9 September 2010

Express Yourself

  • Thomas Chatterton Williams. Losing My Cool: How a Father’s Love and 15,000 Books Beat Hip-Hop Culture. Penguin Press. April 2010.

The most controversial rap song in history, unfortunately, is not actually a rap song. “Cop Killer” was released in March 1992, one year after Rodney King’s beating and one month before the riots that followed his attackers’ acquittal. It included the lyric—sung, not spoken—“Cop killer / Fuck police brutality!” and was condemned by Tipper Gore in a Washington Post op-ed called “Hate, rape, and rap.” And still, it isn’t rap. Body Count was a heavy metal group (thrash if you want to be picky about it), with two guitarists, a bass player, and drums. “Cop Killer” was discussed as a product of hip-hop only by virtue of the fact that the group’s lead singer, Tracy Marrow, spent most of his time rapping under the name Ice-T.

If “hip-hop” worked like other terms that designate musical genres—country, pop, house, disco—“Cop Killer” could never have been turned into a rap song. But that’s not how hip-hop works. Throughout the 1990s, critics and journalists semi-consciously adapted their thinking to the growing consensus that “hip-hop” referred not only to a genre of music, but also to something more general and abstract: “black people.” This is different, of course, from actual black people. The reason “Cop Killer” became a rap song is because its subject matter, police brutality, was one of the problems that we ascribe to “black people.” Having problems is one of the primary features of “black people.” For twenty years, all sides of the discourse surrounding hip-hop have been warped by the question, “Is hip-hop one of those problems?”

But this question is a false one. Hip-hop is a music before it is a sociological lens, an urban newscast, an adolescent fantasy, or anything else, and it should be discussed as such, even when—especially when—the subject is the music’s relationship to its listeners. Thomas Chatterton Williams’s new memoir, Losing My Cool: How a Father’s Love and 15,000 Books Beat Hip-Hop Culture, is compelling and sometimes beautifully written, and also more honest than many defenses of hip-hop about how the consumption of pop culture actually works in daily life. But, like so much other hip-hop writing, it is ultimately a victim of The Question. The problem, plainly stated, is this: Williams thinks hip-hop is fundamentally a mindset or an attitude that just happened to get into the world as a set of sonic practices. But he is wrong. Hip-hop is the opposite.


Williams was born in 1981, and grew up comfortably middle-class in a suburb of Newark. His mother is white. His father is black, which is how Williams, largely out of necessity, also thought of himself growing up: “Around white kids, I simply was not white.” In this sense, Williams is almost a personification of hip-hop itself—a music that, at least in the ’90s, thought of itself as fully black despite significant contributions from whites, like some 70 percent of record sales.

Williams spent his early adolescence at a nearly all-white middle school, and learned one half of the importance of making his blackness credible. Of his white peers, he writes, “They entered into our little social contract ready to enable my street fantasies and to cede me the physical sphere entirely. My classmates took for granted that I would beat them in the hundred-yard dash . . . . The idea that I couldn’t dance was met with incredulity.” White kids, in other words, were prepared to provide all kinds of social carrots for a black kid who mirrored (or at least did not actively challenge) the racial stereotypes described in popular culture. Later, at an all-black high school, Williams found out who wielded the social sticks. “Hip-hop style and culture governed everything at Union Catholic,” he writes, “same as it did on the playground and in the barbershop.” Meanwhile, Williams’s father—the one with the 15,000 books—spent nights running his sons through vocabulary lists, logic, and math. The passages that discuss his father’s desperate efforts to educate himself in a violently segregated American South are some of the book’s best. It is moving to see Williams realize that, for all the discrimination that continues to operate in the US, his father’s early life demanded a kind of “forced poise no 22-year-old I know will ever need to muster.” This mentoring and study, rooted in memories of a time when self-improvement was discouraged with ropes and guns, eventually led Williams to Georgetown, and philosophy, and disillusionment with what he describes as hip-hop’s “smallness of mind.”

This is where hip-hop fans will begin to take offense, so it is worth outlining exactly the kind of hip-hop that Williams is talking about. Williams started listening to rap just as rap was learning to make serious money. The musicians who served as the distant arbiters of social life at Union Catholic—Jay-Z, the Notorious B.I.G., Trick Daddy, the Junior Mafia—are emblematic of the genre at the peak of its cultural and economic power. Their lyrics are violent, of course, but charismatic, too, and almost never frightening—their music is a kind of corporatized gangsta rap, streamlined and polished for easy consumption and the broadest possible appeal. Some people will read Losing My Cool and think that Williams has unfairly skewed his portrait of the genre by ignoring rappers who tackled different subjects, or whose lyrical rhythms were dense and enigmatic, or whose beats were influenced by jazz. Where are the Roots? Black Star? Dead Prez? Where is Afrocentricity? Where is the avant-gardism of RAMMΣLLZΣΣ, Jean-Michel Basquiat, and “Beat Bop”? Well, that is just the point: they are nowhere. These rappers, Williams says, may as well not have existed at all in his neighborhood. He remembers a friend who called them all “Starbucks niggas.”

