25.3.08

Hip-Hop is Dead

The landscape of music history is littered with the death knells of critics who proclaim the end of a genre as an old guard fades from relevance. As Homer Simpson said, when he decried Bart and Lisa’s obsession with rock bands like Sonic Youth and The Smashing Pumpkins, “What’s with these new bands? Everyone knows rock attained perfection in 1974, it’s a scientific fact!”

So I’m not here to tell you, “Hip-Hop is Dead.”

Instead, I will work with the postmodern concept of double-coding to explain the dynamic of the hip-hop audience and will then explore the birth of the hip-hop nation in one of its most hallowed of high codes embedded in the cocaine, guns, and blood of Brian DePalma’s Scarface. Finally, I will explain how, by declaring his music dead, Nas actually carved a new space in which it can live.

But before we go forward, we’re going to need to go back. Before I get into this discussion of the dynamic of the hip-hop audience I want to provide some historical context by discussing where Nas grew up.

Nas, born Nasir Jones, grew up in the Queensbridge Projects, located in Long Island City, New York in Queens. Construction on the projects was completed in 1939 and when World War II came to a close, the government built projects were expected to provide temporary residence for returning troops and their families. But during the 1950’s all families who lived in Queensbridge and made more than $3000 per year were transferred to middle-income projects. Most of the families moved were Caucasian and by the 1960’s Queensbridge was populated almost entirely by lower-class blacks and Latinos.

Today 15,000 people are permanently crammed into the buildings that were intended for only temporary residence. Queensbridge is the largest public housing development in the United States. It offers 3,142 rentable units. In 1986, when Nas was 13, there were more murders in Queensbridge than any other NYC project. In April of 1994, Nas released his first album, Illmatic, at the age of 23.

This is what one hip-hop critic wrote about Illmatic: “Nas is a genius introvert who rose out of the rubble of Reaganomics… His narration glorifies the emergent poetic self as a creative state that is potentially attainable by any ghetto child… his narrative voice swerves between personas that are cynical and optimistic, na├»ve and world-weary, enraged and serene, globally conscious and provincial. Throughout Illmatic, listeners are implored to embrace his hardened upbringing as an imperative to move on to bigger and better things.” Today, Illmatic is one of the few albums on every knowledgeable critics top five list.

Nas poured his life into the album. In an interview with Vibe Magazine, this is how Nas described the feeling of looking back on Illmatic ten years on: “When me and my friend listen to Illmatic, we think about America and about how we had to live at such a young age. I was just barely 18, and I was already thinking about being retired because of the life you’re forced to live in a neighborhood like Queensbridge. I saw my best friend die before my eyes. I saw my little brother being shot up… And I’m starting to realize my mom can’t spoil me no more, I gotta go out and get my own. Becoming a man is what I learned. And I put that into my music. And when I listen to it now, I say, God… How can it be that this is what my reality was?”

Nas’ music was motivated and informed by a desire to improve his life and escape the violence and insecurity of the projects. He did so by rapping about what he knew. Take, for instance, these lyrics from the title track on Nas’ latest album, "Hip-Hop is Dead": "What influenced my raps? Stick-ups and killings / Kidnappings, project buildings, drug dealings."

Who doesn’t follow the advice “write what you know”? This progression, however, in which you live in the projects, want to escape the projects, rap about what you see and experience, and finally make money and achieve the goal of leaving the projects results in a bizarre sort of irony: The trail that Nas, Notorious B.I.G., Tupac, Schooly D and countless others blazed, required an experience of violence and the projects and subsequent exposition on these experiences in order to escape those conditions through the medium of hip-hop.

There are rappers who are exceptions to this and are commercially successful, perhaps De La Soul and Kanye West are the most significant, but they are the exceptions to what has become the rule.

Today Nas looks back and acknowledges that he was a part of creating this path: “Everybody’s album is a street album today." He told Vibe Magazine. "But back then you had no manual to learn how to make an Illmatic… this wasn’t even about necessarily being a nice rapper. It was [about] being able to describe my life and the life that kids were living in America at that day and age. There was no script for that. Now, everybody knows how to go in there and make a Ready to Die or Life After Death or make a fake Makaveli album. Illmatic… was raw, out of the heart. Out of life.”

