Other than freshman Delta Sigma Theta rushes at Cal-State Chico, no substrata of the American population has worse taste in rock than rappers. Sure, your little brother likes Fall Out Boy, but eventually, he's going to grow up and discover The Clash, then weed, then hopefully Junior Murvin and Lee Perry, until ultimately he's repudiating his past like a music writer with Jim Morrison posters still taped to the walls of his childhood bedroom (I stand by them). Your dad* might take his tips from Paste Magazine, and laud the wood-chip lull of Sky Blue Sky, but at least when he retreats to the basement to filch out a roach and wallow nostalgically, he'll probably spin Springsteen, Dylan, or Hendrix.
But whenever journalists asks rappers what rock they're listening to, it's ultimately some milquetoast mediocrity: Phil Collins, Journey, Coldplay, Linkin Park, John Mayer, Maroon 5, The Killers–and that's just Kanye. So why should anyone be surprised that when B.o.B. and Lil Wayne play rock star kabuki, they do it with a crude caricature suggestive that the Shop Boyz aren't the only ones who still think of rawk, as a mire of aggro-douchebag overcompensation set to Wes Borland riffs. Then again, this would explain Nickelback.
The boundaries between genres are more fluid than they've been in at least a decade. Last year, Kanye caused massive hip-hop blog
constipation consternation when he sampled MIA and Santogold, while Jim Jones kicked 16 henchman-like bars over electro-puff pop made by some kids who went to Wesleyan. Wiz Khalifa samples Alice DJ, Kid Cudi duets with Little Boots, Mickey Factz auditions to be the third member of Simian Mobile Disco–the litany goes on. What's troubling isn't the worthy desire to breach cultural and sonic barriers, but rather something that Disco Vietnam pointed out: it's the equivalent of going to a “trendy” restaurant and being served drank bacon-infused vodka and a cheeseburger served on an English muffin.
Like White Lines, Just Don't Do It.
Just as a music writer would look asinine reviewing Is This It, without a thorough understanding of The Velvets and Television, or white comics who try to mine hip-hop for cheap laughs (Weird Al and Lonely Island-excluded), rappers usually look dilettantish when trying to re-appropriate music they scarcely know. Maybe I'm wrong, maybe Factz lamps to Luomo and Kode9 in his leather-laden apartment. Perhaps B.o.B. is an aficionado of Killing Joke and The Raincoats–but I doubt it. (Look, I'd settle for Alice in Chains's Dirt and Nirvana Unplugged too).
This isn't exactly breaking news–the pendulum's shifted numerous times prior. There was Flash and Fab Five Freddy (ostensibly) running trains on Debbie Harry at the Days Inn, Run DMC enlisting Aerosmith for “Walk This Way,” Hip-House, the Judgment Night soundtrack, and Jay-Z's, Unplugged with The Roots. How much Kraftwerk was in the sound of early hip-hop and the great Detroit producers? What about Carl Craig, Juan Atkins, and Derrick May? Shit, half of the The Message sounds more like “Electric Feel” than it does “We Fly High.”
But the weak roots of this shallow fusion lie in rap-metal from the late 90s, N.E.R.D., and Kanye West's decision to sample “Young Folks”, and “Stronger”–two well-worn outfits for indie kids, but downright revolutionary to hip-hop heads whose idea of sonic diversity stopped at Stankonia. The pattern's there too. Every five or six years or so, hip-hop gets stale and seeks outside inspiration. When the cycle plays out, it closes ranks, retreats and seals itself hermetically. Daisy Age eclecticism was flipped in favor of Golden-Age gangsta rap, rap-rock and late 90s coffee shop bohemia soul were evicted by chrome gangster pop and the nostalgia de la boue of trap-rap.
I Could Posted “Prom Queen,” But in Many Ways, This is More Frightening
Moreover, the rise of illegal downloading has provided a major financial incentive to annex new territory. On Stage Names, Will Scheff of Okkervil River labeled his group, a “mid-level band,” but they're playing Conan and having Lou Reed ask them to open for him at Highline Ballroom. Beanie Sigel, signed to Def Jam, is going to jail for three months, because of an addiction to Xanax and Percoset stemming from his inability to get that dough. Rap fans download like no other–save for teenagers and Southerners, who will buy anything from Jonas Brothers DVD's, to Rick Ross records, to Larry the Cable Guy tickets–Wale's “Perfect Plan” theory in action.
Sure, the Internet eases one's ability to sample other genres, but even if these dudes were copping Fabric mixes and the new Dirty Projector's album, it wouldn't necessarily result in a windfall of great music. Incorporating interesting and new sounds requires true synthesis–the sort that can only be gained with time, serious listening, and practice. Otherwise, it's English muffins and Cheeseburgers.
But as foolish as it is for white hip-hop fans to sing the virtues of exclusionism, it's just as wrong-headed to assume that rap's solubilility won't yield it's share of successes. After all, Kid Cudi's “Day 'N' Nite (Crookers Remix),” “WaleD.A.N.C.E.,” Jay Electronica's decision to sample the Eternal Sunshine theme, and 808s & Heartbreak, gave us some of the best music of 06-08. To say nothing of great rock, dance, and noise-infuenced stuff like Subtle's For Hero: For Cool, Dalek's Abandoned Language, El-P's I'll Sleep When You're Dead, and the Islands and Busdriver's “Where there's a Will, There's a Whalebone.”
Kids today are more apt to wear skinny jeans, and grow up with omnivorous Internet appetites for music. Whereas, it was once weird to like acts like TV on the Radio and Wale, now they collaborate. It's the end result of rap's collision with mainstream–Kanye West and Lil Wayne aren't rappers, they're pop star, name brands. As my LA Times piece** about the gay hip-hop community hopefully illustrated, the walls that once insulated rap from mainstream pop have fully eroded. So maybe it's fitting that as rap enters its fourth decade, The Beastie Boys, the first rap group to ever top the Billboard charts, have emerged as one of the seminal influences of the latest generation–with The Cool Kids, Knux, and Asher Roth among their foremost disciples.
To Be Continued…Same Blog Time…Same Blog Channel
* For the record, my dad listens to nothing but Israeli gypsy pop and sports talk radio. I should probably hip him to Kutiman or Monotonix, but that would require more effort and patience than I'm willing to expend.