Reading Hip-hop: No Nostalgia Needed

If you’ve ever gotten the impression that the music industry is run by crooks, reading any part of Frederic Dannen’s Hit Men (Vintage, 1990) will more than confirm your suspicions. The false nostalgia some of us feel with the onset of the so-called digital age sees the past as something to which we need to return. A little research will dispel any delusions one might have about a golden age as far as the music industry is concerned. Nowhere is this feeling more prevalent than in Hip-hop. Ask anyone and they will tell you that it used to be better. Though if you ask them when exactly it was better, they’ll all have a different answer. Most will cite a time period that falls somewhere around 1988, as The Golden Era of Hip-hop is widely considered to be around that time.

A lot of the people who yearn for the years of yore are older. I was in high school in 1988, so one might expect me to feel that the best time for Hip-hop was during my formative years. I honestly don’t feel that way though. As my friend Reggie Hancock would say, “Wow, you’re so very well-adjusted about things that don’t matter,” but in many ways our attitudes do matter. A false nostalgia poisons progress, and Hip-hop is plagued with such attitudes. No one touched by this culture in the 1980s was left unchanged, but shit ain’t like that anymore. Nostalgia implies false or “imagined memories,” memories that are empty, devoid of significance that we fill in with what we imagine they were like. Paul Grainge (2002) points out an important distinction between nostalgia as a commercial mode and nostalgia as a social or collective mood. The former is often enabled by the latter as we drool over reissues of long lost demo tapes or clamor for reunion tour tickets. Thanks to recording technology, we live in an era when, as Andreas Huyssen (2003) put it, “the past has become part of the present in ways simply unimaginable in earlier centuries” (p. 1). With that said, the nostalgic friction that hinders the forward motion of Hip-hop is more about production and distribution, and more than any other genre of recorded music, Hip-hop led the way to the ways of today.

People say that Hip-hop is more than a genre of music–it’s a certain bounce in your stride, it’s the way you shake hands, it’s the ideas that circulate in your head. It’s the ideas that don’t circulate in your head. A philosopher might say it’s a way of being in the world. An authority on the subject, like the rapper Nas, says, “It’s that street shit, period” (Williams, 2010, p. 63).

Surely, the conception of Hip-hop as a lifestyle is part of the problem (as well as possibly part of the solution), but of all the things those folks invented in the South Bronx so long ago, nostalgia ain’t one of them. For those that bemoan the text of Hip-hop but miss the subtext, as Dan Charnas puts it, these words are not for you.

In his massive tome, The Big Payback: The History of the Business of Hip-hop (New American Library, 2010), Charnas charts the economics behinds the rise of Hip-hop from minor subculture to global phenomenon. It’s a far further in-depth and far more focused Hit Men, and upon reading it, anyone’s nostalgia for a better bygone era should be summarily squashed. The chapter on Ice-T’s hardcore band Body Count’s “Cop Killer” (“Cops & Rappers”) alone should be more than enough to murder any ideas that things in the music industry used to be better. Even Def Jam, that bastion and beacon of branding and boom-bap was plagued with bad management, back-handed deals, and pathetic working conditions. You’ll wonder why you ever pulled the curtain back on these wizards of your dreams.

It’s unfortunate for some and generates fortunes for others, but Hip-hop is big business. Its hard-earned lesson is this: If you don’t make money a priority, you will never have any. Mind your business lest you lose your mind. The history behind the scenes is trife, rife with broken lives and forgotten talent.

Like me, Sujatha Fernandes was transformed by Hip-hop in the 1980s. Attempting to reconcile the money-grubbing from record labels and the international solidarity felt by fans, in Close to the Edge: In Search of the Global Hip-hop Generation (Verso, 2011), Fernandes seeks the ties that bind all ethnicities behind the music and the movement. Her book is informed by her early 80s induction, all four elements of the culture, and a deep love for all of the above. Close to the Edge is about a whole world of people finding just what they were looking for. From Sydney to Chicago (including an appearance by our man Billy Wimsatt), Cuba to France, Fernandes follows Hip-hop around the world looking for the heart she feels beating so strongly in this culture.

As scholars such as Tricia Rose and Imani Perry claim, Hip-hop is fundamentally a black cultural form. It is also colonized by every other. Who better to study its effects than an expert on colonialism? Jared Ball is that dude. His I Mix What I Like: A Mixtape Manifesto (AK Press, 2011) posits an emancipatory journalism based on the trope of the mixtape. From jump, he writes, “despite tremendous shifts in image and application, African America (and by extension the rest of the country and world) continues to suffer a process of colonization subsumed within a media environment more pervasive and all-encompassing than any other known in world history and against which alternative forms of journalism and media production must be employed” (p. 3). Ball concurs, as I’ve argued elsewhere that the mixtape is Hip-hop’s unsung mass medium. As Maher (2005) put it, “there wouldn’t be a rap music industry if it weren’t for mixtapes… the development of Hip-hop revolves around [them as] a singularly crucial but often overlooked medium” (p. 138). Ball goes on to argue that the mixtape is the perfect tool for the job. He certainly mixes what he likes, and his crates are deep!

