San Francisco Chronicle via Pacific News Service, Youth Commentary, Published Oct. 12, 2003
Editor’s Note: While hip hop is everywhere and nowhere, rock ‘n’ roll is where all the energy is.
Dear Reader: You’re gonna think I’m a lame-ass after you read this story. If you’re a hip hop head, you’ll dismiss me as a hop in, hop out punk of the culture. If you’re a rocker, you’ll say I’m trying to jump onto your lifelong genre as a fad without enough background to qualify as a critic. But, whatever. Hate mail may be sent to me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.
That said, let me begin with a deconstruction of hip hop. As things are right now, the element of hip hop most visible in our culture is the music. This music is no longer definable. It has been absorbed by all other forms of popular music. The best I can do is reduce it to three categories.
The first, and most obvious, category of modern hip hop is “everything you hear on the radio.” I mean everything. That applies to Justin Timberlake, 50 Cent, Linkin Park and Beyonce. Where there used to be clear divisions like R&B, heavy metal or dance music, there is just a corny-copia of catchy tunes — impossible to define or escape.
The second category of hip hop is now most commonly referred to as “backpack.” (See also: nerd-hop, dork-hop.) This is rap music that is usually soft, arty, conscious, political, preachy or any combination thereof. Popular backpack bands are Jurassic 5 (soft), The Roots (arty), and Dead Prez (conscious, political and preachy).
The third category is, “people you never heard of.” I would list some artists here, but you haven’t heard of them. This category is commonly called “underground,” but a better term might be “landfill,” because most of these home-pressed CDs end up in the trash after you accept them from the artist in exchange for a hit of your weed.
Frankly, I’m all for the commercialization of hip hop — wasn’t that the whole point to begin with? Kids from the hood were bored and they felt invisible. So this beautiful, textured culture exploded — dance, art, music, fashion — and they got noticed. Suddenly, they were on the radio and in art galleries. Then they had mansions in the Hamptons and appeared on the cover of European fashion magazines and in Sprite commercials.
Now it’s over, so stop complaining. Don’t let one more tear fall in your Hypnotiq & Hennessey — just let go. It’s like you had the finest girlfriend in the world, but then she had your babies and got fat. Unfortunate, yes, but she’s done her job. Now stop crying and get a mistress. Let me introduce you to someone I think you’d really like. Her name is Rock ‘n’ Roll.
If you’re a snob, you ignored the tidal wave of “The” bands that hit the country a year or so ago (Vines, Hives, Strokes, White Stripes.) Ignoring them was pretty dumb. These bands were really good — everything was ironic (skinny ties, “I’m not taking any of this seriously” attitudes), the music was jacked from good ’80s rock bands and they pulled us out of the superpop era. They forced Justin Timberlake to leave N Sync and make a dope rap record (dude–it’s a rap record).
Even the most progressive and influential hip hop artists have taken the cue. Mos Def (demigod of the backpackers) took a three-year hiatus to learn to play musical instruments. And in his down time, he was the lead singer for a hard-rock band called Black Jack Johnson. Hip hop superproducers The Neptunes (who are basically responsible for “everything you hear on the radio” being a category) have included some purely rock ‘n’ roll tracks on their new album — right after Snoop Dogg, but before Old Dirty Bastard. They’re good songs, too. One of them has a chorus that goes, “Make money and f–k!” over and over again. It sounds like a rap chorus, only these guys are being sarcastic.
In these confusing musical times, sarcasm is a pretty good litmus test for whether something is hip hop or rock & roll. Cody Chestnut is a good example. He made an album called “The Headphone Masterpiece” by himself on a computer in his mom’s basement. This album kicks ass. It’s mostly rock, but there are strong elements of rap in there. He uses a lot of minimalist drum machine beats and synthesizer sounds, but it’s all a joke.
Most rappers, on the other hand, still take themselves pretty seriously.
As the dust was still quite literally settling over Ground Zero, some cultural critic tried to say that irony was dead. Well, where they were writing from, it may have looked that way. But two years later, the only way we can deal with the insanity of our modern world — no jobs, wars, terrorism, asteroids, recall elections — is by listening to music with lyrics like Chestnut’s: “All I want is pussy/Give me some religion/a brand new Cadillac and a winning lotto ticket…I’m all about boy life in America.”
If this trend continues, I’ll be writing a story in 30 years called “Hip Hop Is the New Jazz.” The general theme will be that they were both important, groundbreaking art forms that changed the world and, 30 years later, the only people still doing them are nerdy white guys in their 50s…with backpacks.