Friday, October 23, 2009

The Problem with These Kids Rap Critics Today, Part 1

Among mainstream and obscure music critics who review rap music,[1] there’s been a concerted effort of late to champion the same positions: that hip hop is not dead and that the ubiquitous influence of hip hop’s “golden era”[2] is hindering the advancement of the music by marginalizing its young talent and new directions (The Ashcan’s Jef Catapang penned a nice overview of this tired meme).

Pop music critic Jonah Weiner offers this inexcusably shallow caricature of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ assessment that the quality of rap has waned since the 90s: “[According to Coates,] Biggie died, sampling waned, lyrics got dumber, charisma trumped talent, the clock struck Y2K, the pumpkin turned into an Escalade.” Essentially, Weiner and other mainstream rap writers are accusing former fans like Coates[3] of taking an approach to hip hop that mirrors Wynton Marsalis’ approach to jazz,[4] as evidenced by the writers’ delightful pejoratives for former fans: “purists,” “nostalgists,” “revivalists,” “boom bap dinosaurs,” “true schoolers.”

There seems to be a growing consensus among mainstream rap critics that older fans’ aversion to current rap springs strictly from these aging fans’ nostalgia, fear of change, cultural detachment, and overall out of touch-ness. That this simplistic, uncritical rendering of aging rap fans passes for insight is problematic; that it has become the default narrative among mainstream rap critics is ridiculous. How did things get to this point?

A little background is in order. Since around the late 90s, there’s been a fierce battle waged at the margins of rap fandom. This battle has pitted two small but annoying factions against one another. Members of the first faction—let’s call them NYstalgists— actually embody the aforementioned bitter old rap grouch stereotype: they typically (though not always) hail from NY or the East Coast, they elevate a thin, but influential slice of 90s New York rap above all else, and they mock anything deviating from that style. For years, NYstalgists have written off the entirety of Southern rap, save for a few tokens. The current waves of Southern and Southern-influenced rappers are, according to NYstalgists, untalented, unskilled, stupid, lyrically bankrupt, and sonically lazy. More recently, NYstalgists have extended their hatred to hipster-baiting beta male emo rap and its fans.

The second faction—let’s call them revanchists—is comprised of fans whose sole aim is to exact revenge on the smug NYstalgists who kicked dirt in the faces of those who happened to enjoy hip hop outside the 5 boroughs. Once New York artists’ record sales, influence, and critical favor waned—basically, once New York faded as the cultural epicenter of the popular rap—revanchists saw their opportunity to gloat. Over time, the revanchists’ numbers have been padded with younger and neophyte rap fans who weren’t really there to witness the NYstalgists’ ascendancy, but who resent the NYstalgist’s preferred music nonetheless.[5]

Because they were subject to the NYstalgists’ unfair bullying, revanchists elicit a great deal of sympathy; however, they are just as small-minded and contemptible as NYstalgists. Instead of relishing the fact that NYstalgia is a flailing fringe phenomenon, revanchists cite a few marketing gimmicks by NY artists associated with the golden era to wildly exaggerate NYstalgists' influence. To revanchists, all golden age rap fans who bemoan the quality of today’s rap are bitter NYstalgists.

You may remember the NYstalgist-revanchist feud’s infamous older cousin: the East Coast- West Coast beef, the narrow, stupid, and destructive conflict whose coverage marked the nadir of rap journalism (up to that point, at least). The effects of this moronic feud still linger over rap discourse, which is why it’s so disappointing that rap writers are actually adopting the language and assumptions of the revanchists. One would expect such sloppy anachronism from the clueless hipsters at Pitchfork, but revanchist rhetoric seems to have ensnared even knowledgeable rap heads like Andrew Nosnitsky and Jeff Chang. Nosnitsky and Chang are clearly a cut above most rap writers, yet they still reproduce the flat portrait revanchists paint of disenchanted older rap fans.

I have some thoughts on why revanchists' uncritical reading of golden era fans’ might be appealing to even the better rap writers. Mainstream music critics generally come from a liberal arts background, which inclines them toward progressivism (in both a functional and a political sense). Modern critics’ livelihood and identities depend on their chosen music being dynamically relevant and creative right now, not 20 years ago. Their orientation toward progress in music tends to foster a suspicion of the canonical, the (traditionally) insular, and the authoritative. This orientation may thus lead to a heightened sensitivity to fans of older music criticizing newer music.

Moreover, rap critics’ socio-political progressivism leads them to sympathize with the underdog. Despite its global reach and the demographic diversity of its artists and fans, hip hop is still strongly identified with the downtrodden, especially poor, urban black youth. Progressive rap critics often see themselves as defending “authentic” black youth expression against the criticism of elitist, out-of touch blacks and racist whites—think Nosnitsky’s point about how poor urban areas around the country need hip hop more than New York does (because, apparently, there is no more poverty in New York).

These critics' misrepresentation of disenchanted golden era fans amounts to a dereliction of their job, which is to offer a nuanced analysis of the music, its legacy, and its fans. But if mainstream critics’ depiction of aging golden era fans is so off the mark, why is no one really challenging them on this?

First, consider the audience for today’s mainstream rap writing. This audience is largely comprised of outsiders who don’t know much about rap beyond the big names and events that occasionally draw their interest from their normal schedule of verbose, pretentious snooze rock and “exotic” world music. Though the critics in question write for such white liberal bastions as Slate, NPR, and Pitchfork, one senses in these critics a certain self-consciousness about the whiteness and non-hiphopness of their audiences (why else would some of them write for the root?).

Most of the people who read these critics don’t know that the golden era encompassed a broad range of styles outside of 90s NY golden era boom bap; they don’t know that artists from places such as LA, Oakland, Houston, Miami, Atlanta, Chicago actually made popular, critically acclaimed music during the golden era. However, these critics’ readers do know about the negative effects of Marsalis-style musical purism. They do know how grating parents can be when bragging about the superiority and authenticity of “classic” rock. In the absence of information, people gravitate toward existing narratives, even when these narratives are not relevant.

Furthermore, those most likely to challenge mainstream rap critics’ revanchist-influenced caricature of golden era fans—the disenchanted fans themselves—aren’t really represented in mainstream rap writing. There isn’t some grand plot to silence golden era fans’ opinions; these fans have virtually opted out of participating in the mainstream rap discourse. Why would anyone want to write about music that s/he doesn't really like anymore? Moreover, why would anyone hire such a person to critique music? Due to the absence of these golden era fans’ perspectives as well as to the ignorance of mainstream rap critics’ readers, today’s rap criticism has become a series of echo chambers.

Behind the seemingly minor issue of mainstream rap critics' denunciation of golden era fans’ tastes and hang-ups lies a broader, more significant concern: the deterioration of hip hop’s once robust (and ruthless) internal norms of criticism and tastemaking. As I will argue in Part 2, the dilution of these norms is most responsible for the decline in the overall quality of rap music since the golden era.



[1] I know that I’m probably preaching to the choir here, but I’ll state it anyway: distinctions between “rap” and “hip hop” are arbitrary, anachronistic, and just plain dumb.

[2] For my purposes, the golden era refers to roughly the early to mid’80s through the mid ‘90s.

[3] I am treating Ta-Nehisi Coates as representative of the generation of reflective older rap fans who no longer have an attachment to the music made by younger artists. I chose him not only because he has written eloquently about his gradual withdrawal from hip hop, but also because he defies the stereotype of the golden era fan as a narrow-minded, South-hating old coot. However, I want to make one thing clear: in no way am I suggesting that Coates shares my views; in fact, based on our previous exchanges, I’m pretty sure he will disagree with the bulk of the arguments I make here and in Part 2.

[4] According to mainstream critical norms, Marsalis is one of music’s biggest symbolic villains. Marsalis is charged with defining jazz so narrowly (predominantly black, spanning only hot jazz through bop), that he’s helped to trap the music behind metaphorical museum glass. His extremist jazz purism is a far greater sin than his “elitist” and “racist” (or at least, “racialized”) hatred of hip hop.

[5] Revanchists have a near-pathological fixation on artists such as Jay Z, Nas, The Roots, Common, Mos Def, KRS, DJ Premier, as these artists are often symbols of what NYstalgists foolishly define as “real hip hop.” Revanchists see it as their mission to bash these NYstalgist heroes’ current music, which, admittedly, pales in comparison to their best golden era work.

Part 2 here.


O.W. said...

GG: A provocative post to be sure but isn't your main point really "today's hip-hop sucks"?

Do people on either side of that debate caricature one another (or themselves)? Sure but isn't that a sideshow to the main debate?

What I would say is that this debate - around hip-hop's relative current suckitude - would work a lot better if people managed to avoid ad hominem attacks and simply focus on the merits of the arguments themselves. Do these so-called revanchists engage in this when they suggest "the other side" are just old and out of touch? Sure. That's probably not terribly constructive.

But let's also be honest in noting that many - if not most - people who argue that todays' hip-hop is in decline tend to speak in incredibly broad, declarative statements that invite some level of justifiable scorn or ridicule. You can't expect a nuanced conversation if you (and I don't mean you-you, but the abstract "you") open with uncritical polemical broadsides which is what I tend to see.

All this is to say, let's put the players aside and really talk about the game here. I look forward to Part 2.

O.W. said...

If I may add:

"The second faction—let’s call them revanchists—is comprised of fans ***whose sole aim is to exact revenge*** on the smug NYstalgists who kicked dirt in the faces of those who happened to enjoy hip hop outside the 5 boroughs."


A very very broad brush. And I think a misreading of what's going on. But again, I think this is all sideshow regardless.

Joseph said...

Disappointing that this post isn't even about music...

gordon gartrelle said...


I agree with pretty much all of your points. I highlighted the NYstalgist, East Coast centric portion of the fans you descibe, but the general old man "the kids and their music these days" faction definitely exists.

My problem is that the older fans who aren't closed-minded and nostalgia-driven are either ignored or lumped in with their uncritical peers. I think that fans like Coates have a legitimate beef about the landscape of the music, but this beef is obscured under a bunch of lazy straw men.

In a way, my point is that "today's hip hop sucks," but I don't really mean in the way it's normally said.

First, all current hip hop doesn't suck. there's still interesting stuff out there, but, in my opinion, 90% of it is coming from people who are older than I am. That doesn't bode well.

Second, it's not like I think there's wackness in the water or anything. People can still be (and sometimes are) as creative and skilled as the better golden era artists. What's changed are the critical norms surrounding the music, not the intelligence, character, or consciousness of the artists.

I am trying to be provocative, but I think the people put off by Part 1 will like Part 2 much better.

noz said...

It's odd that you decided to use those Root articles as a jumping point for this post. Neither mine nor Chang's makes any mention of the golden age purists that your post focuses on. The only commonality either of our posts seem to share with the thesis outlined in your opening paragraph is that, yes, hip hop is not dead.

In fact I was suggesting the exact opposite of this: "the ubiquitous influence of hip hop’s “golden era”[2] is hindering the advancement of the music by marginalizing its young talent and new directions." Hip hop is still flourishing in smaller markets regardless of what happens in New York. Getting booed at a Raekwon show will have no bearing OJ The Juiceman's long term success.

