Tuesday, August 25, 2009

An Autobiographical Post On Rap And The White Guy

So I haven't heard any new music in, what, a month. Partly because of the Elvis kick, which has reached the point where I'm downloading 20 live versions of the same song, 15 takes of the same song, obscure soundtrack tunes from Elvis westerns (his western-y shit, by the way, is really really good, look up 'Flaming Star' and 'Lonesome Cowboy'), partly because of law school, and not so much because of the actual work, but rather because I go to a school with (a) 360 students, that is (b) in a tiny town in the mountains of Virginia where there is no one to meet but your classmates (yes, I'm very embarrassed that I'm only in the 25th best law school in the country, and you should be embarrassed to be reading the musings of such an idiot, but hey, I never went to class or read or studied at college, failed out after freshman year and here I am regardless, besides which, I'm transferring out after the first year, guaranteed), so therefore (c) you really have to get on the whole identifying who you're going to eat and more importantly sleep with over the next year thing before the key players start getting scooped up. The math is just sickening. So for the moment, little time to follow new music. Anyway, I could talk about the unifying power of Dipset fanhood across social and racial boundaries as it pertains to my foundering attempts to develop a social circle in this crazy bastion of Confederate pride, the irony of me, the mildly nerdy Jewish guy, attempting to convince the gorgeous Spelman grad over lunch that Master P at his best was vastly better than Lupe Fiasco ever was or will be, or whether Fall Out Boy, Coldplay, Billy Joel, and 'Rent' fanhood should get in the way of a relationship between oneself and a pair of amazing lips, but I do want to turn away from the intersection of music and my nascent law school sex life for a moment.

Rap and the white guy, rap and the white guy. I was actually reading The Root, Slate's black site, during my random period of H.L. Gates outrage, and I saw this essay by an Adam Mansbach about the Obama race speech, liking rap and being white, white privilege, and other related stuff. And I said to myself that everything he wrote was completely and disgustingly wrong and wrote a 10-page rant as to why. Don't want to reproduce that whole rant now, but I very briefly want to call attention to his discussion of the beginnings of his interest in rap as an adolescent lad. Mansbach says he got into hip-hop because it was one of the few things in American life at the time (time being late 80s, early 90s) that "dislocate[d] whiteness from its presumed position of centrality." It forced him to "ventur[e] out of comfort zones, render [him]self as different," and gave him a "chance to step away... from the nimbus of skin privilege and the complicity in injustice it afforded me." Now, I don't believe that white privilege exists, per se (which isn't to say that whites aren't a whole lot better off than blacks in America, but that's not what the term means), but putting that aside, I think this is a pretty fair description of the reason (or the reason given) that a lot of intelligent liberal white folks listen to rap. It's a political thing. You listen to rap, and you realize how awful our criminal justice system is, are made aware of the evils of structural discrimination, and at the same time you get this great window onto a piece of black culture. The latter of which is pretty hard to come by otherwise without actually spending time in certain neighborhoods, reading what may seem to a white person to be pretty inane books or magazines, or watching movies that, sorry, frankly are often awful. Of course, one could also listen to gospel or really dull generic r&b, which I might argue represents a bigger portion of the black population and definitely has a lot more to say to most blacks over 40, but that's not as politically charged and bores most whites, particularly liberal whites who aren't too stir-crazy about religion. So rap's this really great and convenient way for a liberal white guy to interface with black culture and legitimately feel like he's gaining some awareness without having to deal with the uncomfortable realities of the crappiness (and conservatism!) of something like the Tyler Perry franchise.

Needless to say, this isn't why I got into listening to rap. I wouldn't say that I got into rap for purely aesthetic and non-racial reasons. The absence of white faces and white voices is a big part of the allure of the genre for me. But I would say that for me it isn't at all about race and politics as such. (Of course, rap is about these things, but that's not why I listen.) I came to rap for a few reasons, a complex of reasons. In 2002, it sounded a lot better than what else was on the radio. For a person who cares about words, it's leagues beyond anything else out there. In rap, more than any other sort of music, words matter. Besides the aesthetics, I came to like that, unlike any other music I was aware of, rap openly talked about consumption and class, money and wealth, and did so in a frankly positive way, not some bullshit valorizing the coal miner and putting down his employers way, when the guy valorizing the coal miner makes more making that song than the coal miner could make in a hundred lifetimes. Not just because I'm a huge fan of capitalism and income inequality, but because I don't see how a genre can pretend to offer a serious commentary on 21st century American life and have nothing to say about these matters.

Most importantly for me, I liked that rap affirmed traditional notions of masculinity that aren't really on tap in contemporary white culture, or perhaps are in fratboy land but in such a douchey, beer-and-bros-obsessed form as to be completely unpaltable. At the same time, while rap wasn't whiny or bitch-ass, as what I tended to call white music for lack of any knowledge about it often was, it wasn't punky and adolescent. It's not very loud; actually it's often quite conservative and classicist (Premo, for example). It doesn't call on its listeners to grow their hair out and wear lots of black. In fact, it doesn't call on its white listeners to wear or really do anything; it just calls for respectful admiration from afar. For these reasons, rap actually fits quite well into the lifestyle of a preppy aspiring Jewish lawyer. To the extent that rap carried political messages I disagreed with, even anti-Semitic ones, I wasn't rankled by them at all, but enjoyed and continue to enjoy, in an aesthetic sense, the conviction and eloquence of the artists who offered them, and chalked up the messages themselves to the understandable but misguided frustrations of a downtrodden people. As for race, I didn't start listening to rap to learn about black people. I simply took for granted that rapping - like basketball, another growing interest at the time - was something blacks were better at. The way I vaguely saw it, white men have lost what it takes to rap. (If Elvis were alive today, or if even Mick Jagger had come along 30 years later, they'd be great rappers.)