In a review of the book’s title and press release—because reading a 220-page book with a large font and generous margins could have taken up two, maybe even three hours—Village Voice blogger Zach Baron wrote, with great indignation, that “you pretty much have to live in a dingy, isolated cave” to believe that hip-hop’s values are restricted to “Money, Cash, Hoes,” as the Jay-Z song has it. But Williams’s point is that most rap fans do believe that about hip-hop, and in any case, it really does take a special kind of mental gymnastics to convince yourself that the genre isn’t completely obsessed with wealth and crime. Baron’s reflexive, willful blindness to these pervasive characteristics of the genre seems inexplicable unless you remember that “hip-hop” usually has a secret referent. It may be OK to describe actual rappers as obsessed with money, but “black people”? Surely that’s an idea worth taking down, even if the book hasn’t actually come out yet.


Today, because of all the money they made, Jay-Z and Biggie are who most people talk about when they talk about hip-hop. But they were not inevitable when Bronx DJs invented the music in the late ’70s, nor was the idea that hip-hop constituted some kind of social problem. The worst that most people said of the genre in its early stages was that it might be too much of a fad to spark meaningful political action, or that its dependence on sampled bits of recorded music made it something less than a truly original form (older jazz musicians were particularly incensed on this count). It is useful to remember that in 1985, New York City Mayor Ed Koch issued the following proclamation:

PROCLAMATION – Rap music, which started on the streets and in the parks of New York city, has had a positive influence on the tastes and aspirations of today’s youth.

Through the rap music industry the youth of today can identify with the example of successful and supportive celebrities, and be encouraged to dedicate their own time and talent to self development and service to their communities.

Now, therefore, I, Edward I. Koch, Mayor of the City of New York, do hereby proclaim May 3, 1985 to be “RAP MUSIC DAY” in New York City.

In witness whereof I have hereunto set my hand and caused the seal of the city of New York to be affixed.

Today, rap may have returned to the good graces of City Hall (witness Jay-Z’s Gracie Mansion breakfasts with Michael Bloomberg), but in the 1990s Mayor Koch’s proclamation would have read like an artifact from a lost world. Just five years after New York celebrated Rap Music Day, Newsweek published a disgusting cover story titled “The Rap Attitude,” in which the pundit Jerry Adler wrote, “A new musical culture, filled with self-assertion and anger, has come boiling up from the streets. Some people think it should have stayed there.” Adler’s piece reached such a hysterical pitch that he eventually lumped in the hard rock group Guns N’ Roses, on the grounds that like Public Enemy, their lyrics also insulted minority groups. Dozens of music journalists wrote to Newsweek in protest, but of course this did little to reverse the growing public consensus that hip-hop constituted a social threat.

In his own way, therefore, Thomas Chatterton Williams is trying to add fuel to a 20-year-old fire, one that, outside of Fox News talk shows and scattered PTA meetings, has largely gone out. (Actually, come to think of it, when is the last time any kind of pop music provoked any kind of an outcry?) Williams is welcome to do it, of course, but it is unnerving to read Losing My Cool and get the impression that he doesn’t seem to know what ignited everything in the first place. Jerry Adler, Tipper Gore, and Republicans running for reelection were obviously riffing on the usual fears about black men, but they were also responding specifically to what was happening in Los Angeles, the cradle of gangsta rap and the site of the country’s last major race riot.

Two things happened in early ’90s Los Angeles that determined both hip-hop’s future and many writers’ way of writing about it. The first was Dr. Dre’s realization, on his debut album The Chronic, that a friendlier kind of gangsta rap could make a lot of money—that gangsterism rendered in the abstract, as a particular style, could appeal more broadly than gangsterism as sets of body counts and incarceration rates. Whatever his lyrical exaggerations, Ice-T was not stretching the truth when he called “Cop Killer” a protest song. Dre, though, ignored politics, and instead tapped into what historian Jeff Chang has nicely described as “the proximity of the LA hoods to the heart of the most advanced culture industry in the world.” So, in “Nuthin’ But A G Thang,” Snoop Dogg rapped, “Fallin’ back on that ass, with a hellified gangsta lean / Getting’ funky on the mic like a ol’ batch of collard greens.” This music is called cinematic for a reason. There is an upsetting scene in Losing My Cool, once Williams has just gone off to Georgetown, where out of nowhere he sprays down a pretty, upper-middle class black woman named Ashely with a water gun. “Maybe it was the hot sun glaring in my eyes,” he writes. “I don’t know.” But you do know! I thought. I opened up my laptop, brought up the “Nuthin’ But A G Thang” video on Youtube, and watched two guys dump malt liquor on some conceited bitch at a barbecue.