This progression from violent projects upbringing to hip-hop fame and riches is so well worn and well known that it's ingrained itself into other contemporary American cultural products. There's a pretty great subplot in The Sopranos season four episode "The Fleshy Part of the Thigh" that deals with the way to success in contemporary hip-hop and puts it into perspective.

Tony's in the hospital for a gunshot wound and he's in a room next to a rapper named "Da Lux" who's been shot multiple times. One of Da Lux's crew members, named Marvin, complains to one of Tony's guys, Bobby, that Da Lux will now be a hugely popular rapper because he’s been shot and Marvin bemoans the fact that he's never been shot himself. So Marvin and Bobby strike a deal and Bobby shoots Marvin in the "fleshy part of the thigh" in the hopes of upping Marvin's street-cred and jump-starting his career as a rapper. It'd be easier to laugh at if it wasn't so close to real life.

Now this is only one half of the equation – how a contemporary rapper may come to be successful and escape his or her “Queensbridge” through the trail blazed by Nas and others. But now I want to offer a theory of the dynamic of the hip-hop audience and its music – the second half of this equation.

There is a so-called “fact” that has infected discussions of hip-hop’s audience for some years now. This “fact” is that 80% of hip-hop’s audience is made up of suburban white kids. But, as Bakari Kitwana points out in his recent book, Why White Kids Love Hip-Hop, no one really knows where this fact came from – it just sort of popped up and took on a life of its own. Indeed, a large portion of hip-hop’s audience is white – in the early 1990’s Public Enemy front-man and hip-hop legend, Chuck D, estimated that 60% of his audience was white. And that’s probably closer to the actual number.

But the number is under serious dispute. What is clear is that hip-hop has the ability to speak to audiences with very different backgrounds. And, in the United States, there are at least two large sects of hip-hop listeners with major differences in their backgrounds.

So how does the music speak to these very different groups?

Charles Jencks coined the term “double-coding” in reference to postmodern architecture but the concept of double-coding works well to understand the dynamics of hip-hop’s audience as well.

Jencks, in The Language of Post-Modern Architecture and What is Post-Modernism?, explains that double-coding in postmodern architecture, “speaks on at least two levels at once: to other architects and a concerned minority who care about specifically architectural meanings, and to the public at large, or the local inhabitants, who care about other issues concerned with comfort, traditional building and a way of life. The post-modern building or work of art addresses simultaneously a minority, elite public, using ‘high’ codes, and a mass public using popular codes.”

Similarly, the hip-hop track offers different codes that are appreciated by different audiences.

In terms of double coding we have several possibilities of listeners. Umberto Eco in his book, On Literature, offers these three possibilities for readers of a double-coded text which describes fairly well the possibilities for types of hip-hop listeners if we just substitute “listener” where Eco uses “reader”:

“When we come to double coding, we can have: (i) a [listener] who does not accept the mixture of cultured and popular styles and contents, and who therefore refuses to [listen to] it, precisely because he recognizes this mixture; (ii) a [listener] who feels at home precisely because he enjoys this process of alternating between difficulty and approachability, challenge and encouragement; and lastly (iii) a [listener] who perceives the entire [track] as a pleasant invitation and does not in the end realize the extent to which it draws on elite styles (so he enjoys the work, but misses its references).”

Now I want to apply this to an actual hip-hop track. Consider Notorious B.I.G.’s “Juicy.”


“Juicy” appeared in 1994 on Notorious B.I.G.’s first album “Ready to Die.” The album went quadruple platinum and the single “Juicy” went Gold. “Ready to Die” is ranked at 133 in Rolling Stones’ list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time – those statistics certainly suggest mass popularity and therefore the presence of popular codes but I want to show the high codes that are present here, too.

So, take these lyrics from the first verse of “Juicy.”

