Monday, January 12, 2009

Compare and Contrast Monday, Or Why It Doesn't Matter If You Sample Santogold or MC Lyte

"MC Lyte: Creating music and lyrics that people can relate to, and identify with."

Lately in rap blog land, there's been a fair amount of fuss over the so-called "hipster hop crossover" and what this minitrend means. Noz complains that rappers are chasing hipster cool, and that Jay just shouldn't take "cues from art school dropouts" (what about these two famous art school graduates?), which seems a little arbitrary at best, and kinda icky at worst - you know, in a "can't let the noble savages get tainted by the corrupting influences of art school" way. Particularly in Jay's case, I think he's just a little too rich at this point to hope that he could somehow maintain his So Ghetto-osity. Suggesting that he take cues from Young Chris instead is nice, but can Jay even put himself in the mindset of a Young Chris anymore? One's a half-billionaire, the other, if I'm not mistaken, moved back to North Philly a few years ago after he spent all the money off his one hit single. Then we have Brandon, who says it's "much deeper and sadder" than rappers chasing hipster cool, but typically, isn't clear on what that much deeper and sadder consists of, although apparently it has something to do with this "really ugly," "grotesque," "ugly [again?] media support system/takeover" wherein Pitchfork and FADER drive these "oh my god, rapper x sampled hipster singer y" songs that only industry types care about so as to synergistically cake off our misery. Or something like that. It all kinda reminds me of the time Mos bitched about a tall Israeli rapeover, except in this paranoid takeover fantasy Jews have been replaced by Pitchfork writers. (Random aside: it has to suck working for Pitchfork. You provide the Internet music community with a valuable service, review all this shit in lucid prose, and in return, people just straight dump on you for the two or three things you get wrong.)

So to counter all this hysteria, I thought I would compare two Brooklyn anthems, one a classic, Gang Starr's 'The Place Where We Dwell,' and one that's not so classic, 'Brooklyn Go Hard.'* And to point out the obvious - that only a fool could think that the reason the one goes wrong where the other went right is that it sampled/featured Santogold instead of MC Lyte. Let's start with Brooklyn Go Hard and its most obvious flaws. First, the awful patois. Generally, I'm not a fan of rappers borrowing other accents than their own, it creates major authenticity problems. Wasn't a huge fan of Lil Kim's 'Lighters Up' for this reason. Although that felt way more genuine than this. Here, you've got a guy who's priced himself way, way out of his old digs, choosing to rap not only as if he were still a 'Brooklyn boy' in the present tense, but also as if he were Jamaican. Then there are the lyrics... "this is black hoody rap." Show us that, don't just say so, and if you're going to write such a lazy line, don't deliver it in a patois falsetto. The other point I would make about the lyrics, which aren't without some halfway-clever wordplay ("I jack, I rob, I sin, ah man, I'm Jackie Robinson, except when I run base, I dodge the pen"), is that they're not about Brooklyn. Which is typical in this era of rappers who can't stay on topic and can't seem to rap about a place to save their lives (remember the time Game did a song about "Where I'm From" and it devolved into this tale of how when he visits Eve in Philly, he sees people wearing Timbs, and when he sees Young Buck in Nashville, people wear Air Forces, and when he sees 50 in New York, people wear... Timbs, and none of it was about where Game was from?). The whole song's about him with little references to Brooklyn sprinkled throughout. How are Brooklyners supposed to take your song as their anthem when you're rapping about how you can afford to buy the Nets? Oh, hurray, our borough raised an entrepreneur! He's such a hometown boy, he's bringing us an NBA team! We're so grateful for your charity, Jay! Maybe Jeffrey Lurie, the owner of the Eagles, could do a song with the Roots next. (And needless to say, Jay's flow is as awkward as it's ever been in the past couple years.) Finally, though, is the 'Brooklyn Go Hard' beat good? In one sense, yes; as Brandon enthuses, it's got some pretty cool "dying battery synths and determined drums." But on the other hand, it's more typically maximalist, not-giving-the-rapper-any-room-to-breathe Kanye that has more in common with the overorchestrated aesthetic of a Coldplay than anything we've typically looked at as hip-hop. It's certainly not what I think of when I hear the phrase "black hoody rap." Amidst all these things going wrong, the Santogold sample's literally the only thing right (her verse, though, is a disaster). Is Santogold one of those dreaded hipsters, a terrible artist, a faddish dipshit? Maybe, probably; I don't spend enough time listening to M.I.A. and her knockoffs to know. But whatever Santa's failings, the sample's hot, insanely catchy, quite anthemic, and to complain that Jay's chasing hipster cool by the mere act of working with her or sampling M.I.A. misses what's really wrong with the 'Brooklyn Go Hard/S.L.U. combo.

Now take 'The Place Where We Dwell.' Famously, Premo's beat is just a sample from a drum solo and a two, three-second loop of some dudes shouting "BROOKLYN, BROOKLYN, BROOKLYN," the sort of thing that we've never really heard from Kanye and never will. Doesn't get much more black hoody rap than that. Premo scratches in some vocal from MC Lyte's 'I Cram To Understand' on the hook ("those who live in Brooklyn know just what I'm talkin"), and that's it. Note Guru's single-minded focus on Brooklyn, the ostensible subject matter of Jay's song. At times the brags about BK get a little corny, though in 1992 it probably wasn't too dorky to say things like "on the subject of blackness, well let me share this/Brooklyn is the home for cultural awareness," but when it comes to bigging up your borough I don't think anyone's ever done it as simply and eloquently as Guru did when he monotonically intoned this:

Peace to boston, philly, connecticut,** dc

All the east coast cities are fly to me
Peace to everybody down south and out west
But for me, brooklyn, new york is the best

Now, does MC Lyte add some authentic Brooklyn flavor that Santogold, Wesleyan '97, doesn't? Of course. But post-retirement Jay and Mr. "Coldplay, Rihanna and I constitute a new regime of living legends" West are going to suck with or without Santogold; she's just the cherry on top of this fruitcake of grandiose bullshit, and even with her rotten verse, she's still a net plus. On the other hand, Premo circa 91-99, with the right rapper (maybe Jay himself), could have made a classic out of that Santosample. Hipsters, I would conclude, aren't the problem with the hipster-hop trendlet; the problem is simply that the artists working with the hipsters suck.

MC Lyte - I Cram To Understand U. Please download this, I ripped Lyte's whole debut album just to get it for you, and besides, it's an amazing song and of historic interest as it's Lyte's first single, put out in '86 when she was just 15,*** and had a pretty obvious influence on Slick Rick.

* I could and probably should have compared 'Brooklyn Go Hard' and that amazing new NORE song instead, a comparison which would demonstrate even better that it doesn't matter who you sample so long as you (a) do it well, (b) can still kinda rap, and (c) don't come off like a gentrified fugazi.
** Did this inspire Rae's "Peace Connecticut"?
*** Crazy Wikipedia-derived piece of trivia that says a lot about the short shelf life of the average rapper: Lyte is just 5 years older than Santogold.

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