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Uptown, Downtown, and Blah Blah Blah

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The “difference” between say, Rammellzee or Fab 5 Freddie hanging out with Bruno Bischofberger or showing up at No-Wave shows and Jay-Z rapping with a Santogold hook or Jim Jones rapping over MGMT is deeper and sadder than Noz’s point that once, “those hipsters went uptown for coolness. Those rappers went downtown for money and exposure” and now it’s the other way around.

Namely, neither side, “cool” or “money-making” is doing a lot of inspired or interesting work. There’s this dreary toilet bowl apocalypse sound to Kanye’s “Swagger Like Us” beat and indeed, 808s turned out not to be a grab for the rockist, but a big, weird, album that doesn’t fit comfortable anywhere, but it’s not exactly innovative stuff. As for those “indie” artists, the work is even more derivative and uninspired. MGMT’s “Electric Feel” is on the same ripping-off the 80s shit as West, but at least West challenges your pop expectations a little bit.

This lack of innovation’s especially prescient in light of Noz’s uptown/downtown flip. The sense that all those rappers and B-boys got out of downtown was wealth and exposure caters to the reverse romantic myth that even the “Truest” hip-hop’s based on. Rappers even at their most artistic, feign capitalist nihilism, and art-rockers, even at their most capitalistic, feign artistry and as usual, the “reality” is somewhere between. The primary difference between this art-rock and hip-hop quasi-intermingling–quasi because it’s really one-sided but more on that later–seems to me that there’s nothing all that artistic going on from any of these turds. It’s all really ugly insider stuff, meant to entertain one another and the people who cover the music and nothing more.

The other difference, is that most of us weren’t there in 1981 and so, children of museum owners rocking Rammellzee’s shades or something, doesn’t piss us off in the same way that, hearing ODB’s Nigga Please in some boutique or talking to some kid who thinks he knows everything because he downloaded a Spice-1 record last week pisses us off. Rap was also less of a big dumb institution and so, I get the sense that it was all probably, just a little bit genuinely utopian back then.

People on both sides were less jaded and rap fans especially, weren’t these total protective cocksuckers about it. I’d love to hear some even-handed shit from anybody actually involved in the scene at the time, how did it reflect the pseudo-scene of today? How was it different? And I call it a “pseudo-scene” now because it has the illusion of a convergence of styles and ideas, but on the part of the artists involved, is very one-sided. That’s to say, don’t expect MGMT to ever show up on a Jim Jones record or Jay-Z on a Coldplay record. If it’ll make the rock side of this look potentially stupid or goofy, it isn’t going to happen. Rappers don’t give a fuck about “image” in that way; it’s why rap’s so great.

This supports as well as conflicts with the uptown for cool, downtown for money thing. Supports it, because there’s a clear focus on image and money and conflicts with it because, that old “scene” was full of genuine interaction and experimentation and not just taking the rich white artsy fartsy kids for all they got. Uptowners got a lot more out of the downtown scene than cash. Something like Death Comet Crew wouldn’t exist without the crazy, mindfully avant sounds of the white weirdos and of course, the death disco of KONK or something wouldn’t exist without hip-hop and disco and funk and stuff. History of that era too, has gone in the way of hip-hop, as more people probably know of “White Lines” than Liquid Liquid. Interestingly, the recent reevaluation of No-Wave and “post-punk” has been surprisingly fair and deferential to hip-hop’s influence, certainly less of a white wash than most rock histories.

This weird mix too, as wrongheaded as it might seem, does seem a little more sincere than cynics present it. I’m not sure that Santogold (or Jay-Z) will gain a whole lot crossing over from “Brooklyn Go Hard” and who’s baiting cool and who’s baiting cash is pretty muddled when it comes to M.I.A and Kanye West. The crossing of these two paths is more of a strange indulgence on the part of rappers to rep some shit that, however terrible, is the sort of stuff they’re rocking in their cars.

Fans of Santogold probably made a decision about Jay-Z a long time ago and her presence on a song won’t change that. Most fans of Jay-Z that don’t know who Santogold is, don’t give much of a shit on who’s whining out the hook. Also, the song’s pretty cool and Kanye’s dying battery synths and determined drums aren’t really some kind of indie concession or anything. So, this is all frustration and annoying in theory and has made for some decent music. But If you’re gonna get cynical about the song or just this whole weird scene in general, you have to dig deeper. Once you do though, it starts to get ugly and weird in a way that I can’t get behind.