I wrote for the Root because they asked me to nicely.

noz said...

Also Coates is probably my favorite active blogger right now. I don't agree with a lot of his opinions on rap but he's certainly earned the right to hold them.

His perspective is a lot different than the 23 year old Little Brother fan who thinks that Gucci Mane is a major label conspiracy to appeal to ironic white racists. Or the 35 year old who never particularly cared for rap until the Blueprint dropped and suddenly wants to talk about how real hip hop is dead. And these might seem like strawmen to you, but I have spent enough of my life working in and hanging around record stores to know that these are very real people.

Dart Adams said...

So...what the fuck am I then? I'm neither a NYstalgist nor a revanchist. Perhaps I don't exist?

Also, thanks for referring to Brandon Soderberg as "obscure. I can't wait to read the next part to see exactly what you're getting at with this whole piece...


Davey D said...

I love this article.. I think I may fall abit into the reventhalist side.. E-40 was the best.. much better than Biggie, and I don't what no one says.. Ice Cube was way better than Rakim.. y'all better recognize..LOL..

Props on this piece..

gordon gartrelle said...

Neither mine nor Chang's makes any mention of the golden age purists that your post focuses on. The only commonality either of our posts seem to share with the thesis outlined in your opening paragraph is that, yes, hip hop is not dead.

Come, on, Noz. Who is charged with saying hip hop is dead in this new wave of anti-purist fervor?

Also, the original line read "ubiquitous influence of and incessant reference to hip hop’s 'golden era,'" but the point is the same. Why are people like you and the others referenced in the post expending so much mental energy on an ultimately insignificant group of fans?

I wrote for the Root because they asked me to nicely.

It was wrong of me to assume other motives.

Also Coates is probably my favorite active blogger right now.

Join the club (apologies to Glenn Greenwald).

[Coates']perspective is a lot different than the 23 year old Little Brother fan who thinks that Gucci Mane is a major label conspiracy to appeal to ironic white racists. Or the 35 year old who never particularly cared for rap until the Blueprint dropped and suddenly wants to talk about how real hip hop is dead. And these might seem like strawmen to you, but I have spent enough of my life working in and hanging around record stores to know that these are very real people.

This is my point! I chose to feature two of the most annoying fringe factions of fans because their stupid feud has spilled over into "legitimate" music criticism.

Coates and other sincere fans who have withdrawn from the music don't deserve to be lumped in with the NYstalgists any more than you deserve to be lumped in with the revanchists.

gordon gartrelle said...

Emailed from Jeff Chang:

GG...well thanks to this piece, we may be getting to the discussions we ought to be having about rap music. Looking forward to the next rant.

One small point in defense of Noz and I. I don't think you'd find 2 other folks more in agreement with you on many of your points about the camps you call the NYstalgists and the revanchists.

The fact is, we were asked by Danyel Smith at The Root to respond to a BBC piece--yup, BBC piece--on hip-hop's past (repped by Joe Conzo) and its future (repped by Nick Conway's Harvard class). The time-peg was the VH1 Hip Hop Honors show, of course. You've pulled back the cover on the meta-frame for these discussions, and that's a great intervention. But our immediate job wasn't to defend our own tastes.

In my own piece, I was trying to be ironic about my relationship to the aesthetic predecessors to the camps you describe, back then it was argued along indie vs majors lines. I think I represented for that cohort of aging non-revanchist, non-nostalgic heads you seem to be so passionately advocating for, I just didn't do it by flying the flag for "us".

Anyway, I think our work--me, Noz, add Danyel-- speaks for itself, tho I recognize everything is read in the context in which it is presented. That's why it's a small point.

My view is that hip-hop has its cycles of style--these are tied to age--and the vitality of the movement lies in the fact that the "hip-hop is dead" argument has proceeded in 4-5 year cycles since 1979. You're in it, you're 20 years old, then you wake up one day and it's all changed. "Aging out"--and the discourses of aging out--are part of the game. And we all age out eventually. The only question is whether we do it with grace, or whether we do it, ahem, like other generations have...

In any case, I'm hoping you get to the real question--as loaded as it may be--which is: how can hip-hop not end up like jazz? Looking forward to Part 2.

Anonymous said...

Most of the people who read these critics don’t know that the golden era encompassed a broad range of styles outside of 90s NY golden era boom bap; they don’t know that artists from places such as LA, Oakland, Houston, Miami, Atlanta, Chicago actually made popular, critically acclaimed music during the golden era.

The hell?

This whole piece ... talk about caricature. You consider writers suspect for writing for the root and cite those articles for your argument (already wrong enough), then talk about what white liberal readers know? Uh, you need to cite specific "white liberal" articles for that, dude. Think the last thing Noz did for NPR was an interview with Bun B as background for a piece on Goodie Mob.

Chang and and Noz loved 90s NY (and west coast and etc.) stuff; still do, far as I know. Certainly Noz still writes about it on the regular.

which, admittedly, pales in comparison to their best golden era work

So your objection is that they aren't liars. OK DEN!

Noz on OBFCL2 for NPR: "While a more famous rapper released a less respectable sequel last week, Raekwon's Only Built 4 Cuban Linx Pt. II is a hip-hop sequel done well. Or at least done as well as a sequel of its kind can be."

Some more recent revanchist rhetoric on NY boom bap

And etc.

But I think there is a reaction out there to internet bloggers of the type who would be the last to say hip hop is dead, but who nevertheless believe it is only valid if made in the image of already-canonized rap or by its heroes, and that others are "killing it". This is a mentality close to the east-west nonsense, or the anti-gangsta, or the anti-r&b for that matter, of the past, that older heads have already had to put up with, hence probably the reaction. Older fans who don't connect with new music actually aren't part of that issue at all.

any more than you deserve to be lumped in with the revanchists.

But you're the one who lumped him in there against the aging, disillusioned rap fan—he didn't say shit about Coates.

If your point is that we should be having a bigger conversation, I'm down. But man, bad examples.

I haven't come by here before so sorry if I just don't get you or whatever.

Unknown said...

"Come, on, Noz. Who is charged with saying hip hop is dead in this new wave of anti-purist fervor?"

As Jeff mentioned Danyel (who I have great respect for) reached out to us to respond to the BBC article. Specifically we were asked questions like "has hip hop grown up?" and "is hip hop still a culture?" (both of which are a little different than "is hip hop dead?" and I think we addressed them appropriately.) These are not questions that I am deeply concerned with on a daily basis, I mostly just want to listen to Gucci Mane. But I thought I could add something to the conversation and doing so is also sort of my job.

gordon gartrelle said...


You seem to think that I'm dividing rap fans into two camps: NYstalgists or revanchists, but that's not the case at all. I thought I made it clear that I think these are 2 fringe, loser groups that should be shunned. Most fans are neither.


I am definitely not claiming that the writers I reference--Noz, Chang, and the rest of them--are revanchists. I read their work. I know that they are fans of 90s NY hip hop. More importantly, I know that they are generally insightful critics.

I am arguing that they are using revanchist tones in their well-meaning attempts to dismiss NYstalgists. This isn't a blanket condemnation of their work; it's a problem I have with their take on a specific group of disenchanted fans.

It bothers me because their contexts can be misconstrued by outsiders who don't have the knowledge, history and critical tools that Noz and Chang do, and who don't have a real stake in rap or its history.

Anonymous said...

i.e. readers of the root?

David said...

hey gordon,

as a change of pace, could you link to one actual piece that shows specifically what you're getting at. where's a piece by a 'revanchist' who is simply trashing ny rap just to trash it ... who are these writers? do they even exist? do u really disagree w/ the notion that ny rap is pretty much working w/ a narrower & narrower palette as a general rule? Do we really have to be respectfully polite to Skyzoo boosters? Do u think ian cohens (largely on point) take down of slaughterhouse was based on some kind of ulterior ideological view? Do you REALLY think marginalizing throwback boom bap ny rappers in 2009 is the equivalent to no limit's marginalization from the rap elite in the 90s?

brandon said...

I could be a little less obscure if I pimp out a sub-par rant via e-mail to a bunch of music critics. I'll try that from now on.

This is the same rant, retro-fitted to latch onto fans of Jeezy, then Wayne, now Gucci. Rap's a different animal than it was in 2005 or so, but you've got the same dopey points. You're working with stuff that I and other, more notable writers said awhile ago which is deeply problematic as well.

I'm not sure how, if one occasionally speaks bad, very bad even, about "90s rap" while also occasionally celebrating it, this has some greatly negative effect on less informed readers. Doesn't the times that say, [INSERT NY RAPPER HERE] is spoken highly of also have an effect?

I don't think you intend it, but you're arguing for a kind of weird censorship of critical opinion which is, at the same time, deeply rooted in the premise that a default, smart discussion of rap must be about 90s stuff.

Add on top of that, your misguided critiques of liberal thinking and your very loaded and not substantiated claim that rap is still seen by all these mainstream critics as much of the disenfranchised and you've got a big abortion of an argument.

Mangled pieces of every salvo aimed at anybody who's every said something bad about Nas with nothing holding it together.

I'm usually into big over-arching, reaching rants whether I agree or not because there's something sincere or passionate at their center, but you're just a douche.

gordon gartrelle said...

I'm crafting a bunch of responses, but before I get to them, I want to apologize to Noz, Chang, and Ian Cohen (and the rest of the Pitchfork rap critics).

--Noz and Chang because I didn't know the circumstances that motivated their Root pieces, and I made a loaded assumption.

--The Pitchfork critics because, even though I think their rap criticism is bogus, they don't deserve to be reduced to "clueless hipsters." They deserve the same nuanced treatment I expect them to extend to other fans.

gordon gartrelle said...

I could be a little less obscure if I pimp out a sub-par rant via e-mail to a bunch of music critics. I'll try that from now on.

Brandon, I emailed this to you because I link to one of your pieces and figure you among the writers I reference. It’s called a heads-up, genius.

The bulk of your points are tied to the revanchist fallacy I outline in the piece. You and Cohen are prime examples of the effective critics whose writing has been poisoned by revanchist influence. For you guys, this must be about me loathing Jeezy, Weezy, Gucci, etc. and defending Nas, Jay Z, and all 90s NY rap idols (as well as their inferior modern knockoffs). I’ve tried to make clear that, to me, the music is tangential at best. My concern is with the lack of diversity of opinion in mainstream rap criticism and how this leads to distortions in the recent history of fandom and meta-criticism.

I don't think you intend it, but you're arguing for a kind of weird censorship of critical opinion which is, at the same time, deeply rooted in the premise that a default, smart discussion of rap must be about 90s stuff.

This claim is just bizarre. I think that mainstream rap criticism would benefit from a perspective that is sorely missing due to the withdrawal of its holders. And didn’t you write this in the comments of this Noz post?:

“What I find depressing about all this Gucci arguing is that pretty much any time something of a consensus builds in this blogging world–something a decent amount of us pithy warring retards can jump up and down together about–it’s not enough, and is shot down by a bunch of commenters and hard-headed bloggers who don’t ever stick it out and praise anything new or “new”

And you accuse me of trying to marginalize voices and promote censorship? Weird.

