The role of music journalism, or why does everyone want to kill hip-hop?

The New Yorker’s Sasha Frere-Jones recently caught flack for a piece titled “Wrapping Up.” Frere-Jones began the joint review of Jay-Z’s The Blueprint 3 and Freddie Gibbs’ Midwestgangstaboxframecadillacmuzik with a pretty heady assertion: That hip-hop – gasp – is dead!

If I had to pick a year for hip-hop’s demise, though, I would choose 2009, not 2006. Jay-Z’s new album, “The Blueprint 3,” and some self-released mixtapes by Freddie Gibbs are demonstrating, in almost opposite ways, that hip-hop is no longer the avant-garde, or even the timekeeper, for pop music. Hip-hop has relinquished the controls and splintered into a variety of forms. The top spot is not a particularly safe perch, and every vital genre eventually finds shelter lower down, with an organic audience, or moves horizontally into combination with other, sturdier forms.

Now, criticisms of the article aside for now (more on that later), a key thing people seem to miss with the article is that Frere-Jones was using the “death of hip-hop” as a creative way to link two disparate rappers in one review. Does it work? Well, according to the many who have complained, the whole thing is a tragedy. But, comments aside, Frere-Jones did manage to link these two artists to one another with a very striking assertion.

So is hip-hop dead? Depends who you talk to. Many were willing to kill it off when “Rapper’s Delight” made hip-hop into something that could be packaged up, shipped around the world and marketed. Others might say the gangsta era. I’d say none of these exist and hip-hop, even at its Lowest Common Denominator (especially at its LCD) exists as a vibrant musical form.

So the real question is, why is everyone so hot to kill hip-hop? That’s a question that can be applied to any genre out there, or any cultural experience or historical period for that matter. To paraphrase what Ian MacKaye has said time and time again, to declare a genre of music dead is selfish. Period. It’s an easy tendency to fall into, and I would be lying if I said I have not done it myself. But there is an almost arrogant quality to be the one to declare a type of music dead. You want to be the first, you want the credit, and, if you’re right, you want everyone to know who’s the musical Nostradamus in the room. I’m not saying that’s what Frere-Jones was going for, but that’s certainly a part of the criticisms being brought to the table.

One of the more interesting critiques of the Frere-Jones article was written by Victor Vazquez (of Das Racist) as a guest feature in Falvorwire. Vazquez jumps on Frere-Jones for the kind of attitude I described before:

SFJ is savvy enough to know that before pulling a “white man speaks authoritatively on black culture” move, he needs to first establish an acceptable precedent for his argument by locating it in the ideology of a credible black artist (in this case Nas’s 2006 album Hip Hop is Dead). But notice how SFJ then immediately undermines that credibility: while he could just say “Nas called it three years ago,” he instead claims that while Nas’s sentiment was correct, the proclamation was three years premature, as if to say “Nice try, Nas, but leave it to the professional (white, college-educated) music journalist to make sweeping statements about (black, ghetto-originated) music.”

Fair points for what Vazquez is articulating: a general sense of ignorance on the part of many mainstream music journalists when describing hip-hop. But Vazquez really knocks it out of the park while pinpointing the actual need for music journalism in one section of his critique:

From the griots to the dozens to the beats to Sun Ra’s “Nuclear War” to The Last Poets to Bob Dylan to the Modern Lovers to Yellowman to the Red Hot Chili Pepper’s “Give It Away Now,” to the Butthole Surfer’s “Pepper,” to Vybz Kartel… these are all arguably rap depending on how you how one chooses one’s criteria. Rap (nor anything else) needs not necessarily be viewed in terms of origins or boundaries, births or deaths. Genre is a construction whose analytical use is primarily economic in nature. The study of genre is largely the study of marketing.

Vazquez is right about the ambiguity of gentrification. (Though I’m surprised he didn’t mention The Beats in this paragraph, as they would often refer to performing poetry as “rapping.”) Rap can mean anything to anyone, anywhere. Which is why I tend to agree with the point that no one genre is really “dead” – it may not hold acclaim in the eyes of the trendsetters, but someone out there is still making something worth listening to.

But is the study of genre the study of marketing? Well, only if you tend to look at it as a consumer-driven entity, that being that the only music worthy of being discussed is that which can fit into a certain box and can be shipped to the toddlers and grandfolk in the world. And that might be the kind of hip-hop Frere-Jones was discussing: commercial hip-hop. Frankly, in the general realm of “hip-hop” (not including the electronic subgenres such as Bhangra that Vazquez brings up in his piece) there are still people kicking up a storm with two turntables and a microphone. I’m simply befuddled that an artist like Wale hasn’t been brought up in the conversation, a rapper who’s going to (hopefully) drop his major label debut soon and has a real chance of garnering a mass audience. But again, maybe Wale’s hip-hop doesn’t fit certain bounds of commercial hip-hop considering how fond he is of go-go, a DC subgenre of funk that famously proved to be a commercial flop outside of the city.

But beyond the means of marketing, the study of genre hardly comes from boardrooms of major labels and advertising firms. Genres are born elsewhere and given a name (oft regrettably) in the guise of music-focused media. Beyond being tastemakers, this is a realm where music journalists and media types have been able to place their fingerprints all over the creative expression they (hopefully) love.

You could start at Alan Freed, the Cleveland DJ who famously first used the term “rock and roll” – previously slang for sex – as a term to describe the electric blues he played on his radio program. Then there’s the case of Lester Bangs, who lovingly used and reused the term “punk rock” to describe the music of The Velvet Underground, Iggy & The Stooges, The Godz and the garage bands featured in the Nuggets compilation in Creem magazine. (True, in the Nuggets liner notes Lenny Kaye was the person to coin the term punk rock, but it was Bangs who really made it stick with his consistent reference to the word.)

The list literally goes on from there. Genrefication of music could be a book in and of itself. So that’s a conversation for another time. But, if anything, the study of genre does not begin with marketing – if anything that’s where it ends. It begins with the people who are in the communities that birth these sounds. These are usually the ones who come up with these terms: the people making the music, listening to the music en mass, living with the music. They often create the terms – it’s the music journalists who decipher what catches.

However, should the music journalists – or that matter, any one individual – decide when something drops dead? Probably not. Having discerning taste is one thing, and there’s a reason that some are critics full-time. But there’s a big difference between deciding what is good and being a musical grim reaper. And I’ll take the former.

Das Racist & Wallpaper – “Combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell”:

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