I have been listening to rap music on and off for the last ten years, but it wasn’t until yesterday that I realized what my main objection to most rap really is. With the assistance of the wise Lil’ Kim I figured it out. My brother-in-law had made me a mix CD of his favorite hip-hop, and I was listening to it in an effort to expand my repertoire. During the seventh track Lil’ Kim came on, that pint-sized prophetess of the music world, and I was hearing a litany of her favorite pastimes. I won’t go into all the details here, but I do recall something about making a Sprite can “disappear” into her mouth before hearing this line: Pop the cork and roll out the hash. You know what we about … sex, drugs and cash.
Now, of course, there’s really nothing groundbreaking in this line. It doesn’t tell us anything new per se about what gangster rap is all about – I’ve been hearing this same line since Dr. Dre hit it big back when I was in high school. But it did show me what I really dislike at the core of most gangster rap today – which is its absolute focus on the totally “obvious.”
Now, before I go too much further, let me say that the same goes for a lot of rock bands as well, but right now thug rap is the clearest expression of the basic desires of the human psyche. Going back to that line, You know what we about… sex, drugs, and cash, I can’t help but think, Isn’t that what everyone is about? Really, barring any sort of moral convictions, wouldn’t we all be pursuing this trinity of temptation with every spare moment? In fact, even with certain moral convictions, I’m not convinced that Christians don’t spend too much time focused on these things anyway. Sure, the “way” we pursue these goals may be a touch different (replace sex with food or some other pleasure, drugs with entertainment and so on), but the human default mode is obviously set to these goals. The point of all this is to say that I can’t really roll with any sort of artistic expression which reaches no higher than the “id”. When it comes to hip-hop, right now Jurassic Five hits much closer to the mark – which is to say they stray further than sex, drugs, and cash for their motivations.
Take almost any track off of Jurassic Five’s Quality Control, and you’ll get a little look into the lives of six guys totally obsessed with making music. In English lit circles, novels that comment on themselves are known as metafiction. Jurassic Five is, I suppose, metaHipHop: music about music. As they talk about their lives dealing with record execs, and gestating words, conjugating verbs, and constipating nerds “like you,” the listener is drawn, not into the world of limos, dis tapes and champagne, but rather into a world of late night recording sessions and hours of careful practice. What Jurassic Five gives us is not our own basic desires back to us, but rather a glimpse into their own private enthusiasms.
Decades ago, The Beatles shared their enthusiasm for middle-class British life. With When I’m 64 and Lovely Rita Meter Maid, they took a small slice of reality and introduced the world to it. Good art does this very thing: it focuses on the small, obscure and ignored, and shows us its worth. Praising sex, drugs, and cash is bad art in the same way that poems about puppies and pictures of horses are bad art – no one needs toremind us that sex is fun or that puppies are cute. Bad art is essentially just giving us back to ourselves, allowing us to turn further inward and away from the world outside. Taking the sexual metaphor a bit farther (perhaps too far), maybe bad art is really just a way of pleasuring ourselves – making rap that reaches no further than our basic impulses is really just a form of musical masturbation.
What interests me (take note all record executives hungrily reading this article) is the honest and almost childlike interest in reality for its own sake. When I was a child I loved making model dinosaurs. But my obsession with dinosaurs, say, unlike the adult obsession with money, was something so far removed from myself: something I could never see, touch, or experience. By spending time with good art (music by Jurassic Five and films by Wes Anderson), by focusing our enthusiasm on the small and trivial, perhaps we can break out of our hardwired oscillation between desk, couch, and bed.
[Felix Tallon is a postgraduate student at Saint Andrews. He is definetly not an expert on hip hop music.]
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