Where Is Hip Hop?

Culture blogger extraordinaire Alyssa Rosenberg was recently on Bloggingheads with Matt Yglesias (the Grape Drink/Juicebox Alliance continues apace) talking pop and hip hop.

Matt and Alyssa’s conversation touched on the dominance of hip hop in mainstream pop music — it seems like you can’t have a pop song these days that doesn’t have a rap verse, or, at the very least, a hip hop breakbeat — and Alyssa suggested that part of that has to do with the marketing of hip hop to white audiences. They also talked about how that wider audience now finds hip hop more relatable, and Alyssa suggests this is due to both the genre’s internal conversation — she references Jay-Z’s “Change Clothes” — and the marketing outreach.

I think hip hop is certainly growing up. Jay-Z, essentially the elder statesman of the genre, was never an immature artist, but he’s taken to promoting a “grown man” image of the genre. This is, after all, the guy who gave us “30 Something,” a song that defines middle-age fogeyism.

There’s also the question of “ownership” of the genre. Is ownership defined by the people who listen to and buy the music, or by the people who make it? (It’s kind of amazing, when you think about it, that Eminem didn’t spawn 100 more Slim Shadys.) This makes me think about jazz, which was essentially the only ‘purely’ American musical art form. I know a bit of jazz history from my days in Academic Decathlon (yes, your blogger is a nerd), and what’s most fascinating to me is that there were many periods of different jazz branches competing heavily (you still see a bit of that, I guess, if you compare Kenny G to, say, Rachelle Ferrell). But who owns jazz? Its early popularity — and segregation at the time — led to multiple fractures in the genre, and the perfection of several different sounds.

While hip hop has always had the twinning of regional beef — and with the rise of the Midwest and the South in the early aughts, it’s become a quadrangle — the music coming out of each region isn’t very different. Yes, hyphy sounds different and is more awesome (Bay Area stand up!) than whatever Lil John is doing these days, but there’s nothing so diametrically opposed as cool jazz and hard bop were.

I’m not sure jazz and hip hop are perfectly analogous, but I wrote all of this to ask a question: I wonder where hip hop is on its trajectory to becoming America’s second great musical art form?

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  • ACLS

    Wow, deja vu. Just last week one of my coworkers, who in his real life is a jazz saxophonist who studied music at Cal Arts, posited his theory to me that hip hop was on an arc that was extremely similar to jazz, and that in forty or so years, it would hold the same kind of hallowed academic prestige that jazz does today. So you’re not the only one thinking along these lines, and it’s interesting to see someone arrive at a similar conclusion from the hip hop perspective.

  • I don’t know. I think there was a time in the late 80s, when we could have made a fair comparison of the evolution and greatness of hip hop to jazz. Can those same comparisons be honestly considered today based on what seems like very little interesting evolution? Take this all with a grain of salt as someone with a very old school NYC bias (Uptown Baby) and a deep dislike of Jay-Z I think both the honesty of the art and the trajectory compared to jazz has been hijacked and corrupted by money and corporate America in a way jazz never was. There are bright spots of honesty, raw expression, artistic talent and freedom, but they are so few and far between that I am left lamenting Q-tip, Hammer won, rap is just pop.

  • J

    The most important difference between hip-hop and jazz is that jazz musicians, beginning mainly with bebop, had creative control over their music. They made the music they wanted to make and audiences either had to catch up or get lost. In this sense, jazz was not popular music; it was difficult and demanding. It qualified as art. Hip-hop, even at its most interesting, does not approach the complexity of bop-based jazz and I seriously doubt it ever will. Also, jazz, even in its most avant-garde forms, remained rooted in the black community. Consumers of hard bop and free jazz, for instance, were predominantly black, not white. Not the case with hip-hop, which, I think, says a lot.

    • shani-o

      While I do think the widespread appeal of hip hop makes it somewhat different from jazz, I think, like jazz, its relative popularity was hard won (and sped along by money). I’m not so sure about the last part of your comment. I’d argue that avant-garde hip hop is still mostly consumed by black people, since the makers of it are still black. The Roots are the classic example of a hip hop group that enjoys great success among a white audience, but I think they’re the exception (and they’ve been around for 20 years).

