Power to the People and the Beats

|

Writing in The Times (London), cultural critic Clive Davis offers a great introduction to the brouhaha over John McWhorter's new book All About the Beat: Why Hip-Hop Can't Save Black America. As Davis tells it, McWhorter's beef isn't with the misogyny, violent imagery, and bling so essential to today's hip-hop, it's with the lefty politics of "conscious" rap and the liberal academics that have embraced it as the vanguard of revolutionary change:

Nothing could be further from the truth, McWhorter argues. Far from being truth-tellers, he says, so-called "conscious" rappers recycle endless clichés and conspiracy theories about inner-city blight, the drugs trade and Aids. Instead of generating a desire to change the system, rappers and their acolytes in the media and academia simply encourage a sense of passivity. "Insisting that things are still so simple that black people need to get together and rise in fury against an evil oppressor makes for entertaining hiphop," he writes. "It sounds good uttered fiercely and set to a driving beat. But this way of parsing things does not correspond to what black America really needs today, as opposed to what it needed 50 years ago."

Turns out that McWhorter even likes some rappers. In one of the article's better details, we learn that he "occasionally listens to Snoop Dogg while cooking dinner."

But the real action comes a few paragraphs later, when Clive Davis empties the clip on New York jazz lord Wynton Marsalis, who has denounced hip-hop as "ghetto minstrelsy" and as "a safari for people who get their thrills from watching African-American people debase themselves." Here's Davis:

Brave words. The problem with Marsalis's assessment, however, is that the kind of retro-jazz he has championed in the past two decades is, bluntly, an overreverential facsimile of the music of 40 or 50 years ago. Although his restless campaigning on behalf of jazz has paid dividends in the creation of a splendid new performing base at the Lincoln Center, in New York, it is still not entirely clear whether the venue will ever amount to more than a museum for the well-heeled Manhattan middle class, black and white.

Whole thing here.

(Via the great Arts & Letters Daily)

Advertisement

NEXT: Two More Isolated Incidents

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. Marsalis may have had his spine reinforced by teak inserted from a southerly direction, but at least he can play an instrument, unlike most of the hippity hoppers.

    Would the likes of Shaq be a Hoppity Hooper?

    Kevin

  2. Best ad hominem ever. But he sure has Marsalis’s number.

  3. Regarding the “liberal academics that have embraced it as the vanguard of revolutionary change” — you have good timeing. Tonight’s headliner for the whitest musicfest in the world (aka Pitchfork) is Public Enemy, playing “It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back” in its entirety.

  4. OK, Wynton talks too much, and most of his stuff is lame, but try “Marsalis on Monk.” Good stuff! (And way better than Snoop Doggy Dog, which I don’t listen to when I’m cooking dinner.)

  5. “a safari for people who get their thrills from watching
    African-American people debase themselves”

    I’d say he hit a bulls eye with that assessment, at least regarding hip-hop videos.
    Amos ‘n’ Andy is Shakespeare by comparison.

  6. “The problem with Marsalis’s assessment, however, is that the kind of retro-jazz he has championed in the past two decades is, bluntly, an overreverential facsimile of the music of 40 or 50 years ago.”

    What does the fact that Marsalis isn’t half the musician, according to Davis, have to do with whether what Marsalis said about hip hop is true or not? If Marsalis’ retro jazz were really popular and better than what was done 50 years ago, would that make him right about hip hop?

    Davis’s response seems to be something to the effect “you don’t sell any records and hip hop does.” Well no shit Clive and in fact that is Marcalis’s point. Hip hop sells because it is bought by millions of white people looking to gawk at the dangerous black people.

  7. did hair metal debase white people?

  8. Ooh, this Davis guy is so snippy! I can easily imagine Robert Morley delivering those lines.

    I don’t particularly care for some of the things Wynton says about jazz or his music particularly but as the first poster says, he can play, and that isn’t easy. I’ve always found rap to be the height of annoyance with its incessant repetition, christ at least James Brown would take it to the bridge once in a while.