Cobb said...

This is the best discussion of hiphop criticism I've ever read on the web. I only wish I cared enough about today's hiphop to get deeply into it.

How do you keep hiphop from becoming what jazz is - a nicely loaded question which I assume invites snark at the Boney James and Kenny Gs of the world. I think the answer gets to more of the, thus far, unquestioned assertion of Progressivism as the substrate of hiphop's extended meaning. After all, if it were only about the music and dancing 'Elvis was a hero to most' would be considered a non-sequitur. After all, Elvis was about music and dancing.

Hiphop has to be able, I think, to get out of a death spiral of sampling and yet move forward, sharklike to avoid the fate of jazz which is the endless variation of an iPod nano's worth of standards. Essentially the fate of opera and classical as well. But I don't think hiphop can avoid that fate because, at long last, there is greatness and greatness has tenure.

It doesn't matter how lustily the latest hiphop fans can shake their asses on the dance floor, they'll never outdo what was done when the first few notes of Parliament's 'Flashlite' chirped out of the JBLs back in the day. The crowd said 'whoa!' and the energy started flowing. That's all relativistic and I'll always have that moment because it was my ass that was shaking. Which is to say we all eventually become revanchist unless we are Progressive and maintain those dual fictions of the import of 'right here, right now', & 'somewhere over the rainbow'.

And yes, Ice Cube was better than Rakim, but Rakim at his best was better than Cube. Nevertheless, I hardly expect either of them to age well. We had what we had.

C.R. said...

Re: Noz
Gucci Mane might seem like gibberish (or even destructive) to a fortysomething KRS-One devotee from the South Bronx, but Mane means as much to many 17-year-old ATLiens as KRS did to New Yorkers twenty years ago.

Which is no point at all cause it doesn't exempt the blogger/critic/whatever from his/her job. At least if that job is to actually judge music.

And while I am generally fond of all things META, they are of not much help in this debate cause they are mostly just an objectification of individual biographies and tastes. I could write a cogent hegelian account about why hip hop died in 1992 but that's just because I dropped out of it in 1992.

Then again, all judgement (read: music journalism) is probably nothing more but objectified personal taste (read: generational thing). Still, there's always the music as an outside/real counterpart for the reader to test the validity of your arguments. But now it seems I am arriving at Positivist lows & have completely lost my point.

gordon gartrelle said...

as a change of pace, could you link to one actual piece that shows specifically what you're getting at. where's a piece by a 'revanchist' who is simply trashing ny rap just to trash it ... who are these writers? do they even exist?

Examples of revanchists and NYstalgists are easy to find --I’m thinking of the type of fans that trade internet insults from their mothers’ basements:

“Southern rap is retarded!”

“NY is dead!”

“Down South niggaz got no lyrics. They don’t have medafores like classic MCs”

“Y’all just mad cuz da South runnin things!”

I set the bar pretty high for what I consider revanchism and NYstalgia, but, as I said, revanchists and NYstalgists are extremists who operate at the margins. I have been careful to avoid defining these mainstream rap critics--even the ones whose stuff I can’t stand--as revanchists. I talk instead about revanchist influence.

The consensus among mainstream rap critics is that NYstalgia is anachronistic, uncritical, and overall fucking ridiculous. That’s a good thing. However, these same critics entertain (and sometimes adopt) revanchist frames and beefs. These critics allow their legitimate complaints about nostalgia, aging out, hostility to outsiders, and regional bias to tainted by taking up the mantle for revanchists.

do u really disagree w/ the notion that ny rap is pretty much working w/ a narrower & narrower palette as a general rule? Do we really have to be respectfully polite to Skyzoo boosters?

I can’t comment on the narrower palette part because I don’t really listen to a lot of the music. I do know that there is very little NY rap I find interesting (then again, I don’t find any regions’ rap to be especially interesting right now).

I prefer that people call out wack shit. The weakening of that practice is one of the things that I will address in Part 2.

Do u think ian cohens (largely on point) take down of slaughterhouse was based on some kind of ulterior ideological view?

I actually kind of like Cohen, which is why I regret the original “clueless hipsters” swipe. But his writing, as I said in the response to Brandon above, is tainted by revanchist frames. (The Slaughterhouse review is one example; see parts of his recent Wale mixtape review for another).

I don’t know if you remember this story I told in the comments of this Noz post:

About 10 years ago, I saw a show of some underground group I was amped to see (the group escapes me). Their entire first song revolved around dissing Puff, Nelly, Master P, and the like—all of whom I couldn’t fucking stand—and waiting for the backpack crowd to “ohhhhhh!” I left before the 2nd song.

This definition by negation shit is all over Cohen’s writing, just in a revanchist direction. I have no problem with Cohen blasting Slaughterhouse or even stuff that I like.

gordon gartrelle said...

I’m baffled that so many of you read the part about NPR and Slate as a shot toward the critics who write there. I’m not knocking anyone for writing for NPR and Slate. These venues sustain mainstream criticism. Rap critics have to write for them if they want exposure.

I’m simply making the observation that mainstream rap critics’ primary audiences, especially at these places, are rap outsiders. These outsiders are unlikely to challenge the rap critics' frames and assumptions because, being outsiders, they aren’t familiar enough with the music to do so.

Plus, the norms and contexts critics employ are based heavily on their audiences. When you write for an audience of rap outsiders, you, by necessity, must tie your story to existing narratives familiar to these outsiders, in this case, narratives that resonate white liberals.

O.W. said...

To Gordon: "When you write for an audience of rap outsiders, you, by necessity, must tie your story to existing narratives familiar to these outsiders, in this case, narratives that resonate white liberals"

Ok - this, I think, is a pretty interesting argument. I don't happen to agree with it personally but it's a more compelling sideshow discussion than arguing over nostalgism and revanchism. (No offense Gordon, I just don't find much in that dichotomy to be very compelling. What exactly is at stake in the positions of what you describe as two fringe groups?)

As someone who researched a modest history of rap journalism by combing through more back issues of defunct rap mags than I care to recall, I do have to say this much: when writing for rap insiders, you still have to tie "your story to existing narratives familiar to these insiders" and it's not at all clear to me if those narratives vary wildly from the narratives that these generalized "white liberals" seem to desire.

Or better said, even if the narratives do differ, it's not clear to me that this difference is qualitatively different in terms of the question of "responsibility."

This said, it'd be interesting to try to summarize what we presume are the dominant narratives in either rap insider texts and rap outsider texts.

To Cobb: I wonder if you're overgeneralizing the state of jazz. What you're talking about is just one substrate of jazz music; call it Starbucks Jazz™; I don't feel like it speaks for the overall community of people playing and consuming the music.

If we take some of what's been in said in recent years (including, yes, Sasha's essay), then "hip-hop becoming jazz" has less to do with questions of quality and more to do with niche. Hip-hop-as-jazz would mean an atomization of hip-hop into various sub-fields, each with its own audience and style. What's different is that jazz is no longer part of mainstream pop trends. And it may be that hip-hop is headed in that direction. I find that rather doubtful, at least in the short term, but I don't consider that be such a terrible thing. All kinds of musical genres can be vibrant and interesting at the niche level.

To C.R.: "Which is no point at all cause it doesn't exempt the blogger/critic/whatever from his/her job. At least if that job is to actually judge music."

Rendering judgement may be one philosophical strain of writing/criticism but I don't think we should presume it's the predominant one or even a desirable one. As I've gotten older, I find "judging" music to be less invigorating, even a bit rote. After all, as you note, judging comes down to "objectifying personal taste" and I'm far less interested in debates around taste - mine or others. (Reading Carl Wilson's book on Celine Dion really nailed that coffin shut too).

I personally - and I'm not advocating this as what others writers should do, just what I'm driven by - get a lot more enjoyment around both the challenges of analysis (i.e. to explain what's going on, but not necessarily putting an explicit, subjective spin on it) and expression (which is all about subjectiveness but in the service of craft, not taste). It's more important to me that I can craft a cogent thought that accurately reflects what it is I really want to say about a piece of music than it is to render the most well-argued polemic about that music.

So, for example, I care less if the new Jay-Z album is "good" or not than I care about trying to articulate what's happening on this album, what I think Jay is going for and making sure, when I do, I'm really saying what it is I want to say and how I want to say it. Of course, there's "judgement" laden all up in there but it's not the same kind of judgement (I think) that you're talking about. And that kind of judgement (the latter kind) is what the debates around is hip hop dead turn on. Because it's not "is hip hop dead?" It's "is hip hop good anymore," right?

brandon said...

I get linked a lot, don't need a "heads up". I think you're essentially a troll at this point as well, as your occasional comments are always negative and almost always aimed towards limiting conversation.

If there's an aggression towards nostalgists, true-schoolers, whatever it's because you and others quickly derail any conversation by simply invoking all the bullshit invoked here.

So say, a post about Gucci ends up in the negative zone echo chamber of how said post-er or fans of said posts are racists or bullshit or gasp--progressives!

And so, there's nothing to even meet on because you can't even entertain the idea that Gucci Mane might be genuinely enjoyed for musical/aesthetic reasons. We're not even on the same planet.

You're also insane to claim that the predominant mainstream perspective on rap is as revanchist as you think. Maybe by your standards. With all due respect to Jeff Chang--who might be reading this, seeing as how you spammed him with this post as well--I found his book to be fairly conservative. When I speak to younger hip-hop fans who've read Chang's book, they're deeply troubled by the book's end which seems to only find hope in stuff like Dilated Peoples.

I also stand by my point in the thing you quoted, in which my main point is I haven't ever seen you praise anything. Do you like any music that's made now? This is the problem with your stance, it doesn't allow room for much of anything. It's an awesome construct you got here, guy.

O.W. said...

"With all due respect to Jeff Chang--who might be reading this, seeing as how you spammed him with this post as well--I found his book to be fairly conservative. When I speak to younger hip-hop fans who've read Chang's book, they're deeply troubled by the book's end which seems to only find hope in stuff like Dilated Peoples."

I won't speak for Jeff but I, at least, am mightily curious at what you mean by "conservative" here. I'm wondering if "conventional" would be more applicable if only because I have a hard time imagining the politics espoused in the book as being described by anything even vaguely centrist, let alone right of center.

And isn't that last part - about how younger readers are - and I'm sorry but I can't help but look a little askew at the deployment of such heavy rhetoric here - "deeply troubled" by praise for Dilated (not a group I find terribly compelling but I'm not losing sleep over them) just slightly reflective of part of the tensions that Gordon's talking about? I won't use the word "revanchist" but I've always found that hating on Dilated functioned as a kind of short hand for saying, "enough with this boom bap shit already." And frankly, I think the "mainstream perspective on rap" in 2009 doesn't remotely lean in their direction.

To put it another way, I've heard enough dudes proclaim that Gucci Mane got next that I'm assuming LIKING Gucci = "mainstream perspective on rap." Which further raises the question - and this is for anyone to chime in on, not just directed at Brandon - who the fuck constitutes the "mainstream perspective on rap" these days? I'd say it's more Jeff Weiss than Jeff Chang, more Nah Right than New Yorker.

