Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Do You Have to be Racist to Hate Rap?

There's an article on Slate right now that says some pretty sorry things about the state of culture in this nation.

Stephin Merritt is an unlikely cracker. The creative force behind the Magnetic Fields, Merritt is diminutive, gay, and painfully intellectual. His music is witty and tender. He plays the ukulele. He named his Chihuahua after Irving Berlin. And yet no less an influential music critic than The New Yorker's Sasha Frere-Jones has used that word—"cracker"—to describe him. Frere-Jones has also called him "Stephin 'Southern Strategy' Merritt," presumably in reference to Richard Nixon's race-baiting attempt to crush the Democratic Party. These are heady words, part of a two-year online campaign of sorts by Frere-Jones and the Chicago Reader music contributor Jessica Hopper to brand Merritt a racist. The charge: He doesn't like hip-hop, and on those occasions when he's publicly discussed his personal music tastes, he has criticized black artists.

The article goes on to say that his dislike of Justin Timberlake, among others, is a symptom of his "racism", since Timberlake likes "black music".

Frere-Jones and Hopper continue to misquote a keynote speech Merritt delivered at a music conference (While he said he deplored the message of "Song of the South", he said "Zip-adee-doo-dah" was a ctachy song), and insist that if his CD collection isn't proportionate to the size of the black population of America, he's racist.

I think about my own life. I could have moved into a whiter neighborhood, but instead chose an apartment building that's about 2/3 black. I could have had a place in Cordova that would have been less in rent and perhaps even less in taxes if I chose a spot that Herenton hadn't annexed yet. I made these choices because I didn't want to live in an insular white neighborhood.

And as cliche as it sounds, I have very good black friends that I cherish as deeply as my own family. Anything I do politically, I touch bases with Brad Watkins on. Why? I value his input. If I had it my way, Reginald Fentress and Darrick Harris would be on their way to the Shelby County Commission.

But according to Frere-Jones and Hopper... I'm a racist.

I loathe most rap. I find most of it to be intellectually and creatively bankrupt. Every once in a while, a rapper will come along that does something interesting sonically, such as when Digable Planets came out.

But really, there's a limit to how much "I'm a thug" posturing I can listen to. When I hear a rapper doing endless songs about... what a great rapper he is, I say "Thank you for going so boldly where the Sugarhill Gang went 25 years ago". It's a mystery to me how any black woman could listen to rap--- I would probably be offended by being characterized as a "ho".

On September 13, we'll actually have gone a decade without the last guy that I considered to be a good rapper, Tupac Shakur. When Curtis Jackson started calling himself "50 Cent", I think he might have been overly optimistic. And I find the Snoop Dogg phenomena truly mystifying--- By "pimping hos", he's bringing slavery into the 21st century. And this is a good thing?

Does this mean I'm a racist? No. Does it mean I look down on people who like this music? I don't understand it, but no.

It just means my taste runs in a different direction. My favorite band, Dream Theater, puts more changes in their music than you'll find in a symphony. And yes, they are white. Perhaps I'm more accustomed to the idea of people not liking my favorite music than Frere-Jones and Hopper are--- The only people that listen to Dream Theater are other musicians that are simply stunned that they can do the things they do.

I might meet the "12% of the CD collection must be black" standard, but certainly not the way Frere-Jones and Hopper might want me to. I love 70's soul music. To hell with 50 Cent, Kanye West, and Beyonce--- Give me Isaac Hayes, Al Green, George Clinton and P-Funk, Sly & the Family Stone, and Stevie Wonder (Pre-Paul McCartney duets). I also love blues--- Give me BB King, Robert Johnson, and Muddy Waters any day of the week. In that vein, Keb' Mo' is easily the most underrated artist of this generation, and he deserves to be a much bigger star than he is.

So my big question is this--- Is The New Yorker shortchanging its readers by inflicting upon them a music critic whose world view is as limited as that of Sasha Frere-Jones?


Timewalker said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Timewalker said...

Dream Theater - "Streets" - out-freakin'-standing rock opera. So you can count one non-musician fan right here.
Likewise, I like very few rap artists, especially current ones. And we agree on soul, blues, Keb Mo. Son House is another good one.
Sheesh. What is with some people? I wonder how many J-Pop CDs they have? Or are they rascists who hate Asians?
(Sorry, deleted the first one when I realized it needed editing.)

autoegocrat said...

Tupac never died.

There is some really fantastic hip-hop out there, but it isn't commercially viable because it doesn't reinforce the popular negative stereotypes about blacks. You really have to search for it if you want to find it. I've been exposed to enough to know that it's out there, somewhere, but unfortunately I don't have a list of artists to recommend.

