Jay-Z’s Decoded book has prompted quite a bit of discussion about rapping and songwriting among people who don’t normally give a damn about rapping or hip-hop.
Soured on the general populaces view of hip-hop, it is hard for me to be happy that people are talking about rap. It is near impossible to keep myself from responding to things like “Jay-Z is just a remarkable innovator” (said by older white folks), which “but…”
You see, Jay-Z comes from a tradition of hiding influence. He hails from a generation where “biting” was deemed punishable offense. A culture where admitting that your flow and song structure was perhaps not totally original completely out of the question.
Last month, I toured the Midwest and North Carolina with platinum selling rap group Camp Lo. Rap tours are filled with lots of dead time, and in this instance I used it to catch up on new music, chat bollocks about rap, and discuss rap lineage. You see, listening to “Luchini” each and every night, one can’t possible think about how Suede’s flow might connect to Jay-Z’s Reasonable Doubt era.
This conversation – the Jay-Z/Geechi Suede chatter – continued for much of the trip… my travel partner, Stalley, and I engaging in extended thinking about various rap spurs and family trees. We listened to Max B, thinking about both Curren$y and Wiz Khalifa. We thought about how Wiz draws from several Bay Area rappers as well, notably Too Short. Essentially, we thought about where rap differs from rock.
Over the Summer, I had the distinct pleasure of watching Garth Brooks perform in Las Vegas. This solo show found Garth playing the favorite songs of his life, decade by decade, and describing in detail how each responded to choices he’d made in his own music. Admitting, with great pleasure, all his influences. While the set up was not dissimilar to VH1 storytellers, the end result was different – an artist, in this case, was being analytical about the musical dna of his own career.
Jay-Z has successfully incorporated more strands of rap into his performance than any other man. His talent for writing is equal to an ear for popular vocal trends, and perhaps less than that to which he is able to assimilate them into his own song structures. Decoded presents Jay, primarily, through mass media as a singular genius. Sadly, this manages to oversimplify rap music. In legend making, we only succeed in minimizing full understanding of hip-hop culture. It becomes narrow.
As a sometime hip-hop scholar, I’ve been interested in the lack of texts that explore the many sub-genres of rap music. There are few texts on say “horrorcore” or even just on the importance of an event like Scribblejam to forge a national underground sound. Instead, we are left with aimless discussion of “gangsta” rap… which, while not useless, does not do justice to hip-hop’s musical breadth.
Celebrated in the form of Jay-Z, hip-hop’s breadth remains a mystery to the general public. Celebrated as a book in our culture and community, Decoded continues to fail us in really presenting hip-hop as an art form.
Art, after all, is about conversation. Conversation with audience and amongst practitioners. Influences taken and “remixed” – that once feared “biting” claim – actually proves an intellectual backbone to rap. We should champion that, rather than trying to hide its existence.
By now, we will all have read Steven’s most recent entry.
I’ve woken up daily to some email from Mr. Vogel that has generated a similar discussion almost everyday for the last several years. Are thoughts have progressed during that period. Today we chatted mostly about the artificiality of “street culture”, the failure to acknowledge the nuances of different niches – those that might actually have firm belief and value systems.
Culture, like the word curate (and yes, I write a website called curatedmag… the name was not of my choosing and I’m more than slightly embarrassed by the title) has been belittled in our little online world. In some respects, streetwear did have some tenets I’d associate with a real culture. There are codes of dress inherent to the label, as there are also codes of conduct when it applies to purchase (at times, of course). At Socialconsumer.com, I took quite a bit of time to think about how other cultural constructs related to streetwear. Foodways, for example, has always been a firm favorite. It was easy fodder. So many people taking photographs of food, so little indication as to why that particular food mattered to them, or to the group at large.
Food and foodways continue to plague me. My current interest is in the restaurants our ’street culture’ leaders visit. It’s fun to see the cool creative types, so savvy about how they’ve marketed the masses some absolute bullshit end up eating at the exact culinary equivalent. Beaten, essentially, at their own game.
My brother works in food. He knows the PR folks, as I know the fashion PR folks. He’s got an insider view to food, as we have an insider view to all that glamorous garment stuff.
Half my twitter feed talks about the glory of dinning experiences, the other half think are a waste of time.
What does any of this half to do with street culture in 2010?
Well nothing really, except that a proliferation of media outlets allows for an exploitation of little niches that is rarely questioned by those outside of it.
Nobody questions why people all eat at the same spot. They accept that place as a terrific option.
