Anyhow, in our third and last publication in Fall 2005, I contributed an article that I had previously written for the Kansas City infoZine, an online freelance news source, titled "Hip-Hop and the Modern Workplace". In Work Force, I had changed some of the wording to make it a bit more accessible, and it was published alongside another article that was written by former Work Force member Ben Wilkins and titled together as a discussion on "The Nature of Hip-Hop".
Once beginning this blog in March of 2006, a year after writing it, I republished the article under the original title "Hip-Hop and the Modern Workplace," but I chose to keep the edits I made to it.
I just want to make it clear that I am not reposting this as a means to relive a dead argument or to rehash the past, but because I think the articles yield an important debate.
I still stand behind the article I contributed over three years ago and not at all for egotistical reasons, but for its emphasis. Its principal drawbacks are its incompleteness, it must be admitted. There is only so much you can include in a 700-word piece. The essential point was to show the ways in which popular music reflects the way people work and think about themselves.
The only exception to the piece would be the following quote:
"This is the most defining economic representation of modern music and culture; its opposition to the repetitive conditions of low-paying, service jobs."The problem with this is that unemployment and crime have probably been as defining if not more so than resistance to the conditions of work, although these things do intersect. It is no secret that the hip-hop generation, and black folks in particular, have shouldered the worst of the change that came as a result of the close of the Welfare State-era of U.S. capitalism.
Ben's piece, on the other hand, raises a number of excellent points and helps to give my piece more of a totality, especially at it relates to white supremacy and the response of official society towards hip-hop.
"The fact that the same callers were un-offended by Pepsi’s subsequent advertisements featuring Ozzy Osbourne, the white rock-star who once urinated on a national landmark, indicates that the anti-rap backlash is about keeping America’s racial boundaries in place, not saving our children from violent lyrics."His conclusion is especially right on.
"In the end, any change in the music that working people listen to will only happen if they change the way they live, and the way they think about themselves."But just as Ben criticizes the limits of the lyrics quoted in my piece, a limit I'm in wholehearted agreement with, he winds up employing the same method, only he focuses instead on particular artists. Both of these methods can produce partial and incomplete results, although they are not altogether fallacious.
We cannot arrive at any sound conclusion on hip-hop merely by isolating this artist over that one. Sure, there are varieties within hip-hop, but varieties we will never understand just by comparing artists. It is the variety of tensions that exist in modern society that supply hip-hop with its myriad forms.
To give him the benefit of the doubt, it was written as long ago as mine and perhaps if he were to write it again, it would have some different nuances. Perhaps not. I certainly would with mine.
The problem with Ben's juxtaposing is that it is inconsistent with his conclusion. He writes,
"Even if many of their detractors have ulterior motives, the fact remains: G-Unit, Lil’ John and Ludacris are poor substitutes for Marvin Gaye, Aretha Franklin and Sam Cooke."Sam Cooke, Marvin Gaye, and Aretha Franklin could only make the music they made because of the movement and activity of black people in the late 1950s and 1960s, not simply because they were brilliant artists. And these artists had their own sets of contradictions as well, reflected in their antiquated chivalrous love themes which are merely nicer forms of the patriarchy of old.
My point is that we can't expect The Game or Kanye West to reproduce the social content of the 1960s in a world that lives as its opposite.
It is precisely due to the universal-aspiring character of hip-hop that it does reflect the contradictions of our world, not simply because hip-hop artists "put forth a contradictory message." I would argue that the contradictions within hip-hop are not only indicative of the times, but of hip-hop's continued strength and appeal, an appeal that will not be superseded for years to come.
Shout out to Ben Wilkins, wherever you are.*
Two Views on the Nature of Hip Hop
From Ludacris To Marvin Gaye to
Conservative Talk Radio
First View by KOOL DJ R.E.B.E.L.
It has been a permanent part of the hip-hop language to reject the dull and dehumanizing routine of the workplace.
“I'm tryin' to get a job, but that sh-- don't work/ Soon as I walk through the door, on they face is a smirk/ Can't hire no nigga like me in that b----/ Tattoos, gold teeth, nigga dreds and sh--/” writes Lil Jon in “Stop F---in’ Wit Me” (2005). Mr. Lif, a Boston MC, in “Live From the Plantation” (2002) writes, “We all are being murdered by a similar process/ Whether you work at the candy store or slave at the office/ The purpose of our life is just to serve the economy/ They misinform our minds to paint a picture of harmony/”
Or listen to Dead Prez in “W-4” (2004), “We don't never get a piece of the pie/ Work 50 years, retire then die/ Stay po', rich folks is the criminal/ but you don't wanna hear me tho' so/ thank God it's Friday, ain't it what we live fo'?/ Nigga gotta get up out the plantation/ Same job that my pop had before me/ I'ma pass it down to my seed same f---ed up situation/”
Music in general has historically been an outlet from the workplace, and it has not always taken the form of hip-hop. From Blues, to Rock, to Country Western, etc. these traditional music forms have represented many diverse industries. Blues, for example, evolved from working on the farm to working in the factory. The earlier Blues was based in the South with a strong emphasis on farm work themes. You will find this in artists like Muddy Waters and Ledbelly.
As more black workers moved North into America’s factories, the Blues developed another side, many call Urban Blues, with a stress on production work. In “Please Mr. Foreman” Jo-L Carter, an Urban Blues pioneer writes, “Please Mr. Foreman/ slow down your assembly line/ I don’t mind workin’/ but I do mind dyin’/".
