Editor’s note: When we read Sasha Frere-Jones‘ recent piece on the death of hip-hop, we didn’t have a witty comeback. What we did have was one name on the brain: Das Racist. A favorite here at Flavorpill HQ thanks to their single “Combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell,” the Brooklyn-based rap duo is one of the more exciting new acts on the scene. And as the New York Times recently said, “Das Racist’s lack of piety has become an aesthetic of its own, with songs that are as much commentary on hip-hop as rigorous practice of it.” OK. We’ll turn it over to them now.
Victor Vazquez: Flavorpill asked our publicist to ask us to write a rebuttal to Sasha Frere-Jones’ recent article Wrapping Up about the death of hip-hop, maybe because we were once called “the death of hip-hop” by a white guy who’s only rap album on his 2008 Best Albums was white rapper Why?’s album Alopecia. This is the year Carter 3 came out. I wish I could remember this guy’s name but Spinner.com freaked out and took down the article after receiving numerous comments complaining about how the reviewer could not tell the difference between the three brown people in our band.
Sasha Frere-Jones first came to my attention a couple years ago when a friend of mine emailed a link to one of his articles, A Paler Shade of White, in which he bemoans the lack of black influence and “swing” in the music of Arcade Fire. The article was filled with vague and contradictory ideas of what “black” and “white” musical tropes were and I definitely “went in” hella hard in an email that I just posted on gordongartrelle.blogspot.com for reference.
I guess I wasn’t alone in my reaction; according to Wikipedia, the New Yorker received more mail about that article than it had for any single article it had published in the preceding eleven years. At this point, I’m kind of over the idea of “going in” on the dude (pause) and I have to say I probably wouldn’t be wasting my time writing this if I didn’t think it would be a good publicity look for my band…
Sasha Frere-Jones opens his article by admitting that “weighing in early on what academics call ‘periodization’ is a dicey proposition,” as a nominal caveat before launching into doing just that. This is a rhetorical approach that he’s used before (namely in “Whiter Shade of Pale”) and is basically just another flavor of the age old “Now, I don’t mean to be racist but [insert something racist here]” Kool-Aid.
SFJ is savvy enough to know that before pulling a “white man speaks authoritatively on black culture” move, he needs to first establish an acceptable precedent for his argument by locating it in the ideology of a credible black artist (in this case Nas’s 2006 album Hip Hop is Dead). But notice how SFJ then immediately undermines that credibility: while he could just say “Nas called it three years ago,” he instead claims that while Nas’s sentiment was correct, the proclamation was three years premature, as if to say “Nice try, Nas, but leave it to the professional (white, college-educated) music journalist to make sweeping statements about (black, ghetto-originated) music.”
Before a handful of (white) internet commenters wild on me saying “Sasha Frere-Jones is not a racist,” let me clarify that I’m not saying he’s consciously and intentionally trying to assert his superiority. I’m just trying to point out that his language is typical of that (white) journalistic voice which presupposes the (white) journalist’s authority.
Perhaps it’s first worth examining further why “periodization” is such a “dicey proposition” to begin with, regardless of how early or late. Concepts like “periods” and even “genre” are loose collections of tropes that have no inherent meaning but rather contextual meanings that are only useful to the extent to which they can help organize texts. The point at which they actually serve to define texts is when they can enter a lens of scrutiny so intense as to render them meaningless.
In the article, SFJ describes Jay-Z and Kanye’s new work and the work of Kid Cudi as “hip-hop by virtue of rapping more than sound,” describing the “sound” as mostly “blues-based swing” (a term he also uses in A Paler Shade of White) as opposed to the “four-on-the-floor thump” or “European pulse, simpler and faster and more explicitly designed for clubs” that is “replacing” that swing. But even ignoring the fact that “rapping” is technically a “sound” (arguably the single defining “sound” of the genre, and even that is not entirely true, considering sing-rapping like Bone Thugz N’ Harmony et al.) and that music “explicitly designed for clubs” seems hardly antithetical to rap (or hip-hop or whatever you want to call it), what seems even more contradictory is that SFJ himself admits that rap is “a spinoff from New York City’s early disco culture” which is not only almost definitively about “four-on-the-floor thump” but itself shares roots with black American soul and funk.
And actual “swing” vs. “thump” argument aside, European dance music is nothing new to rap. In perhaps the most obvious example of this, Kraftwerk, the quintessential German techno band, has been sampled by everyone from Afrika Bambaataa to Jay-Z. Sampling has helped make rap’s “sound” not only diverse but literally referential in a way that serves to weaken the notion of genre as even a relevant question and make a lot of questions about origin and period seem fairly moot. All this is to say nothing of where Dancehall, Reggaeton, and Bhangra fit into all of this as other types of electronic music that are not European but that inform and are informed by “hip-hop” and further complicate its status as a genre. The more you look at the idea of genre as a collection of tropes, the less there seem to be any one single trope that holds sway over the rest.
