Tuesday, April 22, 2014
Questlove's Contemplations on Hip Hop, Week 1
Esteemed hip hop artist Questlove will be sharing his thoughts about the current state of hip hop in a series of six posts that will be appearing on Vulture. We are lucky people! I feel certain that his observations will inspire a number of responses and I wanted to start by offering one here. If you haven't read the post yet, I would highly recommend that you take a moment to do so because it offers an insightful look at some of the ways that hip hop has morphed over time.
Questlove's main concern is that hip hop has simultaneously become omnipresent and impotent. Because it is everywhere, it is no longer challenging the norms--instead, it is reinforcing them, ensuring that the top artists remain at the top and making it difficult for others to obtain the same success. He notes that few black musicians are succeeding in any other style, which he sees as a dangerous shift. For those who would argue that this situation has happened before--and that it will correct itself in the future--Questlove responds that hip hop, itself, will likely not survive because popular music styles tend to disappear once they start their decline. While there are historical cycles, Questlove claims that the specific artistic forms do not come back. The fact that hip hop is no longer conveying truths suggests that its time is over.
In some respects, history does repeat itself. In fact, much of what Questlove is observing in hip hop did occur previously in American culture, with jazz. And it was jazz--or at least the styles that derived from jazz--that helped lead to hip hop. I guess you could either say the dinosaurs are dead (Questlove) or that the dinosaurs evolved into birds (my argument).
Indeed, many of the critiques that Questlove has for hip hop now were also leveled against jazz at various points in its long history. Today, we are accustomed to thinking of jazz as a fixed phenomenon, but in reality the term was coined only in the 1920s to describe a new style of music. What precisely it comprised was up for debate. Jazz brought together a number of earlier styles, most notably ragtime and the blues, both of which were typically associated with African-Americans. For the most part, these styles had been limited to specific geographical locations since it was hard for an aural tradition to travel far before recordings became widely available. Some areas, such as New Orleans, had further developed specific practices that were unique. However, the term 'jazz' eventually encompassed all of it. There were later developments too: big band, swing, and cool jazz, to name just a few. Also free jazz. Free jazz will be back.
Questlove feels that hip hop's reach has gone too far, spawning such concepts as 'hip hop fashion' and even 'hip hop architecture,' which has little to do with the music itself. But I think he errs in his claim that this type of conflation is unique to hip hop. There is another clear parallel with jazz here, since there was such as thing as 'jazz fashion'. Significant changes to women's clothes were associated with jazz, specifically 'flappers' and the dresses that were best suited for dancing to this new music. Were these clothes tied to some previously unknown truths revealed by jazz? I don't think so, but it's notable that this term is linked in such a ubiquitous way. In fact, there is an entire 'jazz age,' a moniker not yet applied to our era with hip hop.
Some of Questlove's critiques sound familiar and have been heard before about jazz. As Ingrid Monson has demonstrated, many jazz performers were criticized for their lack of engagement with civil rights movements during the 1950s and 1960s, which led to music that was perceived as being less relevant to society. Black nationalists also felt that jazz would help spur their movement, as Michael Hanson has shown. Specifically, these organizers claimed that free jazz would be ideal since everyone could participate in whatever way they innately felt. The problem, of course, was that free jazz is, you know, free jazz, and people weren't really all that into it. They went with funk instead, then wound up disappointed when it had a great beat for dancing but little to no political engagement.
Questlove's first article in this series brings up the question of what hip hop has achieved in its forty-year history. As he notes, 'the music originally evolved to paint portraits of real people and handle real problems at close range.' 'Evolved' is an important term here. Certainly hip hop did not burst forth as a means of social critique when it started, unless the soggy macaroni described in 'Rapper's Delight' is considered a 'real problem at close range.' In fact, hip hop may have accomplished more in terms of raising awareness about the injustices inherent in the African-American situation than any previous popular style. Albums such as Straight Outta Compton and Ready to Die did convey the challenges unique to black people in a direct and confrontational way--and in a way that jazz never achieved. As Eithne Quinn shows, the gangsta rap that emerged in the late 1980s/early 1990s reflected a population that was actively oppressed, and these songs targeted the oppressors. But for the most part, this socially engaged hip hop with a popular following was limited to only a small part of hip hop's forty-year history--perhaps about a decade. This is not to say that other artists have not been creating music that is socially engaged, but instead that the albums most associated with this specific type of civil rights issues are only one part of hip hop's legacy.
It is entirely possible that hip hop will never achieve this level of insight toward the culture from which it emerged again. But I don't see this as necessarily the death knell for this style. The roots that jazz provided were deep and strong, resulting in countless later movements. Funk emerged from jazz, leading to disco, which provided the ground for the first experiments in hip hop. More likely, then, the phenomenal influence of hip hop will be channeled into new movements and approaches, which is typical for any type of popular music. I somehow doubt that black musicians will be absent from this discussion; after all, their importance for the early influences of jazz, and several of its key transformations, cannot be overstated. Questlove, as an artist, is justifiably concerned for the style of music that he has made his own. As a historian/critic sitting behind a computer and with little at stake in this argument, I can afford to take a broader view.
Either way, I am looking forward to installment 2!