Like Chris Rock once said, “I love rap music, but I’m tired of defending it.” Getting serious about the culture invariably involves taking up arms against detractors who assault the legitimacy of hip-hop as a form of expression year after year, arguing with music professors who don’t consider rap to be music, and running interference as pundits debase our poets. But our crusades aren’t always just, and all too often our war is with ourselves. In the ‘80s and ‘90s, rap magazines’ East Coast bias drove a wedge between fans of East Coast, West Coast, and Southern rap. In the late-’90s, the underground/mainstream schism further pitted fans against each other. In the internet era, fans of the powerful music of the Diplomats had to explain themselves, and skinny jeaned blog darlings like Kid Cudi and the Cool Kids were lambasted under the banner of “hipster rap.” As crunk and snap gave way to trap in the South, the lyrical merit of Gucci Mane came under fire. Gucci begat Waka Flocka Flame, and Flocka begat Chief Keef, so on and so forth. The faces always change, but every year the hip-hop community finds itself engaged in a civil war for control of the rap narrative. The recent praise of Chief Keef’s brand of ultraviolent trap music by emergent sources of hip-hop criticism like Pitchfork, Fader, Spin, Gawker, etc. is seen by various members of the hip-hop community as a dangerous movement toward fetishizing black unrest by white writers who don’t have to live with the consequences of doing so.
This view of whites as clumsy interlopers in black music can be traced as far back as 1960, when poet and essayist Amiri Baraka complained of a similar phenomenon in his essay “Jazz and the White Critic.” Relations seemed to improve for the hip-hop generation, as uptown and downtown New York crowds co-mingled in rap’s formative years, and luminaries like Grandmaster Flash, Jean Michel Basquiat, and Blondie’s Chris Stein and Debbie Harry ran in the same circles. White rap fans like Yo! MTV Raps co-creator Ted Demme fought hard to increase the profile of hip-hop in the late ‘80s. Things got tricky for whites in hip-hop in the early ‘90s after Vanilla Ice blew up (and imploded quite spectacularly), and white rap fans had a hard time shaking the stigma of his terminal corniness. It’s a period immortalized in William “Upski” Wimsatt’s 1993 essay “We Use Words Like Mackadocious,” which describes Upski and his friends’ earnest search for an entry point into black culture and how they were frequently made to feel, sometimes rightfully so, like they were pounding away at a brick wall. Eminem eventually restored faith in the white rapper, and there’s more racial integration in hip-hop than ever before, both onstage and off. And yet the treatment of hip-hop by some as a gated community for people of color persists.
Dyed in the wool traditional rap fans demand a baseline of lyrical dexterity and conceptual heft of their music, and whenever an ostensibly substandard artist slips into the national consciousness, the ascent is blamed on the malevolent influence of cultural tourists, of “outsiders” who place a premium on the perceived authenticity of violent, ignorant street rap rife with dumbed down, debased lyricism. “If you were born and raised in the culture,” the general logic goes, “you wouldn’t tolerate this stuff. You can’t be from around here.” Or, as Jamilah Lemieux of Ebony Magazine said, “This is what happens when a person who is far removed from someone else’s world decides not only to peek in, but also tries to narrate from the outside.” Beyonce’s sister Solange has also spoken out against “Ivy Leaguers” with “no access to the real culture” usurping the rap dialogue. It’s a sentiment shared by many, many more within the community, and others have even gone as far as to suggest that white writers’ support of trap music is something more nefarious.
Favorable reviews of lightning rod trap albums like Waka Flocka’s Flockaveli and Chief Keef’s Finally Rich in publications like Spin and Pitchfork are seen as affronts to hip-hop culture not only because they promote music that reinforces injurious images of black culture and carries the potential to foment gun violence within the community but because they garnish the music with rich critical consideration that digs deeper than the music appears to. Squaring off against critic Jon Caramanica on the latest New York Times’ Popcast, Brian “B. Dot” Miller, content director of the rap blog Rap Radar, complained that Spin writer Jordan Sargent’s fiercely divisive Finally Rich review “made claims for Keef’s lack of creativity and lack of lyricism” and “tried to find deeper meanings that weren’t there.” B. Dot has been less measured on Twitter, where, in light of the Gawker article that touted Keef as “hip-hop’s next big thing,” he tweeted that “white-elitist media outlets will be the downfall of hip-hop.”
Mainstream rap media’s blunt force opposition to the meddling of white “outsiders,” now conveniently dubbed “hipster media,” has forced a number of writers into unfortunate positions of defense, from Sargent’s rebuttal to the blowback from his review to Dave Bry’s New Republic piece on how and if white writers should engage violent rap to this Forbes article about the value of cultural tourism to moralist music critic Jim DeRogatis linking Chief Keef to the Newtown, CT school shootings in his Finally Rich review. The fact that so many people feel compelled to cop pleas is a surefire sign that the discourse on Keef and violent rap has gone off the rails. We’re no longer talking about how to better handle divisive and potentially harmful music in the press. We’re just telling white writers to fuck off and stop writing about rap. That’s not a solution that’s fair or enactable. As rap writer Andrew Nosnitsky retorted, “Fence in your culture, and see if it prospers.”
What often happens when we let mainstream urban media control the rap narrative is suppression. This is the same wing of the hip-hop community that refused to acknowledge Los Angeles rap collective Odd Future until they became the talk of the whole of the non-rap music blogosphere, and sites whose indifference they ruthlessly took to task in their raps began reluctantly covering the music. This is a community that tacitly rejects every new Kanye West project because his forays into more progressive musical territory are too weird for hip-hop. This is a community that rejects trap artists like Flocka and Keef because their hard-hitting beats and pared down lyrics are too dumb for hip-hop. This is a community of gatekeepers with an often smug disinterest in up-and-coming artists forging forward on rap’s outer limits, who prefer to shoot down the middle, manipulating the narrative by pushing populist, cookie-cutter mainstream MCs instead of covering what’s really going on. Who the fuck cares about Ace Hood?
