John McWhorter wrote a piece in the City Paper a few years back about hip-hop, and that’s what I want to talk about today.

Most of it is poorly aimed, ill-considered boilerplate. McWhorter criticizes Grandmaster Flash’s “The Message” for its bleak lyrical tone, but cuts off the verse he quotes before getting to the “punch line,” in which Melle Mel warns the listener not to turn to crime, that it’s not glamorous, and that it brings nothing but destruction. “The Message” is actually one of the best examples of rap’s potential for imparting lessons, but McWhorter (possibly on purpose) misses that.

However, he does make one reasonable point:

>Many writers and thinkers see a kind of informed political engagement, even a revolutionary potential, in rap and hip-hop. They couldn’t be more wrong. By reinforcing the stereotypes that long hindered blacks, and by teaching young blacks that a thuggish adversarial stance is the properly “authentic” response to a presumptively racist society, rap retards black success.

Later, McWhorter returns to this theme, writing,

>Seeing a privileged star like Sean Combs behave like a street thug tells those kids that there’s nothing more authentic than ghetto pathology, even when you’ve got wealth beyond imagining.

This is a legitimate criticism. The hyper-materialism, the sexism, and the portrayal of violence as a first response to any perceived threat to one’s dignity are all poisonous memes that have circulated through hip-hop for at least ten years, and are now the dominant messages of the music. Yes, there are rappers whose lyrics are not concerned with the flaunting of wealth and the destruction of one’s enemies in order to gain further wealth, but they are the exception that proves the rule. If the dominant mode of the music was not so grotesque, the few semi-rational alternatives would not stand out in such sharp relief.

McWhorter also criticizes the academic embrace of hip-hop, and I agree with him about that. There is little or no value, as far as I can see, in constructing a college course around the study of hip-hop, unless it’s to undertake a systemic criticism of the music and its attendant culture. I don’t think that’s likely to be the case, though—the present condition of cultural studies suggests that any course on hip-hop is likely to be a Well-Meaning-White-Person blowjob session, in which Tupac Shakur and Biggie Smalls will be fellated from beyond the grave. I really don’t foresee a class in which the major topic of discussion is the destructive potential of describing (and selling) pimping as a hip lifestyle choice to 10-year-olds.

It’s not that I’m disappointed in hip-hop’s failure to articulate a genuinely revolutionary position. I don’t think it’s the place of schlocky pop records (which is what hip-hop is) to do that kind of thing. I suppose my biggest problem with hip-hop is its critical reception. If it were granted the same level of respect from highbrow quarters that death metal gets (that is to say, none), I’d have no beef. But the idea that the hostile, deliberately ugly, violent, fantasy-driven music of black kids from the ghetto is somehow inherently more worthwhile than the hostile, deliberately ugly, violent, fantasy-driven music of white kids from the suburbs is, well, racist.

Maybe that’s part of it. If I was conspiracy-minded enough, maybe I could convince myself that the white embrace of hip-hop culture, and the glamorization/promotion of same, is part of a large-scale plan to destroy the black community even more than it’s been damaged already. Sell them on the idea that crime and promiscuity and an attitude that all personal interaction should be greeted with an attitude of pre-emptive hostility/paranoia is a good thing, a cool thing, the way “real” black folks behave, and shazam! You’ve created an unemployable class of poor folks you can push around! About the only thing that keeps me from believing this is the relentless marketing of hip-hop to white kids.

I’ve discussed my problems with hip-hop as a music (that its dominance is detrimental to black music in the long term, because it discourages the playing of actual instruments) before, so I’ll skip that. I’ll just let the rambling above be it for today. Feel free to yell at me in the comments.

Today’s CDs:

The Black Dahlia Murder, Unhallowed
Children Of Bodom, Hatecrew Deathroll
John Coltrane, Settin’ The Pace
Miles Davis, Filles De Kilimanjaro
Miles Davis, Black Beauty: Miles Davis At Fillmore West
Exhumed, Anatomy Is Destiny
Mahavishnu Orchestra, The Inner Mounting Flame
Monster Magnet, Superjudge
Nebula, Atomic Ritual
Wayne Shorter, Super Nova
Cecil Taylor, Indent