For contemporary music and culture, however, the dominant themes are indicative of a service-based economy: fast-food restaurants, convenience stores, music outlets, department stores, etc. In “Spaceship” (2003) Kanye West wrote, “If my manager insults me again/ I will be assaulting him/ After I f--- the manager up/ then I'm gonna shorten the register up/ Let's go back, back to the Gap/ Look at my check, wasn't no scratch/ So if I stole, wasn't my fault/ Yeah I stole, never got caught/x”
Now, walk into any fast-food restaurant in the city and pay attention to the music on the radio, or the attitudes of the workers, or the way they wear their uniforms. You’ll see, more often than not, that hip-hop has left its imprint and that working people are translating their misery and exploitation into hip-hop. Their desire to control their pace of work or even to merely escape is given character through this medium. This is the most defining economic representation of modern music and culture; its opposition to the repetitive conditions of low-paying, service jobs.
Could this not be why hip-hop is the most popular music form of today, because of its ability to tap into the popular concerns of ordinary people? At least that is one explanation. Beyond the dislike of some people toward hip-hop with regard to its musical unorthodoxy or its stress on “materialism” and disrespecting women, its popular resonance has to be based in something material and this has to be why it retains such a broad following.
If hip-hop was some marketing gimmick, it would have played out a long time ago. But hip-hop has managed to capture the hopes, fears, and concerns of everyday people because that is where it has its origins: the inner city streets of New York. Throughout American history, there has been a basis for every popular music form. Hip-hop is simply a continuation of former musical movements. Whether you wish it away or wish it to be something different, hip-hop will continue to be the reflection of people struggling to cope and regain control of their collective lives.
Second View by Ben Wilkins
The supposed depravity of rap music is a common discussion topic on talk-radio KMBZ 980. Whether Bill O’Reilly is denouncing Ludacris’ violent lyrics, or Rush Limbaugh is lambasting John Kerry for “pandering” to black voters’ musical tastes, the verdict at KC’s leading right-wing radio station is in: hip-hop is bad for America.
KMBZ’s newest local voice, Darla Jaye, didn’t waste any time before jumping in on the fray. A recent feature on a Houston rapper, whose pro-terrorism lyrics caused his dismissal as an airport baggage screener, ended with Jaye derisively reciting lyrics and slang in mock-urban fashion. A swarm of callers congratulated her on her stinging coverage of the case and duly noted the criminal behavior of the workforce at Kansas City ’s own airport.
So why all the controversy? Why devote endless hours condemning an art-form that ordinary, working people from all backgrounds embrace? The answer to this question goes far beyond the lyrical content of songs, directly into the heart of America ’s racial divide.
In less than three decades, hip-hop has emerged from America ’s inner-cities to capture the hearts and minds of a broad cross-section of its young generation. To a large extent, it shows the potential for unity that exists in a country where progress has often been sidetracked by the racial allegiances of white folks.
At a local FedEx hub where this writer worked, break-time discussions between black, white and Hispanic workers commonly revolved around staples of hip-hop culture, especially, “The Chappelle Show,” which provides some of the most insightful social commentary on television. This and countless other examples show that “race” is not a fixed category, but is rather one that can be transcended in favor of something much more human.
The right-wing icons of America’s heartland do not take a favorable view of these developments.
As Eminem said in the song, “White America,” a scathing indictment of the backlash against rap, “hip-hop was never a problem in Harlem, only in Boston / after it bothered the fathers of daughters starting to blossom” (The Eminem Show, 2002).
The wars waged by ultraconservative politicians and talking-heads on hip-hop’s “anti-social” message conceal a thinly-veiled appeal to white cultural domination.
It has not gone unheeded. The mass-mobilizations that have ousted Ludacris, Snoop Dogg and others from corporate sponsorship – in one day 3,000 callers phoned Pepsi Co. to demand they drop Ludacris’ endorsement deal – indicate that there are plenty of listeners who aren’t ready to give in to hip-hop without a fight.
The fact that the same callers were un-offended by Pepsi’s subsequent advertisements featuring Ozzy Osbourne, the white rock-star who once urinated on a national landmark, indicates that the anti-rap backlash is about keeping America’s racial boundaries in place, not saving our children from violent lyrics.
But there is another aspect of hip-hop that can’t be downplayed. Even if many of their detractors have ulterior motives, the fact remains: G-Unit, Lil’ John and Ludacris are poor substitutes for Marvin Gaye, Aretha Franklin and Sam Cooke.
Lil’ John might hate the dull routine of working in America, but he also teams up with rappers named Big Sam and Little Bo (Do the math: Sam + Bo = Sambo). The huge popularity of Dave Chappelle’s “Whaaat!” skit among white suburbanites probably has more than a little to do with this aspect of his persona.
A recent Vibe Magazine article exposes the alarming rate of domestic violence among rappers and how it reflects the mind state of its listeners. As the author notes, “Called hos or called housewives, too many women in relationships with men in the hip-hop community find that they get treated like prostitutes – wham, bam, and bam some more.” These are only examples. At best, hip-hop’s most prominent artists put forth a contradictory message.
There are also some very hopeful signs. Tupac’s timeless anthems, Kanye West’s G.O.O.D. music label and even some of The Game’s more insightful stuff all point to the potential for a hip-hop culture that can match the classic Soul and Rock music of the Civil Rights Era.
Hip-hop has captured the popular imagination precisely because it responds to the problems of everyday living in an identifiable way. Darla Jaye and her listeners wouldn’t feel so threatened if this weren’t true. But taking an unflinchingly positive position on hip-hop culture – even if it’s in response to right-wing aggression – won’t get us anywhere. In the end, any change in the music that working people listen to will only happen if they change the way they live, and the way they think about themselves.