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Too Long; Didn't Read: Questlove on "How Hip-Hop Failed Black America"

Reading is hard. Having to plow through entire paragraphs is actually a mental exercise. To help out, we're resurrecting a now-recurring segment where we give you the Cliffs Notes version of some of the best writing out there on the interweb.
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Reading is hard.

Having to plow through entire paragraphs is actually a mental exercise. It’s a necessary one, but it’s also one that is very easy to skip. But good writing is almost as good as the Mad Men episode you’re going to catch up on, so I’m resurrecting a now-recurring segment where I give you the Cliffs Notes version of some of the best writing out there on the interweb. Enjoy!

"Mo’ Money, Mo’ Problems: How Hip-Hop Failed Black America, Part II" on Vulture


On April 22nd, Vulture published the first essay in a weekly series of six written by Questlove that focus on "looking at hip-hop's recent past, thinking about its distant past, and wondering about the possibility of a future." It was a brilliant piece of intro and extrospection, something that isn't surprising if you've ever been introduced to the empathetic, intelligent mind of the Roots drummer before.

But his second essay, released earlier this week, was a full-out assault on what he believes to be the real cause for the decline of hip-hop: the isolation of the "winners" from the masses because of a flaunting of their unattainable wealth and/or celebrity (aka what you think about when you think of hip-hop, but we'll get to that in a second).

He also basically infers that Puff Daddy was the original vampire in all of this, and if you can think of a better fall guy than this dude then I'll buy you a cheesecake:

"...hip-hop isn’t an abstract sonic art form. It’s a narrative one. And what that means is that matter matters more than art. Or rather: what matters to art is its matter, what it’s about, the ideas it communicates to its audience. The other aspects serve it, but perfect performance and production of empty ideas can’t fake the fill."

As Questlove clarifies, "I hope this isn’t a controversial view. It shouldn’t be," but I wanted to get us all in the right mindset before we start wading into the deep end. Ok cool, let's move on.

"I’d argue that when people think of hip-hop, pretty quickly they think of bling, of watches or cars or jewels or private jets. They think of success and its fruits, and the triumphant figures who are picking that fruit. This linkage isn’t limited to hip-hop...but it’s stronger there. The reasons are complex, of course, but the aspirational strain in African-American culture runs all the way back to slavery days. Slaves couldn’t own property because they were property. When freed, they were able to exist politically, and also economically. Owning things was a way of proving that you existed — and so, by extension, owning many things was a way of proving that you existed emphatically."

I know this is partially gut-reaction, but I couldn't help but think when I read this of the Donald Sterling/owner v. owned conversations that are popping up around the interweb and how our desire to own and want all boils down to deep insecurities begging to be at least temporarily relieved if they can't be filled, even if it's just one half-second long endorphine rush. But then I read Oliver Green's "Life and Other Four Letter Words: WANT" and I felt much better.

"At the time, Run-DMC was counterprogramming the flamboyance of other hip-hop artists, who were dressing like they were still in the funk and disco eras, with furs and studded jackets. Run-DMC stripped it down, and in doing so, sold a new kind of cool. More to the point, they sold a cool that was accessible to their fans. You could buy Adidas and be in their club, which was a club that you wanted to be in."

I am too young to comprehend that this was a reality in hip-hop, and I feel like that must be a depressing fact to those who aren't. For me, this is the mindset behind alternative and indie music, and it was only hip-hop "rebels" like Wu-Tang or (early) Kid Cudi that experimented with other paradigms.

"Now, because of the radical contraction of the market and the reluctance of companies to invest in anything that’s not a sure bet, hip-hop has become almost exclusively about winners, big sellers who have already proven their muscle. And even those numbers are dwindling, to the point where the million-seller club these days contains almost no one — Jay Z, Eminem, Drake, Macklemore, and Kendrick Lamar. You could argue that there are artists a tick down who have more cultural cachet: the big example there is Kanye West, who has sold not quite 700,000 copies of Yeezus. But that’s a half-dozen artists, total, with any appreciable influence."

And I think the big takeaway from this is that Yeezus has somehow only sold 700,000 songs, which is a travesty.

"Jay Z isn’t just collecting art. He’s using the brand names of other famous painters to declare himself, by association, as an artist. 'It ain't hard to tell/I'm the new Jean Michel/Surrounded by Warhols/My whole team ball/Twin Bugattis outside the Art Basel.'

Whereas 'My Adidas' highlighted consumer items, 'Picasso Baby' is all about unattainable luxury, fantasy acquisitions. Within the first ten words of the song, Jay Z ensures that no one in his audience can identify with the experience that he’s rapping about. He would never want to be in a club that would have you as a member. But this doesn’t offend his audiences. They love it."

The owner of your Jay-Z loving hearts doesn't want you to in his club. I'm just sayin'...

"Once hip-hop culture is ubiquitous, it is also invisible. Once it’s everywhere, it is nowhere. What once offered resistance to mainstream culture (it was part of the larger tapestry, spooky-action style, but it pulled at the fabric) is now an integral part of the sullen dominant. Not to mention the obvious backlash conspiracy paranoia: Once all of black music is associated with hip-hop, then Those Who Wish to Squelch need only squelch one genre to effectively silence an entire cultural movement."

Okay, I stole this from the first essay, but it's one of those scary truths that I've never thought about. And when you can turn on the radio station and hear pop stations literally say, "Today's best hits, without the rap," it's like watching history in action.

"...hip-hop has become complicit in the process by which winners are increasingly isolated from the populations they are supposed to inspire and engage — which are also, in theory, the populations that are supposed to furnish the next crop of winners. This isn’t a black thing or even a hip-hop thing exclusively. American politics functions the same way. But it’s a significant turnaround and comedown for a music that was, only a little while back, devoted to reflecting the experience of real people and, through that reflection, challenging the power structure that produces inequality and disenfranchisement."

At least this is why the GOP is tumbling into the sea faster than the Democratic Party. Silver lining?

"Who’s to blame? It’s hard to say. Certainly, Puff Daddy’s work with the Notorious B.I.G. in the early '90s did plenty to cement the idea of hip-hop as a genre of conspicuous consumption. Before those videos, wealth was evident, but it was also contextualized, given specific character that harmonized with the backgrounds of the artists. Run-DMC had East Coast cool and cachet; Dr. Dre had West Coast cool and cachet. But Puffy had — and wanted to tell everyone he had — a different idea of power, an abstract capitalist cachet. His videos, and the image they projected, played as well in California as in New York, as well in Chicago as in Florida. It was a cartoon idea of wealth, to the point that specific reality no longer mattered. In literary terms, it was pure signifier."

And in an ironic turn of events, Sean Combs will be now actually be remembered as a bad boy for life.

"The last stop on this train, at least for today, is the “Otis” video that Jay Z and Kanye West made to promote the hit single from Watch the Throne. In the video, which was directed by Spike Jonze, the two of them go to an industrial space and proceed to demolish a Maybach (another car, like a Bugatti, that no one can afford), after which they drive around the lot, four models in the backseat. What are they destroying with their hammers and their saws? The car? The idea of the car? The idea of the car in other videos?...The car was eventually auctioned, and proceeds were donated toward the East African Drought Disaster. Spooky action at a distance"

Something to really think about the next time you're thinking of smashing a Maybach, huh?

With four more of these essays to go, there's a good chance you'll get the pleasure of sort-of reading more Questlove in the very near future. Until then, play us out Quest.