The Big Lie of Hiphop Coverage

| 16 Feb 2015 | 04:51

    The Big Lie of Hiphop Coverage Frank Kogan had a thought-provoking piece in the Jan. 12 Voice ("Death Rock 2000") about DMX, James Brown and the Stones. Before I get into it, let me say for the record that I think more music writers should be ambitious enough to try, as Kogan does, to discuss hiphop in a broad cultural and musical context. This is a typical celebrity-journalism technique employed often in the supposedly alternative Voice: reporters use a best-selling personality to stand in for complex developments in which the photogenic star played a tiny role. Kogan's is just a more intellectualized version of star worship.

    Interestingly, though, his thesis alludes to this conflict. In the post-1965 heavy-funk of James Brown, he writes, no single voice or instrument stood in front of the composition as a whole. This revolutionary sort of cooperative, conversational "never-ending groove," says Kogan, posed a problem for all black music that followed. Even as disco and hiphop replicated Brown's formula, Kogan claims, later funksters always, at the same time, more or less gave in to traditions of "Euromelody" and/or the conventional groove-anchor of a steady, omnidirectional backbeat.

    Through references to Robert Warshow's 50-year-old-essay "The Gangster as Tragic Hero" (which, unfortunately for Kogan, half the pop writers in the country were quoting that week, because of the second-season premiere of The Sopranos) and a rambling tangent dubbing the Stones the first punk-rockers, Kogan tries to show how DMX's uncompromising use of disruptive beats and oddly syncopated call-and-response chants casts the Ruff Ryder in a sort of "death persona." By stressing the tension between his solitary stardom and leadership on the one hand and his urban environment and crew on the other?to paraphrase Kogan again?DMX evokes a sense of the doomed success of film gangster antiheroes.

    Why, if DMX recalls Brown, and DMX is like a gangster antihero, Brown himself doesn't fit the gangster persona, is where the Stones come in. But revising call-and-response as a "fuck off" message conveyed by and to artists with rebellion-oriented audiences ("Get Off of My Cloud"), instead of as testimonies to the shared experience of black performers and their fans ("I'm Black and I'm Proud"), Kogan writes, Jagger "participate[d] in his own rejection." Kogan concludes that in playing out this drama of unrestrained hostility in rap, DMX brings something new to black music even as he revives its most complex tradition.

    This is sort of like supporting your theory that Americans harbored ill will toward the Soviet Union in 1982 by citing a WWF match at which red-diapered Ivan Koloff was vigorously booed. In Kogan's case, backing an essentially accurate assertion with facile evidence undermines his point in a rather revealing way: If the radical property of funk was and is its lack of center, why ascribe a phony center to the ongoing evolution of hiphop?

    DMX/Ruff Ryders are actually the latest in a series of successful hiphop "families" that have exploited the tension between group and solo artist. Precedents include the Juice Crew, the Flavor Unit and the Hit Squad. The collective who play out the paradox most spectacularly is the Wu-Tang Clan, who have platinum-selling artists on different labels, all of which, when promoting their Wu-solo properties, can't help but also promote the group. So the nine rappers in the Clan actually compete within a broader context of cooperation. None of the hegemonic hiphop-gangsta "families" who cast themselves in Wu-Tang's image?first Bad Boy, then No Limit, then Cash Money and now Ruff Ryders?demonstrate comparable antinomy. That the group is not mentioned in an article focusing on that very dualism seems strange.

    Yet the same sweep-it-under-the-rug mechanism is at work in Kogan's musical analysis. The pumping, rebounding, offbeat call-and-response style he notes in Ruff Ryders hits was immediately and very publicly preceded by the same techniques in a string of Cash Money singles. The use of synthesized treble themes that unwind over several bars of jarring bounce-beat, for which Kogan lauds Swizz Beatz's work, is in fact Cash Money producer Mannie Fresh's signature. Even if a critic wanted for some reason to dismiss Fresh, he needn't have asserted the authenticity of Swizz Beatz's blatant forgery in order to do so. A brief account of New York hiphop's gradual adoption of hard bass techniques from dancehall reggae and Miami booty-rap would have sufficed. It seems Kogan's aim, though, is to deny that Ruff Ryders have any contemporary hiphop influences. He goes so far as to name pop/r&b acts Destiny's Child, Kelis and Christina Aguilera as DMX's peers!

    Among such company modestly talented DMX is quite a standout. Not only the James Brown of rap now, but also the Rolling Stones in Kogan's view: "...with DMX, like Kelis, it's not so much that in the words he's portraying himself as out of control, it's the sound, his voice; and sounding out of control is what, maybe, is relatively new to black music." For this pseudo-equivocal assertion (gotta love that Christgauian "maybe") Kogan actually provides a hiphop counterexample: Dre and Snoop's languid "Nuthin' But a 'G' Thang," from the recently anointed-Best-Rap-Album-of-the-90s, The Chronic. That the first gangsta megahit represented a market-conscious, 180-degree turn away from N.W.A.'s out-of-control, nonbroadcast, heavily bootlegged voices is something Kogan's readers are apparently supposed to either not know or forget, along with memories of the Geto Boys, Onyx, Gravediggaz, M.O.P. and (somehow) Ol' Dirty Bastard's '99 rampage.

