Live at the BBQ: Defending Hip-Hop (and Hip-Hop Writers) in the Age of Social Media

A look at context and criticism in hip-hop in 2015.

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Complex Original

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RIP @ my mentions yesterday, huh? Well, thatwascertainlyunexpected. I mean, who woulda thought an essay defending Drake and Future from the lyricist lounge—saying that turn-up music has its time and place—could inspire so much ire? Eight or nine years into this Internet-born writing culture—distinguished by its predilection for uninformed hyperbole and unaccountable snark—I certainly didn’t. I mean, sure, Angel’s jabs about Talib’s off-beat rapping and Lupe’s deep cuts were not without teeth, but in the grand scheme of slander that these artists have seen staring back at them on their mobile devices I have to imagine it was far from the most savage. Plus, his larger point was salient.

While it seems many readers, including the aforementioned artists, didn’t get this from the story, what Angel was saying was, “I want to listen to ‘Mural’ on my headphones on the way to work, ‘Get By’ while I’m vacuuming the crib on Sunday, and ‘Jumpman’ at the last summer BBQ of 2015.” And that’s valid. Talking Heads frontman David Byrne wrote a whole book about how context is the unheralded muse of musical innovation. That is to say, different spatial and social contexts are the reasons different kinds of music exist. Christian church music is built off slowly progressing organ chords because gothic cathedrals were enormous and made of stone, so the acoustics of the environment—which would’ve muddled the brittle sounds of a harpsichord or any percussion—dictated the form of the songwriting. Likewise a lot of pre-modern African music relied heavily on drums because performances took place outside, and, as anyone who’s been to an outdoor festival can attest, percussion carries better without walls to reverberate against than any melodic instrument. Even hip-hop was born as a function of Kool Herc’s observation that South Bronx partygoers enjoyed the drum breaks of soul and funk more than the rest of the song, and that manually looping just those parts kept the crowd engaged.

what Angel was saying was, “I want to listen to ‘Mural’ on my headphones on the way to work, ‘Get By’ while I’m vacuuming the crib on Sunday, and ‘Jumpman’ at the last summer BBQ of 2015.” 

It’s fair to say that Drake and Future made an album for a context—turning up—that is discrete from that which most of Lupe or Talib Kweli’s catalog is created. All four artists are inspired to fill different voids they perceive in the articulation of the human condition, and as such their music all sounds very different. It’s as absurd to prioritize one human emotion over the other as it is to rank the kinds of hip-hop. They have resonance with overlapping audiences, but serve different functions within the lives of those audiences.

Angel’s frustration was with the keep-it-realer-than-milk set who self-righteously proclaim anything intellectual or cerebral to possess greater cultural value than music that appeals to one’s id. And he—a 33-year-old Puerto Rican from Paterson, N.J., who is known in our office to cape for cats like Ka, Roc Marciano, and Nipsey Hussle—knows this bias because he once exhibited it himself. It’s easy to argue Smart > Dumb, but music, like most art, is about feeling as much, if not more, than it is about thinking.

However, no one seems to be disputing any of the above. All of the controversy around the article is fixated on his one, admittedly coarse, dismissal of Talib and Lupe. And the conversation has moved from one of context to one of criticism.

“Fuck a rap critic, he talk about it while I live it.”—Method Man, “How High” 1995

And it’s true—we do. Cultural critics are out here critiquing creators—espousing opinions and, even worse, making suggestions—from the safety of underground bunkers while said creators live in the danger zone of artistic decision-making, faced with difficult choices made under heavy fire. It’s not fair. Who are we to judge? And what gives us the right?

Well, we’re studied consumers. People who have put their money where their mouths are—devouring hercules, hercules!-ian quantities of art—and it has moved us to articulate our feelings about the investment we’ve made. I came up in the $7.99 cassette era, without a lot of disposable income, so me and my friends sorted albums into three categories: must-buy, must-dub, or cop-a-bootleg-and-see. Understand, full-priced tapes purchased at Nobody Beats the Wiz had the highest audio quality, but were $8.65 with tax, so only the most elite records—think Illmaticor The Infamous...—could get that treatment. Then there were the records that seemed likely to have joints—likeCan I Borrow a Dollar? orThe Inner Mind’s Eye—so whichever brave member of the crew gravitated towards the LP most would step up and cop the official release, and we’d all listen and make lower-quality Maxell dubs, if necessary. And then there was the shit that we thought would probably be wack but were still curious about—like AmbushedorNervous Breakdown—that we’d cop from the bootlegger, purveyors of the lowest quality recordings, for $1.99 just to give it a shot. If it was great we’d cop the real thing.

I explain that to say that my aspirations to write critically about music came from a time and place when every album you bought meant that there was another that you didn’t. You felt burned by the artist when an album sucked. I had been inspired by the critics who guided my consumption growing up, often putting me on to things I didn’t know I’d like and confirming my belief that some things I didn’t like were, in fact, not good to others as well. So I wrote about music to carry on that tradition. And yes, of course, just as anyone who stands on stage and raps for an audience must believe in their innate talent, anyone who writes critically about culture must believe that they have something important to say. Big ego? Guilty as charged.

However, coming up in that ’90s era tempered the rancor of my prose. Back then if you wrote about rap, you had to deal with rappers in the flesh. And by the time I got in the game in 1997 there was a storied tradition of threats, intimidation, and even occasional violence aimed at journalists by rappers. On the most benign side you had people like KRS-One and Chuck D, who argued that writing anything negative about hip-hop degraded the culture and was therefore bad for hip-hop. But then you had incidents like Masta Killa stomping out Cheo Hodari Coker over an illustration that accompanied his writing in Rap Pages, and Cypress Hill threatening editors at The Sourceover a jab at their dwindling black fan base in the December ’93 issue. And of course the fisticuffs between Ray Benzino’s Almighty RSO and The Source editors that resulted in a coverage ban (and then a subsequent staff walk-out when Source publisher and RSO manager Dave Mays rescinded said ban behind the staff’s back). A book could, and should, be written about that.

