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July 5, 2007

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  • July 9, 2007

    When They Reminisce Over Mixtapes

    I miss mixtapes. I miss the bad cover art and the slim cases. I miss how cheap they are, I miss the shouting and gunshots peppered throughout otherwise listenable tracks, and I miss having to hunt them down, going in and out of stores that still advertise "Pagers", having no clue which ones they'll have or if they'll even have any. I even miss the anonymous rappers that often show up on an otherwise good track and ruin it by rhyming the end of each line with the same word. Who is to blame for the hole in my heart formerly occupied by mixtapes? We all know the answer to that one.

    It's been about six months since the RIAA's "raid" of DJ Drama's offices and unlike so many other, equally pointless, stupidly "symbolic" governmental actions, this one seems to have worked. As mixtape spots slowly dried-up, I felt shocked. I was reminded of a joke my (now deceased) friend made, after hours of trying to find a dependable weed-connect: "Did the government really win the war on drugs? What's going on here?" There really aren't mixtapes?! What's going on here?

    Although I bemoan the absence of mixtapes, it is ultimately, a situation where reason beats-out my fandom and sympathies: "Okay RIAA, fair enough, you did it in the wrong way and it was poorly executed and has weird, racist undertones but yeah, it isn't exactly legal for anyone to rap over the 'Daytona 500' beat without permission and then sell it…" Nevertheless, there are about a million problems with the mixtape "crackdown".

    First, it is hardly a "crackdown"; the absence of mixtapes comes out of a fear of government enforcement not actual government enforcement. Second, the "crackdown" has accomplished very little in the way of helping album sales and legal downloads, which is what mixtapes were supposedly affecting. Third, there is the phenomenon of mixtapes being fairly absent from small stores and street-corners but still, to some degree, available through many corporate stores and entities.

    Around the initial hype of Lil Wayne's weirdy-popular and strangely mediocre mixtape, 'Da Drought 3', a local chainstore in my native Baltimore was selling the mixtape. A search of Amazon.com's Marketplace still reveals many copies for sale. Although Amazon Marketplace only acts as a conduit for sellers and buyers, it is exactly the kind of complicity the RIAA symbolically attacked when they raided DJ Drama. In many F.Y.E and Best Buys, numerous 'Gangsta Grillz' discs among many others, can be found right next to major label albums at a significantly marked-up price.

    The mixtapes are generally sold for conventional CD retail prices, meaning somewhere, anywhere, between $11.99 and $17.99. My local mixtape guy never sold me a tape for more than $7.00, making the mark-up hovering somewhere around 100%! It looks like corporate collusion, as the mixtape "crackdown" removed the minor-level mixtape merchant while allowing, the F.Y.Es and Best Buys to continue profiting.

    To be fair, the F.Y.E and Best Buys of Baltimore (and I assume all areas) are well-known for selling the rap of hometown artists and in a way, mixtape sales could be seen as an extension of that local loyalty, but why that would matter to the mind-bogglingly out-of-touch RIAA? One would think, from any sort of legal standpoint, the selling of "bootlegs" (which is what the RIAA consider mixtapes) in a large chainstore would be significantly more problematic than the selling of those tapes in small cell-phone accessory stores, street corners, etc.

    There is also the issue of who is supplying chainstores with mixtapes. DJ Drama and I assume, most other mixtapers, maintain the story that they do not sell any of their CDs; "for promotional use only", just as the little sticker on the slim case says. While I find that hard to believe, I am more willing to believe that the copies found in chainstores are bootlegs (or technically, bootlegs of bootlegs?) because they aren't in slim cases and the inserts suspiciously look like copies of copies on photo-paper. Doesn't it seem more problematic, that a nationwide store not only sells mixtapes, but bootlegged mixtapes than it does if the guy on the corner, in the locally-owned record store, or at the weekend flea market, is selling the same? I don't see who this mixtape ban helps.