It was all a dream
I used to read Word Up magazine
Salt'n'Pepa and Heavy D up in the limousine
Hangin' pictures on my wall
Every Saturday Rap Attack, Mr. Magic, Marley Marl
I let my tape rock 'til my tape popped
Smokin' weed and bamboo, sippin' on private stock
Way back, when I had the red and black lumberjack
With the hat to match
Remember Rappin' Duke, duh-ha, duh-ha
You never thought that hip hop would take it this far
Now I'm in the limelight 'cause I rhyme tight
Time to get paid, blow up like the World Trade
Born sinner, the opposite of a winner
Remember when I used to eat sardines for dinner
Peace to Ron G, Brucey B, Kid Capri
Funkmaster Flex, Lovebug Starsky
I'm blowin' up like you thought I would
Call the crib, same number same hood
It's all good

These lyrics ask something that the production of “Juicy” doesn’t. “Juicy” samples the Mtume track “Juicy Fruit” for its production and it’s a very listenable track – one described in the hip-hop magazine, XXL, as “radio friendly… in contrast to the grim depiction of urban hopelessness told in one of the most immediate voices the form has ever known,” that characterizes most of the rest of the album.

But while the production, the beat, may be a popular code there are high codes here, too. To understand the high codes of these lyrics requires a fairly extensive understanding of the origins of hip-hop: DJ’s like Kid Capri, Funkmaster Flex… Rappin Duke who was releasing albums in the mid-80’s… and the reference to Mr. Magic’s Friday and Saturday evening radio show on WBLS-FM in New York City, “The Rap Attack,” which aired in the late-80’s with legendary DJ Marley Marl. These are all references to hip-hop’s adolescence – not widely known outside the black community of New York City at the time. But what’s more these are codes that are directed at, as Jencks requires of high codes, “a concerned minority that are specifically concerned with [hip-hop related] meanings.”

So “Juicy,” therefore, is a track that offers room for Umberto Eco’s second and third types of “readers”: Those who can speak and understand this language of Biggie’s and feel at home in this song’s lyrics and its beat, and those who let the lyrics pass over them but enjoy, perhaps, the lyricism of the words and the beat if not their meaning – “He enjoys the work but misses its references,” as Eco wrote.

I mentioned earlier that part of this project is to try to reach an understanding of what makes or made hip-hop “alive” to begin with. So, now that we have a way of understanding different types of hip-hop listeners, I want to turn to a specific high code that is pervasive, almost omnipresent, in hip-hop. It is a high code that Nas helped make famous and it has a history much deeper and older than hip-hop and in it are, I believe, the seeds that made hip-hop grow – what brought it to life.
In the 1983 film Scarface there is a climactic moment when Al Pacino’s Tony Montana stands in the art-deco living room of his coke baron boss, who he has just murdered, and looks out onto Miami Bay. Giorgio Moroder’s synthesizer tune pulses and a Pan-Am blimp floats above the bay flashing a marketing slogan: “The world is yours.”
“The world is yours” is the tagline of the dramatic story of Tony Montana’s rise and fall. One that piqued the passions of millions of disenfranchised urban youths looking for social mobility and a way to assert themselves and escape a repressive milieu.

Those four words, “the world is yours,” and the Scarface story as a whole, left a profound mark on the adolescent hip-hop nation and I think the birth of the contemporary hip-hop moment can be traced back to Tony Montana standing in that living room. It’s hard to name a rapper over the past 20 years who doesn’t in some way allude to either Scarface the film or those four words specifically. More over, the sort of litmus test, I think, to see if a hip-hop fan is Eco’s type-two listener, one who understands and engages the music’s high codes, that litmus test is whether they understand and can discuss the significance of Scarface and specifically that line “the world is yours.” These are the sort of keepers of hip-hop’s birth, those that keep the genre vital and relevant. Without them hip-hop has a foundation of air.

But if we’re only looking back to Scarface, for the significance of the line “The world is yours” in hip-hop history, then we’re missing a big part of its history that is critical to understanding the birth of contemporary hip-hop. For this, we need to go back to the British Empire.

In 1910, fifteen years after a disastrous and failed British invasion of Johannesburg led by Sir Leander Starr Jameson and Cecil Rhodes, Rudyard Kipling wrote a poem called “If –” that commemorated what Kipling saw as Jameson’s fortitude in overcoming the difficulties of the invasion.