Culture, on its own, does not “cause” people to do mean, illegal, or stupid things. That is the Jerry Adler argument, and it is simplistic and clumsy. However, it is just as simplistic to argue that culture is merely an effect or by-product of economic and social circumstances, as many of hip-hop’s defenders have done over the last two decades. (“We’re like underground reporters,” Eazy E said over and over.) What culture—especially pop music—gives people—especially adolescents—is a way to situate themselves in a world they did not build and that they do not control. Throughout Losing My Cool, Williams describes hip-hop as the source of his fear and anger, but his argument becomes unpersuasive in the chapters that take place at Georgetown. Even after he’s decided to exchange rap for the academic life, Williams remains obsessed with social and intellectual status. In the book, the first thing he remembers about September 11th isn’t grief, confusion, or anger—it’s intellectual embarrassment. His friends are talking Fukuyama and Huntington, and he’s never heard of them before. When he writes, later on, that “you cannot ‘floss’ the fruits of intellectual labor,” you suspect he must know he’s being evasive. What else is publishing a book for? What else could make a Fukuyama reference so scary? In scenes like this, it becomes easy to wonder just how deep Williams’s transformation actually runs. Putting in a verse on a Beanie Seagel song in 2001, Jay-Z rapped: “I’m a status-tician.”

In a sense, the most remarkable thing about the 9/11 anecdote is that it’s even in the book at all. Surely Williams knows that’s an ugly reaction to be having to such a tragedy! Or maybe he doesn’t? Whatever the case, the greatest strength of Losing My Cool is its almost unbelievable honesty. In the book’s most shocking sequence, Williams discovers that his high-school girlfriend has been cheating on him. He takes her outside, into a little patch of woods near the school, and hits her across her cheek with the back of his hand. His father is called in, and says this to his son: “If you had spent years of your life trying to do something, son, trying to rear a thoroughbred, say . . . would you be able to just sit back and let your thoroughbred run around in the mud with a herd of mules and donkeys? I mean, it might get hurt doing that, right?” Now, the idea that it was Williams—the thoroughbred in the metaphor—who had just been hurt is strange to say the least, especially since it is the girlfriend—who has to be the donkey—who ended up in the nurse’s office. But it is possible to chalk that up to the usual parental belief that one’s child could only be induced to do wrong through the malign influence of others. What is strange is that Williams, from his perspective as a memoirist, does not challenge his father’s account. “I just stared,” he writes. “There was not much I could say.” The scene draws to a conclusion.

In later scenes, there’s evidence that Williams has adopted his father’s convictions about his superiority. On a visit back to his old neighborhood, he reflects on the lives of his high-school friends, condemning not only the convicts and drug users, but also those who simply didn’t leave, who didn’t abandon the horrors of a comfortable middle-class suburb for a place like Georgetown. They, he writes, “had drifted into lives of pure, unadulterated mediocrity.” This kind of arrogance would be infuriating if it were not so clearly shot through with insecurity, if it were not the obvious consequence of Williams’s insistence on always seeing himself as a piece of sociological evidence. But if hip-hop cannot be said to have maliciously transformed a soft-spoken kid into a super-soaker terrorist, then it also has to be said that hip-hop gave him a way to translate those moods and impulses into action. When he got angry at his girlfriend and went looking to his cultural signposts for guidance, his cultural signposts said: “We don’t love these hoes.” Williams is by no means the only person to have taken literal inspiration from his musical heroes. When the Village Voice, this summer, asked a few rappers to remember their least favorite jobs, Fat Joe said this:

I worked at Flavor Shoes, on Fordham Road in the Bronx  . . . I only worked there for two days. I told my moms I was going to change my life and be a good guy, but then I was watching the videos they was playing in the store and the Big Daddy Kane video where he’s shooting the pool, “Smooth Operator,” came on. I saw that, quit my job, and went to hustle, took it to the streets.

