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Among the innumerable reasons why you should be reading The New Yorker each week, the magazine’s trenchant hip-hop analysis does not rank very high on the list. First of all, the fine people with the intimidating vocabularies who toil in the Conde Nast building and spend all week (or month, or months) assembling wonderfully detailed accounts of everything don’t write about hip-hop all that often. And second of all, they engage in this scarcity of hip-hop prose for a reason: they’re not so good at it.
Back to that list of reasons: the experience engendered by The New Yorker’s hip-hop writing lands far below a Louis Menand book review, a Malcolm Gladwell really-smart-man-on-the-street piece, and an Atul Gawande medical exploration. It’s also someplace well south of a Seymour Hersh intelligence report or a Nancy Franklin television review soaked in supercilious irony. Sasha Frere-Jones stands out, of course, for his perceptive and measured music criticism, but his hip-hop writing is far more abundant on his website than in the hallowed, staple-bound pages of what is likely the best magazine in the world. (And of course, S/FJ, as bloggers and his website call him, does not author the sprawling explorations of the minute and the massive that make the magazine what it is.) Really, New Yorker hip-hop features land only above the magazine’s forays into…well, nothing. I can’t think of a topic that the magazine approaches with such ill comfort.
Please notice that in the preceding paragraph, I attempted to loosely rank the experience—the level of satisfaction, really—that arises while reading the various forms of journalism contained in those dense volumes. It surely wasn’t a measure of writing quality (not in a technical sense, at least), as the armies of fact checkers and editors employed by The New Yorker make sure that even the most out-of-our-depth pieces still adhere to style, grammar, and syntax standards. One need not fret when confronted with the thought that a New Yorker piece might run bereft of umlauts or the magazine’s legendary stylistic élan (get it?). A thirty-page story about Yung Joc would be edited in the same way that a probing account of Camus might.
According to this hip-hop fan, the primary reason why hip-hop writing in The New Yorker fails is that the wrong people read the magazine. The New Yorker is not written for those conversant in hip-hop; those who don’t giggle or gape when they hear the name “Jim Jones.” Of course, I know plenty of hip-hop heads who are New Yorker fans, and there certainly aren’t rules that render an interest in rap and an interest in literary reporting mutually exclusive. But my contrary anecdotal evidence and the absence of such a restriction should not be mistaken as proof of anything. The New Yorker is, seemingly proudly, a magazine written for adult intellectuals (and while I’m issuing my own rules, don’t mistake that assertion as some kind of backhanded self-aggrandizement) by adult intellectuals, many of whom, in both groups, are fiercely liberal. This audience is not all that aware of or concerned about what The Game is wearing on a mixtape album cover.
Given that good writers always remember their respective audiences and that The New Yorker is a magazine of good writing, the problem therefore arises as an intrepid scribe attempts to tell a hip-hop story to an audience that mostly knows little about the rap industry and its politics. Witness the story from last week’s New Yorker, “Where Hip-Hop Lives”:
Gravy’s closest business associate, a producer named Fendi, has made a series of DVDs, entitled “The Come Up,” depicting the hip-hop life style in a raunchy fashion that makes Hot 97 seem almost Disneyfied. The footage is loosely assembled, and culled from home videos and concert films. (One bit, from the 2004 Summer Jam, shows audience members and 50 Cent’s G-Unit throwing chairs and bottles at one another.) Guns and drugs figure prominently.
Troi Torain, who goes by the name Star. Star was fired from Hot 97 in 2003, after more than a dozen suspensions. (He referred to the station’s general manager, Mayo, as “Benson,” and to his bosses at Emmis as “the big Jew engine.”) He then promised to visit “doomsday” on his old employer, and was eventually hired by the competition, Power 105. In the preceding week, that doomsday plan had taken the form of berating his ex-colleague Envy, whose given name is Raashaun Casey, and his family, in spectacularly vile fashion, vowing, Mike Tyson style, not only to come after the Caseys’ child but to eat her; he made reference to spreading mayonnaise on her rear, as a dressing. He’d also indicated that he wished to “tinkle” and “skeet” on the girl (“your seed”), who is four, and offered five hundred dollars to any listener who could tell him which preschool she attended.