“If –”is a poem about the traits that make the strong, imperial, British man. “If you can keep your head when all about you/ Are losing theirs and blaming it on you/ If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you/ But make allowance for their doubting too,” the poem begins. The poem progresses in this tone, laying out conditions until the last two lines of the poem which are: “Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it/ And – which is more – you’ll be a Man, my son!” The words bear a striking resemblance to Scarface’s “the world is yours” philosophically as well as literally.

Was Oliver Stone reading Kipling when he wrote the screenplay for Scarface? In a sense that question is more interesting than it is relevant. In fact, “the world is yours,” appears on a billboard in the 1932 version of Scarface as well as the contemporary one so perhaps it was the first writers of Scarface that nicked Kipling’s words or were inspired by them. However it is definitely the second incarnation of Scarface which made the line “the world is yours” famous for the hip hop generation.

Kipling was a conscience for his nation’s imperialism; he celebrated and criticized it. But while Kipling’s characters come from Britain, an imperial power, and colonize outwards, and this is why the line is so significant, Scarface is a story of reverse colonization.

Though it is simplistic and wrong to understand Kipling as a one-dimensional imperialist, this particular poem certainly does champion the imperial spirit of the late 19th century British male. The poem is a celebration of the man who shoulders the White Man’s Burden – to “civilize” the “uncivilized.” But Tony Montana flips that around.

Montana seeks vengeance for the colonized. In a famed speech, drunk and high at a fancy Miami restaurant, and awash in cash, Montana tears his table apart and jumps to his feet. “You don’t have the guts to be what you wanna be,” he shouts to the diners. “You need people like me. You need people like me so you can point your fucking fingers, and say ‘that’s the bad guy.’” Affluent white faces surround Montana during the speech. Montana taunts them and says he has succeeded where they have failed.

When Montana says “you need people like me so you can point your fucking fingers, and say ‘that’s the bad guy,’” he strikes chords that should remind us of the imperialism of Kipling’s poem. Without the “uncivilized,” which Montana represents, the “civilized” would not be able to define themselves. It is only when Western society confronted the “other” that notions of superiority based on civilization and race could come into play. The one is defined in opposition to the other. Montana pays homage to that dynamic and, at the same time, carves out his own space as one branded as “uncivilized” who comes to America and creates an empire within an empire, turning the imperialist agenda on its head.

Like Montana, rappers are defined as the “other” in relation to, in this case, “civilized,” white, bourgeois America. Just as Montana created his own identity through the role of the “other” so, too, did hip-hop. When Nas, in 1994 escaped Queensbridge and found a massive niche in the capitalist market that would gobble up his storytelling he declared “The world is yours.” His declaration was the creation of hip-hop’s nation, it’s identity. He celebrated the national identity he and others had created for young, black, urban-American youth. He celebrated that hip-hop had turned the tools of the colonizer against it and created its own empire.

Today, though, Nas has this to say about the nation he helped found: “Everybody’s like microwave music now, know what I mean, ‘cause it’s the way to eat. When I was doing this early on, [I did Hip-Hop] because I loved it. Now, they’re not artists, they’re opportunists. So it’s just a way to eat now. And that’s cool. But then of course, the music is gonna suffer.”

And it has. The result of this microwave music has been the starvation of those high codes and the first fractures seen in decades amongst the core street audience and the type-two listeners who engage the high codes of the music.

Though record sales, of course, should not be the sole indication of a music’s health they are useful in the case of hip-hop because the music has, traditionally, so warmly embraced its commercial appeal where other music forms, such as rock, have traditionally rejected it. “Selling out,” until right now, has never really been an issue for rappers. This year it came out that hip-hop sales declined twenty-one percent from 2005 to 2006 and for the first time in twelve years, no hip-hop album was among the ten best sellers of the year.

So now we need to turn to Nas’ new album and specifically the title track: Hip-Hop is Dead. Keep this quote in mind during the video. Nas was asked in an interview, when Hip-Hop is Dead came out, what kind of music he was making if not hip-hop. Nas answered, “I dunno what it is. Some shit right. Crack music. It’s fucked up.” That term, “crack music,” is an important one.

"Hip-Hop is Dead" Video

Nas smothers this video in the imagery of crack houses and dealing crack. But instead of vials of crack cocaine we see Nas’ albums “The N” and flash-drives marked with “The N.” But the imagery is clearly that of the crack industry.

