This past week, I spent perhaps too much time reading (and re-reading) a couple of bits on the Internet. The first was a series written by Questlove, entitled When the People Cheer: How Hip-Hop Failed Black America. The other was an only tangentially-related article published way back in 2003 called Why Americans Don’t Like Jazz. The small intersection between these two pieces has to to do not with jazz, but hip-hop.
It wasn’t so much that these two authors disagreed on the topic. No, what really hit me (and I don’t know why after all of these years that I’m still surprised by this) was the absolute ocean of thought that separated the two intellectual approaches. The jazz essay, employing the twin levers of abstraction (we can’t handle it) and lyrics (we’re lost without them) in the effort to explain why Americans can’t process instrumental music, kind of fell off the rails when it encountered hip-hop:
…it does not promote the full development of musical ears. If the song has any musical substance, it can be played on a piano alone (without a singer or any other instruments), and we would still enjoy it. The lack of musical substance becomes clearly visible if you would take many of today’s popular songs, and play them on a piano alone. Many of them would utilize hardly more than a few keys.
Yikes. Where to begin? It’s certainly true — and this has been written about quite often — that with regard to melody and structural complexity, modern pop music has undergone some simplification. But it’s when the author conflates all of pop music with hip-hop that the argument dissolves. The “full development” of musical ears line cleaves to a strictly western definition of music: melody, harmony, rhythm. It ignores, or least fails to appreciate, the intrinsic melodic complexity of human speech. Yes, it’s not “just rap.”
And then we have Questlove’s work, which considers the wide-ranging musical and cultural impact of hip-hop, as well as its somewhat painful contraction over the decades. This is really an impressive series of articles, compressing the history of the genre while providing a pointed distillation of its current cultural importance. I’m always taken by this man’s work. Whether in music or words, his attachment to the issues at hand produce a kind of honesty of expression that just draws you in.
Is there a message here? I mean, people can certainly agree to disagree on nearly any issue, cultural or otherwise. But Dyske Suematsu, in his dismissal of hip-hop’s complexity, comes very close to those people who like to say that “rap is crap.” I don’t know…maybe there really isn’t a message here. Maybe I just don’t agree.
When the People Cheer: How Hip-Hop Failed Black America
Mo’ Money, Mo’ Problems: How Hip-Hop Failed Black America, Part II
Questlove’s How Hip-Hop Failed Black America, Part III: What Happens When Black Loses Its Cool?
Questlove: Disco and the Return of the Repressed — How Hip-Hop Failed Black America Part IV
Questlove Answers Reader Questions About His ‘How Hip-Hop Failed Black America’ Series
Questlove: Does Black Culture Need to Care About What Happens to Hip-Hop?