Saturday, April 18, 2009

Extremely Half-Assed Thoughts on Gangsta Rap

Yes, Hyman Roth's gangsta >>>>> Asher Roth's gangsta.

I was reading the liner notes of Critical Beatdown, which I only picked up a month ago and haven't stopped listening to since, and Kool Keith made a comment that struck me. He says he totally could have made a very real gangsta rap album (in the G Rap, Schooly D kind of sense, I imagine) just by talking about what he saw outside his window - it wasn't at all like the Brooklyn of the late 80s was this peaceful gentrified environment - but he intentionally chose not to in favor of making an album for dustheads. And Critical Beatdown isn't even, you know, about the experience of doing dust or any drug, it isn't about anything really, anything more than how much better Kool Keith and Ced Gee are than other MC's and how they'll do weird shit with other rappers' brains.* What makes it, in the view of some people who take rap pretty seriously, the greatest rap album of all time is entirely the execution. All of which is to say two things: A, rap doesn't have to be too topical, or to relate in any way to the experiences of the underclass to be great, and B, if the alternatives being offered to gangsta rap - which for the purposes of this discussion, we'll define as crime-related rap, particularly crime-related rap where the rapper is doing some of the crime being discussed - were nearly as interesting as something like Critical Beatdown (indeed, if the whole battle rap genre hadn't gone completely bleh/underground/same thing), certain people wouldn't be as upset about the erosion of label backing for gangsta rap, Asher Roth's proclamations of gangsta rap's demise,** etc.

(A) notwithstanding, I certainly agree that I don't want to see gangsta rap die, especially when people like Charles Hamilton and the Knux are, as noz points out, being offered up as leading non-gangsta rap alternatives. After all, I originally started listening to rap because I felt that basically all music made by white people was insufficiently hard-ass, so the Kanyeization*** of rap certainly doesn't make me happy. I just think that the question of what I'd like to see happen is an entirely separate one from what is happening. And what is happening is that gangsta rap has become, across the board, quite stale, largely dominated by mind-numbingly repetitive tales of selling crack (except that they aren't even tales, more just boasts to the effect that Rapper X sells tons of crack), and that the best-selling purveyors of gangsta rap are the stalest. See 50, see Game, see Jeezy right now, see Jim Jones, see, I'm sorry to say, Rick Ross, and see Wayne, who's mostly abandoned gangsta rap, the occasional threat of violence notwithstanding, for autotuned duets with Keri Hilson and the like. Now, you can point me to that great mixtape Pill did, or one of the few moments where Gucci Mane doesn't (intentionally?) sound like he's totally retarded, or Z-Ro's 18th album, or Lil Boosie, and those things are great! But that's sort of like someone in the 60s saying that the Western wasn't dying at all (when it most certainly was) because, look, Sam Peckinpah just made five great Westerns that for the most part nobody saw. The good news is that, just as jingoistic conservatives like me can still get their patriarchal macho-man jollies from all sorts of non-Western outlets, such as, 24, action movies, hitman movies, and gangsta rap itself, there's no reason why the concerns that gangsta rap addressed can only be addressed through gangsta rap. Rappers can still talk about poverty or growing up in a drug-ridden environment without professing to sell drugs themselves. I think that a guy like Z-Ro, whose occasional threats to shoot somebody up really aren't that essential to his project and basically serve to give him the cred to do his emo-rap thing, is already on this path. So are the Paper Route Gangstaz (in spite of the 'Gangstaz'); so is, to an extent, Killer Mike. I understand the fear that without gangsta rap, all we'll be left with is bougie, label-pushed Charles Hamilton bullshit, a nerdy underground, and a mealy-mouthed conscious rap sector, but that doesn't have to be the case. And really, if your concern in preserving gangsta rap is that the poor need a voice, I don't see how a Rick Ross or the millions of rappers just like him, who spend 98% of their albums talking about how much drugs they've sold, jewelry they wear, people they've killed, strippers they've fucked, etc., almost completely devoid of any context that might situate these activities in the rapper's neighborhood, and 2% on the obligatory "I came from a tough locale, many of my peoples are in prison, let's overhaul the criminal justice system and, like, get them out and shit" song, really serve that purpose. So as fun as albums like Thug Motivation, Port of Miami, Lord Willin, and Purple Haze were, I don't think it's the end of the world if labels are putting less money behind those sorts of projects - except perhaps in an aesthetic sense, but even there, not really, because the golden age of crack rap and gangsta rap more generally is clearly behind us.

* My favorite line in this regard is when Keith says, on 'Break North,'
Here's your brain for your girl I can give her messages, clues from a murderer
right after he talks about swallowing the listener's liver. For some reason when I hear this line I always think the messages/clues are somehow encoded, sci-fi style, in the dude's brain.
** To be fair to Senor Roth, Dr. Dre announced at the '96 MTV Music Awards that "gangsta rap is dead," and went on to make a song about it, 'Been There Done That.' Of course, my having pointed that out now someone will use that in an argument about how Dre never really got the point of gangsta rap in the first place and was just interested in making money off of stupid white kids like Tray, etc.
*** Where Kanyeization is defined as people imitating the less interesting or objectionable aspects of the Kanye oeuvre/persona, not the really great stuff on
College Dropout. More the corny punchlines, terrible flow, annoying lisp, rapping over stuff that sounds like really poor dumbed-down interpretations of house, rapping dullly about his clothes, wearing weird clothes, etc.


Anonymous said...

i agree with some of this but i think one blind spot to your argument is that just because keith decided to not make a gangsta record, and instead talked about outer space and other dusthead shit, he wasn't, at least indirectly, "relating to the experience of the underclass." i mean, the ubiquity of dustheads is in fact pretty specific to the underclass experience. i haven't really listened to critical beatdown enough to say whether this holds true for it, but i think a lot of times rappers that are on some crazy abstract shit still have a lot to say about ghetto life.

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