Questlove - "How Hip-Hop Failed Black America", Pt. II

Mo' Money, Mo' Meta Blues...Part II Of Questlove's "How Hip-Hop Failed Black America"

Who's Adidas? Questlove on "How Hip-Hop Failed Black America"

Our lord chief rocker Questlove returns today with Part II, the Electric Boogaloo of his Vulture essay on “How Hip-Hop Failed Black America.” In this case perhaps ‘Electric Bugatti’ would be a more appropriate sub-title because this week’s installment of the 6-part series (if only the Breakin’ franchise had shown such longevity!) takes on the obscene materialism of the genre in its current form and its sustainability (or lack thereof). I’m going to restrict my comments to the bare minimum because in this segment, Questo takes a conceptual blowtorch, “Otis”-style to the halfhearted pleas on hip-hop’s behalf I voiced last time…including an in-depth examination of the function that art and kapital play in the role of lyrics from both Jay Z and The Throne. Questlove namechecked Ice Cube, Einstein and John Bradford as the guiding lights of this essay series but we’re entering waters where we might need to navigate between Kanye, Karl Marx and Joseph Beuys. Read on (and get ready for the fire next time…!) -ed.

What do people think of when they think about hip-hop? I don’t mean the technique of the music so much as its meaning. Technique is a limited part of any art form, really: how well Rapper X raps is important but not central. How devious or wonderful Producer X’s beats are can get you on your feet more quickly, but hip-hop isn’t an abstract sonic art form. It’s a narrative one. And what that means is that matter matters more than art. Or rather: what matters to art is its matter, what it’s about, the ideas it communicates to its audience. The other aspects serve it, but perfect performance and production of empty ideas can’t fake the fill. I hope this isn’t a controversial view. It shouldn’t be.

I’d argue that when people think of hip-hop, pretty quickly they think of bling, of watches or cars or jewels or private jets. They think of success and its fruits, and the triumphant figures who are picking that fruit. This linkage isn’t limited to hip-hop — all of American celebrity, to some degree, is based on showing what you can buy — but it’s stronger there. The reasons are complex, of course, but the aspirational strain in African-American culture runs all the way back to slavery days. Slaves couldn’t own property because they were property. When freed, they were able to exist politically, and also economically. Owning things was a way of proving that you existed — and so, by extension, owning many things was a way of proving that you existed emphatically. Hip-hop is about having things to prove you’re not a have-not; it works against the notion that you might have so little economic control that you would simply disappear.

But what are the haves that you might have? And are they the same haves that people had 10 years ago, or 20? You only have to wind the clock back a few decades to see how drastically this dynamic has changed.

Back in 1986, the group standing on top of the rap heap was Run-DMC, and after rising to international prominence, they released a song about one of their prized possessions. That song, of course, was “My Adidas.” Let’s take a look at how rap stars back in the ’80s celebrated what they owned:

My Adidas
walked through concert doors
and roamed all over coliseum floors
I stepped on stage, at Live Aid
All the people gave and the poor got paid

It doesn’t take much scrutiny to see that this is an especially benign form of consumerism. For starters, it’s not about the shoes themselves, in the main. It’s about the group’s experiences on the way to stardom: the audiences that came to see them, the shows they headlined. And fairly quickly, it’s not about them at all — it’s about Live Aid, a benefit concert focused on making sure that “the poor got paid.” In last week’s column, Albert Einstein and I talked about spooky action at a distance, which I reimagined as a version of the social contract: what happens elsewhere also happens to you, and it’s hard to divorce yourself from other people’s circumstances, no matter how much you try. This is that same principle, an illustration of connection. It’s sole music: the shoes convey you to the spot where you can see the haves working on behalf of the have-nots.

But there’s something else, too. Think about the product that’s carrying the song along. It’s a little strange: It’s a German athletic shoe from Herzogenaurach, not Hollis, Queens. But it is also (or was also) part of the Run-DMC uniform: the terry-cloth Kangol hat, the warm-up suits. At the time, Run-DMC was counterprogramming the flamboyance of other hip-hop artists, who were dressing like they were still in the funk and disco eras, with furs and studded jackets. Run-DMC stripped it down, and in doing so, sold a new kind of cool. More to the point, they sold a cool that was accessible to their fans. You could buy Adidas and be in their club, which was a club that you wanted to be in.

What has changed? Well, back in Run-DMC’s day, hip-hop had winners and others, on a sliding scale, all the way down to artists who were making more modest local impact. Now, because of the radical contraction of the market and the reluctance of companies to invest in anything that’s not a sure bet, hip-hop has become almost exclusively about winners, big sellers who have already proven their muscle. And even those numbers are dwindling, to the point where the million-seller club these days contains almost no one — Jay Z, Eminem, Drake, Macklemore, and Kendrick Lamar. You could argue that there are artists a tick down who have more cultural cachet: the big example there is Kanye West, who has sold not quite 700,000 copies of Yeezus. But that’s a half-dozen artists, total, with any appreciable influence.

And what do those artists do? They celebrate themselves, just like the artists of a generation earlier. They talk about products that prop them up, just like the artists of a generation earlier. But what have the products become? Let’s look at one of the descendants of “My Adidas” — a song on Jay Z’s recent Magna Carta Holy Grail called “Picasso Baby.”

I just want a Picasso, in my casa
No, my castle

This is on the opposite side of the planet, ethically and socially, from “My Adidas.” It associates personal satisfaction with a product, but on an entirely different scale. I went to the mall the other day. They didn’t sell any Picassos. You can accuse me of a certain amount of humorlessness, and I’ll plead temporary insanity. But let’s look back into the lyrics. Jay Z isn’t just collecting art. He’s using the brand names of other famous painters to declare himself, by association, as an artist.

It ain’t hard to tell
I’m the new Jean Michel
Surrounded by Warhols
My whole team ball
Twin Bugattis outside the Art Basel

Whereas “My Adidas” highlighted consumer items, “Picasso Baby” is all about unattainable luxury, fantasy acquisitions. Within the first ten words of the song, Jay Z ensures that no one in his audience can identify with the experience that he’s rapping about. He would never want to be in a club that would have you as a member. But this doesn’t offend his audiences. They love it. They want to be just like him so they can exclude people just like them. There’s an even more egregious (comic?) example, from Ace Hood, with his song “Bugatti.” I’ll quote the chorus.

I woke up in the new Bugatti
I woke up in the new Bugatti
I woke up in the new Bugatti
I woke up in the new Bugatti
I woke up in the new Bugatti

Now I’ll quote a verse:

Niggas be hatin’
I’m rich as a bitch
A hundred K? I spent that on my wrist
Two hundred thousand, I spent that on your bitch
You and your model put that on the list

I don’t know exactly how much a Bugatti costs. Oh, wait: I’ve been told by my business manager that it costs Amused Laughter…

>>>Read More (via Vulture)

Our Newsletter

Follow us on Social Media