Jun 28, 2008
WALL-E, WALE, and a furious love of everything.
I realize that the Presidents constituency of my readership is running dry, so I'll start with a relation to the current presidential race.

Drew Magary recently posted an entry on sports blog Deadspin about the human need to experience history. Drew says, and I quote:

"The main reason that I’m voting for Obama is because he offers something that McCain does not: an opportunity for me to “be a part” of a historic moment. It’s an inescapable fact for both candidates that a black man winning the White House would be a far a greater milestone in American History than if another oldass white guy were to keep the streak alive... There’s something immensely appealing to me about the prospect of living through that sort of moment. I was born in 1976. I have lived through exactly one seminal moment in American history, and that was 9/11. I would very much like something to counterbalance it."

Now, the political scholar in me isn't really any more interested in trying to convince you that you should or should not vote a certain way, as I've adopted the "campaigns don't matter" viewpoint from my limited life experience - or at least, national campaigns don't. If you'll forgive my brief indulgence into the kind of cliche that's infected the rhetoric of Obama supporters everywhere, I'm excited to vote for Obama because of the new kind of politics he promises - but not only that, that he'll be the first president where race doesn't matter, who has experience in the Chicago slums, who doesn't have the Vietnam war as the formative moment of his adolescence. I think Drew is a little bit off - the expectation isn't just that he'll be remembered as the first black president, but it's also a new political era (I believe one of the Schlesingers recently suggested that 1932-1968 was the era of Roosevelt, and 1968-2008 is the era of Reagan, and we're about to enter a new one). I think Drew sold himself a little short - history isn't so one dimensional - who really cares that JFK was the first Catholic president? It'll be a historic presidency, but not for such bland reasons.

I'm not saying this as an endorsement, as I don't want to nitpick over policy. Rather, I'd like to use this as a parallel to my own view of pop culture. When my parents ask me for my opinion on a movie, they usually don't get too much - they say that I just "like everything." And I do, really. There are very few movies that I've seen and disliked. Whether that's because I pick good movies to see or because I'm not picky, or even because the quality of film has just been high over the last few years - I really don't know. But part of my affection for film is that I genuinely want to look back and say "this film that I saw, just because I wanted to see it, is something that's going to be appreciated for generations. This is art. This is a classic." Now, I've applied that to lesser films (I don't know anyone who likes Hollywood Homicide as much as I do) but I've got a conscious thing going on, where I like to see these films and think that this kind of media is going to influence who I am, the things I appreciate, when I'm old and dying.

I saw WALL-E last night. Pixar films, as I've said to friends, are quite possibly the closest thing to high art this decade has accomplished. I don't mean ahhhht art, where there's a conscious effort for every single symbol and idea in the movie to be so deep (did anyone see Me and You and Everyone We Know? that movie sucked) but that these are friggin' classics with the highest level of quality imaginable. It's iconic, rapturous entertainment, and as far as I'm concerned that's enough qualification for high art as I'll need. But I love this idea of popular media as art, that culture is something that's being so unassailably formed and re-formed, that this is a part of who we are as citizens of the world in this era.

Pitchfork, the oft-maligned music website, recently reviewed the new record by Girl Talk (which, if you didn't know, is a raving success on every level). The opening paragraph was particularly telling of the two contradictory approaches to pop culture that people take:

"As I was finishing an interview with Gregg Gillis in July 2006, he casually mentioned his desire to see M. Night Shyamalan's just-released fantasy movie Lady in the Water. Given the film's wretched reviews-- a pitiful 24% on Rotten Tomatoes-- and the train-wreck hype surrounding it, I thought he was kidding. He wasn't; Gillis liked some of Shyamalan's other flicks, so he wanted to check this one out. Simple. And it's this omnivorous, pleasure-seeking attitude toward pop culture that defines his work as Girl Talk. (Luckily, his taste in music is superior to his taste in film.)"

On the one side, you have Greg Gillis, who is "omnivorous" and "pleasure-seeking," free to appreciate all the glee in pop culture, that everything's got some value, that we're forming a culture here that should be celebrated. On the other hand, you've got Pitchfork, who sneers that he's got better taste in music than in film. I'm pretty sure they completely bulldozed their point in an effort to be a culture snob with that last parenthetical remark.

