behind the music

10 03 2009

Brace yourself, because I’m about to bitch about hip-hop again.

I know, I know. I do this way too often. It’s time to just get over it an accept that hip-hop is FUN and people like to DANCE TO IT and can we JUST SHUT UP ABOUT THE POLITICS ALREADY?

But no. We can’t.

Tonight what got me thinking about hip-hop and the deleterious plunge it has recently taken was this: I was driving in my car, feeling a little subdued, and I decided that what I really needed in that moment was to turn on B97 — the “All The Hits” station of New Orleans. B97 was going to put me in a good mood, because all the hits are (with the notable exception of everything created by Nickelback and bands which are essentially also Nickelback [Daughtry, Creed, Good Charlotte, what have you]) feel-good-don’t-think-about-it kinds of songs. And I was lucky, because I tuned right into the Hot 8 at 8 — a veritable smorgasbord of the catchiest, feel-goodiest songs of the moment. And, indeed, it made me feel pretty good. For a while.

But then the ridiculousness started to set in. I mean, are these songs supposed to be satirical? Because they are SO BAD LYRICALLY that I can’t imagine there isn’t something in them that is meant to be self-depricating. I used to have this theory about LFO that the song “Summer Girls” was actually a brilliant satire on the meaninglessness of ubiquitous boy band ballads of the day. I hope I was right because otherwise that song is unacceptably nonsensical. And maybe that’s the point of the latest from the Great Music Makers of our time. Three particularly:

  1. GS Boyz – Stanky Legg / Sample Lyric: “When I hit da dance floor You know I’m doin’ da stanky leg! Sauce on my ring and then ya rub it across ya head!  You a ace boon coon chick, you can do it too; Snap ya fingers in the air and shake yo micros too!”/ This is probably the least disturbing of the bunch, because I think that it’s in the vein of “the dance song.” Soulja Boy and Sugar Hill Gang (“Jump On It”) had similar success with dance songs. So I get the point here. But THE STANKY LEG? Really? Why is that a dance? That does NOT need to be a dance. And the rap is dumbed down to the point of being hilarious. I have never heard anyone tell me to “do the [insert dance move here]” more times in my ENTIRE LIFE. Fail.
  2. Soulja Boy – Kiss Me Thru The Phone / Sample Lyric: “Baby, I know that you like me; You my future wifey; you could be my Bonnie; I could be your Clyde; You could be my wife; Text me, call me, I need you in my life.” Did anyone else just BARF ALL OVER THEIR COMPUTER? Is this supposed to be funny? Nothing about this is funny. “Like me” doesn’t even rhyme with “wifey.” That is only one of the levels on which this song is insulting to the intelligence of any self-respecting human being. I guess it’s a little bit funny. All together, if this song is meant to be a joke, it’s a little bit funny. If it’s not meant to be a joke, it signifies the deevolution of American thought.
  3. Asher Roth – I Love College / Sample Lyric: “I wanna go to college for the rest of my life; Sip Bankers Club and drink Miller Lite; On thirsty Thursday and Tuesday night ice; And I can get pizza a dollar a slice; So fill up my cup; Let’s get fucked up.” So this is the song that really pushed it over the edge for me. You need to listen to it, because the full effect doesn’t come across in writing. It’s Eminem-meets-Weezy-meets-Everlast (unusual, I know, but go with it)-style hip-hop, and it’s really fucking catchy and sometimes it’s kind of funny, even if it goes against everything you believe in. But in the end, I thought to myself, “this is disturbing. I hope this is supposed to be satire.”

Even if it IS supposed to be satire, it’s going out to an audience that is so immersed in satire that they don’t realize what satire means. And as much as I love catchy hip-hop music (I LOVE catchy hip-hop music), I wonder where the Public Enemy and Cause I initially fell in love with when I fell in love with hip-hop are. I always had a sense that that music was still out there, and still popular somewhere, and still making waves among some subset of people — but lately I wonder. At the very least, the group of people who arguably matter the most — the young people of America — are taking in the B97 version of hip-hop and they’re idolizing hustlers and dealers and gangsters because of it.

There, I said it.

I know how conservative that statement is coming off, and I recognize how narrow-minded and censorshippy it could be interpreted. But hear me out.

This is an actual conversation I had with two students today. I was sitting at my desk listening to The-Dream (damn good hip-hop, in the catchiest sense of the description) when M walks up to me and says…

M: You listenin’ to The-Dream, Ms. Johnson?

Me: Yep.

M: You have some fine taste in hip-hop. Don’t she, D? She be listenin’ to all ’em playas.

D: Yeah Ms. Johnson be sweatin’ on T.I., ya heard me?

Me: Yep, I’m definitely sweatin’ on T.I.