From the griots to the dozens to the beats to Sun Ra’s “Nuclear War” to The Last Poets to Bob Dylan to the Modern Lovers to Yellowman to the Red Hot Chili Pepper’s “Give It Away Now,” to the Butthole Surfer’s “Pepper,” to Vybz Kartel… these are all arguably rap depending on how you how one chooses one’s criteria. Rap (nor anything else) needs not necessarily be viewed in terms of origins or boundaries, births or deaths. Genre is a construction whose analytical use is primarily economic in nature. The study of genre is largely the study of marketing.
Kanye and Jay-Z made popular rap albums in a solid and relatively inarguable hip-hop tradition a few years back and now they are experimenting more. It seems they didn’t “relinquish the controls,” (whatever that means) so much as they just decided to make weird, experimental, explicitly genre-bending albums (which isn’t necessarily a surprising or new thing in rap — Andre 3000, Q-Tip, and Common made similar moves with varying degrees of success years ago) and these weird, experimental, explicitly genre-bending albums made a lot of money and seem to be pretty popular with the kids. MIA is another good example of this. You could say these types of albums help to change the game in rap as its commonly understood as a genre and across the board musically as well, yeah, but whether or not any of these releases could signal the end of an era seems like a pointless question.
SFJ pulls another “nominal caveat coupled with immediate negation of that same sentiment” number when he says that the “criminal life that Raekwon raps about may be irrelevant to [Freddie Gibbs’] gift” but then still apparently finds it worth discussing. It bespeaks a seemingly romantic desire on SFJ’s to part to conflate street cred and musical purity, or at least furthers a relatively narrow conception of “real hip-hop.”
Freddie Gibbs is hellof good at rapping, yes, but SFJ’s appreciation of Gibbs’ album-oriented work versus mixtapes using other people’s beats, his “quick” and “clean” delivery, his lack of “sentimentality or exaggeration” and his refraining from “bloated expansion and leveraging of fantasies,” and “a love of accumulation” bespeaks a narrow set of expectations of what rap should be that doesn’t seem to be willing to accept what it often is and rings of the same old romantic, rockist-cum-hip-hop-“purist,” “What’s up with all that Bling-Bling, am I right?” party line echoed by old (often white) music journalists.
Rapping on other people’s beats doesn’t have to be seen as less valid art, it can be seen as part of the tradition. Interstitial material, skits and even songs that are obviously recorded as filler do not have to be seen as less valid art but can be seen as part of the tradition (often enough, “filler” and skits contain truly avant-garde and surreal moments). The rampant materialism, and explicit consumption present in the lyrics and imagery of a lot of rap, as problematic as it can be, is a complicated issue that goes beyond the music, and is not so simple as to be solved with a stern fatherly rebuke or even a championing of more humble rap.
I could go on, but I’ll just leave the rest to Himanshu Suri, who has prepared 24 haikus in rebuttal…
1 Hip-hop dies each year. How many lives hip-hop got? Is hip-hop a cat?
2 This ain’t reverting back to your mom’s disco dog. Technology.
3 Elder statesmen! Dads! Turn down that autotune, son! Your jeans are skinny!
4 “Improbably weird?” Only if you’re looking in from the outside though.
5 Nah Right never called hip-hop “improbably weird”. Thanks so much, Nah Right.
6 Jay-z’s Blueprint 3 Is just as weird as Weezy. “Hater” is real weird!
7 Where near Jay’s old hood does Sasha Frere Jones reside? He cough up a lung?
8 Don’t disagree with every thing he said but why so alarmist?!?!
9 Gucci just dropped four mixtapes. Sounds like hip-hop is alive and kicking.
10 Are you suggesting there are no new ideas left to rap about?
11 Freddie Gibbs is dope but so is Young Dro and like ten other rappers.
12 Has rock been dead for ages since it too builds on older ideas?
13 Rock seems alive to me. I saw a great band play last night at Glasslands.
14 Stop trying to kill rap. Matter of fact please let it rock. Go away.
15 8 Yahoo! answer pages all dedicated to the death of rap?
16 Timekeeper of pop? Who made you the time keeper of hip-hop, New Yorker?
17 This is how I feel when Anon. commenters talk rap on BK Veegz.
18 Don’t like when Pitchfork claims authority on rap. Don’t like when you do.
19 Leave hip-hop alone. What is this article ’bout? Define hip-hop please.
20 You’re great grandfather was Edgar Wallace. Mine was some broke brown subject.
21 Why did I think you were biracial for so long? Writer payola?
22 Hip-hop is not dead. Polka is dead. It died and is not coming back.
23 Electro-rap and Africa Bambaataa’s not that different man.
24 Bambaataa sampled Kraftwerk and that was back in 1982!!!
Main photo: Jackie Roman