Same with music. Steven talks about grunge. I’ll take about rap.
Popular opinion suggests rap music moves in singular sweeping trend. Not so at all. No history needed.
My friend happens to be in the most recent edition of XXL. Another rapper highlighted mentions hours of “research” in regards to learning about Outkast and a few other ’90s era groups and individual MCs. At once I imagined watching a shit load of youtube videos. Terrific. These accomplish understanding the sound and look of a particular artist. They do little to help establish context.
Context, so regularly, is avoided completely in our interpretation of the world. Made in the USA. We see this all the time. We very irregularly say anything beyond “but, it is just pieced from foreign fabrics.” Read a politically driven outlet, and commentary regarding the opening of say the New England Shirt Company in Fall River details the number of workers (which I think was something like 36), if it was union or non-union, what it would really bring back to the city… etc., etc., etc. They wouldn’t say a fucking thing about a finished shirt.
They have different concerns. Which, I might suggest, are valuable concerns.
Street Culture has grown and mutated and remade itself. But, really it just looks different.
Our footwear choices are still predicated on store exclusives. Now they are just dressed in the respectability of heritage. We are still arguing corporate involvement. Some of us are still questioning how to properly fight the good fight.
The real question should be how do we remove these constructed blinders?
When I engage in real things – and in this I will throw in my involvement with Words.Beats.Life – I see how cultural products born on the street (hip-hop) are positively impacting youth. And, guess what, there is no required marketing. The children aren’t being sold anything and we aren’t sitting around discussing a social media strategy to get kids into what we’re doing.
No. We are actually going to where kids are. We are offering them a genuine version of the culture we love. We are teaching them skills. And, we are seeing successes. (And, my friends Kevin and Steve at RAW are doing the same in the Boston area with Skateboarding).
So, when we talk about “street culture” let’s think with more multi-layered terms. We are too overly concerned with marketing, too susceptible too it in our everyday life (that food point is to show how falsely driven notions of proper lifestyle are), and it causes us to not only promote poorly but disregard things that aren’t slickly packaged and easily digestible.
Our happiness in ahistorical views has effectively killed off quite a bit of street culture. Before it’s properly good and gone, spend sometime looking at those who engage in sub-cultural activities without eying a profit. They are still around. And, they haven’t fucked up the things you claim to like.
Bailey Hunter Robinson put this on me two weeks ago. The design is from 1906. We kept the size and line intact, and he shaded rather than colored (as is my preference).
Last night I saw Slayer. It was awesome. I am now a better man.
I haven’t been tattooed for… gasp… four weeks.
I’ll amend that Tuesday. Going for a quick visit with Bailey Hunter Robinson at Saved. He and I share a similar passion for very raw early American folk art tattoos.
He’ll be putting on this number, from C.V. Brownell’s 1906 flash book. It will be my fourth from the book. I’ve also started the process of reproducing the work in a limited run of 10, just for friends and family. I am quite excited about getting it back from the printer.
I’ve been missing (and missing from) this space for quite a while. In part, that is because the last few weeks have been filled with the types of events/work/thoughts that I hope to never push on the lodge. Those being meetings with “famous” people, cool guy parties, and trips to Vegas that included wild clubbing with celebrities (I went to NBA Summer League, and if there is anything that makes me feel like a kid, it’s the NBA).
That being said, most bloggers would probably use pictures from experiences like those mentioned above (and no text) as stamp of coolness, importance, and ultimately status.
I’d rather not.
As such, I’m a pretty unsuccessful blogger by normal accounts. I don’t have a great gauge on what people want and I don’t really like to exploit personal experience for profit.
I mention somewhere (twitter) earlier this week how little I care for people who engage in subculture only as it relates to commercial venture. It devalues culture, and more so makes it stagnant. There are many unheralded folks who spend their days transferring their passions into learning experiences for younger folks.
My family at Words.Beats.Life is an example. My friends at RAW, in MA, make sure that they provide a safe and positive space for local skateboarders and that they serve as beneficial role models.
I’ve got a great respect for people like these.
People who engage truly in their sub-culture. People who make it a true sub-culture.
To that end, I’m heading out to Pittsburgh this weekend to speak at the Association of African American Museums Annual Conference. I’ll be on the “Hip-Hop Education and Museums Panel.” The reason I’m going is Mr. Kenneth Davis. Late last fall, Kenneth invited me to sit on his Master’s Thesis committee at the University of the Arts. His work focuses on how to harness hip-hop culture to positively engage youth in museum installations. I’m really proud of what he’s accomplished, and proud to be (once again) part of something hip-hop related that will generally go unnoticed. People like Kenneth follow in the footsteps of folks like Martha Diaz and Mazi Mutafa (my director at WBL) in pushing hip-hops cultural progression. These are the folks I look up to and who, though my peers, I’m also happy to call my heroes.
