Questlove digs deep into the VULTURE mail bag to answer the questions below his preceding pieces in the 5th installment of the 6-part series entitled How Hip-Hop Failed Black America. His answers address everything from art and commerce to insult and indifference. Though no answer is necessarily guaranteed to solve the problems of anyone fundamentally opposed to the series, Questo does a great job of providing a lovingly crafted set of footnotes for the original articles. Most importantly, he talks the finer points of risk taking within a genre that has historically found some of its artists erring on the side of tried and true staples like bottle popping and swagger jacking musical trends in order to maintain chart placement and/or some semblance of relevance. Ensuring one’s place in the spotlight on those particular terms is often done to the detriment of any real stake in individuality or true creative license. As artists fail to test the waters and take the genre in different directions, they run the risk of dying inside of the categorical boxes they have placed themselves in, in order to survive. Even worse, are the fans that manage to perish inside of those boxes with them. Though Questo professes to have no miraculous cure-all for the problems affecting hip-hop culture, he’s at least got some pretty thoughtful responses to some of the questions aimed at his literary series. Check out a few of his answers below:
Quest-ion: Do you really think hip-hop is losing steam? It seems like it’s more a part of our culture than ever.
Answer: It’s an argument that seems paradoxical until you think it through. It’s like I said back in the first essay: When hip-hop is everywhere, it’s nowhere. In the aggregate, the genre isn’t challenging culture or channeling change in any real way, and it’s even losing steam as a commercial concern. Look at the brute sales numbers. Ten years ago, it wasn’t uncommon for major albums by major hip-hop stars to sell 3 million copies. Now the commercial heads aren’t doing big numbers anymore. Big Sean went from selling more than 300,000 copies to under 150,000. 2 Chainz moved more than 600,000 of Based on a T.R.U. Story, but was down to 250,000 for B.O.A.T.S. II: Me Time. Rick Ross, for the most part, held steady as a gold-selling artist between 2006 and 2012, with albums in the 550,000 to 750,000 range, but his last time out he got to 300,000. Future’s Honest, one of the most highly touted and advertised releases of the year, moved 11,000 copies in its third week on the chart, and has only sold 85,000 overall so far. Mainstream pop artists are lower across the board as well, but there are still a significant number of winners, whether Adele or Taylor Swift or Lorde or Imagine Dragons or Bruno Mars. There are more, and more stylistic diversity, and more of a sense of choice.
Quest-ion: But what about the millions of underground artists who are doing amazing things with the form?
Answer: First of all, there aren’t millions. There are some, and they should be supported. I like Black Milk, Killer Mike, Joey Badass, Danny Brown, and Chance the Rapper (among others), and I want their voices heard. But how influential are independent records, or local scenes? Again, take a look at the charts: When you get to the lower reaches of the top hundred, those albums are selling fewer than a thousand copies a week. Part of the problem is that record labels invest almost exclusively in proven winners. But there’s also the problem that hip-hop acts don’t have the same tradition of woodshedding, of putting in their time in out-of-the way places and hard-to-find spaces. Identities don’t get built slowly and steadily. They go quickly when they go at all. And so they disappear just as quickly.
Quest-ion: So what?
Answer: Lots of people gave this shrug. I don’t like the shrug. It’s an abdication of responsibility for making sure that art keeps doing the things that art should do. If you shrug, that keeps the wheels turning the way they’re turning. It lets corporations turn you into selfish consumers. It lets them fit you for a new pair of blinkers. And that means that predictability keeps getting prized over experimentation and product keeps getting prized over art. I was talking the other day to my manager and a writer friend of mine, and Big Ideas started getting thrown around, as sometimes happens, and a metaphor came up for this process: the redshift. None of us is an astronomer, but we read the papers, even the non-funny-papers. Here’s what happens: One of the ways that astronomers prove that the universe is expanding is looking at distant light. If it’s moving toward us, wavelengths get shorter and it shifts toward the blue end of the spectrum. If it’s moving away from us, wavelengths get longer and go toward the red end of the spectrum. In DJ/sonic terms, it’s similar to what happens with a siren: When it’s headed our way, the pitch is a little higher because sound waves are bunched up. As it moves away, they spread out and that pitch drops. Well, hip-hop culture has redshifted. The pitch has dropped. Innovation may exist, but it’s not the dominant characteristic anymore. It’s moving away.
Quest-ion: So what’s the big deal if hip-hop is on its last legs? Isn’t that the case with any art form? Don’t things come and go? Won’t it pass through a cycle of revival or see something else spring up to take its place?
Answer: My point isn’t about general cultural trends of rise and fall so much. It’s about the way that the fall-off of hip-hop specifically affects African-American culture. Everything about African-American culture has been packed into hip-hop: as an adjective, as a concept, as a cultural marker. When that gets exhausted, much of black culture — black cool, black identity, certain kids of humor and community — finds itself stranded in a cul-de-sac. And it’s a cul-de-sac in a neighborhood that’s decreasingly interested in grappling with ideas. If this kind of empathetic thinking isn’t happening in the broader culture, it’s going to happen even less in black culture. People say that things get worse before they get better, but that’s just something people say. Again, I’ll drop some science as metaphor. Materials have a tensile strength, which is a measurement of the maximum stress that they can withstand before failing or breaking. That can happen as a result of violence, but it can also happen as a result of indifference, or craven commercialism, or thoughtless rhetoric, or thoughtless anything else, for that matter. Hip-hop can be stretched in a way that exceeds its tensile strength. Don’t think that there’s not a point of no return. Is that a triple negative? It isn’t not one.
Read the full interview via VULTURE. Purchase The Roots‘ …and then you shoot your cousin LP via iTunes. Stay tuned for more in the next installment of the How Hip-Hop Failed Black America series from Questlove.