      I also think generally, white audiences expect a certain level of authenticity from hip hop artists — the kind of authenticity that someone like Kanye West doesn’t have. I’d argue that his success is due to being embraced/promoted first by black hip hop fans as a scion of Jay-Z.

      Basically, the most ‘interesting’ avant-garde, underground, hip hop artists (and now I’m curious what hip hop you find interesting) are still black, and are still being supported and promoted, at least initially, by black fans.

      • J

        I think hip-hop’s difficulty entering the mainstream has been exaggerated for the most part. It has had a white audience from the beginning–all the way back to its appearance at the downtown danceclubs in New York City during the late 1970s. It was safely ensconced in American popular culture by the 1980s.

        I don’t know the numbers, but the notion that avant-garde rap is consumed mostly by blacks certainly contradicts my personal experience. At every underground hip-hop show I have ever been to–and in the days when I listened to hip-hop seriously, I attended plenty–the audience has been overwhelmingly white, mostly college students. You’re telling me the audience for Cannibal Ox, Atmosphere, Hieroglyphics, Aesop Rock, Brother Ali, or Kool Keith is mostly black? That seems highly unlikely to me.

        My personal taste in avant-garde hip-hop or rap music is mostly limited to early Wu-Tang, Outkast, U.G.K., and a few of the underground acts that circulated around NYC in the late ’90s, such as Natural Elements, Company Flow, Organized Konfusion, and the Beatnuts. But I’m mostly of the belief that hip-hop had its run and hasn’t really progressed since then.

        • shani-o

          I think your point stands about underground artists having a lot of white fans, but these are legends you’re talking about, not unknowns. The last Lupe Fiasco show I went to, most of the audience was white kids. I just don’t know if that’s the case for the majority of new up and coming acts who haven’t yet become underground legends like Aesop Rock or Kool Keith. I don’t have any hard evidence to back up my previous assertion, tho, so I’ll walk it back a bit.

          But I’m mostly of the belief that hip-hop had its run

          You know, I bet some people were saying the same thing about jazz 30 or 40 years ago. I think in a few decades it’ll be safe to declare the death of the genre…it’s too soon to tell right now.

  • I’m really not knowledgeable enough about hip hop to contribute to the contemporary side of the discussion—but I would like to suggest that starting with Bop and Cool might overdetermine how we think about jazz. Pre bop jazz had a trajectory that went from predominantly African American vernacular context to the cross over (and to some extent integrated) popularity of swing. My dad and other white Jewish men like Nat Hentoff and Dan Morgenstern were emblematic of a white subculture of jazz fans in the 40s possibly not so different in some ways from white subcutlures of hip hop fans. I would argue that the white aficionados of pre bop jazz were probably more rooted in urban culture and had more significant representation from immigrant, ethnically affiliated groups (eastern european, Italian, Irish …) than today, but there are a lot of analogies that could be drawn.

    Also want to say that pre 1950s jazz musicians did not have creative control of their music, and the the 3-4 minute recording format and inadequate documentation of live performances from the 20s, 30s and 40s obscures the complexity and sophistication of many great artists from those decades. Some of the magnificence of pre bop recorded jazz is what the artists were able to do within the limitations of recording genres and tin pan alley repertoires. What Billy Holiday did with sometimes very bland material in the 30s and 40s was astounding. Sorry I’m veering off topic a bit here.

    • shani-o

      Thanks for adding the jazz history lesson, Ben. I definitely didn’t mean to ignore pre-bop jazz, but the bop vs. cool era is similar in some ways to hip hop’s regional beefs. And I totally agree that the limitations of recording during that era certainly means we missed out on a lot of landmark jazz pre-1950.

      But that really isn’t the case for hip-hop, however, and I definitely think the genre has matured and become more complex over time.

      Anyway, all of this talk of jazz innovation is making me want to dig up some Ornette Coleman.

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  • young_

    From time to time, I’ve wondered about a related hypothetical: If American society had been as (relatively) racially permissive and the media had been as technologically advanced 55 years ago, could jazz have been as prevalent and central to popular culture as hip-hop is today?

    But given the huge technological, demographic, and moral changes of the past half-century, and J’s point about hip-hop being more accessible to broader audiences, I can’t see why we would expect hip-hop to follow jazz’s trajectory.