While it has been fun to sit in studios with rap legends and high five NBA All-Stars, in the end these are meaningless events.
What keeps me going are the moments people like Kenneth and Mazi are so nice to invite me to be part of. They keep my passions alive. And, most importantly they always remind me that sub-culture is so much more than a lame marketing ploy.
Currently reading William Styron, A Life by James L.W. West III (for what it’s worth, he’s Distinguished Professor of English at Penn State).
I borrowed it from a friend who has got both great taste in literature and a healthy curiosity in Americana.
Being a bit scattered in my reading recently, I’ve dug into this biography with great pleasure (also helped by the fact I’ve essentially taken a week off), and in the initial stages of the book have been pleased with West’s ability to tap into the peculiarities of American life in the early decades of the 20th-century.
For instance, he describes with acute detail how Styron courted his first love – ultimately a failure – over a two year period. He also neatly positions the Virginia City of Newport News among its Southern peers, making place an important part of the story. Which, in each and every chapter, it remains.
In the preamble, in which West describes Stryon’s daily walks, place is set as a crucial element to the authors story. Place, not to be confused with setting, is too an important factor in all our individual biographies.
I’m reading the book during a point in life where contemplating a move has turned to acting on one. I’ve ended my lease in Philadelphia, and am patiently weighing options.
These options include cities. And, also include the country.
It is a moment of considering how place, and the next place I make a stake in, will most benefit my growth and personal development. The old adage “location, location, location,” takes an unusual twist and it relates now to happiness and less with real estate-based prospecting – however, it fits and has for the first time been of true concern.
In short, I’m sick of where I am. And, am deciding if I am a man that requires more dynamism in my surroundings or one that would rather just stick his feet in the grass (and find place in a smaller community).
William Styron, A Life isn’t really about place. It is, quite clearly, about a man.
Still, the book has dovetailed nicely with current thinking… which has made for most satisfying reading.
Who was I to deny this young lady the pleasure of a picture with me?
Custom made by Griffin Clothiers, Hartford, CT. Worn to a Miguel Cotto fight at Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City, NJ. Inspired by a recent blog entry from Gary.
Sometimes you have to take the piss out of yourself.
Last week I was on a press junket to New York.
Won’t blather on about that here, but will recap a highlight.
Thursday night a motley crew of English (including fellow Lodger Gary) accompanied my brother, Christopher, on a fact finding mission to Brooklyn. Christopher’s been working on a piece on the City’s best fried chicken and invited us to join him at Peaches Hot House.
They specialize in Nashville Hot Chicken, which takes name from the spice mix used in the batter – traditionally cayenne. At Peaches, the spice is a little different, 1/3 pure capsaicin (for the extra hot most of us order… Magdi was being a pussy). Capsaicin is the world’s hottest spice. Hotter than habanero. Hot enough to burn your cock off should you forget to wash your hands post chicken.
Being mostly of English stock and with natural inclination towards eating wildly hot curry’s, it was only natural that we demanded the hottest possible chicken. The owner, being wise, gave us something “manageable” which turned out to be the fucking hottest food I’ve probably ever eaten. Sure, I’ve consumed lava like sauces and take great pleasure in having my picture taken at hot sauce shops after proving my worth against their top billed varieties. This chicken, however, was a different animal.
Hot to the touch. Hot when breathed in. Burning lips, mouth, throat. And, two days later stomach.
It was amazing.
So euphoric were the lot of us after I could have sworn I’d taken drugs again. I hadn’t been this high in years. Frightening, in some respects, as I am 4 weeks from 4 years sober.
Nashville hot chicken is immediately addictive.
It also builds an insane sense of camaraderie. Gary ordered seven extra-hot shrimp. I’ve never witnessed a man have to hype himself up so much to charge through a meal. Thing is, we all did. Nobody wanted to be called the wimp. (Except Magdi).
In recent weeks, I’ve been to some of the most renowned establishments in the NY-area. Places championed for their cooking and their ingredients and their service.
Few places match Peaches Hot House in any regard. The food is honest. The wait staff attentive and fun. The owners wife – the only person who can eat chicken covered in 100% capsaicin – a modern marvel.
Most importantly, few places deliver such pleasure through pain in a legal fashion.