A graffiti writer named DOZE told Jeff Chang something similar. “A lot of us didn’t want to be drug dealers,” he said. “A lot of us did it by necessity  . . . But then a lot of them did want to be drug dealers.”

As it relates to hip-hop, the argument that culture can do more than just reflect social reality should be nothing more than common sense. What made it offensive to so many of rap’s defenders was the second thing that happened in Los Angeles: Rodney King. Part of what Williams sees as the problem with hip-hop is the hypocrisy of a millionaire NBA owner like Jay-Z telling his largely suburban fan base about what it’s like on the streets. That is a fair argument, but it would have been much harder to make in early-90s Los Angeles. As the onset of the postindustrial era closed more than 175 manufacturing plants in LA in the 1980s, unemployment for young people in neighborhoods like South Central sometimes went as high as 50 percent. There’s no denying the violence of the gangs that sprouted up to replace the vanishing jobs, but they also functioned as something like improvised community organizations. One thing that’s often forgotten about the riots is that they were immediately preceded by a city-wide truce among LA’s major gangs. On April 28, 1992, just one day before the Rodney King verdict came down, a mixed group of 250 Bloods and Crips petitioned the City Council for funding, thousands of dollars for jobs programs and neighborhood improvements. Before you reflexively think these plans unrealistic and grandiose, remember that these people had just made peace between the Crips and the Bloods—many unrealistic goals suddenly seemed plausible. They were encouraged to apply for a $500 grant, and that was that. This story is an almost perfect illustration of the extent to which city governments throughout the country, through a combination of legislative neglect and brutally punitive law enforcement, had abandoned inner city neighborhoods in the 1980s. When Rodney King’s jury delivered their verdict at three-fifteen in the afternoon, a few gang members suggested a peaceful protest, but this quickly gave way to indiscriminate rage and anger. When five men smashed bottles of malt liquor over the head of a Korean-American liquor store employee, they shouted, “This is for Rodney King!”

The riots lasted for three days. By the time the National Guard had managed to restore order, 53 people were dead, more than 2,000 people were wounded, and something like $1 billion in property damages had been inflicted on neighborhoods that were already in states of official neglect. Like George Holliday’s home video of King’s beating, the fires and assaults were continuously broadcast around the country. In the riots’ wake, as almost every state made their juvenile crime statues more punitive, Dr. Dre’s The Chronic set the template for almost everyone that Thomas Chatterton Williams grew up listening to. Today, there are actually very few books about the country’s last major race riot, and certainly nothing like a standard history. But behind the anxieties that continue to surround hip-hop, it is possible to detect a worry that the music might be capable of magically resurrecting the violent, media-saturated spectacle that accompanied its emergence into the mainstream.

A “culture war” is the definition of a politicized debate. None of its battles are actually fought on cultural grounds. Instead, on the one side, there are stories about drug dealers and rapists, and the music that somehow, magically—nobody, including Williams, actually spells out how this works—brings them into being. On the other side, whole shelves of semi-academic monographs about hip-hop as revolutionary politics, hip-hop as a vaguely defined “movement” (toward what?), hip-hop as a generational struggle, and even hip-hop as a theory of justice. Here, also, nobody bothers to spell out how a genre of pop music is supposed to have a theory of anything. They seem untroubled by the fact that no other genre has had one before.

Given the racial climate of the early 1990s, it was probably inevitable that newspaper columnists and Congressional candidates would use hip-hop as an excuse to attack “black people,” or to defend them, or to diagnose their problems, or to argue that their problems just weren’t worth addressing at all, because of the hopelessness of the whole thing. But politicizing debates is what politicians are supposed to do (it is literally their job). Cultural critics and academics had the chance to do better, and failed. What Williams shares even with academics who otherwise disagree with him is an almost pathological lack of interest in the music he pretends to discuss, and this unwillingness to address the music’s formal qualities makes it hard for Williams to get the cultural stuff right. Because Williams starts from the position of seeing hip-hop as fundamentally a manifestation of blackness, he has no way of explaining the music’s appeal to white people outside of racial voyeurism. Nor, for that matter, can he explain the millions of black hip-hop fans who manage to fall in love and marry even though 2 Live Crew told them not to. But are we really supposed to believe that every white hip-hop fan is simply a latter-day manifestation of Norman Mailer’s hipster? Is every female hip-hop fan, then, harboring secret humiliation fantasies? A genre of music, even one as undeniably black as hip-hop, cannot be explained as an after-effect of politics, or culture, or race. The power of hip-hop is a specifically musical kind of power. Williams doesn’t know what this power is, or what it does. Here is one thing that I think hip-hop does.