There are really two ways to approach culture - there's celebration, and there's refinement. This is rarely a conscious effort, I think, but just the way we are. I know a lot of people who come out of a film to take apart the different elements - what they did and didn't like. That's fine! For me, for the large majority of media, I'm happy to really lie back and say that this is something that's going to influence me as an individual, I've been told a story that I'm going to remember. It works for proficient music of any genre, and it works for any engaging video games with some real thought put into them.

This isn't to say I'm undiscerning, or that I've got some kind of enlightened taste, but rather that the range of what I like is grand and I like to bask in my enjoyment, to really spend some time appreciating it. What's this all got to do with either of the focuses of my blog? I started with Presidents, sure, but this is a flimsy premise, you say. Fuck you, I say, I'm getting to it.

The current CD in my car is Wale's 100 Miles and Running, his 2007 mixtape. On it, he repurposes Justice's D.A.N.C.E., Dirty Harry by Gorillaz, Rehab by Amy Winehouse, and Smile by Lily Allen. He repurposes each of these superbly, bringing them fantastic new context and at the same time paying tribute to the artists that are just on the cusp of whatever genres they inhabit (that Wale is signed to Mark Ronson's label certainly doesn't hurt. Spoiler alert: my favorite MCs are signed to Allido records). Unique, modern songs that established themselves immediately as classics to whatever their demographic might be just because of their sheer incomparability. And hip hop music, for what it's worth, has always been a cultural time-capsule - not just because of its tendency to reference, but also because of its attachment to trend. What genre is more regionally and chronologically dependent than hip hop?

My cultural awareness is admittedly just hitting its stride, and I can't speak to earlier hip hop as well as I can speak to the present day. But the tradition of collaboration, of repurposing, of improving has been such a positive one and makes hip hop the ideal art form for anyone who's an admirer of pop culture in general. The latest Wale mixtape is a tribute to Seinfeld - Seinfeld of all things. Rap, in general, is so well suited to the Wikipedia generation, ceaseless consumers of information and trivia that we are.

The last few decades have been notable as critics of American culture have criticized us for our materialism. But with the advent of the internet, especially, I think we're shifting toward informationalism. I spend a lot of my excess cash on books, movies, video games, and music. I love adding new things to my own repertoire. And I celebrate that. Rap has a unique opportunity to take part in that celebration, and I think that'll continue to be a key point of hip hop in the next few years. Mixtape culture, mashup culture, sampling, and even the hipster rap epidemic are going to help hip hop not be just any old genre, but another layer on the musical world that has an appreciation for just about everything. It's a good time to love hip hop.

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Jun 6, 2008
Hipster Hop
OK I had to pick up on this one. The Chicago Reader, which is the most terminally boring Chicago weekly paper for people who think they're smarter than you (sorry, StreetWise!) for some reason thinks that they should justify the "new media" by writing about what's happening on the blogs. Unfortunately, starting a flame war is usually the realm of xangas, not the fucking Chicago Reader. It should be obvious to all parties involved that because the original poster can't spell "Liberace" or "Douchebag" correctly, THERE AIN'T NO REASON YOU SHOULD EVEN BE GIVING A SHIT CHICAGO READER.

But fucking whatever. At least the Reader has Savage Love.

The flame war was about "Hipster Rap," which is a genre I have been referring to amongst friends as "Hipster Hop" because you know if you really think about it Hip Hop is a pretty stupid genre name anyhow and it's at least as clever as Hip Hopera, Beyonce. It points to the Cool Kids, Kid Sister, Kanye West, Lupe Fiasco, Kidz in the Hall, N.E.R.D., Lil Mama, and M.I.A. as prime examples of hipster hop, which the dude apparently categorizes as stylistically douchey hipsters.

Now, I'd describe myself as a fan of most of the aforementioned acts. I don't think M.I.A. counts, because she's from overseas and they're fucking classy or something, and Lil Mama falls more into the Avril Lavigney camp, a little too poppy to be necessarily hip. The rest are pretty good examples of the genre, and indeed, as the reader says, it lacks the "scary black people." No, this genre is full of black people who might be in your theater group, or your workplace. These black people are gentrified.