O.W. said...

Gordon, when you write "tainted by taking up the mantle for revanchists" I can't help but think: so what exactly is the problem here? And by "problem," I guess I should invoke Brandon's phrase and ask, "so what is deeply troubling you" if this is a trend?

To put it a different way, there's billions of bytes/pages of bad criticism/journalism out there. Being excessively nostalgist or anti-nostalgist is one bad habit, but it's one of many. But in the end, so the fuck what?

*What's at stake?* Is there some revanchist cabal preventing anyone with a divergent view from being able to earn a dime?

Paradise Gray said...

Tell The Truth! You really love the current state of Hip-hop. You are fine with Thugs-R-US imagery and coonism. You idolize ignorant Icey boys talking about their trap houses and illegally gained money. You Love sacrificing our children to "The Beat", while dancing to their deaths!

If these videos glorified guns, violence, sex, drugs, homophobia, misogyny and racial hatred they would have thousands more plays. If these videos are wack, just tell us, if not email them around, tweet them, share them, forward them, play them for your kids, support them or no one else will. Let's get the movement towards intelligent, conscious and HOT Hip-hop smacking!

NOT Sponsored by COKE!

Cobb said...

OW. I do overgeneralize the state of jazz, but what I mean to suggest is that all of the 'progress' is out of it. So the 'relevance' of jazz is, as you say, nichified. The crowd that loves their flavor, loves their flavor and to hell with the rest. Which is what happens to all music except perhaps commercial jingles, battle hymns and national anthems. If the purpose of music is to entertain, them music criticism is useless if you can get your dose of flavor.

But for hiphop, this has to be different because so many people are convinced that it has a political component - and so we are to judge the consumers with a constant stream of criticism. This is why anybody would care about which niche would pitch a bitch. As we all seem to have stipulated, it is the putative Progressivism of hiphop that makes any b-boy stance worthy of analysis.

I think it's rather navel gazy, and of course since my ass is past its public shaking days, I don't much care for any of hiphop and don't care to try. But it would be interesting to hear what hiphop is so politically and artistically compelling that the two critical audiences in question must grudgingly admit its greatness. Does that even happen contemporarily or is this tempest about an old ass teapot?

Christopher said...

You know the term "conservative" isn't simply an indicator of political identification.

brandon said...

What I mean by conservative--with a lowercase C, please note that--is that while the book both grounds hip-hop history and disentangles it, it has a weird twist at the end in which the sounds of hip-hop that are indeed celebrated, shown to continue the sounds are deeply limited. Nothing against Dilated, it's just it seems clear they were chosen for their relatively nostalgist sound and point of view on hip-hop.

Re: "Deeply troubled"
It's true. I was quoting a kid who said it when I came into a class from one of my prof's and I guess, co-taught the class which was toucing on hip-hop, politics, etc. Replaced "deeply troubled" with "bummed-out" and my point remains. For a lot of people younger than me, who were 5 years old in 1995 and are currently in college, ending a book on a rather limited view of rap after stretching it out and all these awesome ways bugged them.

O.W. said...

Most of the critiques I've seen of CSWS tend to focus on the end and I can appreciate where those concerns arise. But to label the entire book as conservative seems like a overstatement since it suggets, at the very least, that the book was "safe" or "conventional" and taken as a whole, I think one would be hard-pressed to make a salient argument for that.

And to go back to an earlier point, the height of Jeff's music criticism took place in the years prior to CSWS coming out; I don't see him (or the book) as part of the "mainstream rap voice" but I guess it depends on how we define mainstream.

gordon gartrelle said...

I am aching to respond to all of these newer comments, but I'm trying to maintain some momentum and wrap up Part 2. I promise to return to these.

Brandon, you know that I still like new music by artists like Ghost, Kast, Casual, Devin, and Camp Lo, but that's not what interests you. You want to know what relatively younger, newer artists I like. I guess you think you're going to find something to hold against me.


I'm not exactly a fan of Rich Boy, but I've probably listened to "Throw Some Ds..." more than any other new song in the last few years.

I admire Elzhi's talent, but haven't ever felt the desire to listen to one of his solo albums.

Bobby Creekwater's "OJ Simpson" gets burn.

And I still like a good deal of production.


The Roving Reporter said...

I really, really enjoyed reading this. Whenever I see rap commentators who write for NPR, etc., it's hard for me to take their criticism seriously.

It's not because they are majority white, but it's because they usually don't (and understand) the different forms of rap that was prevalent in the 1990s, as you stated.

The East Coast vs. West Coast (2 Pac vs. Biggie) and the rise of southern rap is pretty much the only way critics document rap during the 1990s.

I can remember when 8 Ball and MJD and UGK were big. Now, they are rarely mentioned as contributing to the diversity of rap during the 1990s.

noz said...

SMH @ New Black Woman. Don't critique critics if you aren't actually familiar with their work. The only NPR contributor named in this post just put Bun B and Goodie Mob on on All Things Considered. Not "MJD," however. Maybe next time.

40 Diesel Drewpreme said...

See where I think the problem of what Gordon is getting at is not as much about the type of music that is being discussed but more that people want to hear what they want to hear. Its the FOX/NBC Paradigm. People don't want "the news" or an objective discussion on something, they want their opinion confirmed, shaped, or better articulated for them. Therein lies the success of the messenger. Notice I say "success" because it has nothing to do with like/dislike or even the quality or the credibility of the author. Success is measured in hits, and hits are generated by either the extreme cosign of the materials or the sheer WTF! reaction and see if this mofo bumped their head espousing this bullshit. The same adoration/abhorment that keeps the O'Reilley's, Beck's, Hannity's, Olbermann's, Matthew's & Maddow's in the eyes, ears, and mouths of their lovers/haters, is the same schtick that keeps may of these blogs rolling and relevant. I mean we have WAY TOO MANY RAPPERS in the world (evidenced by any hard luck nigra that got extinguished in the "inner city", where "up & coming rapper" is the most common job), and to boot you can exponentially multiply the amount of rappers to come up with the amount of those who talk about rap, and think all their rambling deserve equal footing. Due to this, it is the most AD NAUSEUM discussed topic on The Internets. Lets be real here, I've read WARN for the last two years, and I've NEVER seen a double digit comments section, which is sad considering the range of topics these cats so artfully and insightfully cover. Mr. Gartrelle, I implore you to stay away from swimming in Lake Mediocrity by commiserating with the rank & file discussion of rap critics, stick to designing shirts for Theo Huxtable, and your (and the rest of the WARN staff's) exceptional analysis of the myriad amount of subjects that don't get enough interpretation from the Negroe standpoint.

Regarding the current "state" of rap music and those who incessantly blog/critique/write about it, take what you will out of it. There are people (myself included) who thinks most of the recent offerings of rap music SUCKS. ITS OK I'M COMFORTABLE WITH IT! I understand that its not made for me, and just like skinny jeans I don't have to like or consume it. STOP TRYING TO CONVINCE ME OR EVEN TRY TO ALLUDE THAT I'M AM "LESS THAN" BECAUSE. Grant me that, and I will try to do the same. HOWEVER, do not admonish me when you have no frame of reference of style or context. I remember it was 1994, and my girlfriend from Harrisburg, PA (who owned all of 3 rap albums) tried to extoll the virtuosity of Bone Thugs over Wu-Tang. Where she was from had nothing to do with it (well maybe since she had limited access to rap albums), but putting her cursory YO! MTV Raps watching to my already decade plus worth of rap music listening would put her knowledge of rap and the ability to opine what was "good" at extreme novice levels. So what am I trying to convey by this? I think us "Golden Era" dudes, don't "hate" new music as much as we're off put by the lack of respect of time and years, as well as always being me with the trite dead horse of "The Hater Defense". Plus if you're able to love the poetics of Rakim as much as you love impediment riddled ramblings of Gucci Mane, then more power to you. Then again we don't have to like each others music at all, this aint some suburban soccer league where we all get trophies and equal playing time, this is Hip-Hop.

Thanks for letting me ramble...


chaunceydevega said...

@ 40 Diesel Drewpeme--And I would by that for a dollar in the best Robocop-Smash TV sense.

I am just sitting back watching the body count on this is a good one. Congrats Gordon and thanks to all the folks who are chiming in.

Please continue.

O.W. said...

Noz: Damn, I missed those ATC segments. Good looking! I was told reviewers can't do interviews and vice versa. If they changed the rules around that, I need to holler at 'em since I'd love to do music stuff outside of just reviews.

On that note, I'm just curious which NPR reviews NBW thinks have been so out of touch w/ 90s rap. It's one thing to disagree with someone's opinion but to suggest they misunderstand the history of the genre?

Believe me, I'm definitely NOT claiming NPR is on the cutting edge of hip-hop (anyone who's ever heard Terry Gross interview a rapper knows what I'm saying here) but if NPR - over the last few years - still sounds clueless, I'd welcome examples.

(Disclosure: I review hip-hop CDs (among other genres) for ATC and before that, Morning Edition. The other critic who consistently records for NPR's national shows is Robert Christgau, no stranger to hip-hop for the last 30 years).

I also wonder how the '90s are inherently relevant to talking about hip-hop in 2009? It's not like rock critics are perpetually explaining today's rock music through the prism of what happened 10-20 years ago.

40DD: I think the generational tensions around today's hip-hop is one of those conflicts where the two sides always insist that the other "started it first."

But from experience, the vast majority of the time, this is what happens.

Person #1: I'm loving this new Gucci Mane!
Person #2: Yo, fuck all this new jack, skinny jeans rap. That shit is for 12 year olds. You dudes are playing yourselves, riding for it!
P1: Fuck you grandpa!
P2: Naw, fuck you!
(continue ad nauseum)

Sometimes, though less often, it's P2 opening a post or review by saying: "I don't understand all these new jack, skinny jean rap. Hip-hop is dead."
And then P1 comes in and starts up the ageist/you're-out-of-touch chatter.

At some point, both sides just resort to a lot of ad hominem blasting but I have NEVER seen someone open the convo by saying: "You know what? 90s hip-hop sucked. If it's not about jerkin' or snap, I don't care."

So what I'm saying is that there's a lot of kneejerk hate against today's music that people feel *only too free* in sharing. To me, that's a form of instigation where you're going out of your way to shit on what other people like.

Doesn't mean you don't have valid reasons for disliking it. Doesn't mean the "other side" doesn't act like a bunch of "kill thy father" hot heads. But it's rarely the case that it's the older gen getting ambushed first. It is the case that they flame first and then inspire a backlash.

I've seen this happen more times than I care to remember. Shit, on NPR, I can't write or record a review about hip-hop without some crusty ass baby boomer jumping in the comments to complain, "this rap is crap, it's not even real music."

Take that same dynamic and then scale it down to debates just within our community and it's the same thing. People who don't like what hip-hop has become seem to consistently want to make this point known as often - and sometimes, as obnoxiously - as possible.

Reap --> sow.

O.W. said...

GG: By the way - is it *really* necessary to moderate comments? Do you get a lot of spam/flames?

brandon said...

