Wednesday, December 27, 2006

group think

Many people have alerted me to this piece in the Dec/Jan New Yorker, which is about "rap's new drug obsession"--cocaine. Critic Sasha Frere-Jones justifies the creation of the genre by insisting that its existence is more than topical. Rapping about dealing coke, he claims, forces lyrical experimentation, compelling hip hop artistes like Clipse and Young Jeezy to write "complex poetry: songs that simultaneously broadcast and hide their meaning." So double meaning and allegory assume a sense of urgency when underwritten by illegality: Therein lies the real connection to a poetic tradition.

Musical genres are funny things. I've never felt comfortable answering the question, "What sort of music do you like?" The category "indie rock" feels simultaneously pretentious and prosaic, so I usually try to veer into the overly specific ("ugly-bearded-weirdo-singer-songwriters). has some interesting lists of genres. Here are my five favorites:

1. Quiet Storm: "Urbane sophistication and subdued soulfulness"; pants-dropping R&B
2. Truck-driving Country: "hard-driving" honky tonk from the '70's
3. Happy hardcore: post-rave music for drugged-out clubgoers
4. Songster: a blues tradition that evolved in the South after slavery
5. Madchester: psychedelic 80's brit rock

On a related note, I thought of two new band names I would consider if I sang or played an instrument. "Dr. Mina and the Free Radicals" and "Literary Allusion."


Kate said...

SF-J is a dude! and he went to St. Ann's! and his brother Tobias is the preeminent typographer of our day!

slowcore/sadcore are good genres too.

elmrockcity said...

sadcore--does that remind you of anyone we know? (hint: my last email)...

Matt said...

"Cocaine rap" isn't an attempt to describe a sound, like illbient or sadcore or Quiet Storm, all of which (to me, at least) seem vaguely ridiculous and narrow and in the end fairly useless--and given your list, I'm guessing you agree. But while illbient and friends may never have existed past a few critics trying to make a name for themselves by naming some perceived movement, however micro (I mean, if punk:Lester Bangs::illbient:you, you have to feel pretty bad about your place in the critical pecking order), coke rap certainly exists: a lot of people right now rap about selling coke and use the current jargon for it.

A lot of people used to rap about being in gangs. I mean, for that matter, a lot of people used to sing about surfing, though that sonic palette was extremely narrow (and often fairly cynically ripped off). Unlike surf rock, gangsta rap, like coke rap, transcended fad to become a mainstream subject of its genre and as such sounded like a lot of different things. Over time, the material (technology, slang) and stylistic (flow, beat structure, production values) differences have made it recognizable as all belonging to a particular era--so we can talk in 2006 about gangsta rap as a sound as well as a subject, even above its various geographies (East, West, South). As coke rap gets less local (in time and space), I imagine someday plenty of folks will think Clipse and Rick Ross have a lot in common musically as well as verbally, as unfairly binary as I'm making it and as ridiculous as that might currently seem.

So I think it's interesting to see how SF-J (btw, do you not feel it's right to correct/edit entries after you've posted them? I think a Slate-style corrections policy would serve you better than leaving errors in) breaks down coke rap's tropes and themes for a large audience, and it's always a good day when Upper East Side grandmas get to learn about fishscale. And he's probably right about a sound-sense connection made at hypermetaphor. But then he writes, "Young Jeezy and Clipse want to boast about flouting the law and at the same time protect themselves from potential prosecution." This, to me, seems pretty ridiculous. While he's right that Clipse bragging about not spending a rap dollar in years is surprisingly present-tense (compared to Biggie/Jay's used-to hedge), he can't be serious that he thinks they use jargon to stay out of trouble. If that were true, uh, didn't he just teach us about fishscale? Jeez, Sasha: STOP SNITCHING.

As any proud DARE graduate knows, cops know more drug slang than anyone in the world (I mean, Drug Abuse Resistance Education and Dictionary of American Regional English: coincidence or pure chance?). And you don't have to be Tony Montana to figure out what's going on with all that pyrex. So I think SF-J gets the causality all wrong: the rappers aren't trying to cover their asses, they're just trying to sound like legit drug dealers, albeit ones with extreme verbal dexterity. Just as TV shows have done away with As You Know, Bob dialogue (for examples, see any page of The Da Vinci Code; "But professor, everyone knows the Templars haven't been active since the 17th century." "Ah, would that it were true...") to give us doctors and detectives who sound real because they use words we don't know without explaining them, coke rappers are trying to sound like real drug dealers, or at least like what we/they imagine real drug dealers probably sound like. If we're looking for why dealers talk that way, I'd suggest it's the drugs-in-hand point where people tend to obfuscate, either to keep their business from the ears of eavesdropping squares or to remove themselves from the reality of what they're up to. Why mention ugly, illegal cocaine when snow and birds are so pretty, and barbecue so delicious?

A couple final thoughts: given all of the above, and that none of the aforementioned rappers are in jail, you have to figure that none of these guys are moving as much white as they claim (if any), meaning they have more in common with Philip Roth's various Philip Roths than they do with the local dealer. Finally, I wonder if there's ever more or less slang/jargon in use at a given time in the language at large; specifically, I wonder if there's currently a stronger tendency than usual to abbreviate or use jargon or other inside language--or if it's just me. Thanks for a thought-provoking post.

i know i'm whatever said...

don't you think "The New Historicists" sounds like a band name?

Kate said...

illbient... that's "so fucked-up/beautiful" as Tiddle would say

Anonymous said...

looks like matthew needs his own weblog!

Hippolyte said...

The "meaning" I see in coke rap isn't "double"; it's that coke, and all that is shamelessly represents, is in. Which is why I like , this article a lot more than anything by SF-J (whose work for the New Yorker I despise). It also has a diagram which I know e.r.c. will love.