  9. dhex: You can find the answer to that question by examining the average Camaro driver.

  10. “did hair metal debase white people?”

    Only if you listen to it.

  11. “did hair metal debase white people?”

    Does hair metal claim to speak for the “white experience”? The better question would be does The Godfather debase Italian immigrants? A lot of Italian immigrants would tell you it does.

  12. so if it did claim to speak for the white experience – lord knows those guys did enough dope to do so – then it actually did?

    i don’t really see how this works. blacks are a monolith? whites are not? (i wouldn’t agree with either.)

    mr. fletcher has a better answer, perhaps.

  13. …at least James Brown would take it to the bridge once in a while. – Doug F.

    Say on, Doug. That SB#1 has been sampled so often, probably more than anyone, says a bunch about the current pseudofunksters.

    Kevin

  14. Another in the ‘It isn’t hard to find FAIL in Marsalis’ rap, But Davis comes up empty’ camp.

  15. I wasn’t put on this planet to make any of you happy. You can squeeze that chai tea you’re sipping into an enema tube, squeeze it up your anus and then blow it out of your ass.

  16. Public Enemy

    Rap for white people.

  17. Hmmm. I thought people bought and listened to rap music because they like the way it sounds and it provides some sort of aesthetic and sensual pleasure. I guess I was wrong.

  18. they like the way it sounds and it provides some sort of aesthetic and sensual pleasure. I guess I was wrong.

    Some do, some don’t. Some look for a lot of the ‘socially conscious’ crap which always seems to lack a certain flair, but makes some [white] folks feel better…about themselves I suspect.

  19. Or, you could wait a couple of hours for nature to take it’s course. An enema bag may be more time than it is worth when you consider the clean up involved.

  20. Exactly, Zeb. While you were enjoying the music, you failed to recognize that your primary subconscious reason for listening to rap is to experience black culture from the safety of your white lifestyle. Music has nothing to do with it.

  21. I kid. That’s just psychic/Freudian nonsense. Unless you know a person intimately, it’s foolish to pretend to know why that person buys/enjoys music.

  22. So if talented white people do a facsimile of music from 400 years ago, that’s talent, but if a talented black musician reproduces a jazz style from 40 years ago, the only appropriate response is mockery? Why are black people only allowed to do rap?

  23. “I don’t really see how this works. blacks are a monolith? whites are not? (i wouldn’t agree with either.)”

    Fair point. The issue is that there are a ton of really negative stereotypes about black people that go back 100s of years. Some of the most vile ones involve black men being criminal, untrustworthy and dangerous and black women being permiscuous and the whole race being sexually debased.

    A lot of hip hop acts out those stereotypes in a really offensive almost cartoonish way. If it were being ironic and making fun of white people’s prejudices that would be one thing. But there is nothing ironic about it. It makes claim to be the real experience of the people who write it. How many times has hip hops’ defenders claimed that the music is just a reflection of the artists’ experiences and the black experience in America?

    I don’t understand how confirming so many negative and racist stereotypes and claiming to be real experience can be a good thing.

  24. “So if talented white people do a facsimile of music from 400 years ago, that’s talent, but if a talented black musician reproduces a jazz style from 40 years ago, the only appropriate response is mockery? Why are black people only allowed to do rap?”

    You got it. Sting doing his lute record, that is talent. A black person continuing a tradition and trying to add to some of the greatest cultural contributions of his race is just a bad imitator of the real thing.

    I don’t know why Davis didn’t just accuse of Marcalis of not “keeping it real”.

  25. This is so silly, fighting over the cultural value of Jazz versus Rap. Why get yourself is such a tizzy when it is American culture you are fighting over, it has no value.

  26. “Why get yourself is such a tizzy when it is American culture you are fighting over, it has no value.”

    Yes Pierre because France is the ultimate arbiter of culture and God knows they never listened to Jazz or anything

  27. …a lot of the ‘socially conscious’ crap which always seems to lack a certain flair

    Go listen to Nation of Millions again and say the same thing with a straight face. I don’t give a shit what your politics are, that album was a musical and cultural milestone. Sure, PE grew into a stale caricature embraced by lefty, white college kids, but that wasn’t the case when that record came out in ’88.

