Don’t Fake Jacks, Kid
It’s been a good 40 years since hip-hop was birthed booming onto the streets of New York, and having sped past various barriers to respectability and minted at least one billionaire, it would seem that there could no longer be any question about its legitimacy as a genuine modern music form. Alas, though, as rap stumbles across a few rocks on the green, its detractors have become emboldened; the golden age of hip-hop has been retconned from the early 1980s to the mid-1990s, but as it undergoes something of a crisis of conscience about who it belongs to, who it’s aimed at, and who gets to decide its future, the rockists are back in the clubhouse, sharpening their knives and declaring it dead on the table and set for a feast.
Kanye West, who is the kind of talented egomaniac who would go entirely uncommented on if he were white, is once again at the center of one of these bizarre arguments about legitimacy and authenticity that have been boring the shit out of listeners since at least the early days of Public Enemy. The Grammy Awards are second only to the Oscars in terms of a completely meaningless public spectacle that everyone both claims to not care about and can’t stop talking about, and this year Kanye provided the hook on which to hang a bunch of dull clickbait think-pieces by making the ghastly, unacceptable claim that Beyoncé deserved to win Album of the Year over Beck’s Morning Phase. Normally this is the kind of thing no sane person would care about; disagreeing with Grammy voters is as natural an act as breathing. But for some reason, his comments were greeted with the kind of reaction that normally accompanies the delivery of a turd to the punchbowl.
The usual suspects were on hand to call Kanye an egotist, an interloper, and an all-around asshole for daring to disagree with the choice of an award that everyone otherwise agrees is unimportant and out of touch, but this time it also brought out an ugly strain of ignoramuses that I’d hoped were long dead: the people — most of them white, and most of them male — who argued not that, were there any offense to be found (there wasn’t), it didn’t belong with Kanye for mere impolitic rooting interests, but rather with the Kanyes and Beyoncés of the world in general, and with their way of making music in particular. The internet was consumed by hot takes, animated .gifs, and Impact-fonted memes decrying the mere suggestion that Beyoncé’s music had the right to exist in the same universe of musical decency as that of Beck, because, sniff, Beck writes his own music, don’t you know, and plays actual instruments, rather than being one of these assembly-line phonies whose songs are written by committee and ‘performed’ on a series of computers instead of electric guitars like Clapton intended.
How this argument manages to survive into the 21st century is utterly beyond me, as is its expression in any human being under the age of seventy. I don’t know if they picture themselves as the modern equivalent of the heroic folk-nerd who screamed “Judas” at Bob Dylan, or if they just see their role as that of foot-soldiers in the war against ‘real’ music, but their clown paint is starting to get all over my music collection and it’s getting on my nerves. While it’s undeniable that there is at least something of a racial element in all of this, particularly in the way Kanye West is singled out as some kind of unconscionable monster for having a high opinion of himself in an industry where the possession of a monster ego is practically an entrance requirement, but I think it goes a lot deeper than that. Aretha Franklin and Motown, for example, are almost never the targets of vituperation just because their music (like Frank Sinatra’s, Bing Crosby’s, and, well, basically every big pop star in American history up until the early ’60s) was likewise created by a cadre of highly trained mercenaries. And white pop stars, from Britney Spears to boy bands, also get shit heaped on them by the Beatles-bred sons of the Knights of Guitar, Bass and Drums for daring to taint their product with non-analog electronics.
Hard as it is to believe, some of this dull noise actually took the form of arguments against sampling, and against the whole notion that producers — who now dominate the musical landscape the way bands did from the ’60s through the ’80s, and the way vocalists did for thirty years before that — are legitimate musicians. The answer to the ‘beatmaking isn’t really music’ argument has always been ‘if it’s so easy, do it yourself’; the fact that it took dedicated beat-miners, in the age of the internet no less, almost twenty years to figure out where the hook from Mobb Deep’s “Shook Ones, Part 2” came from is still a testament to how the isolation of pre-existing sound, the alteration of pitch, tone, sequence, and tempo, and the incorporation into a patchwork of older elements that form an entirely new whole is no less amazing a musical skill than is learning a lot of difficult chords on a guitar. It might or might not come as a surprise to these decaying rockists that many producers write entirely original hooks all the time — you know, the same hooks that the kids like and dance to in the clubs, the same way kids have been doing for a century — and that they do so on ‘actual’ musical instruments that require no less skill to play because the sounds they make can be cleverly manipulated in a computer.
But one doubts that it would truly matter. The authenticity boondoggle, now as it has always been, isn’t about legitimacy; it’s about illegitimacy. It’s not about whose voice is the most real, but whose voice is not real at all, and therefore must not be heard. And while it’s entirely possible to read too much into these eruptions of musical provincialism — the explosion of overblown opinion-mongering about twerking that occurred durante furore last year was both beyond all reason and of the very same variety of ignorance about the way culture flows in society — they are, after all, at the heart, about who shouldn’t be listened to in the cultural conversation. And while it isn’t always the young, the female, and the person of color who is being excluded, it is, always and forever, the new. If the authenticity police would think for one minute about what the cultural landscape would look like if their crusade against newness and difference was enforced to the degree the level of their vituperation would suggest it should be, I’m certain they would stop pursuing it altogether. But thought isn’t a strong suit among such people, which is why it’s probably a good thing we’re transitioning from think-pieces to hot takes; it’s not, after all, about thinking. It’s about taking.