Hip hop is like religion: most of what you find is bullshit, but that doesn't mean that the truth isn't still out there. Keep searching and follow your nose.

autoegocrat said...

Oh, and yes, Dream Theater is fucking excellent. Two words: Mike Portnoy.

Freedonian said...


"Streets" is actually Savatage. But it is outstanding. DT did something similar with their concept album "Metropolis Part II: Scenes From a Memory". It's the only concept album out there that I would place above "The Wall". Magnificent music, and a storyline reminiscent of "Dead Again".

They did another semi-concept album with their 2 disc set "Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence". There's no story running throughout it, but the second disc is technicaly one song with multiple movements. They're tied together with recurring musical motifs, and each song is written from the POV of someone having a different type of breakdown. That one's easily their most ambitious album musically.

Son House is great. I'm fairly ashamed that I didn't think of him when I was writing yesterday morning. Blame it on me being out of coffee.

Freedonian said...


I've heard the theory that Tupac didn't die before. Not really sure what to make of it. I know that he has to be one of the more prolific dead artists out there.

I'm sure there's some good hip hop out there somewhere--- My biggest problem with it is that it doesn't give you enough to listen to. When I listen to DT, there's so much going on in a song that I can have the same CD in my car player for a month and not get sick of it at all. I think the biggest problem with rap is the relative lack of instrumentation. It just doesn't stimulate me because there's nothing going on musically that can really hold my attention.

There are some artists out there that break the mold. At the risk of reinforcing the "hating rap is racist" stereotype put forward by Frere-Jones and Hopper, I like the Beastie Boys, at least all their albums since they did "Paul's Boutique" and added more instrumentation. They gave me something to listen to besides the vocals. Digable Planets are great because of the soundscape they create. Outkast is good, but I don't think anyone needs to hear "Hey Ya" again.

Mike Portnoy is, hands down, the best drummer out there. And if you ever watch him live, he makes it looks SO easy! The guy plays amazing stuff, and the fact that their sets are three hours long is a testament to what kind of shape the guy is in (Despite looking more than a little like Mick Foley these days). I always played guitar and keys, so I can sit there and watch either John Petrucci or Jordan Rudess all night. Rudess entered Julliard at age 9. Out-freakin'-standing.

Timewalker said...

Streets" is actually Savatage. But it is outstanding. DT did something similar with their concept album "Metropolis Part II: Scenes From a Memory".

Shit. I knew that. I was thinking "Metropolis Part II" when I was reading the post, but got distracted thinking of Savatage as a similar example, and then my brain went to mush. Thanks for getting me back on track. I haven't picked up "Six Degrees" yet, but it's on my list now.

Like most folks, I imagine, I was introduced to DT through the "Pull Me Under" single. But I was curious enough to dig deeper, and was rewarded for doing so, I think.

autoegocrat said...

My Tupac comment was a half-joking, half-serious reference to the conspiracy theory.

Freedonian said...


No prob. My brain goes to mush quite often.

Six Degrees is a phenomenal album, but it sure took me a few listens to really grasp just what a strong effort it was.

They just recorded another live album/ DVD. One disc is the band alone, and on the other, they play with an orchestra. The orchestral disc has them playing the "Six Degrees" song in its entirety, so I'm really looking forward to that.

Freedonian said...


I thought as much. I played it serious simply because I've had some very bright people talk to me about that theory, and they believe it devoutly. Me? Not so much.

Reginald Fentress said...

I despise what rap music has done to our culture. As an African American educator in the public school system, I see many students emulating the music they listen to(thug life, pimping, ho's, fast money, gangsta mentality) These weak and underdeveloped minds don't have the mental capacity to separate realism from fantasy. The music and videos they engulf themselves into are not real. But the consequences of a drive-by and dropping out of school are. The rising prison population, drop-out rate, and declining social values are all correlated with our generations fixation on rap music.

Freedonian said...

It's hard not to hate it, Reginald. You've seen it firsthand.

From the beginning of recorded music, there have always been people complaining about the morality of one form of music or another. I'm sure there were people compaining about "Minne the Moocher" and "Mack the Knife" back in the day.

But I've never seen a music form that had this profound of an effect on culture. Even in the sixties, it just seemed to inspire people to drop acid and have sex. I could never have imagined an effect like rap seems to have.

I grew up in the eighties, when even Capitol Hill seemed to be swept up in discussions about the effects of the lyrics of rock and roll songs.

We've reached the age now where "Darling Nikki", the song that started it all, must seem incredibly tame by comparison.

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