prolegomena to any future basedness
January 18, 2011 § 3 Comments
In honor of Dr. KingCompletely by coincidence, actually, here’s another post situated at the intersection of music and race. This one might need a little more context — basically, I’ve been trying for a while now to write something about why I like Lil B, and why I think other people oughta like him too; but it quickly got out of hand, snowballing lyrics and quotes together in an attempt to craft THE definitive Lil B post, with a long digression into rambling autobiography along the way. I’ve broken that last part off into its own thing, which I present here now; further reflections on the BasedGod to follow at some point.]
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“Imagine there’s no hip-hop. It’s easy if you try.”
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My personal history with rap music more or less begins in middle school. Back then, rap was primarily something my friends were into; but I was assured of at least a passing familiarity with it, thanks to the fact that middle school kids never fucking shut up, love quoting things, and especially love quoting things that that are cool or funny or vulgar or all three at once. Rap lyrics hit the trifecta about as often as anything this side of a South Park movie, so whenever a new song about pimpin’ came down the pipeline, you best believe I knew about it. It all seemed fun enough, in the same way that imitating professional wrestlers was fun; but I never really got the feeling that it was anything more than a game, for my friends or for the guys making it.
Around 8th-9th grade, I started actually buying CDs, which almost immediately turned into “defining my identity through buying CDs” and led me to more or less totally reject top-40 music — and rap along with it. I did cop that first Gorillaz album pretty early on cuz I liked the single, which of course had Del tha Funkee Homosapien on it, and later led me to buy one of his albums; but for a long time, that was literally all the rap I owned. At some point after I started reading Pitchfork, I bought an Aesop Rock record, got into Def Jux, and some other critic-approved underground nerd-rap; an older kid I was friends with played me Dr. Octagon; I occasionally heard interesting things I didn’t know the names of on local college radio stations, which usually turned out to be the work of uncool ‘conscious’* rappers, French people, or MC Paul Barman. But I knew somehow that none of this was real hip-hop — not because it was phony or nerdy, but because ‘real hip-hop’ was still pop music, 50 Cent and Snoop Dogg, the kind of stuff that you heard on the radio, that people knew the words to and sang along with, or said in front of uncomprehending teachers to make their friends bust up laughing.
Flash forward to 2005. I’m 18 years old, just out of high school, not quite ready for college; I spend most of my time working and most of my money buying CDs. I am musically omnivorous, or aspire to be; my pretensions about the diversity of my tastes took a hit when I started reading I Love Music, but I gamely sucked it up and set about fixing the gaps in my knowledge. Gamelan music? Sure, why not! Free jazz? Don’t mind if I do! CCR? You mean those dudes who did “Proud Mary” are actually a good band? Okay then, I’ll check ’em out…
Which is how one day, I ended up sitting in front of my computer, watching this video:
What the hell?, I remember thinking at the time; These guys aren’t cool at all! They’re just a bunch of goofy dorks! Don’t they realize how lame they look? Why would I want to watch this? They look like kids I know — they look like a bunch of white kids!
And then, a second later, it dawned on me: Holy shit, I’m a racist.
Because, of course, Tribe never asked to be judged according to my bullshit standard of ‘coolness’; they were just as uninterested in out-swagging the Puff Daddys and MC Hammers of the world as they were in out-thugging the NWAs and Run-DMCs. And if they had been a bunch of white kids with guitars, I realized — if they had been Pavement, say — I probably would’ve found their awkward goofiness charming, rather than cringeworthy.
It was a genuinely eye-opening moment, and I hope I haven’t utterly trivialized it in the course of writing about it. I know that, contra Christianity, one moment of painful Damascine lucidity does not an untroubled soul make. But honestly? I’m proud of 18-year-old me, for being sharp enough to realize that something was up, and brave enough to call himself out on his own bullshit.
In retrospect, I guess what I find most troubling about all this is that, even during the years when I wasn’t really listening to “real hip-hop”, I still carried it around inside my head as some sort of normative yardstick; it was lying there, just waiting for a chance to lash out at some idealistic kids who were naive enough to think they could do their own thing, have fun, and get away with it. Maybe the connection between rap and middle school that I started from is more than incidental. Because if there’s one thing middle school teaches us, it’s how to police differences. I remember making fun of kids for being “gay”, before any of us had the faintest notion of what that might really entail, just because they dressed weird or watched the wrong TV shows. Some jerk in my class convinced me it would be funny to go up to one of my friends and say “George Michael is a faggot” (this must’ve been around the time of his infamous L.A. men’s room incident); I didn’t understand anything in that sentence besides “is a”, but my friend, who was apparently a big Wham! fan, did, and she ran out of the room crying.
Which brings us to Lil B. In lieu of a full discussion, I’ll stick to one song: “I Killed Hip-Hop”, B’s beautiful twisted noir fantasy, off of last year’s Red Flame mixtape. The track opens with our narrator (“I’m Lil B the hitman,” he helpfully explains at the top of the first verse) getting rung up by an anonymous caller with an unusual request:
There’s this dude named Hip-Hop
He old and his hips rock
He need to get off the block, there’s new blood around town
A lot of people told me that they tired of the same rules
Everybody scared to say something, and they scared to move
It’s a great concept, and the rest of the song only deepens it. Hip-Hop, it turns out, is nowhere to be found; Lil B walks the streets, presses DJs and engineers for info, goes digging through old records and contracts, but can’t turn up any leads. “Maybe this an odd job,” he speculates, beginning to worry. He’s gone coast to coast, studied all the rap legends of the past, bought a new gun… all for nothing. Hip-Hop never shows his face on the track.
Which doesn’t stop B from continuing to boast, as the track winds down: “I killed hip-hop… I killed hip-hop…” Well, maybe he did; but if so, it was definitely an odd job — you might even call the whole thing a bit queer.
TO BE CONTINUED…
*: Obviously, I could spend a whole other post on the casual dismissal of rappers tarred with the ‘conscious’ brush, and everything that’s troubling and problematic about it… but I’d rather not, at least not today.