200 Is A Joke
Extraordinary, coincidence. About two weeks after the release of El-P's I'll Sleep When You're Dead, I stumbled on a copy of Company Flow's Funcrusher Plus, a now-notoriously-hard-to-find record, near-impossible to get on vinyl according to the guy at Strictly Beats. Given the enormous publicity on I'll Sleep... - reviews in all the major publications, a massive campaign on the part of Def Jux, even a story on him in the New York Times - I wondered whether to get a copy, or to start from the beginning. Luck decreed I take the latter option.
It's really bizarre to see and hear El-P in his early days: this was the time when he still had a separate DJ behind him, Mr Len (aka Space Ghost), and whilst you can hear his production touch in the additional noises, it's still very much grounded in traditional turntablism, as opposed to his current 'pile-on-everything-including-the-motherfucking-kitchen-sink' approach. In his quest to articulate his vision, he's become detached from the hip-hop 'tradition', heading into noise and abstraction; not to denigrate his move, since the spirit of hip-hop has always been one of forward movement, a fact that retrograde rap traditionalists don't get. The main reason for the use of the relatively cheap tools of turntables, samplers and DATs is that hip-hop just didn't have the means for anything else, priced out of the then-stupifyingly-high-expense music industry. It was DIY, pure and simple, and it's just that El-P (and indeed Def Jux) have outgrown it, and taken up a place they fully deserve within the public eye.
I can't help but feel there's something fishy about this. Who is the man who's brought underground hip-hop overground? El-Producto. Who brought gangsta rap into suburbia, the breeding-ground of chart success? Eminem. Who was the face of chart- and music-industry-friendly rap in the early '90s? Vanilla Ice (now wash your mouth out). Note: all white. Now, I know I should really have seen this anyway - expect the worst of people, and you're generally right - and it seems pretty obvious in retrospect, but why the fuck is it that crackers are enjoying hip-hop's spoils?
Well, the answer should, theoretically, be obvious: whites, for the most part, own and run the means of cultural production, including the mainstream media, record companies, distribution networks, chain music stores, etc. Most music critics, even the ones who enjoy rap, are white, male, over 40 and comfortably well-off, as are the people who run magazines.
This is far too simplistic, though. It would appear at first sight that the crackers in the establishment, cut off from the realities of black life and preferring a sonic environment further from the hip-hop source and closer to the mainly-white experimental tradition, are giving preference to music that displays this; but I think it's more a case of critics picking up on music that is actually good. The reason they avoid music that is associated most closely with contemporary inner-city black culture - like hardcore gangsta or crunk - is because it's mostly shit; they're simply praising good music - look at the critics' championing of Wu Tang Clan and their offshoots. Furthermore, it can't be said that whites own all the means of cultural production, as most independent hip-hop labels - yes, even shitty ones like Death Row - are run for the most part by blacks, as are most of the prominent hip-hop magazines like Wax Poetics, The Source, Synthesis or Hip-Hop Nation. There's enough racial intermingling and an inclusive atmosphere in the more enlightened sectors of hip-hop to prevent it being a factor.
Nonetheless, there's still a feeling of loss here for me. It's an odd coincidence that this comes just shortly after the bicentennial celebration of the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade, which has provided a bizarre spectacle in and of itself. We've witnessed programs on the BBC, produced primarily by whites, but definitely with a black contingent, showing up slavery for the atrocity it was, a film (Amazing Grace) produced by white liberal Hollywood praising the white who campaigned to end it, and, perhaps most absurdly, Tony Blair apologising to all of the descendants of Africans for the whole business. Taken together, this adds up to the oddest of things: not a process of historical rewriting, but simply the aggressor coming before the wronged in contrition. He is going out of his way to acknowledge the atrocity - the fact is that white people these days do not need to feel apologetic for what their ancestors did - to indicate to the British black population just how 'accepting' and 'harmonious' the official face of Britain is. The history can be eradicated, and we can all get along nicely. Hip-hop was never about getting on harmoniously with whitey (although it was never about killing him either (except in the case of 'Fuck Tha Police', but that was about killing cops who were white, rather than all white people)). The impoverishment of the black community in New York, brought about by the centuries-long economic control of whites, with kids left to themselves to do what they wanted, was what gave birth to hip-hop. In the form of Public Enemy, it took to protest at the centuries of injustice, but you can see earlier in tracks like 'White Lines' or 'The Message' that hip-hop's conscience, its consciousness of the horror of black life, was what drove it forwards. The tragedy of negro history was the grit that produced the pearl of hip-hop.
Chuck D famously once called hip-hop "the black CNN". This may still be the case in Third World countries, where DIY hip-hop scenes have sprung up all over the shop. Rap in the western world has dropped the ball. In the sleeve of Funcrusher Plus there's a picture of Company Flow, underlined with the words 'Independent As Fuck', El-P flipping the bird at the "signed-up motherfuckers", entirely comfortable next to the black faces of Mr Len and Big Juss. And whilst he's kept up that ethos with Def Jux, I can't help feeling that, in making into the top rungs of hip-hop El-P's lost something. Growing up over the course of years from DIY music to a world-bestriding collossus, hip-hop has drifted from its role as the means of communication and engagement - almost the folk art - of impoverished black American culture, to another tool of entertainment - a fact testified to by the horrifying images of '90s gangsta rap turning into simple caricatures for rappers to imitate. It was inevitable that rap would be recuperated as it grew, even if it generated its own media through independent labels and magazines, because it grew into an environment that has always been dominated by non-blacks. The structure of the entertainment industry is white-dominated, and the freedom granted the rap industry, the freedom it got, still favours whites; granting of multicultural autonomy is always done with the assurance that it is 'magnanimous' and can be removed at a swoop; multiculturalism, as an imposed policy, favours the white hierarchy, because they have the power to impose it. People like El-P are doing the best they can to keep rap free from such concerns, and to keep it 'independent as fuck', but if he plays with the big boys he inevitably will have to play on their terms. And that's not what hip-hop set out to be.