When I found Hip-hop, I lived in the hinterlands of southeast Alabama. Unbeknownst to the nostalgic youth of today, that good ol’ Hip-hop from the golden age wasn’t all over the radio. If you wanted to hear it, you had to go find it. Early on, you only found it on mixtapes. Now every region has their mixtape gurus, and one of those is Atlanta’s DJ Drama. Ben Westhoff‘s Dirty South (Chicago Review Press, 2011) tells the story of the RIAA busting into his spot with dogs and guns looking for “illegal” mixtapes, guns, and drugs. They only found the former, but that didn’t stop them from confiscating those, as well as much of his studio gear, computers, and four vehicles, two of which he never got back (talk about colonization…). I use scare quotes to describe the legality of Drama’s mixtapes because, unlike the well-known bootleggers and indolent crooks, his are made in collaboration with the artists and with label backing. “During the raid,” Drama says, “there were people [at the labels] that were like ‘Why is this happening?'” (quoted in Westhoff, p. 187).

Westhoff’s book tells this and many other stories of southern artists finding their way in an industry once dominated by representatives from the Coasts. There can be no doubt in anyone’s mind who’s paid any attention at all that the South is definitively on the Hip-hop map now. The artists are too many to name here, but Westhoff tells all their stories. He dug deep and has returned with the definitive history of the Dirty South.

A chapter on the South is one of the welcome additions to the new edition of That’s the Joint! The Hip-hop Studies Reader (second edition) edited by Murray Forman and Mark Anthony Neal (Routledge, 2011), and if you’re interested in a more scholarly look at the culture, this is your new bible. Since its release in 2004, the first edition has proven indispensable, and the update is fresh. Gone are a few outdated articles, including the error-riddled Alan Light piece (Joan Morgan‘s great piece on Hip-hop and feminism is thankfully intact), and, in addition to Matt Miller’s “Rap’s Dirty South” chapter, there are new joints by Greg Tate, Kembrew McLeod, Imani Perry, H. Samy Alim, and Craig Watkins, among several others (Tricia Rose is noticeably absent). This a one-book crash-course in Hip-hop history, theory, culture, criticism, and politics.

Speaking of one-book crash-courses, Jay-Z’s Decoded (Speigel & Grau, 2010; co-authored by dream hampton) covers everything mentioned above: The growing up with Hip-hop, its moving from around the way to around the world, taking care of the business, and many of Jay’s lyrics are also broken down herein in the style of RZA’a Wu-Tang Manual. Hell, it’s even mildly nostalgic: “The feeling those records gave me was so profound that it’s sometimes surprising to listen to them now.”

While Hip-hop nostalgia in the commercial mode is not ever likely to cease as it is so heavily marketed, and each generation tries to make the next nostalgic for what they miss, our own nostalgia as a collective mood can change. Maintaining the essential tension between tradition and innovation is paramount (Kuhn, 1977), but we have to let it go where it wants. It’s the only way to see what the next generation of Hip-hop heads will create. Reading books that take the culture seriously enough to criticize as well as celebrate is one way to see past our own biases. As El-P once told me, “I don’t hold on to too much nostalgia because I don’t have to.” That, my friends, is the joint.

References:

Ball, Jared. (2011). I Mix What I Like: A Mixtape Manifesto. Oakland, CA: AK Press.

Carter, Sean (Jay-Z). (2010). Decoded. New York: Spiegel & Grau.

Charnas, Dan. (2010). The Big Payback: The History of the Business of Hip-hop. New York: New American Library.

Dannen, Frederic. (1990). Hit Men: Power Brokers and Fast Money Inside the Music Business. New York: Vintage.

Fernandes, Sijatha. (2011). Close to the Edge: In Search of the Global Hip-hop Generation New York: Verso.

Forman, Murray & Neal, Mark Anthony (eds.). (2011). That’s the Joint! The Hip-hop Studies Reader. New York: Routledge.

Kuhn, Thomas S. (1977). The Essential Tension: Selected Studies in Scientific Tradition and Change. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Maher, George Ciccariello. (2005). Brechtian Hip-Hop: Didactics and Self-Production in Post-Gangsta Political Mixtapes. Journal of Black Studies, 36(1), 129-160.

