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Rap on Rap

By Mike Zwerin

PARIS, 23 October 2006

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?

Politicians are trying to bleep out the dirty words. (Lenny Bruce said that there are no dirty words just dirty minds.) Censorship of pop music 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 recording technology.

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.

Technology allows 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.

Americans love 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 visualthe 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 soundtracksBob 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 Press. 

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