Why the New York Times Should Not Write about Hip Hop

“Back in the days when I was a teenager
Before I had status and before I had a pager
You could find the Abstract listening to hip hop
My pops used to say, it reminded him of be-bop
I said, well daddy don’t you know that things go in cycles”

-“Excursions”, from The Low End Theory by A Tribe Called Quest

Jon Caramanica has apparently discovered the fact that hip hop artists sometimes make explicit references to canonical works in the tradition and capitalizes on them. Like, woah. The way he sees it:

“Increasingly, the Cool Kids are not alone. They are part of a small but newly influential hip-hop subculture — call it meta-rap — created by a generation of artists raised wholly within hip-hop culture, making music that is a commentary on what came before it. In hip-hop, which can be ruthlessly forward-looking, this is a novel development, and it has made for compelling and diverse music from acts like the Cool Kids, Pacific Division, the Knux, Kidz in the Hall and Plastic Little.”

So first, we have a sociological claim about hip hop. But then Caramanica goes on to make an aesthetic claim about this supposedly “new” genre:

“But while intragenre nostalgia figures regularly in other styles of pop — rock has a long history of sifting through its past for new inspiration — it has never had a place in hip-hop. It’s not that rap never looks backward. Thanks to its innovations in sampling, it has helped keep various other styles prominent in the collective pop memory. But borrowing from other rappers has traditionally been considered taboo. And largely it still is, so many of these artists use elements of the past as building blocks, which they then reconfigure to their own ends. Though the music shares many characteristics with hip-hop from decades past, “in the climate of the industry right now, it’s considered experimental,” said Be Young, 22, of Southern California’s Pacific Division.”

How does one respond to these two different kind of claims? With facts, that’s how! Surely, this piece is so ignorant of hip hop’s history that it deserves to be spanked a bit. In fact, when I read the piece tonight, I had a strong feeling of deja vu: it turns out that I had already written a post, from the earliest days of my blogging, on the inter- and intra-texual qualities of hip hop. And I’ll be quoting from it, and also modifying some of it to update my thoughts a bit.

I. The Sociological Claim:

Caramanica makes it seem like the rise of a sub-genre niche movement is a new movement when in fact hip hop has a long and storied history of intra- and inter-textual references, a quality that would make it “meta” by Caramanica’s definition. In my original post, I write:

“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.”

The substantive claims, I think, are still valid. Hip hop artists reference their own works all the time, thus making them “meta,” in the sense that they are constantly self-referential and commentaries on themselves. If I were to offer a somewhat Heideggerian account of this quality, I might say that hip hop is constantly engaged in hermeneutics: it is self-interpretation through commentaries on previous works which help listeners to interpret both the subject of the reference and the work making the reference.

To include some additional relevant examples that counters Caramanica’s claims: hip hop has commented on the music industry (“Labels” from GZA’s debut solo album, Liquid Swords), hip hop itself (“I Used to Love H.E.R.” by Common), one’s own position within the canon (“Til I Collapse” by Eminem, “What More can I Say” by Jay-Z), the influence of the canon on one’s own hip hop career (“Juicy” by Biggie, “Old School” by 2Pac), and so on and so forth. In fact, just see Nas’s Hip Hop is Dead is an entire album dedicated to the commentary on hip hop tradition and its state in the contemporary hip hop space.

So I find it quite absurd when Caramanica makes the sociological claim that somehow “meta” rap is a new genre movement, when in fact what makes hip hop “meta”–namely, its self-referential and inter-textuality–has a long tradition in hip hop. In fact, it would not be implausible to argue that this is the very essence of hip hop’s aesthetics.

II. The Aesthetic Claim:

As to Caramanica’s claim that finding inspiration from older sounds “has never had a place in hip-hop,” I find the claim so absurd as to reject it prima facie. After all, has Caramanica never heard of a little thing called “influence?”

But just to be sure: hip hop is filled with instances in which individual actors and sounds have influenced subsequent actors and sounds. If this does not constitute instances of finding inspiration from the past in hip hop, then I wonder what does?

The examples are so many as to be countless, but I’ll just give a salient few. Dr. Dre created that classic g-funk sound which became the foundation upon which west coast hardcore rap became popular. Similarly, the body of work created by the Native Tongues Posse cemented the role of jazz in hip hop. Another example would be RZA’s production styles on the first Wu-Tang created and influenced that dirty/gritty, spare East Coast hardcore rap sound. The Beastie Boys alone were responsible two kind of subsequent sounds: its rock-rap sound (with Rick Rubin’s help) had an indelible influence on the develop of nu-metal; its innovative sampling work (with the help of The Dust Brothers) changed the role of sampling and led to DJ Shadow. And to use a very contemporary example: just look at how producers like Kanye West, Timbaland, the Neptunes, and Lil Jon put their sonic fingerprints on subsequent works in contemporary mainstream hip hop.

Thus, to suggest that somehow hip hop does not take inspiration (or, to put it more bluntly, lift) from the past is patently absurd. One need not be an expert or have extensive knowledge of hip hop’s branching genealogy and paths of influence to know this very simple fact. Of course it is true that some sounds become hot while others fade depend on a number of factors, but this, as the lyrics quoted at the beginning suggests, is probably just another phase of the cycle.

III. Conclusion:

Therefore, Caramanica’s major narrative in the NYT article is contradicted by the history of hip hop: “meta” rap, as exemplified by the artists he refers, does not represent a distinctly new sociological phenomenon in hip hop’s development, and neither is it a real meaningful break from hip hop’s aesthetic. Or, if such a movement really does represent a genuine break, Caramanica does not really make it clear why this is the case.

One might object that I’m taking this way too seriously, and that I am demanding too much: after all, this is a story that ran in a mainstream newspaper that is not particularly devoted to hip hop and thus not targeted towards people like me who are already very much invested in hip hop and its history. Sure, on a certain level, I concede the point: if I really wanted to read detailed/insightful analysis on hip hop, I’d hop on over to OhWord instead to the pages of the New York Times.

But I believe that one can write a general, survey-level story on hip hop without showing glaring evidence of the author’s blatant ignorance. This to me is a gross misrepresentation of what is actually going on in hip hop, and since I am very passionate about hip hop, I get pissed off when someone tries to pass off this ignorant shit to millions of readers who are probably not as knowledgable and thus rely on mainstream publications like the NYT. That the article seems to make a number of sophisticated claims about hip hop (both its aesthetics and its history) can only be more deceptive to people who don’t know.

Yet, is anyone harmed by this misinformation? I don’t know, but I know that I’d be equally pissed if someone wrote a general story about the history of Philosophy and made the claim that the problem of the mind-body duality represents a new branch of inquiry in the history of philosophy.


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