So, in short, you don't listen to very much new hip-hop which to me makes your points even more suspect. You have very little interest in what's going on now, but you seem to have a definitive opinion on how and why writers are writing about new hip-hop.

It also makes you infatigably negative. Rarely ever on the side of discussing rap as a living, breathing thing. While all of the people you critique, for the most part, continue to find things they like--and dislike about rap.

As I said before, there's really no way for this discussion to go anywhere because you can't even remotely concede to the tastes of those you critique. While say, all of these revanchists whatever, do indeed, embrace 90s rap, while expressing some modern day reservations with it from time to time. You look at the sky and see it as one color and I see it as another.

I also take objection with your critique because you're treating these writers like in all other ways, they're perspective are different.

Wasn't this what was once lobbied at liberal types? Embracing gangsta rap or this or that, but otherwise reading William Vollman novels or something?

Did you co-blogger here get this rant from you for writing about Artie Lange? He could certainly be considered downtrodden, lower-class, etc. I think his book is great too, but by literary standards it ain't. I did an interview with New Orleans metal group Eyehategod's lead singer, when I was asked to pick a short story for my city's paper for part of their 'Books issue' I picked one by Iceberg Slim.

You could twist this to be anti-intellectual or this or that, but your argument, as I said before, just sorta grafts every critique lobbed towards writers/fan of Southern rap and has no center.

You could have a case for everyone from me to the entire NPR corporation having a tendency to lionize, respect the "downtrodden" etc, but it would rub up against your specific concerns about hip-hop and black culture for sure.

Re: Chang's Book
I'm telling you guys, it's not that uncommon of a perspective to find Chang's book--which I can't stress enough, is a good, smart book--to be relatively limited in its look at rap. Less limited than others, but again, for younger kids who care about rap especially--though not the rap Gordon cares about--this is the first thing expressed about the book.

Anonymous said...

'Speaking of rock music --

Grand Funk Railroad sold millions of albums, toured the country incessantly, sold out Shea Stadium faster than the Beatles...and the so-called 'music critics' hated - hated - HATED them. 'Hated' is probably too mild a word here; 'loathed,' 'detested,' and 'despised' would probably be much better. And that was what showed up in the PRINTED criticisms....

The genius of hip-hop, to me, is that it is/was always about a 'boots-on-the-ground,' 'man-on-the-street,' 'keeping-it-real' approach to life, in both the music and the product. It happens on the streets, it gets in a song, and it gets delivered back to the people, whether out of the trunk of a car, in a club, or via the web.

'NY vs. non-NY bias among hip-hop music critics as THE influence that informs the ignant? Please.

Cobb said...

Why is / should Hiphop criticism different in substance from Jazz criticism or Rock criticism? IE are there not any objective standards of music criticism that some faulty heads are failing? Or is hiphop criticism itself guilty of accurately reflecting a self-selected segment of society that respectable negroes have issues with?

In other words, are spontaneous discussions THE threshing floor for hiphop crit? Hold on, imma get Izrael in here.

O.W. said...

" it's not that uncommon of a perspective to find Chang's book--which I can't stress enough, is a good, smart book--to be relatively limited in its look at rap. Less limited than others, but again, for younger kids who care about rap especially--though not the rap Gordon cares about--this is the first thing expressed about the book."

I'm not incredulous at this claim at all. I've probably heard variations of it said in various forums. But I do think it's a critique that needs to be tempered by the generational tensions that run underneath.

Every younger cohort wants to see their tastes validated. In the cultural perspective of the older cohort seems deficient in this manner, it often becomes a central point of attack rather than a tangential point.

It'd be different if CSWS was a book about contemporary hip-hop...but it's not.

Back when I was in my 20s, I reviewed David Toop's "Rap Attack #3" and I went after that third volume for reducing hip-hop post 1980s into a single, slim chapter. In that case, that seemed like a real issue since the only thing very different about Rap Attack 3 from 2 was the addition of that chapter and it felt like a tacked on afterthought. It called into question the entire purpose of that new edition.

I never had a problem with Rap Attack 2 however, at least not for the same reasons. But Rap Attack 3 seemed to want to "update" the book's historical timeline but in a way I found cursory and superficial.

So while I think one can reasonably critique CSWS for failing to be as ideologically current as younger readers might want, if that's the first reaction they're taking away from the book, I sense that has more to do with itching for a fight with an elder (because they've been conditioned to do so) than it is a fair critique of the book as a whole.

But hey, that's just my .02. I don't think CSWS should be treated as gospel. I just never thought the last chapter was that important relative to everything that preceded it.

Cobb said...

If what OW and Brandon are saying is reasonable, and I think it is, then I think it is proper to regard Hiphop as something of a folk form. Which is to say 'keeping it real' and 'boots on the street' is basically the form for folk music - which means it will always be problematic to capture its spirit and meaning from a bourgie, literary perspective.

I've always thought that hiphop, taking on after jazz's 'sampling' has had its own criticism built in. No matter how upsetting the 'sucker mc' trope may be, no matter how self-serving shout outs to producers, etc. may be, the hiphop critic is always faced with playing second fiddle (or video weed-carrier as the case may be) to the artists themselves. The bourgie problem then, is that against the folks aspects, rap critics have to shout louder than dissing on wax.

Isn't the entire point of the underground that it doesn't need the bourgie apparatus of the industry? Criticism sold to people who are not in the clubs and on the street is an integral part of the industry, the industrialization of rap music. So artists who don't like it shouldn't get the pub. But you really can't blame critics for being second hand market makers, and thus I think you can't blame them for selling whatever sells to whomever buys. You will never capture the spirit of a folk art, by definition. So critics, no matter what their position, cannot and will not keep it real.

Given that, all you can hope for is that artists speak louder for themselves. That is an old commercial conundrum. Is it art or is it product?

O.W. said...

Cobb: I think you make some excellent points here: whether or not criticism is meaningful to rap artists or the rap industry or rap audiences are all things for each of these entities to decide for themselves. There's plenty of historical evidence to suggest, at various times, all those audiences have cared quite a bit (perhaps too much) what a critic has to say and at other times, couldn't care less.

These days, I primarily write as an act of expression, secondly (and believe me, this is a distant second), as a way to earn some scratch. Neither are meant to be compelling reasons for why my criticism "matters" in some grand scheme of things. It matters to me though and I live in a culture and society that accepts, and occasionally compensates, me for this.

I don't confuse my work as being equivalent to the creative work put in by artists. It is, however, part of a larger social world in which culture is created, consumed, debated over. In essence: lived. No one creates a cultural product expecting or desiring it to exist in a vacuum but once you put it out in the world, what happens to it is beyond the control of the creator. And while I don't think that should be used as an excuse for exploitation (which it could be perverted to do), I do think this is part of how art - folk, populist, industrial, corporate, etc. - is meant to ideally function.

Anonymous said...

I think the ultimate challnge facing 'rap critics' is that they are oftentimes part of music industry apparatus. Even if the individual is free thinking, he/she is still on the plantation and eating from the trough.

many rap critics aren't free standing.. They get the music for free, get into the shows for free, wanna hang backstage with the artists and drink and eat food on the artist dime. If its not the critic directly benefitting, then its the publication or outlet where the critique is presented...

Blogging and the internet has freed up some folks to a certain extent, but for the most part, far too many are directly tied to the industry and so it breeds resentment, dismissiveness and a perception that one is sucking off the artists and not doing forself..

The other thing that challnge that emerges is that my experience has been that a lot of lofty words and essay get written to explain disseent and disagreement, but whats really at the core is a desire to be basking amongst the industry elite..

In short, 'mainstream Hip Hop sucks' until you get tapped to be the /gatekeeper for some big time publication...I seen lots of folks talk a good game till they get their chance to work at the BETs, Hot 97s of the world..Writing and being a critique was just a mere stepping stone to get there..

O.W. said...

Anon: You make a good points but in the early years of rap criticism, you don't need to put writers on the industry trough to achieve the same effects. A lot of folks - myself included - partially got into writing because we wanted to be advocates and we felt, in our way, protective and defensive of hip-hop because we saw the rest of the "mainstream" (again: ill-defined) as being hostile to it.

The thing is, fast-forward to 2009 and it's not much different (as attitudes in this and other threads so keenly expose). Young cats always think they and their tastes and their favorite artists are being shitted on (which they probably are to some degree) and thus are more likely to act as advocates than a true, impartial "critic."

that said, the one thing the internet has done is to make public a lot more hate than ever existed BITD; not because it didn't exist per se, but there were fewer outlets that gave voice to that dissent. I genuinely feel more sympathy towards any contemporary artist; you gotta grow some thick skin.

Davey D said...

One other point to add, I think as the industry crumbles, technology advances and we get older as a culture and as a profession, one might ask how have we grown..and has our growth been such that it significantly uplifts the culture and the people in it..

What purpose does our critique of the culture serve? To get a job? Get a rep? Are we still trying to get 'put on' or are we putting people on? Are we financially and resourcefully indepedent of the industry..

Are we leaders in our own right or are we still 'interpreters' and opinion makers of someone elses craft?

I think debates about the relevancy of old and new Hip Hop stems from the fact that we haven't created space to see our own reflections..We get pissed that outlets we don't own and control no longer play 'classic hip hop' that space is now occupied by Gucci man and his ilk..

We get mad that writing spaces are occupied by 'old schoolers' who had no place else to go but to these corners where they smack down the new commers because they wanna see a return to a bygone era...

My rule of thumb is as follows; If I didn't buy your album, pay to get into your show and stand in the audience amongst the crowd versus being backstage..I shouldn't be critiquing your product...10 bucks spent on an album and 30 bucks spent on a show gives one amuch different perspective on things compared to when I get all those things for free..

Davey D said...

PS I wrote the remarks about challnges facing rap critics I just saw it came in as anonyomous

"I think the ultimate challnge facing 'rap critics' is that they are oftentimes part of music industry apparatus. Even if the individual is free thinking, he/she is still on the plantation and eating from the trough."

gordon gartrelle said...

You all are killing me. Part 2 is officially on the backburner. I need to chime in on these various threads.

brandon said...

A new Jay Electronica song is out and it's available on whatever blog you read or hate to read, be it Nahright or Dirty Glove Bastard. Just saying.

It's uncomfortable to discuss Chang's book for me because I feel it has some deeper, harsher context, due to Gordon's absurd rewriting of what and how "revanchists" do what they do but...

For me, Chang's book becomes unsound with that final chapter. For the millionth time, it's a great book, I like it a lot and like many pieces of intellectual, rarefied writing, it works for its conviction and insight much more than whether I agree with it. That said, it can feel at times, like a lab report with a faulty conclusion or a movie with an ending the usurps the previous 90 minutes. And not a twist ending but like an accidentally poor ending. Like the end of "Last Tango in Paris".

Back to the real stuff at-hand here...
My point with Gordon and the 20 or so others like him that rove around the comments section of my blog and others is...stick Bill O'Reilly in this discussion and it's all garbage. He can stop at "Nazz" and Jay-Z and be morally disgusted, in disbelief that anybody could like this for aesthetic or intellectual reasons, etc.

