The surest sign that a society has turned the corner into darkness is when we begin to appreciate people more for their vices than for their virtues. This has always been the “thing” that has stopped me from absorbing hip-hop culture into my matrix in the same way that I have, like a benign continent, absorbed other cultures in the past. I could resonate to the righteousness of Dr King or the anger of Malcolm X but find it hard to work up much sympathy for the raging of millionaire gangstas a mere generation later.
It’s not that I don’t get the “nigga” thing as a means of defence and ironic self-definition. It’s not that I don’t understand the “bitches” thing as a back-handed social comment on the way we all ensure there is always someone lower down to kick. it’s just that I think it’s wrong, wrong, plain wrong, misguided and ultimately auto-destructive. However attractive all that robbin’ the ‘hood loyalty might be and however infectious the rhythms or deucedly cunning the rhymes: as a tribe, once you get this far, the only way out is up. And, unfortunately, that’s going to remain the road less travelled. Digging a hole to go deeper is far more probable; because it pays, because down is definitely the new up and thus vice the new virtue. But decadence as a calculated attitude and a political stance can only buy you so much media time, only so much street credibility, can only justify so much sympathy, interest or column inches. It’s a slippery slope and it only gets steeper. Whatever can be said for promiscuity, drugs, guns, bling and a really dope ride – for surely a great deal is
said – this is an unsustainable path for even short-term human development.
Black music so glories in its sub-cultural and fundamentally misunderstood status that it reinvents itself the moment something starts to go mainstream. This we know. There was gospel, blues, jazz, be-bop, hard-bop, free jazz, R&B, soul, funk, psychedelic funk, crossover, disco, hard funk, rap, gangsta rap, hip-hop, trip-hop, slip-hop, r’n’b-reloaded, jungle-beat, smooth-hop, psychedelic-hop ... each iteration leaving a little trail of brilliant diamonds and some starry-eyed acolytes in its wake to keep the fire. But one thing has constantly typified the last two decades: an absurd loyalty to the booty call and the lyrical bottom line to the exclusion of all reasons for artistic endeavour.
Now, you can’t subvert your presumed peers anymore when they already scraped the barrel before you even got here. So once you’ve worn your pants baggy, shredded, patched, gilded, at quarter mast, half mast or no mast at all, once you’ve pulled your cap on every which way, once you’ve realized you need someone bigger and stronger than you just to wear your chains, once you’ve run out of words that can’t be said on record, you’re left with what? Respect, is that what this is about? Who’s kidding who? No one gets any kudos nor causes much alarm by shouting “fire” in a theatre that’s already filled with pyromaniacs.
So why do I care? What does it matter to me whether the entire nation of hip-hop slides off into oblivion? It matters because this, not so long ago, was the tree whose fruit we were warned not to eat ... which was why we ate it, and in return it gave us the Yardbirds and the Stones, the Beatles and Cream and Hendrix and that first glorious generation of rock’n’rollers. From this tree we continued to feed, refreshing our thirsty muse every few years as yet another innovation came crashing down and exploded – all juicy pulp and pips – right in our midst. We, the first-worldly, the polite end of society, have grown used to pollinating our secondary, yet nonetheless brilliant culture from this primary root. But now, not only has it become obtuse, opaque, impenetrable, possibly even incapable of further fecundity, but it has also let itself be led so far astray by money, power and the lure of criminal glory, that it has become idealistically void of content and thus cannot find its own way home, nor imagine any more what home (and be it ever so homie) might even look like.
Is the situation hopeless? Will this be the end of black-on-white, counter-cultural, cross-fertilization ... once we’ve exhausted the African, Asian, Indian and Latin options, of course? Probably not, one day something radical might yet happen to shake the original tree loose from the loathsome quagmire of luxury and decadence it has sunk into. But until that day comes (and I’m not holding my breath) I can but repeat what I said at the beginning and draw my own sad conclusions, one of which is this: the only really vibrant manifestations in today’s culture are retro or retro-futurist. This is not just a musical thing, it cuts across all the arts and we need to be asking ourselves why. Despite instant global communication networks, we’ve somehow lost the “here and now”, a twenty-first century sense of “now-ness” similar to the feeling that was so palpable in the sixties, even the nineties. To be blunt, we’ve lost the present and I’m not sure how we can get it back, because we never lost it before.
This is a phenomenon bigger than all of us, so I’m not blaming it on Dr Dre or Snoop Dogg or Tupac, who are mere symptoms ... I’m sure they tried to hold onto the “now” but it overwhelmed them in the end. That’s because they wanted to keep it all real. But keeping things real can only take you so far. Without letting a light shine in from the realm of the ideal
, reality alone
will ultimately bring you down. That’s when you lose your own time and place, your own generation, your own chance at history, your one and only shot at the stars. By bringing the stars down to earth you forfeit their brilliance and your own. Sic transit gloria
does not mean “Gloria was sick in the van”, but for many of us today, it may as well mean just that. “G-L-O-R-I-A, Gloria, G-L-O-R-I-A ...” Thank you Mr. Morrison, we’ll get back to you as soon as normal service is resumed, if it is ever resumed.
© Edwin Drood
, December 2012
Illustration: "Hip-haps" by © David John