Well, hip-hop has survived a full quarter-century since the 1979 release of Sugar Hill Gang's "Rapper's Delight," a tune that we'll adopt -- for the sake of argument -- as the first hip-hop record ever. A generation has been born and raised, gone to college and gotten jobs since then. What's the current state of Hip-Hop Nation?
The answer: split asunder by warring camps. Some now claim that mainstream hip-hop is the new hair metal, while those on the other side would sooner surrender their bling than be caught dead at a show like the "Mr. Rogers" Definitive Jux showcase at the Rhythm Room on April 3.
These days you're just not allowed to bump to playas like Big Moe and Lil' Flip and the more cerebral types like Murs and Aceyalone. To do so would cost you cred one way or another -- it would be like admitting to your hipster friends, circa 1990, that you liked to crank a little sonic junk food like Winger alongside your much more nutritious Bad Brains.
In today's hip-hop, it's not as simple as underground versus mainstream. For one thing, nobody can even agree on what "underground" means. Is it the more conscious stuff, exemplified most famously by the Black Eyed Peas and the Roots, who are underground by virtue of an aesthetic declaration? Or does the term refer to bling-bling Dirty South artists like Chamillion, considered by some to be underground legends by virtue of their refusal to sign with major labels?
What's ironic about the whole thing is that while the Peas-Roots faction -- so-called undie hip-hop -- claims to be the sole possessor of true underground cred, it's the music they jam that most often winds up on major labels and MTV. And it's embraced by an audience that's often only a little less white than the one you would find at a Conor Oberst show. Meanwhile, the more hard-core rappers from H-town to D.C. continue to sell CDs by the thousands out of their trunks at ghetto car shows, only to find themselves branded by some Pitchfork-reading grad student as less "real" than some wheatgrass-reeking Bennington-educated kid with an Anglo Afro.
Ho-hum. We've seen this all before. Let's say that rock and roll came into being with the release of Elvis Presley's "That's All Right Mama" in 1954. What was rock doing 25 years later? I'll tell you what it was doing: fragmenting into mainstream and underground circles. In 1979, the recently deceased Elvis was even more mocked and vilified and considered every bit as wack as old-school rappers like Kurtis Blow and Melle Mel are today. The megabands of the day -- Boston, Foreigner and REO Speedwagon -- were believed to be as much a part of the problem as people like Ludacris, 50 Cent, Chingy and Nelly are today.
In 1979, punk had already come along, but rock soon crumbled even more. Though Black Sabbath had been around for a few years, metal was just starting to claw its way out of the belly of its motherbeast -- Metallica had not yet alloyed, Def Leppard was still prowling British pubs, and AC/DC's Highway to Hell came out in August '79.
Meanwhile, bands like the Jam, Elvis Costello and the B-52s were perceived by the smarty-pants kids as edgy and alternative, and eventually they pointed the way toward what would be called first college rock and later indie rock. Nerds and assorted other fashion casualties embraced Devo and a host of Brit bands, respectively, and that paved the way for new wave. And even as people such as Elvis and Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis were at the absolute nadir of their popularity, a retro-ish group like NRBQ was releasing some of the best music it ever came up with, while roots-rock bands like the Stray Cats, the Blasters and the Georgia Satellites all first formed in either 1979 or 1980. Each of these schools of rock claimed to be the sole possessor of the music's real spirit.
The two hip-hop factions -- underground (whatever you decide that is) and mainstream -- make the same claim. But as with rock and roll, the spirit is more evenly distributed than the warring sides would like to think.
Some mainstream rap is incredible. Take OutKast, for example. But more often, it's mediocre and/or overexposed -- witness just about every popular mainstream national rap group other than OutKast. These are the people it's safe to say you like in hipster circles only if you qualify it by branding them a guilty pleasure. You can't jam Chingy's "Holidae Inn" without smirking knowingly, much as it wasn't safe to crank up the dial when "Sweet Home Alabama" or "More Than a Feeling" came on the hi-fi back in '79. Still, you want to jam it, so that's saying something. And recently mainstream hip-hop has also been augmented by a subgenre -- crunk, which can be plunked next to heavy metal as a caricature and celebration of all of the music's excesses.
And for the record, just 'cause you're undie doesn't make you cool. At its worst, undie hip-hop is pretty goddamn unendurable. Its emphasis on lyrical skill over sonic texture, abstract rhymes upon abstract rhymes over a hook, is as dreadful as anything this puritanical nation has ever tortured itself with, an endless thicket of wack beats and impenetrable verbosity, all deemed superior to the mainstream because it's so "difficult" and allegedly technically brilliant. Bullshit. Rare is the undie rapper who knows as much about his state's musical and racial heritage as David Banner. Rare is the undie track that can touch the Neptunes' production skills. Rare is the undie rapper with the mike skills of Jay-Z or Eminem, the sense of humor of Ludacris, the balls-to-the-wall party-starting energy of Lil' Jon. And absolutely none of them can touch OutKast in any department.
What's most refreshing about undie has more to do with what it isn't. As most of the rock you heard on the dial back then celebrated partying, so too does the mainstream rap of today. Then as now it was all about getting fucked, fucked up or fucking someone else up, though rap trumps rock in the crass-materialism department. And a lot of people are tired of it -- there are only so many ways to say you get laid a lot, are tough, and have a nice car and a lot of money. Ergo, kinder, gentler rap like what you find on labels such as Def Jux and Anticon, prime purveyors of hip-hop's own new wave.
It was in 1979 that Billy Joel took a look around at all the effervescent turmoil, the splintering of the once monolithic rock culture into warring tribes each marked by their own special attire, and penned "It's Still Rock and Roll to Me." As he put it: "Next phase, new wave / dance craze, anyways / It's still rock and roll to me." That state of ferment seems to be about where hip-hop is today. As someone who came of age with the genre, I feel the same way Joel did back then about rock. (First and last time I cite Billy Joel as an authority, I promise.)
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