More smoke than fiyah.

Although I’d much rather have ma and pa be my topper, I can’t resist putting up this video by Nick Cannon and Nas.  They compare trends in rap music style to blackface minstrelsy.  Not a new argument, and not particularly persuasive, here.  For example, is the only point of comparison a desire to please the racial fantasies of white listeners?  If so, I don’t think it makes any sense to (1) single out rap music or (2) point to this particular moment in time as different than any other since the dawn of entertainment. If there is more to the comparison, what is it?  Because I don’t see.

Oh, and nice job Nas! Advert the old album even as you launch a critique of capitalism.  Smoove.



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5 responses to “More smoke than fiyah.

  1. This is pretty similar to the “pixie” skit over which Dave Chapelle quit when he felt that a crew member was enjoying it in the wrong way. The main difference is that Chapelle emphasized agency whereas the Nas/Cannon skit emphasizes corporate media.

    I’m generally skeptical of anything that blames corporate media for undesirable content, particularly if the mechanism is vague, but what’s your opinion on the particular thesis that corporatization (and crossover to white consumers) leads to rap minstrelry? AFAIK, looking at it as a time-trend supports the thesis since crossover, Interscope, and unpleasant lyrical/video themes all start at about the same time (c. 1990) but treating it as a cross-sectional thing debunks it since if anything the hip hop that is produced by independent labels and consumed by black listeners tends to be even more salacious than corporate/crossover hip hop. however i know very little about hip hop and could be wrong on the facts, whereas you’re the expert.

  2. J. H. Haverly

    Hey, it’s got a good beat and you can dance to it. What more do you want?

  3. mjbissonn

    I think that the argument that capitalism has tainted the music holds, especially if we’re talking about the influence of record labels on rap music. Record labels have lost a ton of money over the past decade due to illegal downloading, and I would assume that the result is that artists that fail to sell immediately get dropped. Gone are the days when hip-hop artists receive budgets to shoot videos and promote four or five singles on an album. You got one single (maybe two), and that’s it. Fail to sell enough units? You’re dropped…or worse…your release date gets pushed back so your career is stuck in idle. Under these circumstances, artists would be less likely to take risks with their music, and I think labels would be less likely to encourage risk taking. That’s how you get a whole bunch of music that sounds the same.

    (I realize I haven’t addressed the content of the music in this post, but I’m still thinking through that part of it. Off the top of head, though, I think that themes of inequality and disenfranchisement rooted in racial identities still makes the “mainstream” uncomfortable. Therefore, a product touching on those issues would be harder to sell, so artists like Saigon, Styles P, Immortal Technique, etc. don’t get the promotional push necessary to make them household names. That money is reserved for artists who avoid those issues completely…like Soulja Boy.)

  4. Jenn Lena

    Gabriel: I would ask a couple of specification questions (how do you measure “crossover”, why single out Interscope, how do you measure “salacious”?) before I felt like I could really argue your point.

    My opinion on whether “corporatization (and crossover to white listeners) leads to minstrelcy”? I usually give myself a whole semester to make this argument, so forgive me if this is a little dense.

    I basically think this is a useful way to think about the dysfunctional aspects of the confluence of art, race and money, but it is in its specifics, false. (That is, I think people should understand and be sympathetic to the idea that black artists are always forced to conform to a set of negative stereotypes that are racial, in order to make boatloads of money. However, I will argue this is not the prime cause of lyrical content in rap.)

    I think it is correct to say that all folk/minority art, once it is condoned by a segment of the elite, follows an unavoidable trajectory toward both exaggerated “authentic” and “stereotypical” racial content. In the case of rap music, its success spawned both “political rap” or “independent rap” or “conscious rap” (as you like) and “booty rap”, “gangsta rap” and other sub-genres with–most people would argue–lyrics that reflect and do not critique stereotypes of African Americans as thoughtless, hyper-sexual, materialistic, criminal, etc. However, very little light is shone on the process if you only look for “corporatization” or “desire for white listeners” as the cause. By the late 70s, a whole bunch of label heads and wanna be label heads were scoping out hip hop performances, looking for a way to profit from them. The first labels to go into production were black-owned. It took almost a decade before any rapper got a contract with a major label. But there already had evolved the lyrical traditions of toasting, boasting, talking trash about women (and men), addressing inner-city poverty and crime, etc. These are themes that at their “mature” stage we label “salacious.”

    When I think about what can explain that maturation process, I’m more inclined to look at how our whole culture has become more comfortable with drugs, sex, violence, profanity, and crass commercialism. I think rap music reflects our culture (the whole culture–not just the “black” one or the “white one”) and our culture’s move toward profane entertainment.

    mjbissonn: it has always been the case that very few artists make a profit (recoup) from their recording. so, it has always been the case that some artists–and whole divisions (e.g., the jazz and classical division)–have little or no money for production and promotion of an album, and are likely to be dropped after the contract expires or its terms are violated by the artist (e.g., by not recouping). these trends are not caused by digital music production, illegal downloading, or evil empires. therefore, i am not convinced these are the cause of any risk aversion among artists–at least not one that has recently produced less diverse music. research has shown that the thing that produces “a whole bunch of music that sounds the same” is market oligopolies–when a small number of firms own most contracts. but we’ve been living under oligopolistic conditions for so long that record labels have found work arounds–basically ways to make artists on a label compete against each other, and subsidiary labels compete against each other. in essence, i’m claiming that there’s more diversity than you acknowledge, although it might not be music you like/respect, so it wouldn’t look like diversity to you.

    Finally, I disagree that themes of inequality and disenfranchisement make the “mainstream” uncomfortable. I would argue that being able to “consume” inequality in the safety of your own home gets you off the hook from dealing with it in real life. My experience is that non-black rap fans who have a vocal preference for IT, for example, are the least likely to consider their own privilege, the least likely to be sensitive to how that privilege operates in their daily life, and so are the most defensive when it comes to talking about race, poverty, residential segregation, gender inequity, etc. But, that’s just my experience. But it is consistent with a lot of research–the easiest thing to find might be Charles Gallagher’s research on Color-Blind racism.

  5. >I usually give myself a whole semester to make this argument,
    >so forgive me if this is a little dense

    what? hasn’t the popularity of twitter taught you that anything worth saying can be said in 140 characters or less?

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