Obviously, there's a whole Western history of any art by black people having to be justified. Post-positivism, and blah blah blah. Now that isn't an argument for taste not being able to enter the discussion, but one a narrow and bitter as Gordon's seems beyond help.

What I'm saying is, I wish this discussion were happening on more neutral ground or that we could all team-up and start commenting on another blog.

quan said...

"However, these same critics entertain (and sometimes adopt) revanchist frames and beefs. These critics allow their legitimate complaints about nostalgia, aging out, hostility to outsiders, and regional bias to tainted by taking up the mantle for revanchists."

I think what David wants (well, at least I think what many of us want) is for you to point out actual text from one of these critics you are criticizing, text that "entertains"/is influenced by the revanchist framework that you state. You linked to Cohen's Slaughterhouse review--why not start there? So far, you've only linked there and said, "See, I told ya!" without really pointing out anything from the review.

Cobb said...

I'll host it.

gordon gartrelle said...

I think Davey is right about older fans being frustrated, but it's not because stations are playing Gucci instead of Kane. The availability of music has made it so that most people can listen to whatever they want whenever they want.

The frustration I see is that the norms that governed quality have been gutted on several fronts, and that there is no longer a strong pride in the genre's self-policing mechanisms.

"We get mad that writing spaces are occupied by 'old schoolers' who had no place else to go but to these corners where they smack down the new commers because they wanna see a return to a bygone era..."

These "old schoolers" are on the way out. But they aren't necessarily going to be replaced by those who are better equipped to talk about the "golden era."

And Brandon, we can never meet on neutral ground as long as you insist that my issues with you all's take on someone like Gucci is based on my hatred of him and his music.

The point is that you guys are serving up BS in defense of him: Noz and his vocabulary lesson, David? and his alliteration focus, and you and your lit crit excess.

You all enjoy is music, but, because he's an "outsider" to the NYstalgists who hate him, you try to "elevate" him aesthetically and symbolically with ridiculous defenses. And nobody calls you on it!

brandon said...

"The point is that you guys are serving up BS in defense of him: Noz and his vocabulary lesson, David? and his alliteration focus, and you and your lit crit excess.

You all enjoy is music, but, because he's an "outsider" to the NYstalgists who hate him, you try to "elevate" him aesthetically and symbolically with ridiculous defenses. And nobody calls you on it!"

I really can't imagine anyone reading this and thinking Gordon isn't completely up his own ass.

Gordon, you'd have a point if this wasn't how I approach all the hip-hop I discuss. In one of my pieces on Gucci I said how it's him and Diamond District that get the most playing time on my iPod--because I hear the same stuff in both of them.

I'm basically doing what I do with all rap I like, regardless of region or time period, but because it's a rapper you decided is idiotic or whatever, it must mean this or this?

I'm confused where his hood-ness, outsider-ness, etc has been invoked as making him good or anything amongst any of us Gucci stans. Really don't like to speak for other writers, but I don't think there's ever been a place where Gucci has been discussed like this by any of us.

Of course, when this point's brought up your response is "Of course you won't ADMIT it" or worse--I don't even know it. As I said before, that's a pretty awesome construct you've created here.

I think what is fascinating about Gucci is how similar to classic NY rappers he is in certain ways. How he isn't Wayne or Jeezy or whoever--guys clearly broken off from the expectations of NYers.

If NYers dislike of Gucci is ever invoked, it's because it will inevitably be brought up by you or some other idiot in the comments fray and so, to not address the obvious criticisms ready to be lobbed at Gucci, would be a little silly.

Same way say, when I wrote about BP3 and how I THINK ITS AMAZING I made sure to acknowledge the obvious problems lobbed its way. Especially in blogging--which is really your beef here, why you roped guys like Chang into this, I'm not sure, you're butthurt because some rap nerds made fun of you and your ilk--discussion and comments are key to the discourse and so, acknowleding these comments in the actual piece, preemptively just makes sense. It's one way to prevent dopes like you from usurping interesting discussion.

gordon gartrelle said...

Brandon, you can be really dense sometimes.

For the hundredth time--My problem with you guys is mostly :

1. The intellectual laziness surrounding your depiction of those who don't like the direction the musical landscape has gone. It's all uncritical "you guys are NYstalgists" nonsense. Even in your last comment, you are assuming that I am burning up because you guys make fun of someone like Nas. In fact, I'm sure that you like Jay Z's (and Nas'!!!) current output more than I do. You want to be a critic, so do your fucking job.

2. The ideological blinders. The problem I have with you guys is the same problem I have with Dr "2 Pac is a Ghetto Saint/Revolutionary" Dyson, which is the same problem I had with the scores of 90s rap academics who were acting like Arrested Development was a.) good and b.) some kind of model for black cultural and political progress. It's ideology and critical constructs over substance.

And yeah, it doesn't help that you all's narratives are situated in a tradition of urban negro fetishism and white critical privilege.

Cobb said...

BAM. And Arrested Development was as good as it got.

VBW said...


I don't find Gordon to be up anyone's ass. Imagine that! I do suspect you may be jealous of him, however. And I think perhaps you're hating on the architecture of his prose, not the cornerstones. I'm just an armchair psychologist, though, so take that for what it's worth.

This is one of the most fascinating blog commentary streams I've read a in a long time. It touches the natures of elitism, criticism (music or otherwise), symbiotic relationships, collegial hostility, timeless generational arguments, intellectual authenticity... Props to Gordon for fostering all of the above - and not least of all for remaining civil in the face of name-calling.

I never used to pay movie critics any mind, but now that two tickets to the cinema includes babysitting, I am indebted to my man David Denby for shedding light. Over the years, I've come to realize really good critics are among my biggest cultural heroes.

The rap experience of this college-town white boy hinged upon what the kids from Philly brought to school with them. Hence I was "cutting edge," if you will, by playing DJ Jazzy Jeff & FP at rural high-school dances in '86. We didn't know from East Coast/West Coast--we were simply enthralled by Something New. What interested me then, as now, is rap artists with high artistic standards. That goes for recording artists of any stripe, really.

At age 40, I'm your basic NPR-lovin' bourgeoisie. I know shit about gangsta rap because so much of it struck me as derivitive AND nihilistic AND depressing. I'm sure there were originators of the form who achieved art... People tell me that Tupac was a genius. I just have to take their word for it.

When I discovered J5 in 2001, it was a revelation. So was the recent NPR piece on RZA on the occasion of his new book. In the estimation of those here, did NPR score any street cred? Or was it the product of just another PR brother on lockdown?

My apologies if I'm too far off-topic here.

O.W. said...

The deeper this spiderhole goes, the less I'm clear as to what we're arguing about. The original post *still* doesn't explain the core question of what's at stake in all this?

Ok, so you have two groups who caricature each other.

And so...?

Half this comments thread seems to be GG and BS firing shots at one another. The other half is spiraling in all other kinds of direction with no focus since, really, the original post didn't quite make a case for what it is we're supposed to be thinking on.

gordon gartrelle said...

I'm sorry I've allowed Brandon to take me off course. But I am targeting him and his peers. I think it's only fair to give him the chance to defend himself and to respond to his defense, regardless of how scatterbrained it is.

The point of it all was that the fringe battle of mindless fans is spilling over into mainstream criticism. One of your previous questions, OW, was "So the fuck what?"

These people are the ones who will be writing the history of rap. You're essentially asking why I care if they distort the history to suit some ideological and critical agenda.

I honestly can't articulate why it matters to me when the music doesn't anymore; it just matters.

O.W. said...

"These people are the ones who will be writing the history of rap. You're essentially asking why I care if they distort the history to suit some ideological and critical agenda."

I don't mean to get too heady about this but all history suits some kind of ideological and critical agenda. You think our current canon around hip-hop history wisas objective? Or even accurate? New information may always be coming to light that causes us to question older narratives and assumptions; it's part of what makes history an exciting, dynamic, living force rather than something staid and set in stone.

But all that aside, I'm not convinced "these people" are going to be ones writing the history of rap if by way of evidence, all we have are message board rantings and a few other internet pieces. There's been no real gauntlet thrown that resembles a mono-cultural statement about "this is what hip-hop is in the '00s" that I think warrants the level of concern you're expressing. That's not to deny you your right to have whatever reaction you want; I just don't see it.

Think on this wider point: part of what allowed us to even create a standard hip-hop narrative from the late 1970s through the early 00s was simply the existence of a centralized media infrastructure that aided and abetted a particular story of hip-hop's birth and growth. Vibe's History of Hip-Hop is one culmination of those forces but so were other books (Toop, Hager, Rose), magazines (Source, XXL, Rap Pages, etc.), and hip-hop songs themselves that enshrined these narratives.

We, after all, love to hear the story, again and again, about how it all got started, way back when.

But in the last 10 years, it's clear that this central media infrastructure doesn't exist - maybe in terms of radio and label consolidation, but not amongst those chronicling or simply writing about hip-hop at this point. What we're left with has been largely atomized (or factionalized too), with dozens of small narratives rather than an actively advocated, unitary, meta-history.

In other words, it's not just that hip-hop became more atomized (one could argue, it always was, we just never thought to see it that way), it's that our conversations about that history have also become fractured so that there's few people working on Hip-Hop History, but rather many people penning their own take on hip-hop histories.

We can't know if one camp will eventually dominate or if there will simply be multiple camps but the histories coming out of either aren't guaranteed to be any more accurate or authentic. Most of all, how can we possibly guess how history will be written when we're still in the middle of it? Even if "history is written by the victors" I'm wholly unclear on who's winning now enough to be dominating the history-writing.

noz said...

"And yeah, it doesn't help that you all's narratives are situated in a tradition of urban negro fetishism and white critical privilege."

I'm trying to be as constructive as possible here Gordon, but there are a few reasons you are personally causing this conversation to spiral into idiocy:

1) You presume motives and allege agendas that defy substantiation. You've brought up some good, tangible critiques of current day hip hop writing but you spend too much time playing armchair psychologist. For example, there is no concrete defense to, say, being called a fetishist (a loaded word regardless of how many 'situated's and 'tradition's you cushion it with). I can't tell you otherwise, I can only get offended by the assumption, so everything deteriorates into bickering. Stop forcing a between the line read and work with the text alone. Some of the articles you linked are VERY flawed in their own right and reason, whether or not the author wrote it with an ulterior or subconscious agenda.

2) Similarly, you have a tendency to assign collective ideologies to the writers you critique. I take quite a bit of offense to being continuously lumped in to a Noz/Soderberg/Drake hive mind. Even if there are some overlaps in taste each of us are very different writers. I frequently disagree with their approach and reasoning.

I guess what I am saying is pick a target and aim at it. This scattershot shit isn't working.

brandon said...

I genuinely remained confused as to what Gordon, your point is and how me or Noz or Drake or all the other dudes that don't have very much in common besides Gordon thinks we're bullshit are so aggressively approaching 90s rap fans, nostalgics, etc.

