The Whitest History of Hip-Hop, Part 4
Shut Yo Mouth: Hip-Hop Makes Music
Charlie Daniels said the South was going to do it again, but I doubt he realized it would be the Dirty South.
Have I deviated terribly from the original intent of this column? It may seem so after the last installment providing a brief history, but all of this is necessary to set the stage for proving that Kanye West’s latest full-length album has ushered hip-hop into the legitimate world of canonical art. Although the criteria we are using is based on the principles of the literary canon, when we address the role of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy as transcending pop music and entering the realm of important art, we are not addressing his lyrics as poetry outside of the presence of the music.
Indeed, Kanye’s music brings a caliber of artistry, craft, and even a mastery that overshadows some of his weaknesses. Kanye West does not have the flow of a Biggie Smalls or 2-Pac, but his music, both his original music and his knack for bringing the best new talent to task in his work before they are known, has made for some amazing beats, samples, melodies, and arrangements. West did not come to this caliber alone or in a vacuum, he is standing on the shoulders of giants. And although he may read arrogant beyond usefulness to you – the listening public – he is actually quite aware of the artists that have come before him as well as the value of his contemporaries’ contributions to the genre. One of many examples of this is his homage to Outkast in his 2005 single from the Late Registration album, “Diamonds from Sierra Leone” with the break: “Forever ever? Forever ever ever?” alluding to Outkast’s 2000 single “Ms. Jackson” off of their 2000 release Stankonia.
Here’s the part you’ve been waiting for: Then came the rise of the South. Charlie Daniels said the South was going to do it again, but I doubt he realized it would be the Dirty South. Enter Outkast and Goodie Mobb, both from Atlanta, Georgia. Outkast has wild instrumentation and experimental beats and sounds with every song. Their lyrics present violence in a politically charged light. When Andre 3000 and Big Boi addressed violence it was about “Bombs over Baghdad” rather than power struggles in the streets and rappers dissing each other. Outkast vastly broadened the range of what hip-hop was capable of. Their music and rhyming styles were incontrovertibly new additions to hip-hop, but they had come up from the streets of Atlanta, revered grounds in hip-hop circles. They had street cred, new ideas, and popular appeal. A popular musician could be true to the form while elevating it out of violence and mythical machismo. Finally, by the 21st century, hip-hop music has freed itself from requiring the presence of misogyny and violence to be recognized as legitimate.
By 2000, the Grammy Awards had given hip-hop its own category and it represented the largest fan base of any other musical genre worldwide. Its style is unique and identifiable from all other genres (except for that occasional unshakable likeness to it’s big sister R&B), and is clearly a legitimate medium. It escaped its original formula to evolve, allowing for a wide scope of creative potential. It has proven not to be a passing trend – with more than 30 years under its belt – and it has finally stopped insisting on themes centered on violence, without compromising its original traits: fronting and keeping it real. Hip-hop is still about being hard-hitting and real. It is self-referential and autobiographical. You don’t rap about someone else’s story, you rap about your story. In the Kanye West song “Monster,” what does Jay-Z have? Money. What does Jay-Z need? Love. What a salient problem of the human condition.
You don’t rap about someone else’s story, you rap about your story. In the Kanye West song “Monster,” what does Jay-Z have? Money. What does Jay-Z need? Love. What a salient problem of the human condition.
It was artful when the Beatles wrote “Can’t Buy Me Love” and it is possibly even more genuine coming from Jay-Z on this Kanye West album. Can you imagine NWA rapping about needing love?
But I digress, we are talking about more than the lyrics here. Hip-hop started with DJs mixing break-beats and scratching. They eventually brought in rappers to provide the lyrical element, then the rappers sort of took over. The beats were more frequently digitally sampled rather than spun from turntables. The DJ became a producer that produced beats. This freed the musician from the limits of two turntables and a microphone and lead to intricate, complicated syncopations created by overlapping programmed beats with samples. A rash of amazing beatmakers that tour playing nothing but a sampler flooded the underground hip-hop scene, and artists such as Rza from Wu-Tang Clan became widely known for their ability to craft digitally re-created music that is as good as anything composed with traditional instrumentation (Roots, of course, has their own place in this history for remaining true to traditional instrumentation). The producer fame started with Dr. Dre, but by 2005, Dre could no longer keep up with what the new blood was bringing to the table – especially Jay-Z and Kanye West.
The DJ was not originally musical accompaniment, the rapper was a complementary supplement to the mixing of beats. When that changed, producers stepped up the game to re-insert themselves into the equation. The fact is that Beastie Boys would not be as revered as they are if not for Mixmaster Mike, DJ Hurricane, and their own production skills (to pay the bills). The parts of DJ and MC are once again co-dependent, and Kanye uses this to its full effect. His beats are intense and danceable as hell, because nothing gets you to the top faster than being able to get people dancing, and don’t forget – mass popularity is the first criteria of canonization. An artists unrecognized in his own time doesn’t get into the canon. So although I would love to bring DJ Shadow, Wu-Tang Clan, and many other amazing artists into the canon before Kanye, none of them struck the kind of match Kanye has in popular culture. For this hip-hop game to turn into an art form, it requires artful lyrics and artful music. You cannot separate the music from the lyrics to identify hip-hop as art. The lyrics and the music are necessary for this medium.
So an art form has emerged – big deal. It doesn’t mean that Kanye West deserves some sort of medal. Well, actually I think he might. Because in My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy Kanye takes a firm grip on his microphone and gives the questions of the human condition a brutish and eloquent attack that only hip-hop can accomplish. Music and lyrics make the one-two punch of this work work.