The Roots Holiday Party shot by Mel D. Cole for Villageslum.com

Questlove of The Roots –or as he’s known around this office “The Boss”–shared a soul-searching (maybe even soul-searing) editorial about the state of hip-hop today. Maybe ‘editorial’ is not the right term–this is an essay in the classic sense, a thinkpiece that surveys the current pop culture landscape and weighs hip-hop’s contribution by the measuring glass of some pretty large-scale philosophical ideas (No spoilers, but it comes up pretty short. The state of hip-hop is not so strong). Questo begins with a three-way epigraph from Albert Einstein, John Bradford and Ice Cube:

There are three famous quotes that haunt me and guide me though my days. The first is from John Bradford, the 16th-century English reformer. In prison for inciting a mob, Bradford saw a parade of prisoners on their way to being executed and said, “There but for the grace of God go I.” (Actually, he said “There but for the grace of God goes John Bradford,” but the switch to the pronoun makes it work for the rest of us.) The second comes from Albert Einstein, who disparagingly referred to quantum entanglement as “spooky action at a distance.” And for the third, I go to Ice Cube, the chief lyricist of N.W.A., who delivered this manifesto in “Gangsta Gangsta” back in 1988: “Life ain’t nothing but bitches and money.”

I have to admit, as someone who spends an inordinate amount of time defending hip-hop culture and parsing the significance of various rap couplets, this intro and headline caught me wrongfooted. Aren’t The Roots living proof that hip-hop is capable of addressing more than b**ches and money? Isn’t asking Cube to step into the intellectual arena with Einstein and John Bradford underselling hip-hop a touch, setting it up to take a dive? Hell, even the ultra-elitist rap of Watch The Throne is full of survivor’s-guilt couplets like:

This shit weird, we ain’t e’en sposed to be here…I’m shocked too, I’m supposed to be locked up, too /
If you escaped what I escaped, you’d be in Paris getting f**ked up, too.

Which conveys a sentiment pretty close to “There but for the grace of God go I…”, you know, minus the religion and the 16th century English. So…who the fvck is you, John Bradford?

There is a difference of course. John Bradford’s insight was never presented as an alibi for the Caligula-esque levels of material excess that admittedly occupy the rest of the couplets on Watch The Throne (and every Jay Z and/or Kanye West album). Maybe John Bradford did go guerillas in Paris in between bids for “stirring up a mob” but if he did, history does not record it (as a quick scan of his wikipedia entry reveals).

More importantly what I failed to recognize until I read further is that Questo’s intro deliberately sets up this tension. He maybe wants us on the wrong foot before he goes to work on his real project here. Which, for the record, is not so much to shit on hip-hop. I can vouch firsthand that The Roots don’t just cover rap hits on Fallon–they take Kanye, Jay and N.W.A. seriously as art and sit around the studio dissecting the strengths of each with the fervor of any rap fan, albeit very erudite rap fans. No, the project in question is to point out that rap as it exists in 2014 is simply not able to take the weight that it is increasingly being asked to carry–the sum total of Black America’s lived experience. Hopes, dreams, triumphs and tragedies; all of it must boil down into something that can be contained in a 30-second Yo Gotti verse or mainstream culture simply has no place to put it.

I’ll just add that from my one listening session, wrestling with these issues is pretty essential to understanding what The Roots’ new LP …and then you shoot your cousin is all about. And that could be summed up as ‘rap without the delusions of winning’. This Vulture essay is just the first in a series of six, so stay tuned for more soul-searing. Much more.Questo, I’ma let you finish now (read the rest of his intro below and then click true to Vulture for the full essay):

Those three ideas may seem distant from one another, but if you set them up and draw lines between them, that’s triangulation. Bradford’s idea, of course, is about providence, about luck and gratitude: You only have your life because you don’t have someone else’s. At the simplest level, I think about that often. I could be where others are, and by extension, they could be where I am. You don’t want to be insensible to that. You don’t want to be an ingrate. (By the by, Bradford’s quote has come to be used to celebrate good fortune — when people say it, they’re comforting themselves with the fact that things could be worse — but in fact, his own good fortune lasted only a few years before he was burned at the stake.)

Einstein was talking about physics, of course, but to me, he’s talking about something closer to home — the way that other people affect you, the way that your life is entangled in theirs whether or not there’s a clear line of connection. Just because something is happening to a street kid in Seattle or a small-time outlaw in Pittsburgh doesn’t mean that it’s not also happening, in some sense, to you. Human civilization is founded on a social contract, but all too often that gets reduced to a kind of charity: Help those who are less fortunate, think of those who are different. But there’s a subtler form of contract, which is the connection between us all.

And then there’s Ice Cube, who seems to be talking about life’s basic appetites — what’s under the lid of the id — but is in fact proposing a world where that social contract is destroyed, where everyone aspires to improve themselves and only themselves, thoughts of others be damned. What kind of world does that create?

