I’ve been meaning to write about this for a long time now, and it’s no surprise, considering that I listened to too many hip hop albums during my formative years. It’s something that has always remained close to my mind, and it saddens me to see the state of contemporary hip hop. So this is both a piece on what I think hip hop is and what I hope it can still become.
To me, hip hop has always been a post-modern art form, meaning that it subverts, if not rejects, traditional conceptions of art and morality. Therefore I have separated this piece into two section, one dealing with the hip hop aesthetic and the other with hip hop ethics. What unites these two parts is their shared subversion of traditional assumptions about art and morality.
Hip Hop as an Aesthetic:
Perhaps the most immediately obvious characteristic that gives away hip hop as a post-modernist aesthetic is its extensive and pioneering use of sampling. While early sampling simply included novel uses of traditional soul and jazz, sampling became much more sophisticated such that today it is possible to construct entire songs without using any real instruments at all. This subverts an entire way of making music that people are used to, i.e., real people playing real instruments. In its lieu we have another way of making music in hip hop: computers synthesizing artificial instruments.
A second, but nonetheless equally important aspect of hip hop aesthetics, is its emphasis on rhythm. In traditional western music, melody is the emphasis. Hip hop, however, almost focuses exclusively on rhythm at the expense of melody. This has unfortunately led to some opinion that somehow hip hop is “less” technically-challenging than traditional, melody-based music. I am not going to venture into that debate, but I believe that rhythm, like melody, are just building blocks, and it’s up to the artists to decide what to do with them.
And sometimes hip hop completely eschews music altogether: see free-style, beat-boxing battle rhymes. No music, no backing beats, just a couple of guys improvising.
Getting beyond the musical aspect of hip hop, now I will get into its textual aspects. Hip hop defies conventions of the English language by inventing new words (see its extensive use of slang that are created out of experience), coming up with strange and unusual syntax, etc. Also, hip hop subverts traditional texts because it is extremely intra- and inter-textual in its approach.
What do I mean by that? Hip hop is intra-textual in that it is constantly self-referencing, whether it’s referencing a previous verse, the rapper’s previous albums, or even a concept that was employed in a previous work (see Dr. Dre’s update on “Next Episode” in 2001, referencing back to “The Chronic”).
Hip hop is also inter-textual in that it is not a self-contained, hermetically sealed work: it constantly makes allusions to other hip hop. For example, just listen to any dis-rap: it is all about referencing and putting down other people’s work. Hip hop artists are also obsessed with the legacy of hip hop: their place within the pantheon, their relative worth compared to the legends, etc. Finally, hip hop is known to reference pop-culture extensively, like movies, cartoons, musicians, etc.
Finally, hip hop is a self-mythologizing art: great hip hop artists have always constructed their own meticulous life story. For an extreme example of hip hop mythologizing, one only needs to look at the Wu Tang Clan. A whole back-story was created, intact with its own self-referencing iconology and symbols, known only to people who are already familiar with the mythos.
These are what I consider to be the predominant aesthetic traits of hip hop, and all of them share this one common thread: they all, in some way or another, subvert traditional musical forms that have become predominant in the West. In this sense the hip hop aesthetic is post-modern because it rejects traditional forms and challenges assumptions about what constitutes art and text. Yet ultimately it’s almost impossible to categorize the hip hop aesthetic since it spreads out into other musical categories. Thus you have the rise of electronic instrumentalism (DJ Shadow), rock (just think of nu-metal), and more pop-oriented flavors (collaborations between a rapper and popular singers). And this slippery quality itself is a characteristic of a post-modern aesthetic.
Hip Hop as Ethics:
Hip hop also has a post-modern flavored ethics in that it does not accept and even rejects conventional moral wisdom. This is first apparent in its subject matter and actors. The subject matter, like most post-modernist art, is not usually considered “appropriate”, meaning that it is questionable, often times vulgar, and generally unacceptable to polite company. In other words, it is not politically correct. The subjects often dealt with in hip hop–violence, inner-city poverty, hustling, drug-use, prostitution, etc–are not usually considered subjects worthy of portraying in traditional art.
Personality-wise, hip hop shares the post-modernist tendency to highlight morally ambiguous (if not downright evil) anti-heroes. These people are not usually considered to be worthy of studying, since most of them are criminals or come from very seedy backgrounds. These people are usually marginalized from society, people like small-time crooks, street-corner drug dealers, pimps and whores, etc. In this respect hip hop shares a striking similar with noir and neo-noir films that used these low-level social types as their protagonists.
These people and topics are not considered morally elevating, since most of them share an almost nihilistic attitude about city-life and condone a lifestyle of violence, hedonism, and recklessness. However, like post-modern art, hip hop portrays these characters in sympathetic lights, considering them as morally ambiguous people who are only doing what they need to do in the face of problems that they cannot control, such as urban decay, crime, and poverty.
In fact, this sympathy and ambiguity about these shady characters are often transferred onto the hip hop artist himself: thus we get the archetype of the religious-conscious, remorseful hip hop hero who has doubts about what he does but does it anyways, justifying his actions as necessary and even inevitable.
Finally, hip hop narratives usually turn the dominant American narrative–the American Dream–upside down on its head. The hip hop hero condones this ethic, because he thinks that if you work hard, you will achieve success. However, it is the means by which this hard work can be done that is different: instead of doing lawful, honest work, the hip hop hero does dishonest and illegal work.
So in fact, hip hop becomes a post-modern ethical system precisely because it challenges, if not entirely reverses, traditional moral values. It is this topsy-turvy moral attitude that makes hip hop post-modern.
Conjunction and Disjunction:
The question remains: does hip hop necessarily require the aesthetics and the ethics to be unified? This is a difficult question because of the nature of hip hop. My immediate response would be that it does not require the unification of the aesthetic with the ethical. Therefore, I can enjoy hip hop purely as art without condoning its ethical codes in the same way that I can enjoy “The Birth of a Nation” purely as cinema without subscribing to its racist ideology.
Indeed some hip hop bear out this intuition, since they do not talk about, and in fact rejects the typical hip hop ethic. This kind of “socially conscious” hip hop rejects the violence, misogyny, and hyper-masculinity of traditional hip-hop. Just go listen to Common or Mos Def, and you’ll see what I mean. They do, however, retain the hip hop aesthetic to a large extent.
But on the other hand, I’m not sure that even in the so-called “socially conscious” hip hop is free of subversive ethics. They might reject the ethics put forth by traditional hip hop, but this in itself does not imply that they accept mainstream ethics. It is entirely possible that they think that they are advancing a better set of values than traditional hip hop without accepting mainstream social values. Indeed there is also some support for this, since Mos Def does not accept the traditional white-society ethical system and yet does not accept hip hop ethics either.
And this problem of separability between aesthetics and ethics is typical of hip hop: as a post-modernist phenomenon, it is not a hermetically sealed product. Hip hop is almost entire experienced and explicated in specific cultural, historical, social, political, sexual, and racial contexts. Unlike traditional art, there is no element of timeliness or transcendentalism that is apparent in hip hop. So in listening hip hop, the listener is inevitably tangled up in these complexities.
This is my primary reason for liking hip hop: its complexity and ambiguity. However, most contemporary hip hop has fallen well short of the artistic complexity of essential hip hop music, and I hope that it can remain vital as an art form. But I can only hope.