Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Hip-hop epistemology: how can I trust my CD?

I do not know everything about hip-hop, and being cut off from the U.S. underground scene by a three-thousand mile stretch of water and an inability to find a really decent music down-load site, I don’t know all that much about anything until it comes out in pretty CD-format in HMV. The purists might claim, correctly perhaps, that this is hip-hop hopelessly adulterated by A&Rs and their money-making concerns, an art adjusted to and abased by commercialisation; but I genuinely believe that a high level of the original artistic inspiration makes it through. There are two grounds for optimism in the specific case of hip-hop.

Firstly, there is the strength of the culture of individuality and control that defines hip-hop. Rhyming has always been about using art to gain control in a society which denies it; that’s why rappers are almost always from poor backgrounds in disadvantaged neighbourhoods, where their art-form fills in for what normal scholastic advancement and career opportunities do for the middle classes. Hip-hop by its very nature is anti-adulteration, and whilst it must inevitably suffer censorship of some form during its commercial production, it cannot be controlled by cynical music industry hacks in the way something more bland and banal à la Britney Spears is, nay must, be handled.

Secondly, the self-consciousness of hip-hop albums marks them out as products that have made it through the commercialisation process remarkably intact. That is to say that most hip-hop albums contain some reference to their own creation, referencing themselves and those involved with them within their own structure. The tradition dates back to the very first commercial hip-hop, when the Sugarhill Gang kick off their breakthrough "Rapper’s Delight" by commenting on their own performance: "Now what you hear is not a test; I’m rapping to the beat". This proceeds through album after album where rappers drop the name of the album in its tracks, and gives birth to that hip-hop favourite, the skit-about-the-album. A perfect example is The Marshall Mathers LP, which charts its own creation both in its songs and through its hilarious skits like Paul, and the intro into "The Way I Am". Another, even more pertinent example when talking about commercialisation, is Method Man’s Tical 2000: Judgement Day, where various music industry personalities are kept waiting for the album you are hearing, leaving answering machine messages to demand it’s appearance. That paladin of corporate America, Donald Trump, drops a skit, Method’s cheeky way of poking fun at the business demands on his artistic creation. Xzibit’s Man vs. Machine contains the best ironic wink to the commercial side of hip-hop production, with his manager claiming that "Sony are down (his) throat for this record…".

That’s why I trust hip-hop albums more than any other; after all, even if they are horribly adulterated by commercial concerns, at least the artists are aware of it, and trying to wake you up to that fact as well.


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