Wednesday, December 29, 2004

Target Audience and Authorial Intention in Hip-hop

At the centre of hip-hop there lies a surprising and problematic paradox, one that, if not inherent in the genre itself, burrowed into it so deeply and so soon after its inception that it inheres in it now. All genres define themselves partly by exclusivity; what does not follow the rules of a genre is placed beside it and from this position defines the borders of it. Hip-hop's borders have a tendency rather to fall across these generic sites, annexing them for itself, yet rejecting them full participatory status. And so the hip-hop nation may 'include' Eminem and the Beastie Boys, yet their presence within it highlights the characteristics that define it so much of the time.

These characteristics are actually amongst the most exclusive of any genre. To be considered hip-hop, both by those inside it (the rappers, the industry and their fans) and outside of it (under-informed societal commentators, politicians, parents), the artist should ideally be a black male from a deprived urban area of the United States of America delivering 'raps' over a 'beat'. The reasons for this overriding generic rule and its perpetuity despite such notable exceptions is not the subject of this essay, but what it leads us onto is.

A lifestyle and artform originally developed, aestheticised, and appreciated by a geographically, racially and socially concentrated group of people, hip-hop was also aimed directly at this group. It was circular: b-boys and DJs represented the life of lower-class blacks in inner-city New York, representing it to lower-class blacks in inner-city New York. Despite the ensuing rapid and rapacious commercialisation of hip-hop, which has yet to reach its highest point, much rap music has maintained this characteristic. It is mostly by black artists for black people about black problems. Yet, as the continuing commercialisation itself proves, it is insanely popular outside this demographic. Whereas Rock preaches an almost social-workerish ideal of inclusion and communion in music, hip-hop refuses to do so. To say that many of hip-hop's better artists do not see the benifits of inclusivity in their art (both uncyncially and financially) would be outright false, but hip-hop music is exclusive. It hides itself in new-fangled musical techniques, socio-political polemic, and near unintelligable slang in a way that even the Rolling Stones never quite managed. It is adored by people despite, due to, and regardless of this. The paradox: whilst pushing away all but a small group of people whom it keeps as its unstated but clear 'supposed target audience', hip-hop manages to attract everyone else too.

So why does your average white guy tune into "the black CNN"? And why would an affluent, self-assured, equality-conscious young woman stand to listen to "somethin' for da bitches"? And why, pray, would an educated black man aware of the appropriation of his culture by a white-run industry listen to Eminem? The answers here are as clear as they are bespoke. Everyone has a different reason for listening to hip-hop, but it is usually quite rationaliseable. Thirty years after its beginnings, the same demographic of down-trodden urban America is listening to it because they grow up with it, their parents and friends listening to, getting involved with it; it is their music that they hear on the radio as they grow up, just as a child of upper-class parents may grow up with Mozart in the background. Outside of this, there are, for another example, the listeners in middle America and affluent Britain and Europe who are divorced from the context, and listen to it for reasons as multitidinous as they are: the music itself may be irresistably catchy, or it may be due to peer pressure; indeed, the music is becoming so frequent on the radio that it may well become their formative music too; some may listen to it as a statement of rebellion, or out of curiosity for its message. We could list thousands of reasons with thousands of combinations, but this is not actually the import of the article.

When the music is put into the public domain, its success depends on factors like those listed above. Hip-hop is successful at providing such a variety of such factors as to make it such an exceptional commerical prospect. What is important to us is not why people listen to hip-hop, but what relationship the huge numbers and wide variety of listeners bears to the artists of a genre so pretendedly aesthetically exclusive.

To look at the genre in a structuralist context is helpful in clarifying our thought on it. Structuralism as a critical method is a long and fascinating/deathly-boring discussion, but in order for this article to be profitably consice, we will examine one particular aspect of it: the ideal reader. Structuralism removes the text from both its writer and its reader: the author cannot choose his reader, and by extension, cannot 'target' his work at a chosen reader. The reader is there to examine the text in perfect knowledge of the implications of its language and come to conclusions based only on what he reads regardless of the author.

This theory has many, many faults: foremostly, divorcing the creator of an artitic work from it is impossible; yet this approach, as long as it is used simply as one tool of a full kit, can be profitable in examining the one thing it denies - authorial intention.

So let us say that a rap song is a text extant, there to be read, considered and interpreted by an 'ideal reader'. This ideal reader, according to structuralist principles, would require a perfect knowledge of the language and frames of reference of the text, as well as a full critical armoury: for example, he would be able to recognise, categorise, cross-reference and then interpret accordingly every allusion the hip-hop artist made. So to do this, the reader would need a literary education, yet an intricate knowledge of one of the fastest-changing and bafflingly inventive vernaculars ever to surface for wider consumption. He would then be able to understand the undercurrents and hidden meanings of a hip-hop song, and forge an interpretation of it.

The ridiculousness of structuralist theory, intent on extracting meaning without intention, intention without person, must strike anyone. Yet by removing the hip-hop artist as it would ask us to do, we consider his text like any other. The ideal reader required to read it would have a little more work on his hands than with a piece of 1920's novellistic fiction written in standard English, but, given time to swot up from his ghetto dictionary, could examine the text and extract both its overt and hidden meanings.

Now, if we remove the structuralist ideal reader and replace him with the listening public, we realise that most people who listen to hip-hop are woefully deficient in at least one of the above skills, often both. University educated literary theorists who listen to enough hip-hop to have sufficient knowledge of its slang (let alone visual and musical conventions) to produce an interpretation are thin on the ground.