As I stated before--you have an awesome habit of ignoring points you can't reduce beyond recognition--much of the ire aimed at 90s nostalgics comes from the fact that with just a few buzz words, they can usurp the main point of a post, debate, classroom discussion, on the bus argument etc. by invoking "fetishism", "coonery", revisionism, etc. It's a good defense to toss references to this stuff in there.

It's also, as O.W suggested, began with the nostalgics, not the revanchists.

All that coupled with the fact that you invoke "fetishism" and our/my apparently myopic understanding of this or that until I ask you to show where we/me do this, in which it shifts BACK to "you simplify the approach of 90s rap fans" and then something about Dyson and Arrested Development? I'm not sure what those two things have to do with one another and it's kinda scary that you think anybody would know without you explaining.

You lack any kind of evidence in regards to Gucci, etc that any of the writers into him are fetishizing him or the hood.

You cherry pick posts and comments from writers and bloggers that lean towards your point, ignoring tons of other posts that do not do that or complicate that point.

When the argument there in a post is, "Here's the problem with 90s nostalgics" of course I'm going to go after 90s nostalgics! There's 330 or so other posts on my blog and they expand on the argument in the linked piece in one way or another. Find a way to lump some of them into your point, please.

brandon said...

Re-reading this...some more quick thoughts and questions...

It's funny Gordon keeps promising a Pt 2.

I finally realized that one commenter meant "MJG". I kept being like "I don't know of the group MJD..." wow.

Someone up there mentioned Grand Funk, million sellers, hated by critics. Grand Funk are genuinely celebrated now, especially by fans of heavy music, a genre in many ways as maligned and full of in-fighting as hip-hop. Their live record especially kills and would be cited by many a current metal guitarist, from radio metal to art metal.

I think it's important to state that Gordon really isn't a part of rap blogging and part of my reason for stepping in here and on that email is to point this out. He's sending his missive out to bloggers and print writers (and those of us that overlap on that, to varying degrees of success) and he's deeply misrepresenting his stance or relevance to any kind of discussion. He can do whatever he wants, but in one way or another, I need to defend myself when dude's gonna slap one of my posts into his argument and then send it off to some very notable people.

Points Gordon still hasn't touched--

Don't the critiques you sent out apply to more than just hip-hop? What does it mean for a writer, like myself that writes on Gucci Mane, and Eyehategod and Iceberg Slim novels.

Why do the times when so called revanchists celebrate 90s rap not also have an effect on this apparently blank slate moron rap audience of evil progressives?

How do you define the rap fans that rap critics aren't touching due to the outlets they write for? Do you mean "the streets"? Do you mean the average person? Do you mean, you and your pals?

How could one sub-critical opinion (that you yourself labelled and defined) have such a strong influence? How long have revanchists been doing this?

How could I as the writer, remedy your problems with me? Where do I go right? Does my writing ever work for you?

Can you please cite the places I attack nostalgics?

NOTE: Simply writing about Gucci Mane is not an attack on nostalgics, though you seem to think it is.

gordon gartrelle said...

Noz and Brandon,

Instead of me using the loaded concept of racial fetishism, what if I said that you all have an anti-elitist agenda. That's not even up for debate, is it?

I've said this before, but I am highly suspicious of most anti-elitist defenses of popular black art, whether those defenses comes from black folks, white folks, or anyone else.

gordon gartrelle said...

And brandon,

Part 2's been delayed because:

1) I wanted to give my attention to the comments here (I didn't expect such robust responses in all honesty);

2) The directions of the arguments here have caused me to change the course of Part 2;

and 3) I had planned to post the finished version this morning from work, but like a dumbass, I saved the wrong version of Part 2 on my jump drive.

gordon gartrelle said...


I'm not accusing you of being part of a hive mind. Not in the least.

I'm saying that, despite the differences between you/Brandon/Drake, and despite the larger differences between you guys and more pop oriented writers, you all are writing within the same framework.

This framework is defined by an extreme hostility to anything that can be remotely perceived as nostalgia (especially when it comes at the expense of current artists, or when it has "traditional canon" vs. "outsider challenges" implications).

noz said...

My rap blog is quite nostalgic. And I would sooner self identify as an elitist than as an anti-elitist.

gordon gartrelle said...


Does "populist" work better?

O.W. said...

I don't know how anyone can read "Cocaine Blunts" and not see it as something SEEPED in nostalgia. It's just not for the same nostalgia that others engage in.

Why does hip-hop have have to have one consensus History? Is it not strong enough to survive with multiple, even contested, perspectives informing its narratives?

What I'm reminded of here is that, for most of hip-hop history, NY was THE hegemonic force in all things hip-hop, much to the detriment of other scenes outside the Tri-state. Look at where the heart of the recording, video and print empires were - all NYC. As that power has waned over the last 10 years or so, there's finally more of a balance and this coincides with all this anxiety being expressed about "who's going to write hip hop's history?"


It's like hearing Americans bemoan the end of our global dominance but cloaking it under the guise of caring about historiography; an issue that never came up when they were at the center of these histories.

Look: I'm a NY dude when it comes to my stylistic choices regarding hip-hop. I respect other scenes, I try to stay open-minded about them but at the end of the day, yeah, I like that ol' boom bap shit too. But I don't worry that its legacy is going to be brushed away just because younger cats have less interest in it.

gordon gartrelle said...


You're talking to a Westcoast head whose favorite rappers were, at various points in his adolescence, DOC, Cube, Ren, Face, Spice 1, Casual, Dre 3K, Big Boi, and MJG. I owned pretty much every album RapALot released up to 1995. My formative years were shaped by rap from all over the country.

The assumptions you make here reflect the very problem I detail: there's no existing critical language to talk about disenchanted golden age fans in nuanced terms, so people fall back on the ever-familiar narrative, "you must be a bitter, old NYstalgist."

O.W. said...

GG: Point taken and my apologies for poor assumptions made.

But then just take the same statement I wrote and replace "NY" with "90s" and it's basically the same idea. There has been a hegemonic principle until quite recently that hip-hop in the '90s defined the political social and aesthetic zenith of the music and now that the influences of that era are fading and being contested by alternative narratives, there's a sense that we're "losing something" in the process.

To me, the only thing we're losing is the centrality of one dominant narrative. And instead, people are now both advancing their own sense of what hip-hop's diversity represents, andr eaching towards the past to recover lost stories and artists. Put that together and yes, it complicates the kind of canonized hip-hop history we're used to but I can't see that as an inherently bad thing. Histories were meant to be contested; whether the new ones that emerge are "good" or "bad" is part of that constant cycle of contestation. Nothing is EVER set in stone. Nor should it be.

I don't mean to sound like a broken record, I just don't see where the "problem" is here. The point you're making, if I understand it correctly, is so incredibly "insider baseball" that I can't see it being of interest to even most rap critics themselves, let alone a wider community of fans. Maybe it'd help for you to draw us a picture of what "hip hop" will look like in 10 years if things continue on their current path?

noz said...

That's an odd post to cite as populist. Can you elaborate?

seriously though said...

really, "there's no existing critical language to talk about disenchanted golden age fans in nuanced terms" is like a serious problem that people need to care about? if that's really all that you're trying to say than the stakes of this argument are just absurdly low

brandon said...

I think this is the first time I've been attacked for being anti-elitist? Populist? How are these bad words?

If it's not those damned Progressives, it's those damned anti-elitists...or it's both. Or it's everybody but Gordon.

Not to mention, a huge chunk of the population would see any critical interest in rap as crassly populist, anti-elitist, etc.

And how do they have much to do with your loaded points on blackness, etc.--which you turn back to a moment after broadening your scope--when it seems clear that it's just my (and probably, possibly others') critical tastes just lean in that direction. Like I said, my most recent writing gigs have focused on Eyehategod, Iceberg Slim, and Beyonce videos.

These are the things I enjoy. I'm sorry!!

To maybe make this smarty-pants again, I explained how to me, rap gets really interesting and really important precisely for the reasons Gordon or a NY nostalgic cite: It's really popular, which means it's affecting more people, which makes it more interesting to me...when it does these things and remains good, smart, art. When something smart or rarefied breaks through the hyper-corporatized world we live in.

Your use of populist too, suggests that any of us "populists" just highlight stuff because it's really popular. Because average joes or "the streets" like it.

And while there's a place for that critical focus too, I know that for me to write on something it must first and foremost be enjoyable to ME.

And when I do touch on something that's simply a trend or a sub-trend, it's usually discussed differently, from a sorta "this is what seems to be going on hmm" sociological perspective.

My guess is this is true of all us damned dirty populists.

David said...

As far as I can tell from reading these comments, GG's main point (at least, that no one has addressed) is this:

"The frustration I see is that the norms that governed quality have been gutted on several fronts, and that there is no longer a strong pride in the genre's self-policing mechanisms."

Here's the deal GG: these 'norms' are bullshit. Your understanding of those norms is probably bullshit, as much as anyone can understand the concept of there being 'norms' governing 'quality,' its all bullshit.

'norms' of 'quality' are a) subjective to a single listener b) subjective to a wider community that is in constant internal debate with itself. these norms are not written in stone, they're not even written 99% of the time -- they're ASSUMED, a received 'understanding.' Yours are just as received as anyone else's. A cursory look at pop music history shows that 'norms' of 'quality' are being broken constantly. the beginning of hip hop is a perfect example, where music was 'misunderstood' & yanked from its context.

Gangsta rap was a breaking of a 'norm' of 'quality.' all those rap-a-lot records were too. one of the things i love about gucci's music -- and its the same thing that is loved by listeners, white suburban ones & black urban (& white urban & black suburban) alike, across the midwest, is that he's recreated the 'norms' of 'quality' -- he's reinvented a way of rapping. reducing my interest in gucci to a love of alliteration is insane -- its like you've barely read what i've written about him at all.

In the pieces I wrote about Gucci Mane, I put him in the context of rap forefathers, explained what he's done that is fresh & different and how he breaks with expectations of what a rapper 'can' and 'should' do. These arent bad things, a 'loosening' of standards; these are simply a changing standard.

As a matter of fact, I would probably find Gucci a much more underwhelming rapper if he fit into traditional 'norms' of 'quality.' Its part of the reason I think rappers like Pill, Playboy Tre & Freddie Gibbs are being overrated -- they are perfect examples of 'norms of quality' at the expense of doing something fresh and interesting.

more later

David said...

I would say these shifting norms of quality are natural, a result of an audience changing. Hip hop does not belong to anyone -- this is a reality with both positives and negatives (negatives tending towards the financial for its originators, positives tending towards its cultural capital more broadly -- this is all discussed by greg tate in his essay from a few years back on 50 cent)

gordon gartrelle said...


From your comments on the post I linked (on your issue with the Weiss 25 rap albums of the decade list):

"It’s about a group of mostly outsiders and neophytes rewriting the story of hip hop from the safe distance of their ivory towers...When I say ivory tower I am talking less of economic background or upbringing but of a distinctly “high brow” taste that’s almost entirely out of step with popular opinion in hip hop circles."

David, obviously norms change, but I'm not talking about the norms of sounding like a QB rapper; I'm talking about norms of being a good vocalist and/or lyricist, of simply being able to rap well.

Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
noz said...