Sure, I wrote negative reviews frequently, but they were written with this in mind: “Would I be comfortable saying this to the artist’s face?” And in fact, I often had to deal with that reality. When I wrote a mixed review of Black Star’s debut for BLAZE, rating it 3.5 out of 5, Mos Def hit me on my pager (yeah, that’s how old I am) because he wanted to meet and talk about it. I obliged and met him at the Cutting Room on Broadway, where he was recording his verse for “Double Trouble” from the Roots’ Things Fall Apart album. I believe Talib was there too. We had a totally civilized argument where I basically stated that I thought they were the most talented young rappers, and I was looking to them for a Low End Theory or De La Soul Is Dead-level masterpiece, and felt that they had instead delivered more of a Beats Rhymes & Life or Stakes Is High hit-and-miss effort. Obviously, they had worked extremely hard on the record and thought it was unfair that I compare their work to my own wants or expectations, rather than trying to appreciate the body for what it was. In retrospect I understand their point, and agree that it is a mistake for critics to base reproach on the imagined rather than the real. And many people, including Brendan Frederick, my VP who sits in the office next to me, swear that album is a classic. That said, 17 years later “Definition” and “Respiration” are the only jams I still knock. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ Either way, I left the studio in one piece, with each party having had an opportunity to get things off their chest. I can imagine it having gone down a different way if Talib and Mos were not the gentlemen they are, or if I had been a bigger prick in my critique.

Of course now we live in an Internet age where accountability is all but out the window. Protected often by a veil of anonymity, or at least a lack of proximity, the web rewards both mean-spirited humor and hyperbole. And, in fact, if you paid attention to the early blog era (circa 2003-2007) one of the marked criticisms that the online community leveled at us professional journalists was that we were not critical enough. They said, not really having any functional understanding of how little money record labels spend in advertising, we were in the label’s pocket—and, compared to the Bill-O’Reilly-of-Hip-Hop screeds penned by Bol, our writing seemed soft and inert.

A decade later, it feels as though the two sides have met in the middle. Angel takes jabs in his piece that I probably wouldn’t—not only given that I have professional relationships with both artists that stretch decades, but on the principle of not wanting to score laughs off an artist’s work—but he certainly didn’t drag them. He was making a point, and utilized caricature for emphasis.

we live in an Internet age where accountability is all but out the window. Protected often by a veil of anonymity, or at least a lack of proximity, the web rewards both mean-spirited humor and hyperbole.

Writing is as much an art as rapping, and who is “good” at it is a matter of preference. The biggest difference is that with criticism, both artists and audience usually gravitate towards, and elevate, critics who affirm their opinions and taste. Angel’s essay was not savaged on account of his transitions or use of narrative structure; it was dismissed and derided because people—including, perhaps understandably, Lupe and Talib—didn’t agree with him. This is absurd. I often don’tagree with Jon Caramanica’s reviews in the New York Times—we once spent an hour at Elliott Wilson’s birthday arguing about whether Purple Haze > College Dropout—but I would never deny that my man can articulate his point, which always springs from a foundation of consideration and authoritative musical knowledge, with an elite sophistication and elegance. I love that his take exists, if only to stand in contrast to mine.

So the most baffling turn of events in this episode, to me, was the subset of writers who sided with the artists' disapproval or publicly shamed Angel and attempted to discredit him as a “hypebeast” or too young to know better. Whether their stance was intended to curry favor, or just a frustrated desire to backbite a professional peer with whom they have divergent thoughts, the irony is Texas toast thick, IMO. It’s wrong for Angel to talk slick about Talib or old-heads, but it’s cool to talk slick about Angel? Okie doke, but honestly, everyone is entitled to their opinions, and I appreciate that the article inspired them to weighed in. Get it how you live!

The forum for competitors to lob fire at Angel highlights another interesting difference between now and when I came up, and one that both artists and audience should appreciate. Social media has all but leveled the playing field. Sure, Angel can snipe at the keep-it-real contingent, and lick off stray digs at Lupe and Talib, but then all three have a forum via Twitter to air him out to an enormous audience. I have to admit, I’m actually a bit surprised that either artist even noticed or cared, given that Twitter also allows every Tom, Dick, and Harry to fill their mentions with ether, daily, but that’s another story.

Of course much of this dialogue comes in the form of unconstructive shit-talking, but then you have what Lupe wrote to me on Twitter. Measured and respectful of the larger scope of our professional relationship—one that has been mutually beneficial and genuinely supportive—but also honest about his feelings about the piece and its author. I feel him. If I woke up and saw someone utilizing the platform of someone I considered a colleague and friendly acquaintance to shit down my throat for seemingly no reason, I would be tight, too. But to dude’s credit, when I explained the true purpose of the piece, Lupe was understanding and expressed perhaps I should have articulated these ideas instead of Angel. Fair play, but if I did, it probably would’ve have flown under the radar, kicking up little dust or interest (like maybe this piece, inspired by that conversation, will). Oh, and then he stepped on Angel’s neck again.

But Angel’s a grown up and unphased. You don’t play basketball and expect to never catch an elbow in the lane.

Sometimes I feel old watching episodes like this play out, but still, I love this game.

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