Sunday, March 23, 2008

Little Earl's Adventures In Rap

After having just about satiated my presumedly bottomless desire for '60s and '70s rock, pop, and soul through two-and-a-half years of fervent downloading, a month ago I decided to fill a large gap in my musical knowledge and undertake a systematic exploration of the history of rap. It has irked me when every time I've looked at a "greatest albums of all time" list I see several rap albums and I simply have no informed opinion on their supposed merits or lack thereof. I realized that I could improve my value as a music critic, and as a human being, if I exposed myself to the best of rap, and withheld judgment until I felt that I had engaged with the music on its own terms, because then I would truly be able to say "I like this and here's why" or "I don't like this and here's why not" and not simply speak from ignorance as I used to do. In short, it was time for Little Earl's Adventures in Rap.

There are probably many reasons why Little Earl did not take an adventure in rap sooner. First of all, there is so much quality music from the '60s and '70s that I've enjoyed and I wouldn't have been interested in other genres until I became quite sick of that era or simply found myself in a different mood. Such is now the case. Second, rap, as many of you know, is primarily urban music and primarily black music. I am a white Jewish guy who grew up in rural San Mateo County. It was not previously clear to me exactly what, to paraphrase Morrissey, rap had to say about my life. Having lived in a large city now for a few years, however, suddenly the rhythms and subject matter of rap don't seem quite so foreign or inapplicable to me. Or in another sense, what was previously a detriment (that rap is nothing like my life) is now a virtue (rap is nothing like my life...and that's interesting!). Also, champion as I am of art that comes from the perspective of the outsider and the marginalized, I have to admit that rap definitely falls into such a category. You know how I'm always complaining about the lack of passion in art? Well if there's one quality rap has in spades, it is passion.

Nevertheless, I knew I had to take a focused, scholarly approach to the issue. I decided to start at the beginning and work my way up to the present - or at least up to 1996 (Tupac and Biggie) and then continue on from there if I so chose, because I felt that at least that way I would have hit the basics. I wanted to leap off from a genre I knew quite well (funk/disco) and follow its mutation into rap so that I could better understand how rap related to music I already liked, rather than simply go into hardcore rap cold. I explained this rough plan a few years back to an old roommate of mine who had come from a more urban background and had his own perspective on rap history. He told me that my plan was good and would probably take me where I wanted to go, but that if he were attempting to get somebody into rap, he would give that person two albums: Dr. Dre's The Chronic and the Wu-Tang Clan's Enter The Wu-Tang: 36 Chambers. "Because," he said, "then you'd have the West Coast, and you'd have the East Coast." Although he may have been on to something, let me just say right now that if I had taken my friend's advice and listened to those two albums first, I would have put off my whole project and waited another five years before even trying rap again. Which is funny, because after taking a strict chronological approach, I actually like those two albums. But I wouldn't have liked them if I hadn't understood the context.

So let's just say that the project has been worth it, because not only am I no longer ignorant in regards to rap, but I have discovered that I actually like rap. Currently about half of the music I have been listening to is rap. Which is not to say that it will stay that way. But at the moment, I have found fresh meat and I am excited. My exploration has demolished many of my old preconceptions about the value of rap, such as:

1. Why don't they just sing?

Well, because they're trying to convey a different feeling. While singing is by nature relaxing, rapping is by nature more aggressive (although, of course, some rap is relaxing and some singing is aggressive). Rap is (mostly) music of the streets, and I don't think you could really capture the feeling of the streets if you sang with the soaring beauty of a trained soprano. You can also pack a lot more words into a song if you rap, and the best rap is thrilling precisely because so many words are coming at the listener so quickly. Besides, if you don't need to be able to sing to rap, then so many more people can potentially become rappers, such as certain lower-class artists who might not have had the same opportunities as middle-class artists have had, but who as a result might hold a more unique view of the world and whose music might be more worth our time. Which brings me to...

2. Anybody can do it

Well yes, technically anybody can do it, but as with singing, few people can do it well. After having listened to a lot of rap, I've realized that anyone who says that rappers aren't talented has not seriously bothered to listen to good rap. Are great rappers as talented as great singers? Probably not. But does that mean they're not talented? No.

3. It's not music

Didn't they say the same thing about jazz, rock n' roll, and punk at first? "It's not music." Well, that's because it's redefining what music actually is. In many ways, rap is the logical extension of the history of recorded music. Instead of making music out of live performance, and instead of making music out of overdubbed performance, why not make music out of pre-existing recorded performance? It's like rock n' roll cubed. I will say this: if an alien showed up on this planet and wanted me to introduce it to music, I would not start it out on rap. But I'm not an alien, now, am I?

4. It's unoriginal

Technically, even a normal cover version is "original" because a different person is singing the song than the person who originally sang it, right? The question is not whether music is "original" (because it's always original) but whether it's derivative. Bad rap is derivative. Good rap is imaginative. I think it's as simple as that. The best DJs can arrange samples in such a way as to craft better songs than the songs they're stealing the samples from!

5. It's so violent and misogynistic and negative

One epiphany I've had while listening to rap is that a lot of these lyrics you cannot take too seriously. So many of these guys were trying to uphold "street cred" images while deep down it seems they just wanted to hang out and party. Rap is also a reflection of the lives of the urban black community (with exceptions I'm sure), and if a rapper's everyday reality is guns and hoes, then he's going to have to rap about guns and hoes, isn't he? Actually, to be honest, this is the one issue I had with rap before I began this project that I have not yet fully resolved. Are rappers just making excuses for lazy songwriting by claiming their violence and misogyny is socially relevant? Hell, do rappers even have an obligation to be moral? And if so, which rappers are moral and which rappers are not? Also keep in mind that there is plenty of rap that does not revolve around the N word and the B word, which is how De La Soul can rap about hitting on girls in Burger King by pretending to be Tracy Chapman and how the Beastie Boys can boast about having more hits than Japanese home run king Sadaharu Oh.

So in the end, as with any artform, if you start making generalizations about rap you'll very quickly start to sound stupid. Like when I talk about video games. Now, I would not blame someone for not wanting to listen to rap. It is not for everyone. But I would blame someone for dismissing rap without listening to the best of it. As I probably used to do. But no longer. To my surprise and delight, rap is for me. And if you choose to join me on my Adventures In Rap, you may discover that it is for you too.


Herr Zrbo said...

Ooh look, I've signed up with a real account now!

So... are we going to get some sort of analysis from your adventures in rapland or is this just a proclamation that you're now listening to rap?

Little Earl said...

Hey, come on, don't you think my insights are simply too illuminating to leave to one post and one post alone? Yes, I anticipate an ongoing series on this topic.