Context, Gordon. I am not necessarily arguing for populism there, just diversity of opinion. If a decade rap list was all black eyed peas and 50 I would be like where the fuck is MF Doom?

In fact the second half of that comment, which you omitted, seems to parallel what I think you were trying to say in this post - that rap criticism has become too tribal.

David said...

David, obviously norms change, but I'm not talking about the norms of sounding like a QB rapper; I'm talking about norms of being a good vocalist and/or lyricist, of simply being able to rap well.
October 31, 2009 12:31 PM

dude, this isnt about queensbridge. 'being a good vocalist and/or lyricist, of simply being able to rap well' -- in my opinion, & the opinions of his millions of fans, gucci raps well. this isnt some 'slipping' of standards. thats total nonsense. im not accusing you of demanding everyone rap like cormega; i'm accusing you of creating an artificial hierarchy where some talented tenth are telling ppl what the true 'norms' of 'quality' are. & this isnt about 'populism,' its about egalitarianism -- why are your views more 'correct'? who says that your norms of quality are more accurate than anyone elses? 'norms' of 'quality' are a horribly boring way to engage with music, and they also manage to ignore so much of it because ppl concerned with those norms dont actually engage the music on its own terms.

heres a synonym for 'norms' of 'quality': rockism

David said...

i mean, i dont know how this isnt getting across to you but: gucci fans think he raps very very well. he's also rapping in a fresh style that isnt afraid of breaking the 'rules' of what rapping well entails.

its kind of amusing that you damn him for breaking those rules, because that act is exactly what draws me to his music at some subconscious level: i like artists who aren't afraid to break the 'rules' when it suits them to do so for aesthetic purposes.

If anything, I think Gucci's style of rapping is a so significant because he's adapted to an era where artists are expected to release tons and tons of songs for free; he created a style where he's constantly drawing on a contained, amorphous and constantly evolving vocabulary of concepts, words & ideas that he can draw on spontaneously, each verse a clever twist/variation on various archetypes, which allows him to do tons & tons of songs that keep the listener's interest as his catalog of verses evolve. its a sign of the times, & a much more economic way of doing things than Freeway's month-of-madness where he began to really just churn out endless iterations of the same theme -- you could feel the limits of his creativity, while gucci's is (to this point) seemingly limitless. Who cares if it breaks the norms of quality? its doing something much more important

O.W. said...

Does Gucci Mane have "millions of fans"? Serious question.

Cobb said...

Gucci Mane could not possibly have half as many fans as Will Smith. And part of what this is about is why we have to put up with people who smoke weed and who have spent time in prison as standard bearers in a 'black' art form. I can't understand at all why any respectable negroes would even bother accepting the premise that such a man deserves any honor.

David said...

@ O-dub -- seriously, he probably does -- dont u think hes at a level that circa '99 would have gone plat? lots of rappers have millions of fans.

@ cobb -- you should probably not be listening to gangster rap just fyi

O.W. said...

David: I have no issue with Gucci Mane so it's not like I'm singling him out, it's just that the logic that someone has "millions of fans" doesn't quite work for me both in terms of 1) accuracy and 2) what that's supposed to mean. As someone on my blog recently tried to argue - Barbra Streisand is one of the best-selling artists in American history *ergo* her strengths or importance as a singer are a given. I don't one can merely yank out a statistical fact and make the point that this is, in and of itself, evidence of anything except for the statistical fact.

In Gucci Mane's case, I'm mildly skeptical of how many new artists can truly have millions of fans (which would mean at least 2 million or greater) given the realities of the current market conditions. Of course, if the new joint goes double platinum, there'd be the evidence that supports the statement (couldn't find any numbers on digital sales of his recent singles but he's not in the Top 100 on iTunes).

Anyways, this may seem like nitpicking but I just don't think "millions" is something that should get thrown around casually.

Cobb said...

@david: believe me i don't listen to gangsta, and haven't since 'lethal injection'. what i'm trying to determine is whether or not the state of rap criticism is clear enough so that i can walk up and get to sample and appreciate the best without much effort - which is what critics are supposed to facilitate.

i sure would like to get a top 100 out of youse.

Davey D said...

Today the best measuring stick for popularity is ring tone sales However, there's a difference between being a fan of a song vs a fan of the artist. So a million people may download a Gucci man song.. the trick is to see if they do this consistently and cross reference that with touring data which would be a clearer, but not the only indication of fanship...

Album sales and even ring tone sales are frequently manipulated, but the proof in the pudding to see if sales are real is the follow up tour... or a tap to endorse other projects. Also another indicator to which needs to be seen in connection is viewer stats on YouTube...

David said...

Dudes, Gucci's doing sold-out shows across the country. The Game's lead-off single is basically a Gucci Mane song. hes the most popular rising rapper out there -- no i dont have 'statistical proof' of his millions of fans but it seems pretty self-evident to me based on personal anecdotal experience crossed with educated surmising -- friends who are high school & jr. high teachers, cars driving by blasting his shit, working at a ball park with hundreds of employees always tuned to urban radio, & just the career path & how reflective of no limit / cash money 'movement' type rap -- if the industry actually measured popularity accurately today, gucci would have millions of fans if anyone did. kanye & wayne & jay are probably the only rappers with more fans right now. Gucci's new single -- which frankly i think is kind of shitty & below-par for him -- is the most added song on radio. The guy has a tremendously large fan base, its undeniable, hes the biggest rising force in rap right now.

I understand this is, like, not 'proof.' im just telling you, from everything ive heard about how he's being received, from the fact that hes built his fanbase in the midwest (twista had him on his album for a reason...) hes put in serious grassroots movement rap work & i am reasonably confident that 'millions of fans' is accurate.

I also never said anything about lots of fans reflecting quality of work from a critical standpoint a la Barbara Streisand so im not sure why you brought that up. although one thing that millions of fans does suggest in both barbara & gucci's cases is that they are both artists who do a very good job connecting with large groups of people.

David said...

& while of course i reject outright the notion that popularity = quality, my point was that there's nothing 'more' correct about GG's OPINION of Gucci's rapping abilities than mine, or of the next gucci fan's. & that just because he thinks he knows what qualifies as 'good rapping' doesnt mean that lots of people dont disagree with him, and that his opinion isnt per se 'more' correct. hes arguing a kind of elitism i just flat-out disagree with.

brandon said...

I'm glad as Gordon's essentially farted his own opinion out on this, some others can pick up where he left off.

Gucci is very popular everybody. And, with all due respect to Davey D, it goes beyond "ringtones".

His music is ubiquitous. It's on the radio. I hear those non-radio/mixtape tracks playing out of people's cars, and I hear kids mumbling his lyrics under their breath at my job or on the bus. None of these are calculable yeah, but I hear them. I do.

Gucci's made a career now releasing tons and tons of music to a notable, significant and core--in the sense that they really care--group of people ready to embrace every new song, new tape, etc.

If there's a joke about Gucci, it's that he's in a weird place where his singles--ringtones--are not exactly representative of his skills or style. It's there and he's able to bend his style to fit--that's one of his talents--but say, "Spotlight" or even "Wasted" are his "pop" songs and in my opinion, not representative of his talents anymore than most talented rappers who gotta drop singles.

That there's even a question of Gucci's popularity is a clear sign that Gordon's whole concern about who owns the primary opinions on hip-hop is a little goofy. What are you guys listening to? Who do you talk to about rap or just music in general?

David's explained this taste debate as cogently as anyone can. The issue here is not that one side is right and one isn't but that one side can't imagine they're wrong and hides behind myths like objectivity, quality etc. and when that don't work, throws in a bunch of unsubstantiated claims about fetishism.

Cobb said...

I've always been too old for hiphop, except when I wasn't. But I think there's a point at which a lot of critics start recognizing the business for what it is and see the hiphop audience as 'kids', and that's especially true for rap that tries to be more than just dance music.

That's actually when it gets interesting. Once upon a time, gangsta was kinda crazy fun, and I speak of Craig Mack and Wu Tang both of whom had a kind of horror flick tongue in cheek attitude about their shock and awe. The same was true of Onyx to an extent and Geto Boys. All of this was after the 'reality-based' origins of Ice-T and NWA. Biggie was the next generation, or so it seemed to me. Back in the early 90s when Ice T started ragging on 'studio gangstas' I agreed and I thought that would be the last we'd hear of it. Body Count was a huge critical success and when T made the transition to film it was breakthrough. Nobody who appreciated what Ice T had done at his level had any amount of respect for Snoop. So how did Snoop become a success? He reinvented himself for a younger audience. Basically split a genre that had matured on all artistic levels and appealed to kids who didn't know better.

Now I'm saying that rap has been doing this now for several generations, and most of it is retread with a few standouts. I'm saying further that the distance that allows critics to say 'this is product for the kids' is what cultivates the revanchist battles, because in the end, we all know when we ceased being a kid and the majority of hiphop ceased being interesting because it was for kids.

There aint no rap for grown folks.

O.W. said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
O.W. said...


For whatever it's worth, most of how I've heard GM has come through reading blogs and while I think that counts for something, I've never been certain to what extent that gets mirrored in other parts of society. For example, from what I can tell, Gucci isn't that huge on radio on the West Coast and I can't find any mention of him having played a show in Los Angeles. So from where I am, Gucci's presence is most heavily felt on the interweb. Beyond that, I'm not surrounded by the same kind evidence of "ubiquity" you might see in other parts of the country. Of course, I haven't really checked to see how he's doing in LA's underground circuit, i.e. the swap meets.

And like I said, I'm not saying this to single out GM. I just thought David's comment raises an interesting question about how or what popularity looks like for a new artist in 2009.

brandon said...

I think the difference here though, is I wouldn't immediately question the validity of the statement or outright dismiss it (as others did not you). I think that disproves much of Gordon's argument as to who is forming the critical opinion on rap.

Additionally, though, Gucci's on a Black Eyed Peas remix with 50 Cent. Gucci as David pointed out, is on a Game song and it's basically a Gucci song. Both are West Coast artists. He is also on TWO Mariah Carey remixes. I think that enough is the rumblings of evidence for how big he is. Enough for it not to be turned into an absurd statement and something as played-out as "ringtones" to be invoked...

gordon gartrelle said...

How did this become about me hating Gucci? I don't hate him.

brandon said...

We should pick up the interesting parts of this discussion and transport it to So Many Shrimp or Cocaine Blunts or something.

theunderwearofthedeadwhiteboyinsomaliain1994 said...

i did not read ever single comment written here on the discussin and i know this is old as hell now, so forgive me. i am not sure of gordo here cited exact links to what his point was getting at but as one of those "revenge of the margalinzed listener of non new york rap of the yesteryears" i guess it is hard to pinpoint an exact article but more so comments in forums to everyday conversation with your folks.

i fall into your second category you stated at times because of whatever annoyance there is in a conversation but i know truly in the end everyone will have vastly difference of opinion on things and its just human nature. i just wanted to point to some folks here that at least from what i witnessed on whatever social media or entertainment related debates with friends, you see the revengers gordo is talking about..........cause i'm one....cause i got more than 10 felonies