But what this really comes down to, though, and I think this is true for a great number of rap fans, is the vicarious pleasure in others' masculinity, charisma, and yes, swagger. Of course, I don't listen to Illmatic to take vicarious pleasure in Nas's charisma. But I do listen to Jay for this reason. I do listen to No Limit for this reason. Someone in a cocaineblunts comment thread was arguing the other day that Jay lacks authenticity, and I said that that didn't matter so much because what Jay's pushing is this sort of abstracted version of Rakim, Kane, and LL's godbody-ness (Jay, the last great 80s rapper? He did get his start then, and his tutelage under a Kane rip-off), so yeah, it doesn't matter so much if it's a very constructed persona that lacks a whole lot of authentic detail because he's just so good at being Hova. (Weirdly, when I think of Jay, I sometimes think of that eye on top of the pyramid on our dollars, this sort of omniscient presence in the sky, floating and reigning above us all. I do think that's what he wants you to feel.) But I think that argument may only hold good so long as you think that stimulating vicarious pleasure in a rapper's swagger is a valid artistic aim for a rapper to be shooting for.

Where I start to question the "this rapper is great because he makes me feel like I own the world" critical response is with someone like a Jeezy, who only brings that to the table and ultimately leaves you feeling a little empty in an "I just listened to The Inspiration for the 30th time and yeah, it sure gave me a big dose of thug motivation, but... he's not saying anything" way. But to be honest, what actually led me to write this post was this absurd issue I have with a Mia X song. 'You Don't Wanna Go 2 War' is a fairly amazing edition of No Limit's generally stellar 'Soldiers' series (a series of posse cuts on No Limit albums which share elements of the 'No Limit Soldiers' beat and feature hooks about how the participants are "SOLDIERS"), probably the best after 'No Limit Soldiers' itself. Really do listen to the song. The hook, which you may never get out of your head after hearing the song, is shouted by Master P as only he can shout such inanities and goes:


Incidentally, the "I thought I told ya" part provokes some way-funnier-than-it-sounds-on-paper hilarity from Silkk, who says that "I'm an n-o, l-i, m-i-t soldier, I already tried and told ya, FUCK repeating myself over!" (Basically, NL's obsession with already having told us that they're soldiers neatly mirrors Puff's incessant "I thought I told you that we won't stop" refrain in this period.) Anyway, my problem is that, even though I haven't heard this song in a month, I can't get it out of my head, and it actually subtly affects my behavior. I go to business meetings for the family business and find myself being a huge prick towards our web programmers because in the back of my head I hear Master P reminding me that those web programmers don't want to go to war with a soldier. On the way to the business meetings, I'm thinking about how those fucktard programmers don't want to go to war with a soldier. In my house, I start ripping people's heads off (figuratively) because P is riling me up into picking fights over my roommate's unfairly caged dog. I walk around scowling after these fights because P has hypnotized me into thinking I'm a No Limit Soldier. Of course, I don't literally think these thoughts, but it's close. So I ask myself - is this pathetic? (Yes.) Perfectly legitimate? If Bach can make you feel spiritual and that's a decent enough reason to listen to Bach, what's wrong with Master P making me feel like a take-no-shorts No Limit Soldier? Is there something inherently absurd about the transposal of Master P's soldiering, which supposedly takes place in dangerous housing projects, involves selling crack, shooting rival dealers, etc., to arguments over our family business's website design, arguments which take place in air conditioned rooms in century-old buildings located in leafy white suburbs? One's inclined to say yes... but of course there's something absurd about the notion and the song to begin with. It's problems such as these, the applicability or lack thereof of rap to one's own life, that vex the apolitical white rap head.

Mia X f. Master P, C-Murder, Silkk The Shocker, and Mystikal - 'You Don't Wanna Go 2 War,' Unlady Like (1997).

1 comment:

Charlie Hustle said...

Excellent post. I approached rap in partly the same was as you, in that it was much, MUCH better than Tom Cochran singing 'Life is a Highway' for the bazillionth time on the local pop-rock station (although, to be fair, they also played 'Rumpshaker' on that station, which contributed in no small part to a bunch of us white kids dumbing out on the bus to school every morning).

As someone who has been musical most of my life, I approached it primarily as a new way to interpret and reinterpret a lot of the music I grew up loving (Motown/R&B/soul). I went through records and discovered artists according to who produced them (had a Primo phase, Beatminerz, Prince Paul, etc.).

And while I also didn't start listening to hip-hop to "learn about black people," I found it to be a fascinating window onto multiple segments of the culture. It was a way of speaking freely that you weren't hearing on the radio, even if it was occasionally glorifying misogynous or criminal behavior. It had the same sound of freedom to it that I imagine my mom experienced when she fell in love with music in the '60s.