    This mixtape pontificating began when I went to New York a few weekends ago and was shocked by the absence of mixtapes there as well. I went to normal spots like Canal Street and a few others but found nothing. Not a poor selection, literally nothing. I doubt this is news to native New Yorkers and perhaps people way more city-savvy than I still know where to get them, but for me this was a total shock. Peeking over five-foot Chinese heads and bobbing and weaving between feet-dragging, mouth-agape tourists taking in the city, I searched for the rack of tapes and listened for rap through crappy speakers, as my general rule of thumb was to just follow that sound and eventually, you'd hit a mixtape merchant. Not this time.

    Despondently walking away, it occurred to me that it is now easier to find mixtapes at the mall, in Baltimore, MD, than it is to find them on Canal Street! Explain that one.

    This "crackdown" besides creating some even weirder in-between legalities than the ones that already existed, has lessened the overall hype and excitement about new rap music. The mixtape cover pops-up on Nahright or as the heading for bloggers' reviews but we see that cover only as a JPG in a WINRAR file not as the cover to a physical object we hunted-down and purchased.

    We click, download, unzip, and load "mixtapes" into Winamp or iTunes and if it's decent, maybe its burned or loaded onto the iPOD but that's about it. The excitement is gone in a music industry that needs any form of excitement it can get. The tapes were always available for download but for dorks like me and many others, downloading it was never enough if I knew, somewhere I could buy a little jewel case, with some goofy artwork, and a sticker that says "For promotional use only" for about $5.00.

    July 10, 2007

    iPhones and Churches (Part 1)

    Don't sleep on the Howard Stern/Wise Intelligent/Just Blaze mashup at the end..

    July 19, 2007

    One More Rap Book I Probably Won't Read

    Michael Eric Dyson's new book 'Know What I Mean: Reflections on Hip-Hop' arrives serendipitously. A few months after the Imus controversy that somehow created a never-ending quasi-debate about rap music, Dyson hopefully brings a more nuanced, "insider" approach to the music. However, if this excerpt and his appearance on the 'Today' show on Tuesday are any indication, I don't feel that readers of this site would get a lot out of the book and I'm not sure any rap "outsider" would either.

    Dyson should be praised for taking rap music seriously and I do not doubt he is committed to the genre, but his argument seems less an attempt to engage hip-hop haters and more a plan to run circles around them. A great deal of what he has to say is glaringly half-formed. Dyson's most prevalent points are stated in a way that falls apart with any knowledge of rap; his argument seems to depend on mainstream rap ignorance.

    Dyson works within the binary that there is rap that is "positive" and rap that is "negative" and that simplistic argument is his first flaw. His second flaw is listing a less overtly conscious or political artists like Scarface, Jay-Z, and Nas along more predictable rap-defense staples without acknowledging that he has done so. Dyson's list of rappers that he considers "incredible artists doing incredibly complex things" were: Scarface, Jay-Z, Nas, Lauryn Hill, Bahamadia, Common, Mos Def, Talib Kweli. This is a step in the right direction as Scarface, Jay-Z, and Nas can be every bit as radical as those other artists named, but there is a difference. Some of the artists he cites make rap that the hip-hop haters could inarguably cite as "negative".

    Invoking Scarface, Jay-Z, and Nas as examples of "positive" hip-hop to an audience whose problem with rap comes in its bad language and presentation of negative behavior simply does not make sense. The rappers he cited, "positive", "negative", or somewhere in between, are exceptions to the rule. He needs to find a way to address rap music as a genre without constructing binaries between good and bad, particularly binaries that fall-apart so easily.

    The primary concern of hip-hop insiders and outsiders when it comes to social responsibility is the degrading nature of rap's lyrics. Those concerned with the moral aspects of any kind of art have never taken the art aspect seriously, so any number of books about rap's "complexity" won't quiet those who want rap to stop being so "negative". This is the flaw of the intellectual, to think that art matters or is the bottom line. Complexity and intelligence will never outweigh people's outrage, especially when the outrage is fairly reasonable, as it is with hip-hop.

    Dyson's list of rappers is so scrupulous as to make his point moot. First, he gives a list of "gangsta" or post-"gangsta" rappers that don't really confound most critiques of rap. Then, in some calculated attempt at political correctness (and wishful address of misogyny?), he lists two female rappers when, let's face it, female emcees just don't matter. His point would be better supported to just admit that rap has a problem with women than to go back to the late 90s for relevant female rappers. Lauryn Hill hasn't rapped properly since 1998 and almost nobody watching 'Today' knows who the hell Bahamadia is…Mos Def and Talib Kweli are equally obscure to NBC's early-morning audience. Common is perhaps the only artist Dyson cited who is overwhelmingly "positive" and relatively well-known. Although flawed and problematic, the music of someone like Kanye West, who occupies near-super star status and some semblance of positivity, would be a wiser way to engage the audience. However, it would not surprise me if Dyson, like many others, do not see West as "hip-hop" enough and would rather muddle the argument than concede to someone else's standards.

    Dyson does the same as those hip-hop haters he opposes but in reverse. The more savvy critics of rap music now concede that there is some "positive rap" but focus overwhelmingly on the negative aspects. Dyson concedes that there is "negative" rap but chooses to focus on the positive aspects. Both are wrong but unfortunately, when the argument is set-out like that, I'd side with the hip-hop haters because the so-called negative rap is the rap most people are listening to and therefore, the one with the most moral or immoral "influence". Dyson might have more of a point if he would extend his argument to point out that indeed, if rap's criticizers were to take some, any, of the music seriously, that might shift the focus away from popularity of the negative rap but he does no such thing.

    In the best case scenario, Dyson's book will cause a sea change on the perspective of rap, but that change would be one that is equally false as the one being projected now. I would be no happier if a bunch of people began defending rap by saying "there's positive rap and negative rap" and then cited a list that included rappers that are clearly not "positive" by a conventional definition of the word. Replacing one incorrect, manipulative mantra with another, even if it helps rap's reputation is something I cannot get behind.

    It is briefly mentioned on the 'Today' show and dealt with in the excerpt, but Dyson's invocation of art's history of dealing with the unsavory is either disingenuous or naive. Although I would agree that Jay-Z or Nas approach (and even surpass!) the complexity of Shakespeare, those kind of comparisons appear absurd to the average person, particularly one not fond of hip-hop. Engaging rap as art is divisive because it will takes generations for rap to be put on the level of art (it is only in the past decade or so that rock music has been taken seriously); most of those who choose to criticize hip-hop will either never consider it art or are mind-bogglingly middlebrow and do not care about "art" in the first place.

    Art, complex or not, intellectual or not, has never been free of criticism or even, violent censorship. No matter how correct the argument may be, rap's complexity will not free it from the grips of censors and closed-minded cultural critics. Even if it does the genre a disservice, rap must be discussed and engaged as pop-culture product if it is to be understood by the hip-hop haters. Dyson's comparison between censoring rap and censoring mindless action movies moves in that direction.

    Dyson wisely connects the blind-eye people turn to contemporary action films to race and class. Indeed, the same people who might write screeds against 50 Cent calling-out his album 'Get Rich or Die Tryin' do not bat an eye to the similarly-titled 'Live Free or Die Hard' which grossed about 85 million dollars. Dyson bravely invokes race and class as giving the makers of action films free passes when it comes to violence: 'Live Free or Die Hard' supports our president's "war on terror" hustle, so don't expect protest anytime soon.

    He would have been wise to invoke the so-called torture-porn films of Hollywood like 'Saw' and 'Hostel' which are laughed-off by many as harmless fantasy. This would be the most engaging and relevant argument, for it bypasses nebulous words like "art" or "complexity", addresses pertinent race and class issues, while conceding to the idea that some entertainment is indeed "too far".

    I want to praise Dyson's appearance and I want to praise his book but I see him as politician-like in his scrupulosity and stretching of the truth. I do not doubt that his avoidance of facts and convenient end-runs are for the pragmatic motivation of praising hip-hop, but I think he overextends himself. Jay Smooth has discussed this in greater detail and greater eloquence and I have to concur; there is an unfortunate degree of performance when it comes to both sides on this rap shit. Neither side will concede, both sides ignore any reality that does not jibe, and invent new ones to cater to their point.

    July 26, 2007

    "Hot Ghetto Mess" Review

    Thoughts on BET's "We Got To Do Better" aka The Show Formerly Known As "Hot Ghetto Mess."

    About July 2007

    This page contains all entries posted to hip hop music in July 2007. They are listed from oldest to newest.

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