There’s a disconnect with the outer limits of hip-hop hampering its ostensible tastemakers’ point of view, but there’s also a fundamental misunderstanding of so-called “outsiders.” Anyone in semi-regular contact with casual rap fans knows that the ironic trap-lover is largely an imaginary trope. These people listen A$AP Rocky and Kendrick Lamar and Danny Brown as much as any of the trap artists of the moment. Anyone paying the slightest bit of attention to Pitchfork (or Fader or Spin or whoever else) knows that for every review exploring the value of a Chief Keef, there’s one championing a Freddie Gibbs. Jayson Greene, who gave good marks to Chief Keef’s Back from the Dead mixtape, also spoke highly of the latest Nas and Kendrick Lamar albums. Jordan Sargent has also shown support for Meek Mill and Pusha T. The hip-hop community is so deeply engaged in ferreting out outsider provocateurs that it can’t see the fundamental lack of understanding it perpetrates in glossing over the lion’s share of indie media’s constructive hip-hop criticism just to find the bits that offend.
In times where indie media has decided to run violent rap content, it has usually done so with some measure of trepidation. The dialogue about Odd Future’s violent, misogynistic music that followed the group’s inaugural round of live performances lasted a full six months. Spin caught flak when its rap blog outright called for more street rap, but it has written extensively and sympathetically about conscious rap as well. For all its love of street rap, Fader bolsters its coverage of the stuff with in-depth features on artists like Chief Keef and Future that explore their situations panoramically. Look at any of the mainstream rap blogs associated with the people doing the most complaining about the Faders and Pitchforks of the web, and you’re not really getting that. You’re getting a coalition of content aggregators telling critics what to cover and how and then just running all of the problematic content critics are digging up without any discussion of the social implications of the music. You’re getting hypocrisy. Rap Radar’s crusade against Chief Keef ended in Finally Rich being declared the worst album of 2012, but click around the site, and you’ll find that they’ve posted every Chief Keef mp3, video, behind the scenes video still, and news story that transpired in 2012. Hate the artist, love the clicks? Can an rapper be too dangerous for the community and too terrible for hip-hop but too good for traffic to ignore? Are content aggregators exempt from the standards of decency they exact of longform critics? Are industry insiders allowed to play by a different set of rules?
The insider/outsider debate is a wreck and a diversion. The battle over the merit of trap isn’t about quality control. It’s really a collision of differing sets of criteria for what makes a good MC. Much of the objection to the Futures, Keefs and Flockas stems from the prevailing view that they can’t rap. This is a line of thinking steeped in a very specific and restrictive idea of what makes a good MC. It prizes lyrical dexterity almost to abstraction. Rhyming words really quickly is an important building block of good rap, but awful rap has come along that treasures it, and great rap has happened in its absence. Eminem’s last three solo albums are master classes in wordplay whose soullessness and stringency make them hard to listen to. Flockaveli’s lyricism is chantlike and methodically simplistic, but it is the gold standard for modern aggressive party rap. There’s more than one axis for measuring good rap, and classifying a Keef as awful just because he doesn’t stack up on the lyrical miracle axis ignores the terse and subtly influential brand of pop rap songwriting he mines on Finally Rich.
The hipster media witch hunt also takes attention off of the classism and internal racism fueling the hip-hop community’s vehement rejection of trap music. Race politics are the burning core of this debate. Former BET editor and current Well Versed editor-in-chief Andreas Hale has referred to the music of Keef and others like him as “nignorance” and railed against the rap press for “rewarding ignorance.” Judnikki of Sermons of the Side Eye spoke on the origins of the hip-hop community’s discomfort with trap music in a series of interactions with Andrew Nosnitsky on Twitter. She spoke of America’s unresolved issues with racism, the potential of the crude behavior of unsupervised youth to reinforce negative stereotypes about black culture, and the psychology of embarrassment created in people who worry that society at large sees us and our not-so-classy neighbors as being culturally of a piece. It’s important to understand that the dismissal of members of the community as “dumb,” “dirty,” “ratchet,” “ignorant,” etc. is, in its intent, corrective. It’s a way of reassuring onlookers that, hey, we don’t all act like that. But their art and struggles are part of our narrative, and no matter what horrible truths they reveal about our society, attention must be paid. Anyone who says otherwise is pushing an agenda, putting forth a vision of the culture that doesn’t line up with reality.
Anyone who feels like Chief Keef’s popularity is the result of hipsters playing dress up with black culture is blind to the actual mechanics of Keef’s rise, which was a groundswell of organic support from local black teenagers carried out in the relative absence of rap blog support. How many more stories of rappers’ success in the face of rap blog indifference have to transpire before we realize that the mainstream rap blog machine is broken? How long will it take us to understand that hip-hop is larger than any of our individual conceptions of it, that this music plays to more than just the inner city, that the best picture of modern hip-hop is derived from the unity of our varying voices? When will we learn to value each other’s perspectives? I don’t expect this debate to end anytime soon. We’ve been arguing about this stuff forever. But the least we can do is dispense with the formalities. Kill the euphemisms. Kill the myopic finger-wagging. Kill the tough talk. Kill the politics of personal advancement. Kill the marginalization of genuine fans, writers, and friends of the culture. This “take the culture back” line sounds a lot like racist Republican electioneering. Look at what happened to them. Rap deserves better. We deserve better. One.
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