By declaring hip-hop outlawed and dead, Nas allows for the music that he is making to take on a new name. He gives his music a new domain: Crack Music.

This is music no longer sanctioned by the mainstream that hip-hop embraced. This is music that is dusted with one of the most culturally unacceptable and destructive drugs: crack cocaine. Here Nas is making explicit that which was tacit for so long – that the music he helped make mainstream has gone too far, that rappers need to push back on the audience dynamic they have ignored for so long. This is a conservative movement in hip-hop. Rappers like Nas say the music needs to get back to the no-exit desperation that first made the music passionate and a voice for the members of Queensbridges of the country and the world – those with whom, according to Nas, the music no longer connects.

Nas is courting those type-two listeners in the lyrics of Hip-Hop is Dead by rapping about where hip-hop was and where it is now and how it got there. “Everybody sound the same / commercialize the game / reminiscin’ when it wasn’t all business / and forgot where it started / so we all gather here for the dearly departed.” These lines are his invitation to those type-two listeners. He commiserates with them, understands their criticisms.

Other rappers have identified this same need. Kanye West, mentioned earlier as a rapper who hit the mainstream without the project-trappings of a rapper like Nas and yet is wildly commercially successful and well-respected amongst hip-hop purists, had a track on his 2005 album, Late Registration, called “Crack Music.”

In the track Kanye raps: “We took that shit, measured it and then cooked that shit / And what we gave back was crack music / And now we ooze it through they nooks and crannies / So our mommas ain’t got to be they cooks and nannies / And we gon’ repo everything they ever took from grammy / Now the former slaves trade hooks for Grammy’s / This dark diction has become America’s addiction / Those who ain’t even black use it / We gon’ keep baggin up this here crack music.”

It’s not hard to figure out who that unnamed “they” is in Kanye’s lines. He’s referring to the predominately white base that makes up his audience and to white America in general. Some rappers are now turning their music on the predominantly white commercial base they once more or less ignored or did not address in their music but from whom they reaped financial windfall.

Whether or not hip-hop is dead is debatable. What that even means is debatable. But I think where people like Nas and Kanye go, the genre should follow – these are the sages of hip-hop. The questions we’re left with, then, are; will this stuff, “Crack Music,” succeed in revitalizing hip-hop’s base and pushing away the commercial embrace? Will it fracture out of hip-hop and create a new sub-genre? Can Nas and Kanye redirect the bulk of hip-hop’s artists? For that, we simply have to wait and see.

This essay has explored Nas, the birth, death, resurrection of hip-hop, the dynamic of its audience. But I should discuss me, for a second here, too, because I’ve always been, when it comes to hip-hop, hanging out at a party I wasn’t exactly invited to. I didn’t grow up in the South Bronx, and I get lumped into that suburban white kid statistic pretty nicely.

In the last track on the album “Hip Hop is Dead,” in its last verse, Nas says: “If you’re askin’ – Why is hip-hop dead? / It’s a pretty good chance you’re the reason it died, man / It’s a pretty good chance your lame ass, corny ass, is the reason it died, man / You don’t give a fuck about it, you don’t know nothin’ about it.”

Now, Nas kind of hands off a lot of blame here where I think he and his peers deserve some too because they were at least complicit in the death that Nas is talking about – they turned a blind eye and accepted gobs of money from the people he’s accusing of killing hip-hop in that quote. But that doesn’t mean that I am free of culpability here. I do think, although I wouldn’t quite characterize myself as a lame ass, that I am part of the dynamic that Nas believes killed hip-hop.
And I understand where he’s coming from when he says if you ask why hip-hop is dead, you’re the reason it died. I think he’s saying if you’re the kind of person who had no idea anything was wrong and this corpse of hip-hop is a big shock, then you probably haven’t paying attention and you’re not too up on the high codes of hip-hop.

But I also think his statement is misleading. Because I think someone like me has to ask that question and try to answer it. That’s why it’s so crucial to do write things like this if you’re a fan of hip-hop – I think if a kid like me is going to listen to this music you can’t do so passively you need to understand and earn your place, you need to understand your context, otherwise you’re exactly what Nas said – a lame ass, corny ass, asking why hip-hop died.

No comments: