April 18, 2003
Why Jack White is Wrong
In the latest issue of Rolling Stone magazine, Jack White of the White Stripes explains his opinion of Hip-hop thusly:
"I find OutKast and Wu-Tang Clan interesting. But I consider music to be storytelling, melody and rhythm. A lot of hip-hop has broken music down. There are no instruments and no songwriting. So you're left with just storytelling and rhythm. And the storytelling can be so braggadocious, you're just left with rhythm. I don't find much emotion in that."
He's certainly entitled to his opinion, and there is no such thing as right or wrong (in any objective sense) when it comes to personal taste, so I'm not mad at him. But I will point out that Jack White is missing at least one basic element of music, one that is particularly important to Hip-Hop. Let me tell you a little story:
For 6 years I was a teacher/counselor for "emotionally disturbed" teens at a group home upstate. One day we went on a field trip and walked by a construction site, and the sound of the drilling rattled our bones. As we went by one of my favorite students, Kelly Miles, turned to me and said "That sound is dope! Somebody needs to sample that and make a beat with it."
I knew exactly what she meant, and what made that drilling sound so dope had nothing to do with rhythm, melody, or storytelling. It was the noise itself that had an irresistibly visceral quality to it. As Public Enemy so wisely observed, that's one of the most important qualities found in any good hip-hop - you have to bring the noise.
If I played you a Premier snare drum and the snare from a Celine Dion song, isolated and removed from its original drum pattern, you could easily tell me which was which, and would probably have a strong preference as to which one sounded hotter. Most anyone who listens to Hip-Hop could easily make that distinction, and its not because of rhythm, melody or storytelling. It's because noise matters.
This is not only true for hip-hop either. The tonal quality and timbre of the sounds is a crucial element in our experience of any music. For example D'Angelo's Voodoo album, and the other Soulquarian releases of that "neo-soul" boom, were such a stark contrast to the other R&B of that time period, but not primarily because of the melody or rhythm or storytelling. What made them stand out, more than anything, was that they just sounded so raw. The vintage analog instrumentation they worked with, and that gritty sound they achieved while recording it and mixing it down. It was quite simply a different type of noise than the polished, plastic synthesizer music that was dominating R&B up until then.
This is one of the biggest reasons Hip-Hop has had such a tremendous influence: we changed the face of popular music with our focus on refining the art of noise. We took that element of music that is so often forgotten, and brought it to the forefront.. reminded everyone that noise matters, and showed the world how to bring it.
Any attempt to judge Hip-Hop will always be off the mark, if it fails to recognize this fundamental aspect of the music. That's why I must beg to differ with Jack White. And he really ought to know better, since he clearly pays close attention to the power of noise in his own music, striving to bring a full, rich sound out of a band with only two instruments.