girlfriend’s knowledge of rap stops after high school. I doubt that my family, my girlfriend and I are statistical outliers or that we were all musically deprived. I’ve been in barbershops and hair salons where members of the so-called hip-hop generation (people born and raised between ’72-87) expressed no interest in hip-hop whatsoever, musically or stylistically. In fact, at a barbershop I used to frequent at Greenbriar Mall when I lived in East Point, Georgia during the ’90s, the barbers mostly discussed (and watched) basketball, football, and sitcoms like Martin and Living Single.

I would never absolutely say that these people lived totally outside of hip-hop’s sphere of influence or that hip-hop could say nothing about their lives, but I doubt that it would be a particularly reliable lens for understanding how they lived. At the same time that hip-hop was on the rise, R&B, soul, jazz and gospel were prosperous as well. Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston, Anita Baker and Prince were having some especially successful careers. And elsewhere, reggae and dub were thriving in their own way. And not that institutional recognition really matters, but there wasn’t even a Grammy award for best rap album until 1996. I think this is all important because when we discuss who hip-hop speaks for and speaks to, it’s easy to conflate hip-hop’s political potential with its [present and past] social reality. Stated bluntly, it’s easy to think that hip-hop represents all black people when it doesn’t, never has and probably never should.

People who are symbolically excluded from hip-hop have always flocked to it, but I think it’s apparent that those relationships are often tenuous. In hampton’s interview, she contrasts the fervor she had for hip-hop in her twenties with the indifference she has for it now, in her forties. What I take from that is that from the beginning, fandom, passion for the genre, is the only thing that kept her around. Once that passion was finally snuffed out by the harsh winds of misogyny and insistent indifference to black women’s lives, she had no reason to remain interested, besides an occasional song that didn’t treat her like trash.

In the end, I think that Chuck D’s statement was more a fantasy of rap than an actual description of what rap socially does. For Chuck D, if rap could act as black people’s CNN, it could be relied upon to express the problems facing black America in a way that wasn’t mediated by political and corporate disinterest in black life. In this fantasy black people are the news anchors, reporting straight from the source: ourselves. But as I’ve tried to point out, I think blackness is being stretched in this metaphor. Women, black people who don’t like particularly like rap, black people with Caribbean roots and black people rooted in other musical and aesthetic traditions**, etc., just weren’t included in rap. And though inclusion is certainly not destiny, I think it’s responsible to admit that the most reliable thing rap can tell you is about the imagined and actual lives of mostly black males. Everything else is relatively marginal.

Other narratives abound and occasionally bubble up – Queen Latifah, Azealia Banks, Eminem, B. Dolan, Jasiri X, Invincible and more all have great stories to tell – and songs like Tupac’s “Brenda’s Got a Baby and Aesop Rock’s “Ruby 81” are great examples of these narratives being told by men, which shows that gender isn’t artistic destiny. Heck, “Ruby 81” shows that even species isn’t artistic destiny; it’s about a dog saving a girl from drowning! Nevertheless, in the end, this fantasy of rap as the premier window into black people’s lives just doesn’t hold up, historically or in practice. If you really want a media lens into black American’s lives, cross-generationally and relatively unmediated by gender***, you probably should just watch and discuss Scandal. Your view will still be partial, of course, but at least you’ll be able to talk to my mother. 

*I couldn’t track down its first utterance, but Chuck D has never claimed misattribution, so I assume it’s something he actually said. Plus, even if he hadn’t, it’s taken on a life of it’s own by now.

**Of course, race isn’t artistic/vocational/occupational destiny either. Beyond hip-hop, jazz, blues, R&B and soul, there’s an unacknowledged history of black opera singers, ballet dancers, hockey players, heavy metal drummers and more. In addition to working on accurately demonstrating what kinds of popular things actually do represent black people, I think we should also think about the unpopular things too. Popularity is always contingent, after all.

***That isn’t to say that a gendered lens isn’t sometimes (or often) important. I think there’s a reason why every black woman under forty that I know is enthralled by this new Beyonce album. If you don’t think about gender when interrogating that reason you’re gonna look and feel fairly silly.