  28. Sorry, I made you cry, Mr John. I’ll go get an American flag so you can wipe your little eyes.

  29. john: name ten singles you think most exemplify these trends you’re decrying.

    also anyone who calls sting talented needs medical help, because they’re clearly clinically dead and having an out of body experience.

    DON’T WALK TOWARDS THE LIGHT

  30. Go listen to Nation of Millions again and say the same thing with a straight face. I don’t give a shit what your politics are, that album was a musical and cultural milestone.

    Exactly right. Vernon Reid who played on it is a far better ‘real’ musician than Marsalis.

  31. Vernon Reid who played on it is a far better ‘real’ musician than Marsalis.

    Not sure he was on Nation, but I agree with your point. Marsalis’ main problem is that he resorts to creating a facsimile of music from the past, whereas a group like PE (at their peak), incorporated some of that history, but made it their own.

  32. also anyone who calls sting talented needs medical help, because they’re clearly clinically dead and having an out of body experience.

    No, no, the tragedy of Sting is that he is talented. He proved it in the 70’s and 80’s. Then he went and did all that stuff he’s done, which sounds like it’s coming from an untalented person. Tragic.

  33. Marsalis’ main problem is that he resorts to creating a facsimile of music from the past

    Heh. He’s put out music that no one from the past ever could have dreamed of. Marsalis is a student of the form and he knows all the history, but he has also added to the catalog with some very innovative material, inasmuch as it’s still jazz.

  34. I wonder Marsalis would say if you asked if James Brown debased black people? Because he sure talked about sex, women, money, and the man a LOT.

  35. Why get yourself is such a tizzy when it is American culture you are fighting over, it has no value

    Just like the dollar! It’s a trend!

  36. You can squeeze that chai tea you’re sipping into an enema tube, squeeze it up your anus and then blow it out of your ass.

    It’s like a Hallmark card.

  37. “john: name ten singles you think most exemplify these trends you’re decrying.

    also anyone who calls sting talented needs medical help, because they’re clearly clinically dead and having an out of body experience.”

    “1st Key” by Little Wayne and Birdman

    “Goldmine” Busta Rymes

    “Hustlers” NAS

    “EVerything I love” Diddy

    “Hard Out There for a Pimp” Djay f/ Shug

    “Kickin and Pushin” The Dog Pound

    “Ridin” Chamillionaire

    “Bitch” Kings of Crunk

    “Many Men” 50 Cent

    “No Tears” Scarface

    There you are. I am not a hip hop expert. But those come to mind. I tried to chose stuff that was reasonably new rather than dredging up NWA and crap from twenty years ago. Further, I tried to put in a spectrum of stuff rather than just picking on so called gangster rap. I will let any hip hop officiandos quaral with wether the lyrics of some of these songs don’t conform to horrible stereotypes about black people.

  38. did hair metal debase white people?
    It debases ALL of us.

  39. did hair metal debase white people?

    Why don’t you look at Vince Neal and answer that question yourself.

  40. Commentary Magazine debases white people. Look at how the audience soaks up its neo-classicist attitude to the point they become entirely predicative in their response to social stimuli as a result of a deadening fear of the other.

  41. ok i’m with you on chamillionaire. that song is awful. the rest? errr.

    i brought up hair metal because it was a purple jazz lycra penis with a perm, but in human form. its creators were certainly not putting forth positive images of men in general, and generally conforming to a vapid, drug-addled, sexist view of the world. and sure, tipper gore probably thought it inspired rape and degradation, but that view probably should have died off along with her relevance.

    but the argument generally puts me in mind of something i heard from a southern friend of mine about what she calls stupid country; i.e. it makes everyone look bad because everyone else in the country thinks that it is emblematic of the south. what can you say to that? if people are so silly as to work that way, then you’re fucked no matter how much or little git r dun is on the airwaves.

    also i find it hard to believe you are not an nwa fan. talk about deeply anti-government, anti-cop music. it’s nearly – dare i say it – libertarian!

