The Suburbanisation of Punk and Hip Hop

April 23, 2014 § Leave a comment

Questlove, the drummer and musical director of the hip hop band, The Roots (and frankly, if you don’t know just who in the hell The Roots are by now, I’m not sure there’s any hope for you), is writing a six-part series of essays on hip hop, its past, present, and future at Vulture.  Not surprisingly, Questlove makes an eloquent argument in part one about the ubiquity of hip hop culture and the dangers that poses to Black America in the sense that if the powers that be wish to quash it, the ubiquity of it is all-encompassing and a quashing would be similarly so.  But he also points out the dangers of the all-encompassing nature of hip hop culture.

I like Questlove’s point about the ubiquity of hip hop culture, which means that it’s no longer visible, it’s just everywhere.  He also notes that it’s really the only music form that is seen to have this massive cultural phenomenon attached to it: food, fashion, etc.  He says that this applies to pretty much anything black people in America do (he also wonders what the hell “hip hop architecture” is, as do I).  But I think this goes beyond black America, such is the power of hip hop and the culture that follows it.

There is a relatively long tradition of white rappers, from 3rd Bass and the Beastie Boys up to Eminem and others, and the vast majority of white rappers have deeply respected the culture.  More than that, as a white kid growing up in the suburbs in the late 80s, I was totally into hip hop, as were all my friends.  This could get stupid, as when guys I knew pretended that life in Port Moody was akin to Compton, but, still.  My point is that hip hop music, fashion, and culture has permeated the wider culture of North America entirely (something I don’t think Questlove would disagree with, but it’s irrelevant to his argument).

The only other form of music that has an ethos and culture that follows it, really, is punk.  Punk and hip hop are spiritual brother movements, both arise from dispossessed working class cultures.  Both originally emerged in anger (think of the spitting anger of Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five in “The Message” or the Sex Pistols in “Anarchy in the UK”) and were heavily political and/or documented life on the downside.  But, both also went viral, both exploded out of their original confines and went suburban and affluent.

Punk and hip hop are the two musical forms that informed me as a young man, they continue to do so as I hit middle age.  But punk and hip hop are both deeply compromised by sinking into the affluent culture of middle class suburbia.  The anger is blunted, the social message is reduced, and it becomes about “bitches and bling,” whether in hip hop (pretty much any song by Jay-Z) or punk (pretty much any song by The Offspring, Avril Lavigne, Blink-182, or any pop-punk band you hear on the radio).  And then these counter-culture voices become the culture, and, as Questlove notes, they become invisible in their ubiquity.  But more than that, the ethos they bring is divorced from their origins.

Questlove talks about the social contract we all subscribe to. He references three quotes that guide his series (and, I would guess, his life in general).  The first comes from 16th century English religious reformer, John Bradford, who upon seeing another prisoner led to the gallows, commented, “There but for the graces of God goes John Bradford.”  The second comes from Albert Einstein, “who disparagingly referred to quantum entanglement as ‘spooky action at a distance.'”  Finally, Ice Cube, the main lyricist of N.W.A. (yes, there was once a time, kids, when Cube wasn’t a cartoon character), who, in the 1988 track “Gangsta Gangsta,” delivered this gem, “Life ain’t nothing but bitches and money.”  Questlove also notes that Cube is talking about a world in which the social contract is frayed, “where everyone aspires to improve themselves and only themselves, thoughts of others be damned. What kind of world does that create?”

And herein lies the rub for me, at least insofar as the wider culture of hip hop and punk and their suburbanisation.  If you take the politics and intelligence out of punk and hip hop, you’re left with the anger, and a dangerous form of nihilism.  We’re left with Eminem fantasising about killing his wife and his mother.  Charming stuff, really.

This is not to say there is no place for bangers in hip hop culture, nor is to say there’s no place for the Buzzcocks (the progenitors of pop-punk in the late 1970s), it just means that this is a many-edged sword.

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