Gravy’s own words—his rhymes—are less jarring, by comparison, tending to fall safely within the established motifs of gangsta rap: boasting of sexual prowess (one’s “bitches”), complaining about “dick-riders” (i.e., copycats), declaring war on the police, and laying claim to neighborhood terrain.
He drew a distinction between “the hood” (where “not a lot of dudes got computers in they cribs”) and “the streets,” a larger, amorphous space where public opinion crystallizes. Swaggering forthrightness is the conventional path to selling one’s story of hood respect to the streets.
One can pick out a litany of grating words and phrases that, in sum, demonstrate why writing about hip-hop for a New Yorker audience can be difficult, and why said writing can make a hip-hop fan cringe. What, for instance, is “the hip-hop life style”? Who actually uses the term “gangsta rap” seriously? And the definition of the streets? It may have been accurate, but boy was it awkward. Really, this piece made me feel like I was have an uncomfortable conversation with my parents during which their attempts to seem cool fell painfully short and they asked me a lot of embarrassing questions.
This article was written by Ben McGrath, a longtime New Yorker writer whose contributions—always self-conscious, obnoxiously precious, and not nearly as amusing as I’m sure he intends them to be—can usually be found, mercifully, confined within the limited-length Talk of the Town section. But amidst the cringe-inducing academic descriptions, and ignoring my general distaste for McGrath, an important point about the article must be articulated: McGrath is right.
“Where Hip-Hop Lives” oozes a certain distasteful, jeering condescension that only reinforces notions about whatever portion of The New Yorker’s audience is comfortably elitist. But at the same time, the article admirably points out that the commonly held, racially driven stereotypes applied to hip-hop can just as easily be applied to mostly white organizations like the New York District Council of Carpenters, an umbrella organization for carpenter unions known for violent behavior and a disregard for law and authority.
More importantly, the article serves as a platform from which, as usual, the most ignorant elements in hip-hop demonstrate just how deep their brazenness runs. Funkmaster Flex laments a supposed misconception that Hot 97 has promoted criminality, like drug dealing (“Hot 97 never glorified that” he claims, oddly); media-spectacle beefs that ended in senseless violence (50 Cent vs. The Game; Lil’ Kim vs. Foxy Brown) are recounted; the abhorrent idiocy of radio personalities like Hot 97’s Miss Jones is vividly recalled, her words no less embarrassing now than when they were first uttered:
Hot 97 had not sat idly by. Star’s defense—other than his sworn allegiance to an Ayn Rand-inspired philosophy he calls “objective hate”—was that Envy’s on-air partner, Miss Jones, had spent the same first few days of May calling Star an “alcoholic,” a “faggot,” a “spermless dwarf,” and the son of a white prostitute “who got knocked up by the blackest, blackest, blackest nigger—and then the coochie must not have been that good because he left her.” Jones, who is black, invoked her own child—a one-year-old son—for the purpose of comparing penis sizes with Star; they were, she said, “about the same.”
Like it or not, that’s hip-hop. Maybe not “real” hip-hop as I’d define it or talk about it with friends and blog colleagues and the generally erudite, overlooked hip-hop heads who don’t aspire to sell drugs, but that’s the hip-hop that makes money and fuels media. Of course the article doesn’t give equal column inches to the Little Brothers and Commons and even Kanyes who (usually) make good music without trafficking in the exploitative, bleak themes that Hot 97 and Pitchfork writers love so much. But that’s not the point; fair is not a guarantee.
The sobering reality is that to accurately document a titan of hip-hop and one of the industry’s most valuable media outlets, an alien observer like The New Yorker needed only to spend time at 359 Hudson Street, allegedly where hip-hop lives. That distinction, more than any longwinded and tacitly disapproving explanation, is the most depressing thing about the article.
The re-captioned New Yorker cartoon at the top of the post comes via “Robotman” and a google image search. Unfortunately I couldn’t find my favorite – the one of the duck sitting behind a large desk. Ha!