Nevermind that N.W.A. sold mostly to angry white teenagers in the suburbs.

I've always been disappointed at how many of my peers just dismiss hip hop in one fell swoop - a good friend dismissed R. Kelly - R. Friggin Kelly - as "talking fast." Another only listened to Kanye, because the rest of rap was just "misogyny," obviously taking the Hillary Clinton approach to rap. Look, I don't expect my dad to get it, but seriously, I've known some fairly hip individuals who don't know what they're missing.

Hipster hop tends to appeal to hipsters, as its name suggests. Or indie kids, or anyone who fancies themselves a music enthusiast. Your friend from high school who turned you onto some really good music before you realized she was a huge bitch? That's her. Just about anyone that goes to Columbia College? That's them too. They've got a cutting-edge taste in music that probably syncs fairly well with whatever Pitchfork thinks is hot. There's nothing wrong with that. But their interest in rap doesn't extend beyond these particularly hip acts.

Can it really just be that these acts are fashion-savvy, have a sense of style that is half the appeal? That it's more acceptable to love Kanye's teenager-like introspection, Lupe's affinity for skateboarding or Kid Sister's songs about painting her nails than Common's oldness, De La Soul's outcast sensibilities or ODB's eccentricities? Is that really so important? I mean, shit, De La sampled Schoolhouse Rock, that should at the very least buy them some hipster cred.

Maybe it's just that these are the new class, that all the old guys are, understandably, old. But show me a hipster without a 90s alt-rock band as their first true love, without Radiohead or Weezer at the top of their last.fm charts, and I'll show you a poseur. I'll admit - hip hop in general moves a lot faster, I think, and so it might seem a little more dated. It's a little more subject to trends, a little more of-the-moment. But a classic beat is a classic beat.

Digable Planets were the original "hipsters" of rap - back when it meant "jazz hipsters," like people who smoke cigarettes at jazz clubs. And now the term has taken on a whole different meaning, and Digable Planets are only good for a nostalgia act. Jazz Rap ended up being a flash in the pan - the era of Tribe and De La is long passed (though who the fuck is seeing them at Rock the Bells this summer? I am!). I won't say that it's because hip hop is a young man's game - it is, but if you can find an act that got subsequently higher scores for each album on Pitchfork, you're a ridiculous enthusiast.

Just like someone classy might altogether reject such testosterone-fueled cultural emptiness like the WWF, so is the 90s as an era in hip hop, known more for P. Diddy's extravagant videos and Tupac and Biggie getting shot. It's extravagance, sex, drugs, violence, all the bad things that appeal to the "lower classes," the dumb stuff. There's a lot of gold in there, though - Illmatic (fact: Nas wrote Illmatic when he was younger than I am. I'm past my prime!), Ready 2 Die, AmeriKKKa's Most Wanted. There's a lot of nihilism and a lot of it is kind of a bummer if you're used to The Pipettes.

A lot of it is that black people are scary. The 80s are a generation ago, and the 90s are more renowned for gangsta rap and Will Smith. Who really wants to venture that far? There was a festival down in Washington Park last year that featured Rhymefest as headliner. I was going to go, but I decided, in the end, that I didn't know the neighborhood and would be coming home probably around midnight, and was a bit too nervous to really hit the show. Sounds like I wasn't the only one - a friend told me the show was deserted.

Some of it's gotta be white guilt, though. Sure, a lot of hip hop is a bummer, but it's not that universal bummer, like this girl dumped me and my heart is broken. It's "Life's a bitch, and then you die, that's why we get high, cause you never know when you're gonna go." It's that existential nothingness.

In the end, I say that it's half the "world music" phenomenon, where it's so different and foreign that you never really like it but you pretend to like it so that you seem cultured. But the other half is that rap still has such a crass stigma that you'll impress no one by listening to it. That's where hipster hop has succeeded with white folks - it doesn't have that stigma, you can play it for someone and they'll instantly be able to latch on. "This song about cosmetics is so pleasant and non-offensive! I can listen to this!" It's new, it's quality, it's safe, what else could a white person ask for?

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