Although hip-hop did not, by any means, invent the practice of making new music out of other recorded music, it was the first globally popular music to require, by definition, the availability of records. Until the end of the 1980s, when record labels realized what was going on and made sampling prohibitively expensive (a James Brown hook went for approximately $20,000), hip-hop production was fundamentally an exercise in musical collage. Even after sampling was made unavailable to all but the most successful producers, beats produced electronically in the studio carried all the ghosts of old practices with them. One reason, for example, that hip-hop beats so rarely crescendo and decrescendo like instrumental groups do is that a loop sounds exactly the same every time. Even when the actual turntables disappeared, the sound of hip-hop has always kept them in mind.

It is impossible to overestimate the importance of the 20th century’s transition from written notation to recorded sound as the primary means of preserving music. The new technology upended a line of musical development that had proceeded, more or less uninterrupted, from the 9th century up through end of the 1800s. Many historians have observed that much of the 20th century’s Western art music, from Luigi Russolo’s noise machines to Steve Reich’s phasing tape loops, can be read as a series of efforts to come to grips with the fact of recording. Hip-hop was the culmination of these efforts, the first music to become truly comfortable with the fact that the vast majority of music listening now involved records instead of live instruments. On the Run DMC album Raising Hell, sampled loops were intentionally lifted from scratchy old LPs instead of cleaner reprints, the idea being to highlight the fact that what you are hearing isn’t a live band but a recording of a live band. Academics discussing hip-hop as the beginning of a cultural or political revolution have completely missed the point—it was actually the end of a technological revolution. As with many revolutions, its leaders were surprised by their own successes. When Grandmaster Flash was asked to record a hip-hop record in 1977, his first reaction was skepticism: “I didn’t think somebody would want to hear a record recorded onto another record with talking on it. I didn’t think it would reach the masses like that.”

One reason hip-hop reached the masses like it did is that no other music better predicted or embodied the forms that postindustrial cultural consumption would take. Most casual hip-hop listeners, for all the handwringing about their being influenced, do not actually listen to rap lyrics. They listen to the beats, and what hip-hop’s beats suggest is a cultural world in which you are completely surrounded by reproductions of culture, in which culture never stops quoting itself in bits and fragments, in which sequels and remakes depend on the audience’s familiarity with the original documents. The internet, with its memes and its manic preservation of the past’s cultural detritus, is in many ways an extension of this kind of culture. If there is any meaningful sense (outside of the standard demographic one) in which hip-hop listeners constitute any kind of “generation,” this is it.

Beats are obviously just half of the equation. If hip-hop’s beats embodied the feeling of being alive at a time in which every cultural or artistic utterance was preserved, disseminated, and then re-incorporated into new cultural utterances, hip-hop’s rhymes addressed one of that environment’s characteristic anxieties: namely, that anything you could possibly want to say for yourself had already been said. And while this had probably been true for most of human history, this culture was the first to have the technology available to prove that your thoughts and words were just weak variations on an ancient theme. Hip-hop rhymes addressed this anxiety by overcoming it. There has been no greater engine for new language—English, obviously—in the last thirty years than hip-hop. Nothing even comes close. The language’s power is evident everywhere, from the way that calling something “the bomb” is now actually most common among white parents to the way that almost every book about hip-hop, sooner or later, will begin to adopt its slang and linguistic rhythms, providing the spectacle of academics droppin’ science about that gender dichotomy bull-shit. What you hear on a great hip-hop track is a voice, surrounded and propelled along by fragmented bits of other, earlier music, inventing a completely new world for itself to live in. The gangsta rap group NWA had exactly one “positive” song on their album Straight Outta Compton, and it was called “Express Yourself.” The best hip-hop tracks, even the songs with lyrics that make people cringe, hold out that subliminal, desperate hope to their listeners. In an oblique way, this hope—of authentic self-expression, unencumbered by the influence of one’s too-familiar cultural environment—is Williams’s own.

Is hip-hop today a genre that’s become bogged down in its own anti-social, materialist tropes? Of course it is. Everything is. The majority of films nominated for the Best Picture Oscar are adaptations of novels. Rock musicians are busy trying to recapture youths they are too young to have actually had. Novelists continue to write as though their profession were something to be ashamed of, and the poets have disappeared completely. We just lived through the most culturally conformist decade since the 1950s. There is plenty of blame to go around. In the meantime, you take your signs of life where you can find them.

Image: Ice Cube, Eazy-E, Dr. Dre, and MC Ren (NWA), 1987.

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