Saturday, December 11, 2004

In defense of hip-hop criticical literature; in defense of criticism.

Anyone who knows me will tell you that I have been doing two things very consistently over the past few years. Other activities and ideas have come and gone, but hip-hop and criticism have been the only things to remain firm favourites.

By hip-hop, I mean the music genre. I will not attempt to define it exactly here; to do so would lead unnecessarily to the kind of wanky, over-intellectualised thesis that I and others deeply involved in artistic-generic theory might find interesting, the kind of thesis that, however, will put almost any potential reader off.

By criticism, I do not mean simply being critical (although I very frequently, and very acerbically, am), but thinking critically; the difference is that someone who is being critical is not necessarily thinking critically. It is very easy to dismiss anything and everything out of hand, but it is less easy to have good reason to do so. If I ever am critical, I try to make sure it is because I have first thought critically. Indeed, in a blog intended largely to make many of our supposed ‘critical thinkers’ less needlessly, dismissively critical of a certain type of music, it would be sadly ironic to sink into the same lazy thought myself.

In a more specific sense, I mean formalised, written criticism. For those not familiar with the term (and, as important as this is to me, I realise that surprisingly few have ever had real contact with it), this formal criticism is essentially an investigation into what makes a piece of art ‘work’. It can be broken down by different art-forms: literary, artistic, musical. It can be looked at by its approach to the artwork in question; this, in turn, can be divided into certain ideas and theories of how art affects us: psycho-analytical, formalist, historicist. All of this sounds complex, and is indeed, but is not impenetrable.

Let us take a piece of formal written criticism: it is called “Human animalism: animalistic humanity – A psycho-analytical authorial approach to Lord of the Flies”. It sounds intellectual, and it is. It sounds somewhat jargonistic, and it is. Yet, if you know the jargon, the essay-title will already have your mind on the right train. The essay is dealing with a work of literature. It is using psycho-analysis, i.e. the unpacking of the subconscious, to discover motivations of its author and how they work in the text. This means that it is less focused on the traditional aspects of the book – its plot and the techniques used to write it – and more interested in what certain key words and actions reveal about the author. If it were called “A proto-language of Savagery – Golding’s linguistic mirror of deterioration in Lord of the Flies”, we would know that the essay will be concentrating on how the language that the author consciously gives his characters reflects something about them and makes the text work.

By 'make the text work', we are not talking about something only accessible to those who know the ins and outs of it, who have studied it and who know the critical vocabulary I have begun to outline. We are talking basics: everyone knows whether a text they are reading works; if they’re still reading it beyond the first few lines, then the text can be said to be working. If you’ve just read the preceding sentence, you now know that this text that I am writing is working. You could probably analyse critically how and why it is working: how is my language making you interested (language-centred critical approach); how the form I have given the text helps the reader understand my points (formalist); how the biographical facts of my existence have led me to write this text, this very word (biographical approach), perhaps leading on to an examination of my conscious and subconscious motives (psycho-analytical approach). If I drew a picture, you could do the same. If I recorded an album, you could apply those techniques.

And these are some of the techniques I will apply to hip-hop music. For those of you who don’t know, in Academia there exist thousands of journals where every month people are paid to apply these patterns of thought to texts and pictures from throughout history. They are things that are loaded into what we call the ‘cultural cannon’, things like Shakespeare, Da Vinci, and even Tolkien; these are things that are accepted as art, as worth thinking critically about.

These people are supposed to be, and in many cases our, advancing human understanding. By finding out ‘how a text works’, they are unlocking what keeps us fascinated by certain works of art; they are helping us to understand why we understand what we do about books and pictures – they are helping us to understand ourselves.

The problem is, as always, that if you haven’t read Shakespeare, an essay on why “Macbeth” acts as a useful description of the determinism argument is useless. ‘Determinism’ – more jargon, but an idea that confronts everyone every day: are things really fated to happen, is someone up there pulling the strings, etc. ‘Determinism’ and arguments about it can be found and revealingly unpacked in Shakespeare, and can lead to an enhanced understanding of the issue. But they can also be found in the recent work of Eminem, and if examined with similar pursuit and precision as that applied to the elder Bard, can enhance understanding of the ideas to. And more people who need to understand these arguments for and against ‘determinism’ will have listened to Eminem than will have read Shakespeare. The aim of formal criticism is, in helping people to understand art, to help them understand themselves. This is my aim too.

This site will probably not attract any readers. Anyone who understands already the critical methods I will apply will probably abhor hip-hop: anyone who listens already to the music I will examine will probably be actually unaware of criticism. But if just one literary critic listens to one rap track with similar care as he reads his James, and if just one hip-hop head listens to that same track and applies a newfound critical care to it, then I will have achieved my aim. There must be a crossover somewhere.

Hip-hop should explode out of the cultural cannon with an intellectual bang, not lie damp and unburned at its side, ignored by the gunners and underestimated by its producers.


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