By Rebecca Bulnes
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By S. Pajot, Liz Tracy, Kat Bein, & Sean Levisman
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At the opening of The Roots' 1999 album Things Fall Apart, esteemed writer Harry Allen remarked, "Inevitably, hip-hop records are treated as disposable. They are not maximized as product, even, not to mention as art." Nearly six years after the Media Assassin made this statement, it has become cliché among old-schoolers to claim that hip-hop culture is dying out, even though it is very much alive and well, if far different than 30 years ago.
The recent 30th anniversary of the founding of hip-hop culture in the Bronx -- an occasion marked by MTV specials, a huge concert mounted by the Universal Zulu Nation, and other memorials -- yielded a remarkable essay by Greg Tate in the January 4 issue of the Village Voice. Asking "What the heck are we celebrating, exactly?" he answers his own question in fierce and poetic prose: "Nothing less, my man, than the marriage of heaven and hell, of New World African ingenuity and that trick of the devil known as hyper-capitalism. Hooray."
Less notably, the January 6 issue of Miami New Timesfeatured the sarcastically titled "Miami's Most Incredible, Fantastic, Amazing Year in Music!" in which Kulchur columnist Brett Sokol mocked recent best-selling albums by Trick Daddy, Jacki-O, and Pitbull for their "formulaic beats and even more rote rhymes lifted straight from the Gangsta 101 textbook." Inexplicably, Sokol even took aim at his own colleagues for writing good things about these records, sneering, "New Times in particular managed to discover an ever-expanding number of ways to write around the word mediocre." He then gave a "free tip" by championing an MC who trucks with Spam Allstars, Mr. Haka.
How predictable. "People should just get over it," John Speck, trombonist for Spam Allstars, told me. Speck knows that holding up Spam Allstars and their extensive family as Miami's sole saviors has become cliché among this city's uninformed, aging hipsters, many of whom make little or no effort to listen to local music. If they did, they would find plenty of interesting artists and sounds waiting to be discovered here. Is there anything in Miami as good as Wilco's A Ghost Is Born, to name one of Sokol's favorite albums last year? Maybe.
Granted, Pitbull's M.I.A.M.I.isn't a great album. At best, it's an uneven, fledgling debut highlighted by a few solid singles. When I spoke with Pitbull ("Dirt Hustlin'," May 27, 2004), he pointed out that his songs aren't supposed to be art, but an aural representation of the hard-knock Little Havana neighborhood he comes from.
I'm not personal friends with Pitbull, or even a big fan of his records, but I respect how he has captured a cultural moment: the Latino, black, and white kids who wild out in clubs, spit expletive-laden game raps on burned CDs, waste money on the latest trendy fashions, and live life for the moment. Perhaps it is his ability to give voice to his audience's aspirations, no matter how banal or superficial those dreams may be, that earns him so much acclaim.
Without excusing its countless aesthetic and moral failings (and readers of this column know that I have often pointed them out), it's important to assess hip-hop culture's many positions in American life, from skateboarders who mix Snoop Dogg in their punk-rock diet, to young mothers who love dancing to OutKast. It certainly lends a social context to M.I.A.M.I.'sunexpected success (and not just in Miami, as Sokol incorrectly asserts; I have friends in Sacramento who heard "Culo" everywhere last summer).
Tate, for his part, adeptly criticizes the hip-hop industry's current debauched state, but he doesn't give enough currency to its local manifestations, which can be just as influential as its watered-down, international variants. In other words, who means more to progressive hip-hoppers in New York, dead prez or Lil Jon? And if dead prez's music helps people change their lives and surroundings for the better, does Lil Jon really matter?
Pundits such as Sokol, who often seem to pick apart pop culture like greedy little children on a sugar binge, and even erudite journalists such as Tate, who wistfully compare the hip-hop culture they see on television to the bygone one they grew up with, often have little patience for its increasing complexity. When the mainstream doesn't reflect their own focus group, they get mad. Everyone wants to lead the "in" crowd.
As an unabashed advocate for underground hip-hop culture, I should be the maddest writer of them all. Being a backpacker, as a writer once told me, is like being a dodo bird, a hopeless nerd who isn't supposed to exist. I listen to music by Aesop Rock (whom Sokol once derided as "all weak beats and torrents of ill-shaped confessional verse"), Count Bass D, MF Doom, and Madlib that barely rates on college radio, much less MTV.
Fuck it, I don't care. Indie rap reflects my vision of what I want hip-hop to be: purposefully intellectual, frustratingly experimental, and loudly polemical. I don't expect the rest of the world to agree with me.
In Miami, there are precious few of us. One of them is Marcelo "Karakter" Burgos, a DJ who has been promoting indie rap shows at I/O under the production name Tough Titty. He has brought out Aceyalone, Murs, and Brand Nubian, among others.