  42. “did hair metal debase white people?

    Why don’t you look at Vince Neal and answer that question yourself.”

    Can’t argue with that. But does anyone consider Vince Neal to be anything but a clown? Does anyone think of hair metal as being the oppressed classes of camero driving guys on the Jersey shore everywhere? No, Vince and his hair metal breatherin are held up to ridicule and not taken seriously. Yet, hip hop artists who do pretty much the same thing just to a different beat and with different back beat try to claim to be serious artists with a serious message. Hip hop shouldn’t be able to have it both ways. It can’t at once be “serious” and some make a claim on being a geniune reflection of the black experience and at the same time point to white artists who make no such claims when people call it out for doing and saying degrading things.

  43. Why do I suspect that “BiRacialRapHairMetalGuy” has been waiting to bring up Vernon Reid for a long, long time?

  44. D Hex,

    You are right that hair metal is no less degrading to white people than hip hop is to black people or some bad country is to hillbillies. The point is that if hip hop wants to do degrading exagerations of people, the artists need to shut up and stop claiming to be anything serious or in any way representative of their audience. It is hip hop’s pretentions to be something besides music that 14 year olds use to shock their parents that pisses me off not the lyrics. You are right hip hop hardly has a monopoly on degrading and stupid lyrics.

  45. John, Neal may be a clown now, but when Motley Crue was in its heyday they were taken very seriously by their fans and the likes of Tipper Gore.

    There are some people who take rap seriously, and there a shitload of people who just ignore it.

    Don’t sweat it. There’s always a cultural crisis to some people and they’ll find it in whatever they can.

  46. The NWA guys seemed to be in on the joke, aware of and incorporating the self-abasement inherent in talking about the petty, miserable lives they were describing.

    A lot of the acts that followed them, on the other hand, seemed to be completely shallow and vapid. Woot guns and bitches woot.

  47. Nigger is a social disease.

  48. “here are some people who take rap seriously, and there a shitload of people who just ignore it.”

    I don’t think it is a cultural crisis. I just think most of it is bad music and there is no small amount of “go gawk at the scary black man” going on when white people by the millions buy it.

  49. Also, I will note that an huge element of some rap is to pretend that you are, essentially, someone to be taken seriously, and spend lots of rhymes explaining why. Don’t be surprised if that bleeds through.

    If he wasn’t fronting so hard would you take Lil’ Wayne seriously?

  50. “The NWA guys seemed to be in on the joke, aware of and incorporating the self-abasement inherent in talking about the petty, miserable lives they were describing.”

    That is a good point. A lot of the people who bought it certainly were not in on the joke. Like most popular music, hip hop is at its best when it is being ironic and funny and at its worst when it is being earnest.

  51. Why do I suspect that “BiRacialRapHairMetalGuy” has been waiting to bring up Vernon Reid for a long, long time?

    1) Paranoia?
    2) You too appreciate the musical genius of that guitar icon?
    3) You didn’t realize that the original post was only made a few hours ago, and thought BiRacialRapHairMetalGuy had been waiting for years for the chance to
    respond?
    4)you are aware that the original post was made a few hours ago but a few hours with these guys seems like a long, long time to you?

  52. If Lil’Wayne were white, he would be the dude from the OffSpring video “Pretty Fly For A White Guy”.

  53. Like most popular music, hip hop is at its best when it is being ironic and funny and at its worst when it is being earnest.

    Hence, the article’s claim that politically earnest hip hop is teh suxxor?

  54. Thanks to all for their comments. One quick interlude: The metal guitar on PE’s Nation of Millions (off the track “She Watch Channel Zero”) is sampled from the Slayer classic “Angel of Death.” And while I don’t really have a strong opinion on Vernon Reid, there’s no question that Kerry King and Jeff Hanneman are more talented than Wynton Marsalis.

