The Idiom

Can You Grok It? Free Grokistan!

Monday, July 02, 2007


Ed Driscoll ponders the steep decline in record sales in light of the decline of rap music, which has been cratering spectacularly over the past 2 years. He quotes an article in the Telegraph which intimates that rap has declined because of an overall increasing disgust with the gangsta attitude which had previously sold so well. But with a rising consciousness concerning the nihilism and violence in the music and the lifestyle, rap's core constituency (middle class whites) has been abandoning it in droves.

That may be the reason. It may also be the reason that nothing of true artistic merit has been produced in the rap world since the early 90's. Simply put, and at the risk of sounding like an old fart, Jay-Z cannot hold Ice-T's jock.

Kid Various used to describe rap as "the black punk." And that was what was so terrific about it. It was not only that the music was infectious, but it was that it politically relevant.

Not that The Kid ever bought into the politics of rap, with it's ultimately destructive message of "we are oppressed and powerless to do anything." But what was important was that it was specifically political, unlike popular music since the punk era, and thus - interesting.

Artists like Ice Cube (with and without NWA), Public Enemy, Ice-T - they described the bleakness of their own surroundings, a tableau of alienation and violence - and then said to the society at large "Fuck You!"

Here I come, so you better break North,
As I stride, my gold chains glide back and forth.
I care nothing bout you, and that's evident.
All I love's my dope and dead presidents.
Sound crazy? Well it isn't.
The ends justifies the means, that's the system.
I learned that in school then I dropped out,
Hit the streets, checked a grip, and now I got clout.
I had nothing, and I wanted it.
You had everything, and you flaunted it.
Turned the needy into the greedy,
With cocaine, my success came speedy.
Got me twisted, jammed into a paradox.
Every dollar I get, another brother drops.
Maybe that's the plan, and I don't understand,
God damn----you got me sinkin in quicksand.
But since I don't know, and I ain't never learned,
I gotta get paid, I got money to earn.
Just like the generation of British and American punks before them in the 1970's, who also looked around them and saw an environment of bleakness and despair, and no way out. When Johnny Rotten snarls "No future... no future... no future for you!", he's making an overt political statement about his society that, at the time, left very little room for social mobility and opportunity for success. Just like the black ghettos in 1980's America.

But, also like punks that preceded them, rappers could not survive a changing environment where their core audience (middle class whites) cannot identify with their political message. In a society where opportunity and wealth are increasing, it gets harder and harder for the message of alienation to cut through. Especially when the artists themselves, who become fabulously wealthy, have to pose more and more as "street." Phoniness, to use an outdated term by Holden Caufield, can be smelt a mile away by teen-agers.

But even more interesting is the theory that Driscoll puts forward that popular music self destructs and re-invents itself on a fairly regular basis:

If the mid-to-late 20th century is any guide, popular music in general, and black music in particular seems to undergo major self-immolations every few decades on a regular basis. In the 1940s, Miles, Dizzy, Bird and Charlie Christian used their Manhattan nightclubs as a laboratory to invent bebop, eventually killing the swing orchestras dead in their tracks. While bebop and its offshoots produced some brilliant music, by and large, it wasn't a genre you could easily dance to. Which is why, as Mark Gauvreau Judge wrote in 2000's If It Ain't Got That Swing, the teenagers of the 1950s found an alternative: rock and roll.
Wow. That's a fascinating idea. Did bebop and all of the post-bop forms (hard bop, cool, avant garde & free jazz) kill popular jazz and create the evolutionary niche for a blues roots variant called rock n' roll?

Personally, Kid Various wouldn't trade Round Midnight for all the swing in China...


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