This “indie” rock and popular hip-hop mixing and merging is no doubt inspired by the odd and problematic celebration of hip-hop–especially of the party/”ignorant” variety–by so-called “hipsters” and indie kids. Pitchforkmedia’s increased rap coverage over the past few years, hip-hop fashion entering places like Urban Outfitters, sites/magazines like THE FADER, etc. etc. For awhile, there was this weird disconnect between where the “average” hip-hop fan was reading and getting his information and those aforementioned websites that suddenly started bigging-up hip-hop to their readers, most of whom were complacent to enjoy Wilco and when it came to rap, that first Blackalicious album or something. In recent times, especially the past few years, artists, writers, and fans have gotten a little more savvy and it’s all started to mix and match.

I bet a lot of rappers, writers, and fans breathed a sigh of relief as they no longer had to pretend to be this or that. That’s to say, Kanye West or Jay-Z are kinda weird, nerdy dudes and there’s no way they were rocking rap in their cars all day every day and now, they got to kind of admit it. It’s big because it was one of those weird times where one’s personal interests happened to match-up pretty well with one’s fiscal interests.

We’re also getting to a point where almost two generations of people have grown up listening to rap on the radio and so, that along with the internet which makes music of any and every variety available, it was only a matter of time before hip-hop’s borders got as conventionally porous and fusion-ready as every other genre’s. I’m sure certain writers and editors really wanted to talk-up the new Three Six Mafia since 1995 but couldn’t justify the word space for doing so. Now they could.

However, this has taken an especially awkward and calculated turn more recently. I think what is now happening is the same kind of ugly, media support system/takeover that’s happened to the rest of the media when money’s to be made. THE FADER and Pitchfork announced a partnership late last year. That means, the two most hip-hop as well as white hipster friendly publications (one print, one online) are working together. THE FADER’s Senior editor is Julianne Shepherd, an ex-writer for Pitchfork (and a writer I like quite a bit). Peter Macia, online editor for THE FADER is also ex-Pitchfork (he penned this excellent, kinda important Little Brother review, among other things).

The average hip-hop fan probably doesn’t read either THE FADER or Pitchfork, but plenty of rap artists do (Kanye’s shouted it out, Clipse got all pissy about Tom Breihan’s Pitchfork review, Bun B mentioned THE FADER in a Metal Lungies interview), and a more obsessive kind of rap nerd surely peruses these sites. When I proposed a crossover between THE FADER and NahRight a little while ago, more than one commenter disagreed, but this recent discussion between Eskay and one of FADER’S editors Eric Ducker certainly suggests this divide between a certain kind of rap fan and another kind of rap fan gets thinner.

NahRight is the website for rap news and music no doubt, and it functions the way a magazine like XXL or Vibe (ex-Pitchfork-er Sean Fennessy is Vibe’s music editor) does, in that it’s the go-to mainstream place for populist but not moronic rap information. As this whole indie thing gets bigger, what a site like THE FADER or Pitchfork covers and what a site like NahRight covers overlaps more and more. That a guy like Eskay’s even talking to THE FADER certainly reflects the rumblings of change. Change that benefits both mainstream, populist hip-hop sites and semi-mainstream niche magazines/websites.

I don’t think there’s some vast conspiracy going on, but I do think that this hipster stuff’s being further encouraged and supported by websites and magazines of the rap and non-rap variety alike because it pulls in a certain kind of influential and easily swayed reader and “synergy” and stuff like that is all the talk. It sells more magazines or ad-clicks or whatever, the artists crossover, new artists have more places to show-off, and everybody in the industry wins a little, while listeners lose because they’re being fed stuff that makes a good blog post or article or story angle first (“Kanye sampled Santogold!”, “Jenny Lewis likes Lil Wayne”, “Charles Hamilton raps over the Offspring, that’s some real Girl Talk shit!”) and good music second.

Written by Brandon

January 10th, 2009 at 8:39 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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