  55. Mario Van Peebles said of his father Melvin – who created Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, which no studio would make but was critically acclaimed and commercially successful, that his father’s film made black kids think it cool to be a radical. That’s what Sweetback was. A radical who was totally cool. He said his father took all of the black stereotypes, turned them on their head and then shoved them in your face.

    He added, that when the studios saw how successful it was, they took what they perceived as “the formula” and made all of those blacksploitation films. But instead of showing black kids that it was cool to be a radical, the studio’s message was that it was cool to be a dope dealer.

    Hip hop is just a continuation of that formula and I hope Gordon Parks is burning in hell.

  56. Brave words. The problem with Marsalis’s assessment, however, is that the kind of retro-jazz he has championed in the past two decades is, bluntly, an overreverential facsimile of the music of 40 or 50 years ago. Although his restless campaigning on behalf of jazz has paid dividends in the creation of a splendid new performing base at the Lincoln Center, in New York, it is still not entirely clear whether the venue will ever amount to more than a museum for the well-heeled Manhattan middle class, black and white.

    Ouch….

    Still I am far more likely to listen to Jazz from 40-50 years ago then i am to listen to rap.

    Rap sounds like crap to me, and I have probably only spent a little less then 2 weeks of my entire life in Manhattan.

    That said I am sure much of the newer music I listen to is heavenly influenced by rap, but that would be hard to prove….does that back beat reference rap or Led Zapplin?

  57. did hair metal debase white people?

    Brok Samson is homo superior not a debased specimen.

  58. Still I am far more likely to listen to Jazz from 40-50 years ago then i am to listen to rap.

    If I’m in the mood for it, I prefer West Coast cool over East coast bop. Also early Sonny Rollins improv, in structure, in melody, superb, sublime. Wes Montgomery, nothing fantastically difficult, but those beautifully rendered double stops just make me purr like a cat.

  59. also anyone who calls sting talented needs medical help, because they’re clearly clinically dead and having an out of body experience.

    Sting is talented. He’s just become profoundly ordinary and boring.

    However, when he was with the Police he did have the unbridled genius of Stewart Copeland behind him.

  60. I went along with the Marsalis dis, but it’s ridiculous to call him untalented. He’s a very talented musician. But when he talks…he sounds like a bad imitation of a caricature of a parody of an homage to a hep cat cool sunglasses-wearing miles davis bebop daddy-o.

  61. that album was a musical and cultural milestone. Sure, PE grew into a stale caricature embraced by lefty, white college kids, but that wasn’t the case when that record came out in ’88.

    Which was precisely when it grew into a stale caricature embraced by lefty, white college kids. What do you think all my white, lefty college friends were listening to in ’88?

    It’s funny, thinking back, I remember many of my white, lefty college friends preferring East Coast rap, where I really embraced the more laid back, West Coast style which hit the ground running in the early nineties.

    Here’s how I summed up the two styles:

    East Coast rappers wrote tracks about the bad stuff happening in their neighborhood.

    West Coast rappers were the bad stuff happening in their neighborhood.

    Yeah, I admit, I’m a bit shady like that.

    And for the record, I think most modern rap has gone down the tubes. Especially the commercial stuff.

  62. “West Coast rappers were the bad stuff happening in their neighborhood.

    Yeah, I admit, I’m a bit shady like that.”

    So you are into Tony, Toni, Tone, huh?

  63. I just think most of it is bad music and there is no small amount of “go gawk at the scary black man” going on when white people by the millions buy it.

    John, what’s wrong with the idea that millions of people simply like music you don’t? Millions of people like Madonna and Hannah Montana, too. There’s no point in attempting to psycho-analyze the reasons why (especially because the very act requires a collectivist/sameness view of the human mind).

  64. So, what you’re saying Les, is, it’s a fool who looks for logic in the chambers of the human heart?

  65. The hair metal analogy is actually perfect for the kneejerk anti-hip hop pontificators. Commercial rap (the crapola that gets played on the radio and/or listed by John) is to the universe of hip hop music as spandex ’80s rock is to the universe of rock ‘n’ roll.