    Compelling in its zeitgeist generalities, yet inaccurate with regard to specifics, this is, again, nothing but intellectualized celebrity journalism. Whereas most publications simply let publicists and programmers decide what in the arts is newsworthy, Kogan grants them power by mere default. But because Kogan's intellectualism is real, and because he at one time pursued an interest in black music with enough vigor to look beyond radio and free promo discs, his analysis comes quite close to giving away the farm in terms of black music and the way it's covered.

    Informing Kogan's celebration of a crass counterfeit is the critic's astute description of James Brown's funk: "Funk at its invention was really extreme; everything became rhythm, foreground became background and vice versa, nothing simply supported a 'lead' instrument or singer... The beats were not evenly spaced: Instead, even more than in the rest of rhythm and blues, everything was in complementary note clusters, no instrumental part replicating another, each tumbling over the others in a perpetual-motion machine."

    Note that the extremity here is in what the music is not: hierarchical, regimented, selfish, given to quitting. What Kogan doesn't quite explicate is how, besides technically, even though "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag" and the like made Brown a star, his songs actually repudiated the aura of singularity on which celebrityhood depends. The answer is that funk put into play, in pop terms, the poetics of communal decision-making. The undeniable power of a plurality of black thinkers?at least in rhythmic step with each other if not always harmonious?is what made the heavy funk so heavy.

    To look in gangster movies for an analogue to this revolutionary development seems like quite a stretch, considering the history of representation in African-American pop music. Obviously there was nothing gangster about the James Brown Band. Their invention?funk as a demonstration of black multiplicity, of artistic diversity within black America?only evolved into its current, overtly aggressive form after 20 more years of the part still being propped up to stand in for the whole. As Kogan correctly notes, punk-rock attitude is usually a reaction against optimism. But what is the optimism being reacted against in hiphop? It's not the optimism of James Brown?by now a hiphop Made Man if there ever was one.

    I submit that it's the optimism of assimilation?particularly as conveyed in rock's devolution, from Paul McCartney singing "Good Golly Miss Molly" to Paul McCartney singing "Ebony and Ivory" (think of the treatment KRS-One gives even "Hey Jude" on Criminal Minded)?that hiphop punk sneers at. The identification of rap "families" with the Mafia is, I think, better understood as an expression of this resentment than an indication of hardcore hiphop's social function. After all, assimilated Italians despise the mob, while thousands of suburban black kids worship Tupac.

    A reality that ghetto hiphop from Screwball to Eastsidaz makes clear is that contrary to the presumed social good of assimilation, from a ghetto-punk point of view the process can look like an anointed part being invited to stand in for the still-segregated masses. Given mainstream America's continuing infatuation with histrionically "black" music performed by white people, and the intelligentsia's ongoing celebration of black art that denies black-American plurality, I think a better intellectual guide to DMX than Warshow's "Gangster as a Tragic Hero" is Eric Lott's Love and Theft (Oxford, 1993). The root of the distinctly American method of not actually dealing with the plurality of people who are the conspicuously abundant source of our most beloved music is Lott's topic: minstrelsy. Seen this way, Kogan's gangster analogy is pure legerdemain?because DMX is rich and successful we are to believe he's somehow doomed. If he seems that, it's not because he's Al Capone?it's because he's standing in for people who are doomed (at least never to get credit for their creations), and whom we aren't supposed to think about. By sidestepping minstrelsy only after making clear how Brown challenged its machinery, Kogan sheds light on that very machinery.

    One simply insists that the counterfeit is the singular, genuine article, sweeping all contrary evidence unceremoniously under the rug. DMX is no blackface performer?progress has been made?but in light of Kogan's piece it'd be difficult to argue that he's not employed as a monolithic receptacle for the achievements of dozens if not hundreds of dark-skinned artists. As in minstrelsy the way Lott explains it, this counterfeit denies what it simultaneously invokes. Its purpose is not to oppress black people so much as to manufacture a reaction to black dominance of American pop with which whites can be comfortable. With DMX and Destiny's Child front and center, the reality of funk's multifarious (yet finally unequivocal) centrality with regard to our music culture is both accounted for and obscured. It's managed. Kogan's DMX is just one guy among all the Christina Aguileras, Eminems and Rolling Stones.

    Think about it: If a brainy pro music writer doesn't see 1000 niggas' lips moving every time the Ruff Ryder makes a sound, imagine how many regular Americans are willfully taken in, applauding dummy after dummy, by our time-honored tradition of darkie ventriloquism.