Those three ideas, Bradford’s and Einstein’s and Cube’s, define the three sides of a triangle, and I’m standing in it with pieces of each man: Bradford’s rueful contemplation, Einstein’s hair, Ice Cube’s desires. Can the three roads meet without being trivial? This essay, and the ones that follow it, will attempt to find out. I’m going to do things a little differently, with some madness in my method. I may not refer back to these three thinkers and these three thoughts, but they’re always there, hovering, as I think through what a generation of hip-hop has wrought. And I’m not going to handle the argument in a straight line. But don’t wonder too much when it wanders. I’ll get back on track.
I want to start with a statement: Hip-hop has taken over black music…

>>>Read Questlove’s Full Essay (via Vulture)


  • SomeWhiteGuy

    I am assuming you read the whole essay so I don’t need to throw out quotes (if you haven’t you should as this is a sham of an article, like a high school kid trying to give their opinion on Shakespeare) . It is a good intro to what I am guessing will be the first in a number of essays concerning the new role that Hip Hop will play as the dominant form of “black” music and the responsibilities that will come with that aside from painting the portrait of the “the struggle” and needing to extend into other pressing issues. Essentially by consolidating a culture under a term makes it easier for that culture to be dismissed, interesting but I believe it can also give it power.
    Quest makes no point or statement beyond the consolidation of black music into hip hop, but overlooks similar transitions and cycles in other forms of music. He mentions punk but obviously has no knowledge on the subject beyond the superficial. Indie and Punk and Metal and Hardcore all have their own style and temperament and beliefs, but it is overlooked and that dismissal based upon. This dismissal bothered me and worked against Quest’s argument. He should probably stick to talking about the music he seems to have studied in the future, because it became quickly apparent his knowledge outside of the hip hop/ soul/ folk realm is limited. Otherwise a nice jumping off point and a very intellectual set up.

  • Ronin

    well…..I’m interested in seeing how and/or why Questlove thinks hip hop failed black america and not the other way around. I fall on the side that thinks Black America failed to use hip hop as a vehicle to put real life problems in the world for people to experience. Just to get it out there, I’m mixed and it doesn’t make me racist to say something like that. Blaming hip hop for failing black america is kinda like blaming the Bed Stuy for the homeless guy that’s blacking out while he’s standing up on the Ave. If more people were self aware and educated, hip hop would probably be more thoughtful, intellectual and creative, which was more widely accepted in past decades. The fact that black america is so willing to accept ignorance, superficial displays of money, power, misogyny, etc doesn’t only reflect beliefs and systems that were present before it. It also shows how the people involved in hip hop have no idea about how many lives they could touch with simple action. They would see their medium as an opportunity to say something they think is important, but not many do. And if they do, they will be preaching…..which clearly is a negative thing and has been dropped by the overly marketed and reviewed product people refer to as “hip hop”. Maybe that’s his point….maybe it’s not…..but I look forward to hearing what he has to say….and not just a pitch for his new project.

    • Eddie STATS

      “If more people were self aware and educated, hip hop would probably be more thoughtful, intellectual and creative, which was more widely accepted in past decades…” i think the point is that a greater range of thoughtful and creative music *IS available but when it’s made by black artists it must fit under the umbrella of hip-hop to be digestible by mainstream culture. in spite of our post-racial aspirations, the double standard seems to be ever more glaring, in music as in some other arenas…the shift from what was acceptable in decades past also seems to be less of a shift in the tastes of bed-stuy as a shift from music made for a black or at least evenly split audience, to a music that “represents” blackness to a much broader, whiter (and now global audience). In aggregate it appears that audience only wants blackness to represent certain traits and thoughfulness and creativity do not appear to be chief among them. Reassuring ratchetness does.

    • Ronin

      I see two different arguments….1. Demand is only there for one interpretation of blackness within popular culture.
      2. Black music need to be responsible for how it’s represented

      I think the obvious statement is that there is a limited “acceptable” interpretation of “blackness” based on what is allowed to become popular. No doubt. That’s the starting point. Understanding why is more of a substantial question though. I think there could be more complaining about the state of black music if there weren’t so many people willing to play the part and if there weren’t so many people consuming it in masses. Artists are like revolutionaries because they express themselves based on ideals and make strong statements based on their interpretation of the world. There are other “artists” that simply see what they do as a way to attract money and fame. The values of the “artists” do not only reflect what people want to hear. It also reflects what’s most important to them, or if there is anything that’s important to them.

    • Eddie STATS

      Agreed. I am somewhat privileged because i got to hear some of the thought process that went into this essay from the source and altho i dont know where the next essay will go, I know part of Questo’s mission is to address his fellow artists/creatives/culture industry workers, not to say ‘ugh you rapped about dope & strip clubs, you’re bad’ in a school marm kinda way but more like: ‘yo we are setting this hip-hop thing to form a bubble thats so narrow and so over-inflated it cannot possibly sustain its relevance; we need to introduce some diversity into this crop or the crop is going to fail’…and i think thats a pretty solid prediction

  • Can’t wait for the next one!