D: Ms. Johnson, you know that son is a straight-down hustla.

M: All ’em up in there is. Straight hustlas, all of ’em.

Me: What do you mean?

M: You know Juvy [in case you missed the New Orleanian reference, this is the name we give to the not-so-juvenile-anymore Juvenile]? He from the 3rd Ward.

D: Yeah Juvy be up in the Magnolia projects where my daddy got shot.

M: Yeah, and you know Soulja Slim be from 3rd Ward too. And Wayne he from the 17th; he from Hollygrove.

D: Yeah, but Wayne fake though.

M: What you mean?

D: You know Wayne ain’t never shot nobody. He smoke weed but don’t be hustlin’. He got all his money rappin’. He ain’t no real shit.

M: Oh, son.

Me: Is that a bad thing?

D: (confused and incensed) IS WHAT A BAD THING?

Me: Is it a bad thing that he isn’t a hustler? Don’t we want less hustlers?

D: Oh no. I’m gon’ be a hustla.

M: Me too.

D: I can’t wait ’til I turn 18; I’m going to buy me a gun and I be gettin’ started.

M: Me too, I start hustlin’ soon as I get the start-up.

Me: Why?


M: Man, that’s what ALL the rappers be doin’. That’s the only thing to be doin’, Ms. Johnson. That’s how Fiddy got shot 9 times you know. That’s all there is.

D: And besides Ms. J, there ain’t no work for no n*****’s out here. Ain’t nothin’ else you can do.

I could go on with this. I won’t. The points to get across here are, I hope, crystal clear:

  1. There is apparently no path for an African American student who grew up in the projects besides selling drugs.
  2. That’s okay, because rappers sell drugs.
  3. Rappers are AWESOME.

It’s amazing how much the culture surrounding the rap lifestyle influences my students. They worship these tattooed, gold-toothed, sometimes-cartoonish men like they are god. Wayne is by far the most all-encompassing of the pack, because he really made it. And for his part, Wayne has said some (small) things and recorded some (small) things and reached out in a few ways to the people of New Orleans that other have not.

David Ramsey wrote a beautiful piece for the New Orleans issue of the Oxford American on the importance of Lil’ Wayne in his Recovery School District elementary school. He puts Wayne quotes throughout to attempt to investigate what about Weezy speaks so deeply to the young people of the Big Easy. He writes,

On one of his best songs, the super-catchy “I Feel Like Dying,” Lil Wayne barely exists. He always sounds high, but on this song he sounds as though he has already passed out.

A lot of the alarmism about pop music sending the wrong message to impressionable youth seems mostly overwrought to me, but I’ll cop to feeling taken aback at ten-year-olds singing, “Only once the drugs are done, do I feel like dying, I feel like dying.”

First time I heard a fifth grader singing this in falsetto, I said: “What did you say?”

He said: “Mr. Ramsey, you know you be listening to that song. Why you tripping?”

My students always ask me why I’m tripping at precisely the moments when the answer seems incredibly obvious to me.

I know the sentiment. But there’s something here — and Mr. Ramsey’s amazing article points it out more eloquently than I could possibly hope to — in students’ love for this music. Something about hip-hop is reaching kids — at least, kids in New Orleans — on a more acute level than anything else. A lot of that, I think, has to do with these rappers growing up in rough neighborhoods and sharing these kinds of experiences and going on to say “Fuck you” to the rest of the world by being unabashedly successful and rapping about sex and drugs and fast cars and driving in fast cars with women while on drugs as if no one is going to tell them what to do.

And hey, young people are going to listen to that. Because when I told D, “But you could grow up to go to college and be a rich and famous doctor,” he gave me a look that was a cross between “Oh, that’s sweet, the white girl is trying to help” and “Are you out of your fucking mind?”

I’m impressed with some of what’s out there. I’m impressed when Wayne interviews: he loves his city and he’s faithful to his people and he refuses to wallow in their tragedy but he also refuses to ignore it completely. I’m impressed with the infectious “Dead and Gone,” which may rhyme a little too much for my personal taste, but which addresses a lot of the Big Issues in a very dark and real way. But it’s all too little and too far between.

I kind of know how pretentious I’m coming off. And I have to hand it to the B97 All Stars: those songs definitely succeed at crossing race lines, class lines, age lines, gender lines. I mean, who wasn’t listening to “Whatever You Like?” last year? Am I right or am I right?

Still, I push towards the potential of this genre of music to become something it once was: a forum and soapbox for times which are still bad, for conditions which are still unacceptable, and for racial realities which are still inhuman.

And for God’s sake: Tell my students to go to college so they can GET A FUCKING EDUCATION. They don’t have to spend $40,000 a year to get wasted and fuck women. They can do that in high school.