Rap on Rap
The biggest problem writing about rap music is that U have II listen 2 it.
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On the most elementary level, can any
music Miles Davis admired be all bad? Miles, however, failed in his attempt to
marry rap to jazz. And can the two be compared in the first place? Rap music may
be the ultimate oxymoron, while jazz is American classical music. "Where's the
melody, Martha?" But both rap and jazz are products of the same African American
culture, they comme from hoods in the same getos. Writing about rap messes up
your spelling and syntax in addition to your ears.
Appealing as it does to millions of
young people of many colors, classes and nationalities, rap is changing
language. Ghetto is increasingly spelled as in the group Geto Boys. "Hood", from
neighborhood not hoodlum, is coming to mean any neighborhood at all. The word
"rap" itself has turned into a sort of "hep" majority-culture synonym for talk
or discuss, as in "let's rap about it" (usually accompanied by high-fives).
Remember when "bitch" meant complain, or female dog?
trying to bleep out the dirty words. (Lenny Bruce said that there are no dirty
words just dirty minds.) Censorship of pop
is a serious question when you consider all the people
around the world who learn English instead of French, German or Russion thanks
to Elvis Presley, Bob Dylan and the Beatles. It's also an old question. The
above three artists were directly and unambigously influenced by geto (blues)
culture, which caused people in various levels of power to try and censor them
one way or another. Beboppers lobbied to keep rock off the airwaves. Dixieland
fans badmouthed behop. Serious music listeners disapproved of dixieland.
Syncopation itself was once held to be immoral. Church elders in the Middle Ages
considered Gesualdo's polyphony degenerate.
Surely this is not comparable. Rap is
objectively vulgar, right? But parents have a tendancy to find their children's
music, if not vulgar, threatening. Which, of course, makes kids like it even
more. It's just possible that rap's computer-generated groove with
electronically sampled sounds and geto voices putting a new spin on language on
top adds up to a new kind of swing adults have trouble relating to. "Computers
don't swing, Fred."
Rock was always loud. Parents held their
ears. Neat, cool. But members of seminal bands are growing deaf and the
appellation of rock has escallated from cute Stones and Byrds to Nine Inch Nails
and Dead Kennedy's, along with the volume. The road from a blue-eyed reggae
group called The Police to Body Count's thrash rock track "Cop Killer" has been,
excuse the expression, rocky.
Escallation is everywhere and speeding
up - louder, bloddier, faster, more numerous and in your face. John Cage said
that whether we like it or not we have the Mona Lisa with a moustache in
addition to the original and we'd better get used to it. Rap-powered
mechanically created, altered and reproduced grooves represent cutting edge
Can a machine swing? If a computer can
swing, can it be evil? Samplers, harmonizers, vocoders and miscellaneous
software invent tones and textures. Tap a keyboard and the hard disc does the
rest. No messy tape to cut, splice and rewind. No spools to change. Out of tune?
Tempi don't match? No problem. The computer adjusts pitch without changing tempo
and vice versa. Only have one trombone and you need an entire section? No
problem here either. Monalisize it.
untutored musicians to come up with a saleable finished creative product. Anyone
who can afford and knows how to work the right hardware can make a movie or
recording. The price of hardware is coming down and anyway Americans do not care
how you get the money to buy it. Just don't get caught—
witness the number of rappers who admit to
making their stake dealing drugs. ("Of course crime pays," G. Gordon Liddy said.
"If crime didn't pay there would be no crime.") America has a meritocratic
tradition (build a better mousetrap, etcetera) and allows more space for the
autodidact. Rap is as American as ahpull pi.
renegades and the guns they carry. Bonnie and Clyde, Dirty Harry and Shaft for
example. Zapping between Sam Peckinpah's "Pat Garrett and Billy The Kid" and
Allen and Albert Hughes' " Menace II Society" on the Paris cable last week
revealed certain major similarities between gunslingers and bloods. The films
were made 20 years apart (1973-93) and are about different centuries but the
main difference is visual—the decor and the
color of the heros' skin—
rather than conceptual.
Regardless of their
color or place in time, the principals are all outlaws in the American west
presented as victims rather than perpetrators of a lawless environment. They are
stoned one way or another most of the time. The bad guys in both are bad in the
Superfly/ Wild Bunch sense of the word rather than downright evil. Guns blaze in
both. Whether on horses or wheels, the protagonists kill and die riding them.
The soundtracks—Bob Dylan on the older, rap
on the newer movie—
both feature pop music that
reflects the time.
The National Rifle Association claims
that guns don't kill, people do. Is it possible to conclude that rap is not
violent, misogynistic or vulgar, we are?
Mike Zwerin's recent book, The Parisian Jazz Chronicles
: An Improvisational Memoir, was published by Yale University
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