    Does the perseverance of hair metal mean that all rock music sucks? I would answer “no.”

    For some modern examples of innovative, musical and self-aware hip hop, check out the artists on the Stones Throw label.

  66. The metal guitar on PE’s Nation of Millions (off the track “She Watch Channel Zero”) is sampled from the Slayer classic “Angel of Death.” And while I don’t really have a strong opinion on Vernon Reid, there’s no question that Kerry King and Jeff Hanneman are more talented than Wynton Marsalis.

    Damon, do you now or have you ever owned a denim jacket with a painting on the back?

    And if so, which band?

  67. John, what’s wrong with the idea that millions of people simply like music you don’t? Millions of people like Madonna and Hannah Montana, too. There’s no point in attempting to psycho-analyze the reasons why (especially because the very act requires a collectivist/sameness view of the human mind).

    False dichotomies are the Neocon’s bread and butter. Any column by Charles Krauthammer will
    prove my point.


  68. If he wasn’t fronting so hard would you take Lil’ Wayne seriously?

    How long ago would have been obligatory to put ‘fronting’ in ‘quotation marks’?

    How long before that would no one know what you were saying?

  69. I went along with the Marsalis dis, but it’s ridiculous to call him untalented. He’s a very talented musician.

    He is a well trained classical musician playing jazz like it was Bach.

    is to the universe of hip hop music as spandex ’80s rock is to the universe of rock ‘n’ roll.

    Exactly so… and hip-hop is as much black music as jazz was.

    Beastie Boys
    Stan Kenton,

    Whatever.

  70. btw,

    Where is Art-P. Original Gang-Star?

    Seems like he should be contributing here as the local sage of all beats.

  71. Wynton Marsalis is an extremely talented musician and composer. He’s one of the very few out there who can play in both the jazz and classical styles and make it sound equally effortless.

    Wynton Marsalis is to rap what filet mignon is to hamburger.

  72. “Commercial rap (the crapola that gets played on the radio and/or listed by John) is to the universe of hip hop music as spandex ’80s rock is to the universe of rock ‘n’ roll.”

    Thanks, finally. I am amazed by some of the inane discussions on a site called “reason”. This conversation is inane because:
    1) blacks are not a monolith
    2) rap/hip hop is not a monolith

  73. This conversation is inane because:
    1) blacks are not a monolith
    2) rap/hip hop is not a monolith

    3)Rap/Hip Hop (or any musical genre) is not the product of a race of people, but of individual musicians.

  74. Jazz without these guys?
    Bix Beiderbecke
    Adrian Rollini
    Jack Teagarden
    Miff Mole
    Frank Trumbauer
    Steve Brown
    Dave Tough
    Bud Freeman
    Pee Wee Russell
    Glenn Miller
    Benny Goodman
    Dave Brubeck
    Stan Getz
    Chet Baker
    Django Reinhardt
    Paul Desmond
    Kai Winding…

  75. the very first real concert i ever went to was slayer. back when it was the brendon byrne arena.

    some things are just amazing when you’re 12. angel of death live is one of those things.

    shame about everything pretty much post the double live album, though.

    but john, my main point is that i don’t think bad music debases anyone. if people are going to draw deep conclusions from something that superficial, then you were never going to win them over anyway. it’s hard to move past bigotries, to be sure, but i love my libertizzles no matter how many times they get “i (heart) neal peart” tattooed on their cocks.

  76. Rap music? More like CRAP music!! Get the hell off my lawn.

  77. BTW, Highly recommend the _Decline of Western Civilization_ films by Penelope Spheeris..

    I: punk
    II: hair metal
    III: grunge

    And if you can find a copy, _Fear of a Black Hat_.. Genius…

    ps: _Vivid_ was the first CD I ever stole. Someone stole it from me at a party though, karma comes around..

  78. Hip-hop is like rock a dumbing down of music.

    So is jazz, compared to classical.

    Hip-hop is a surrogate for real black power activity, which is probably fine with its white fans and their media overlords.

    I suggest black people listen to something more revolutionary: Bill Cosby.

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.