I Want to Listen to More… Hip Hop

I went to a junior high school in South Sacramento where rapper vs. rocker fights actually happened. Generally the rockers lost because there was only eight of them and the rest of the school listened to rap, being in South Sac and all. I think that junior high school was when I began to develop some impressions of rap and hip hop that I still hold onto today.

I want to listen to more hip hop but I don’t relate to ho’s, mo’ money, or guns. I want to listen to more hip hop but 99% of the white people I see listening to hip hop look like the hugest douches imaginable. I want to listen to more hip hop but the music often seems more about making the car next to me as loud and obnoxious as possible.

I don’t think I can complete this post without bringing up the inherent racism that exists in my heart that divides me from all hip-hop-land. Before the 60’s, people were only cultural products of their family members that came before them. Around the world, people were only listening to the music of their people. That exists quite a bit today. Can you think of anybody but Latinos listening to this? I cannot. But things are different today with rap and rock. When Hootie sings a piece of me inside thinks “Ah, he gets good music.” But when Vanilla Ice and Eminem (totally different rappers, I know) do their thing, I often think it’s awful and misguided. That’s probably something I need to lose.

I also don’t think that hip hop is often actually about the music. (Let me also just add that I’m referring to the hip hop that is presented to me from the mainstream. This does not speak of underground stuff for which I have zero exposure). The product that is presented to me is about rappers making their huge amounts of cash to purchase ridiculous homes, drive ridiculous cars, wear ridiculous jewelry, and then rap about all of that to continue the cycle. Obama, early in his tenure as president, gave a specific side-note to the young black men of America in his State of the Union address and told them that their future didn’t only have to be about rapping or playing basketball, and I completely agree with him. The rappers that have made it to the top seem to have this arrogance that they finally got what they deserved and that doesn’t resonate with me at all.

Lastly, I sincerely (fairly or unfairly) question the artistic value of the hip hop industry. “It’s got a good beat” is the crappiest reason I can think of to like a song. Can you even identify what about the beat you like? The fact that 95% of the beats are in 4/4 and the other 5% are in a 6/8 swing to me shows little creativity. Usher proved that you put down a beat into a computer and play four (only four!) synth notes and you’ve a hit with “Yeah!” or whatever it’s called. That to me is LAZY. Seldom, I repeat, seldom, to I see hip hop artist playing actual instruments, though they are often backed up with real musicians on SNL.

However…

I want to listen to more hip hop because I have heard enough that makes me curious and interested. I want to listen to more hip hop because I can’t ignore the impact it has had on the music industry as a whole. I want to listen to more hip hop because I want to exorcise my racist demons and appreciate something from this culture.

So can you help me discover some hip hop with some true artistic intentions and flavors? Can you direct me past Black Eyed Peas, Nelly, and Jay-Z to some artists who are trying to do their own thing? And for the love of all that is sacred, can you direct me to some hip hop that does NOT use robot voice?

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#1 – “The Suburbs” by Arcade Fire

I have a couple friends that can’t seem to get along over the issue of Arcade Fire’s greatness. It seems to have gotten pretty heated through endless posts on Facebook. I trust both these individuals’ opinions on music greatly, so it surprises me that there is this discord. That’s why I have decided that “The Suburbs” will be my first official review.

This may come across as a little racist so please forgive me in advance, but I’m pretty sure every Canadian is in an awesome indie rock band. At least that’s what is seems like sometimes. Arcade Fire is one of the highlights of the wonderful music coming down from Canada this decade that has been slowly growing on me over the last year. 2004’s “Funeral” finds its way into my car quite often.

I’ve always thought that Arcade Fire is a pretty noisy band and “Suburbs” keeps on in this tradition, though with one difference. This is now a band that has “made it,” proven by the fact that they’ve shared the stage with U2. That’s more definitive than being on the Simpsons. This is now a band with resources, but they’ve done a great job by not being overcome with an ability to become too perfect and clean. This album doesn’t have a lot of ear candy and it’s a far cry from polished and that reinforces the album’s overall angsty, conflicted feel. If you want a pretty good visual representation of this sentiment please PLEASE check out this amazing interactive music video done here. This album does two other things amazingly well. The first is that it offers the many members of the band space. There’s a lot of them and I can follow them through the entire album. On “Funeral” the quality was so low that I had difficulty picking out the individual members.I always appreciate being able to hear individual musicians making art as well as the whole ensemble. The other thing that impresses me mostly is that this is a whole piece of work. Albums are seem less valuable in this iTunes universe but this album feels like it was created as a whole piece.

