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How To Save Old Rap Music Without Declaring Hip-Hop Dead
In Byron Crawford’s post ‘The Day the Music Died’, about the Notorious B.I.G, Crawford discusses the fact that although he considers ‘Ready to Die’ one of his favorite albums, he “barely listen[s] to it anymore”. He goes on to describe the fact that due to the nature of his job “it’s just plain not [his] m.o to listen to old music” and that when he does, it is rarely a rap album and for “whatever reason” he does not “experience hip-hop the same way [he] experience[s] other genres of music”. Now, I’m troubled by this because the dude writes for ‘XXL’ but I’m also not troubled because it is an incredibly brave thing to say/admit and Crawford also uses this statement to implore his readers to respond. He ends his post with “I wonder why [it] is” that he and others will return to old rock albums but not to old rap albums. Now, I promise, this is not the post where some non-existent blogger goes after a popular blogger, but there’s a lot of shit worth unpacking here.

There are basic factual answers to Crawford’s “I wonder…” like the lack of radio support for old rap while classic rock may be more popular than recent rock. There is also the fact that the world is now run by baby-boomers who have a pathetic obsession with their own youth and so, they fill movies and commercials with the music they like, which is obviously not rap. There is also the fact that it is really only in the late-80s that one can begin to look at rap in terms of “albums” as it was primarily a singles game before then. So, there’s not the same kind of history there. To compare the consistent purchasing of albums from the 60s and 70s with albums that are, at the oldest, from like, 1986, doesn’t really make a lot of sense. Also, there’s availability or lack thereof. Old rap albums, in part because of little support, in part because they are in this weird middle-ground between “sort-of old” and “classic”, are just not available everywhere the way say, ‘Who’s Next’ might be. It may be kind of hard to find ‘Mecca & the Soul Brother’ or even ‘Raising Hell’ in a Best Buy. This may be changing slightly as re-releases of Run DMC or ‘Road to the Riches’ have come out recently and are making those albums slightly more available. The recent induction of Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five into the Rock n’Roll Hall of Fame also “proves” some interest in rap history is building. The eventually-to-be-released UGK album features Big Daddy Kane and Kool G. Rap on a song, at least it did the last track listing I saw. The release of a Biggie ‘Greatest Hits’ is another good move because when you first get into old music, you almost inevitably go for the safe choice of a ‘Greatest Hits’; full albums by artists you’re not totally familiar with is a bit scary. Eventually, you grow wiser and realize ‘Greatest Hits’ albums are for housewives and little girls but they do function as excellent primers for introductory listeners. Without them, the process of getting into older music would be a lot more daunting. So, the more compilations, greatest hits packages, and re-releases that come out, the greater interest in older music.

Even if these things are available it doesn’t mean a thing unless people are buying them so there is plenty of blame to be placed on the rap “culture”, particularly the younger generations of fans and artists, but I find that placement of guilt too simplistic and over-discussed. Older rappers show about as much interest and support to the new guys as the new guys do to the older rappers. Think of when Chuck D. went after Kanye West, certainly one of the more “positive” rappers to enter mainstream rap in many years. Even more absurd is the article ‘Respect’ in this month’s XXL in which Nas can only muster up praise for Lupe Fiasco and The Game, two incredibly predictable MCs. When older rappers do praise the new generation, they generally support clones of themselves or rappers that are obsessive in their “respect” of the old school. Rap music is incredibly criticism-free in the sense that no actual debate or discussion ever really goes on; everyone just sort of follows the script.

I know this script is part of the tradition of rap and to bemoan other rappers as not knowing their shit has been going on since the beginning but that just makes “it’s like the game ain’t same”-style complaints meaningless. The Was Good/Is Now Bad division has always existed and always been practiced, so who even knows what to think when a rapper says it one more time. This kind of battling or beefing is fine and good for a little while, but it goes from swagger when the rapper is on top to being just plain sad when that rapper is on the way down. KRS-One is saying the same bullshit about rappers that he said in 1988 so, at this point, it sounds like nothing but a knee-jerk reaction. Meanwhile, Rakim says he fucks with G-Unit and Dipset, Chuck D. hates on Kanye West, Nas holds up The Game as an exemplary rapper…these guys are digging their own graves by being so unreliable. How can they be trusted as sources on rap history?

However, (spoken like a true music writer) you can rarely trust musicians to lead you in the direction of good music outside of their own, so that is hardly a surprise. The most damaging aspect to older rap staying relevant comes from outdated and downright idiotic perceptions as to what rap music is or can be. Rap is either treated as party music or as “the black CNN” and this is by everyone from most casual listener to a hardcore fan. The dance music perception does not lend anyone to think of it as lasting or worth actual consideration, so that is a clear dead-end but the “black CNN” understanding also has its limits. The most limiting effect of seeing rap music as only the window into “ghetto” realities is that it distances listeners from the music. I think it distances white listeners because they feel as though they are able to appreciate rap, understand it, and maybe learn from it, but they cannot really relate to it and often, they do not feel as though they are allowed to comment upon it. For black listeners, the “black CNN” interpretation pushes who is saying what and how they are saying it to the background because what is being sought out is “real” talk about “the streets”. If that’s the perspective, then there’s no need to go back and listen to Biggie or Rakim or Melle Mel because there’s enough “reality” being “exposed” in Young Jeezy’s songs.

Regardless of race, class, or whatever, what makes music lasting is something a listener can connect and relate to on a number of levels. Rap music does not fail in this regard but the way it is discussed and treated makes it seem as though it has failed. I’ve talked about this at least three other times on this stupid blog, so I’m not saying anything I haven’t said already, but it’s sort of my specific, interpretive focus, so bear with me. Music listeners, white and black and everything else, follow the previously mentioned rules about how to listen to and embrace rap music. Even many rappers themselves follow these rules. It’s why Jay-Z feels like he needs to put the guy from Coldplay on a track for it to be emotional or why Kanye hires Jon Brion or why Andre 3000 started dicking around with other genres. They too have bought into the belief that rap music is not the place that actual emotions are expressed even though each of those artists have plenty of emotionally resonant songs that don’t have some white dude playing piano under them. Furthermore, rap is inarguably a primarily black art form but too many black writers, listeners, and musicians, even if they have good reason, are vehement protectors of the music. This protection discourages non-black listeners from feeling like they even have the right to connect to the music on their own terms even though, at the very same time, these same protectors bemoan the fact that rap isn’t more respected within and outside of the rap culture. It’s a pretty fucked-up loop if you think about.

The myth that one cannot relate to rap music or can only relate to rap music if you have experienced exactly what the rappers discuss gives the music nowhere to go. The music needs to breathe and expand beyond its initial release but this will only happen if people can find something about it to embrace. If you’re just dancing to it, it will get old pretty quick and if all there is to it is reporting, then once you have heard the lyrics, the reported information has been presented and the transfer is complete. Rap music is music to dance to and it is music that reveals truths that you may not hear anywhere else but it is also humanistic and it is all those things and a lot more, that is why I really do think it’s the most complicated form of music to exist. There’s so much shit going on in it that you’d think anybody could pull something from it to enjoy and perhaps they could if long-established rules on how to listen to rap music were broken down.

Written by Brandon

March 14th, 2007 at 7:26 am