Now let us completely re-disregard structuralism and replace the creator of the hip-hop work in the equation. He is producing music on his own terms, ignoring the concept of the 'ideal reader' and making no concessions to people unable and/or unwilling to understand him. Whereas a traditional novellist or journalist feels himself forced to make concessions to standard English for their texts to be interpreted, the average hip-hop artist makes few. Yet he does not target his linguistic or musical peers alone; he puts his music into the public domain. The fact that most hip-hop artists are more than happy to perform abroad shows their confidence in the face of their actual incomprehensibility: the message of the art may be transfered by the music, by snatches of understood words, but no artist can hope that a Polish teenager can put together a fully coherent interpretation of a verse stuffed with slang.

Obvious answers as to why hip-hop artists are happy to target their art in its form at a notionally understanding black audience up on their slang and the conventions of the genre, and yet to target it in its practice at anyone willing to listen are: fame and money. Others are, to briefly reapply a structuralist perspective, that: once in the public domain, a work of art looses not only control over its recipient, but the control and existence of its creator.

Yet to textually examine some of hip-hop's defining raps, we can see a more complicated set of issues concerning who the artist is targeting, a target that frequently changes with the vintage of the artist, as well as other factors. The 'implied reader' that structuralism denies is there in much hip-hop, but not as a one and only. The implied listener of much hip-hop is the young black male, but the artists are frequently conscious not only of the fact that others will be listening in, but that as artist, he is himself using the implied listener to address these other listeners.

A good place to start an exploration of this is "Rappers' Delight" by the Sugarhill Gang. It is not the first hip-hop text, but it is the first hip-hop text to be fully recorded in standard, consummable form, and then to be consumed by the wider public. It is, for our purposes, a convenient "beginning" of hip-hop as a cultural product.

Now what you hear is not a test; I'm rappin' to the beat
And me, the groove, and my friends are gonna try to move your feet
See I am Wonder Mike and I like to say "hello"
To the black, to the white, the red, and the brown, the purple and yellow
But first I gotta bang bang the boogie to the boogie
Say up jump the boogie to the bang bang boogie

As a introductory narrative of hip-hop and its aims, this text is at once revealing and deceptive, although it clearly could not and did no fully anticipate the present position of the genre as a world-wide capitalised industry. Whilst offering an idea of cultural inclusion on the surface of the text, disregarding colour to the extent that it becomes surreal, Wonder Mike tacitly aknowledges that his greetings to all races are still aimed at these races through his own racially limited discourse. He does this by using black slang that others will find confusing: "rappin'", "bang bang the boogie". We must remember that in its 1979 cultural-context, even the word "rapping" was not instantly recognisable. The song simultaneously functions as a self-conscious introduction to their genre ("what you hear is not a test; I'm rappin' to the beat"), yet as a deliberately uncompromising, perhaps obscurantist furthering of it ("but first I gotta bang bang to the boogie"). It smacks of a baptism of fire, a throwing in at the deep end: the briefest of introductions, followed by an enforced participation. The extreme catchiness of the music, taken from a culturally more familiar context ("Good Times") makes it irresistable to not just to its usual audience of black locals in underground clubs, but to the wider pop-consuming public. It is at once a definition, a continuation, and a mutation of hip-hop as it was then known. It is continuing to target one audience, whilst implicitly targeting another.

The question of authorial intention is, for once, relatively easy to determine here. The Sugarhill Gang were fully aware that this song was to be taken as a first attempt at commercial diffusion, partly explaining the precautionary "now what you here is not a test". Yet, aware of this imminent spread beyond a core of people within their highly linguistically exclusive, class- and race-orientated discourse, they refuse to 'tone down' the slang in the rest of a song, a tradition which hip-hop has followed ever since.

And through the changing styles of those who followed the Sugarhill Gang, from the mid-eighties onwards varying more and more in geo-linguistic terms, adressing the audience has remained an indispensible skill for the hip-hop artist. A large proportion of rap albums begin with an Intro, which is frequently an opportunity for the artist to direct his work much like a preface. Most songs then include frequent direct address, from the general "Yes yes y'all" to the more specific references of more unusual artists, such as Eminem. Much of the direct address of the audience is drawn directly from live hip-hop culture, which includes standard, formulaic, but guaranteed-successful exhortations of the audience to 'wave your motherfucking hands in the air', or to divide the floor and encourage them to shout each other down. This is often inserted into a hip-hop album either as a live-recorded snippet or as part of the actual rap.

As both, this kind of referencing of the participatory origins of hip-hop serves several purposes. The listeners who have seen the act live, those 'closest' to the artist - the original 'target audience' - are reminded of the credible roots of the artists, whilst those outside of this original bracket are reminded of them too. Yet, despite not having been there from the beginning, despite perhaps never having seen the group live, the listener feels not excluded by this exclusivity, but drawn in. When a rap artist calls out for all his real niggas and bitches to get down to this shit, it does not stop a young white British male dancing all the harder.

As such, the 'target audience' of the hip-hop artist is anyone who wants to feel included; the authorial intention of targetting an often racially and geographically specific audience ("for all m niggas..." or "for all my peoples...") is not to attract only this target audience, but to attract anyone who might want to be in this target audience. This is where structuralism helps again: by removing the context of the hip-hop artist making such statements on record, they cease to become exclusive. All of a sudden, if the artist and original context are removed, they begin to look like simple rhetorically exhortative insertions to get the reader involved, part of the system of the text.

To add back in the artist, we see that what appear to cries aimed to exclude actually effectively include the widest but best audience; those who want to subsribe to the call. As such, hip-hop is actually offering a 'communion in music', but in a politically incorrect and very un-social-workerish way.


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