This album is distinctly indie 2010, but it’s also plenty classic rock circa late 1970’s (with one quick detour to disco on “Sprawl II”). It’s long and meaty and offers plenty through the entire album without any dips.

Rating: 7 out of 10

Product or Art: Art

Song I wish I wrote: City With No Children

Best place to listen: On long drives not distracted by traffic or stops

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Product vs. Art

Product vs. art is a big issue for me and it has been for quite some time. I get really hot and bothered by it and it’s something that has, at times, made me look like a jerk for defending my position so ardently. Perhaps a benefit of a blog is that I can rationally lay out my position and the supporting points without the shouting and namecalling that often go with defending such a personal subject of music taste. So here goes.

Justin Bieber, product. Pink Floyd, art.

Maroon 5, product. The Gorillaz, art.

Usher, product. B.B. King, art.

These are just a few examples that I think help illustrate my feelings better than a few paragraphs can, though I’m going to write those anyway. It’s harder to specifically define product and art, but it’s something that nine times out of ten I can identify right away. What is it? Is it the production value? Sometimes, but not always. In my list above, Pink Floyd and the Gorillaz had enormous budgets for their albums. Is it the lyrics? Quite often, yes, but there are so many exceptions to this theory. Is it the style of music? Getting closer, but there are still a ton of exceptions.

For me, I know from my inmost being that Justin Bieber, Miley Cyrus, and the Jonas Brothers are the purest form of product to ever have been introduced to our music vernacular. The common bond is a similar story, mostly pieced together from news, rumors, etc, but it’s what I’ve got. Industry wants to make money, needs something to offer masses. Industry finds young person with plenty of looks and just enough talent. Industry spoon feeds music, look, marketing, distribution, and concert support and voila, product. Justin Bieber went from singing into his Macbook in Canada to having Usher produce is freshman album. Bieber never earned his stripes writing his own stuff, performing in venues where nobody cared.

There’s also so many clear examples of music as pure art. Most of the jazz and classical universe, save the Muzak you hear on elevators. In rock music, too, there’s something about true punk music that refuses to compromise that gives it an enormous amount of cred, even if the music seems hardly artful. I’m thinking NOFX, Bad Religion, Ramones, New York Dolls, etc. We hear these stories of artists who damn the machine if they won’t have them for who they are. It isn’t that they don’t want to make a handsome living or even a modest living playing music. But they will only do it if it’s coupled with the love of the craft, their art.

Then there’s the world in the middle. Those bands that are popular and receive the greatest debate on their sell-outness. Nickelback, anyone? It’s this middle of the road (I hate Nickelback, by the way) that gets rather hard to define and what gets people steamed. Black Eyed Peas, the Shins, the Beatles, Jason Mraz. How much of these artists was art and how much was product? This is where our gut, hearts, and (hopefully) our ears play the biggest part.

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A Few Confessions, First

First, I have a sister, a wonderful sister, who is three years older than me and it took twenty years of my life or so to realize that I idolize her and did many things in life if only for the fact that my cooler older sister did them first. She had a Myspace, I got a Myspace. She got a Xanga, I got a Xanga. She got a Vox, I got a Vox. I’m not certain if I had a Facebook before her or not. I got one in the days when only college students could have them and she may have already graduated. Needless to say, Big Sister started a blog earlier this year based on her passion, reading. (You can view her blog here.) Now I’ve started a blog based on my passion, music. And you know what? I don’t even care if I’m still copying after all these years. My Big Sister has good ideas and good ideas are emulated, not copied.

Second, I think many, possibly most, blogs are vain or narcissistic, and I’m thinking this might be one of them. Big Sister’s blog seems a little more altruistic. She reads a book, she reviews that book. I plan on reviewing albums, but I also plan on framing some discussions about music, genres, industry, and may favorite debate of them all, product vs. art. That’s why I have named my blog thusly. I won’t go into any more detail on that as my next post will be devoted to the subject.

Third, my last two blogs sputtered out from waining enthusiasm. I often got email nudges from my mother asking me to update, since for a time that was the only way I was keeping my family up to date on what was going on in my life. I don’t want that to happen to this one as well.

Finally, this blog is currently ugly. I want to write some stuff instead of making it look good, so that will happen in the future. For now, focus on the words.

So thanks, Mitchell, Tony, and Jessy, for reading my blog from time to time. I am going to write this thinking of the three of you to begin with, since we have shared wonderful conversations about music in the past, and hopefully more people will join in the conversation to offer some broader perspective, like maybe people who don’t think Radiohead is the most amazing thing to have graced two ears.

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