Westoff, Ben. (2011). Dirty South: Outkast, Lil Wayne, Soulja Boy, and the Southern Rappers Who reinvented Hip-hop. Chicago: Chicago Review Press.

Williams, Thomas Chatterton. (2010). Losing My Cool: How a Father’s Love and 15,000 Books Beat Hip-hop Culture. New York: Penguin.

Digging in the Gates: The Digital Socratic Shift

If bricolage is the major creative form of the twenty-fist century, then the archive is its standing reserves. Socrates famously worried about the stability of our memories as we moved from an oral to a written culture, and his concerns have been echoed in the move to digital archives. The pedigree of this technological Socratic shift is deep. When Thomas Edison first recorded the human voice onto a tin foil roll on December 6, 1877, he externalized and disembodied a piece of humanity. Jonathan Sterne writes that “media are forever setting free little parts of the human body, mind, and soul” (p. 289). By the time Edison patented the phonograph in 1878, the public was familiar and comfortable with the idea of preserved foods. As a cultural practice, “canned music” in John Philip Sousa’s phrase, was ripe for mass consumption. Envisioning a world without such “canned” media is difficult to do now. We preserve everything. The problem is not so much the authenticity of our entertainment and information, but how to parse the sheer expanse of it. Andreas Huyssen (2003) mused, “Could it be that the surfeit of memory in this media-saturated culture creates such an overload that the memory system itself is in constant danger of imploding, thus triggering fear of forgetting?” (p. 17).

Condense fact from the vapor of nuance.
— Juanita Marquez in Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash

Alongside library science and other information archiving skills, forensics is a contemporary growth field. If we are to use our media as a sort of technological “Funes the Memorious,” what do we do when technological change outpaces its retrieval compatibility? You likely have (or have had) mass storage containers (e.g., cassettes, VHS tapes, floppy discs, etc.) that lack a device capable of reading them, ghosts of information past trapped in a black box forever. We’re all archivists whether we notice or admit it, but the gates to our archives have expiration dates. A recent trip to UT’s Harry Ransom Center revealed stacks of media unreadable by any technology on-site. William Gibson‘s electronic work Agrippa: Book of the Dead plays on this very trope of archival decay. The piece, set for a one-time reading, consists of a 300-line poem on a 3.5″ disc encased in a box made to look like a hard drive, is set to scroll once through and erase itself forever, a textual spectre set free from the archive after its single haunting episode. The pages of the included book version were treated with photosensitive chemicals which fade with exposure to light.

According to Matthew G. Kirschenbaum’s Mechanisms: New Media and the Forensic Imagination (The MIT Press, 2008; now available in paperback), There was one public performance of Agrippa. On December 9, 1992, at the Americas Society in uptown New York City, Penn Jillette read the poem aloud, which was projected on a big screen, exacerbating its scroll into oblivion. The event is fraught with rumor and lie, as the full text of the intentionally ephemeral Agrippa was posted online the next morning. The conditions of its hacking are detailed in full in Kirschenbaum’s book, and a collection of documents surrounding the work is available online. Another interesting artifact sprung from this event: Re:Agrippa, a choppy remix of videotaped footage from the single Agrippa public event, test patterns, and haunting voiceovers kludged together by the NYU students who “hacked” Agrippa‘s text for online consumption [runtime: 5:44]:

J9s3HIsWZyc

Our archive fever needs feeding. With its flickering signifiers and configurable nature, we consider the things on the screen temporary. But, as Kirschenbaum notes, in lieu of hard drives and other external devices (the main concern of his book), the visual display of the computer was originally considered a storage device. Now, crashed drives and outmoded media hide their secrets from everyone except those closest to the machine. Forensic scientists, not unlike those seen on that other screen, are more important than ever to our unstable memories. They can condense fact from the vapor of hidden nuance and open the gates to the archival entrails of dead media.

—————

It should be noted that my conception of the archive and the haunting thereof owes a large debt to the teachings of Josh Gunn. Oh, there’s some unacknowledged Martin Heidegger, Jacques Derrida, Dick Hebdige, Bruce Sterling, and Kate Hayles in there as well.

References:

Borges, Jorge Luis. (1964). Funes the Memorious. In Labyrinths: Selected Stories and Other Writings. New York: New Directions.

Huyssen, Andreas. (2003). Present Pasts: Urban Palimpsests and the Politics of Memory. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Kirschenbaum, Matthew G. (2008). Mechanisms: New Media and the Forensic Imagination Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Stephenson, Neal. (1993). Snow Crash. New York: Spectra.

Sterne, J. (2003). The Audible Past: Cultural Origins of Sound Reproduction. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.