Thursday, April 24, 2014

Talking Back to "Old School" by Andrew Marantz


Talking Back is an occasional series wherein I respond to an article or essay published in a media organ that I typically value and respect. “Old School” was published in the New Yorker, April 7, 2014.


Perhaps Andrew Marantz derives all of his knowledge of hip-hop music from his subject, “The D.J. Peter Rosenberg, hip-hop’s reigning purist,” as his subtitle has it, because he doesn’t challenge any of Rosenberg’s biases about the form. Rosenberg is a DJ on Hot 97, New York’s most popular hip-hop station. Marantz presents Rosenberg as one of the last voices defending “underground rap--or, more contentiously, ‘real’ hip-hop,’” without discussing how the music was created or how it evolved into the style that Rosenberg advocates for. From the title of the piece on down, Marantz present the style of rap Rosenberg happens to like with the music’s origins, calling it “Old School,” when it’s really something much closer to ‘middle school.’

“Rosenberg frequently aligns himself with the purists,” Marantz writes, “defending old-school craftsmanship against the encroachment of pop hooks and lowest-common-denominator rhymes.” Hip-hop’s actual origins relied heavily on the repetition of stock phrases and simplistic patter passed like memes from one emcee to the other, all in service of rocking the party or park jam, e.g., “throw your hands in the air/wave ‘em like you just don’t care.” Marantz doesn’t seem to know this or other essential facts about the earliest form of hip-hop, claiming, for instance: “Some African-American forms, like disco, grew so popular that they merged with pop music and effectively disappeared,” when in actuality disco, along with funk, was one of the two main currents feeding into old-school hip-hop. To use the jazz metaphor introduced by Marantz (and beloved by music critics everywhere), what Rosenberg is actually advocating for is a return to bebop, not to jazz’s beginnings; a return to an acknowledged Golden Age of complex artistry. There is nothing wrong with this, per se, until you start claiming that you represent the “real,” the original strain, without acknowledging the two decades of development previous--and especially when you attempt to limit the advancements made by younger artists because of your conservative viewpoint.


Which is precisely what Rosenberg attempted to do to Nicki Minaj. The conflict is one of the main focuses of the piece. It centers around Minaj’s track “Starships,” described as “featur[ing] singsong vocals and a Eurodance chorus.” Rosenberg calls it, “one of the most sellout songs in hip-hop history,” and says, “Nicki was supposed to be one of ours. I didn’t want young kids looking at this dance-pop song, going, ‘This is what rappers do.’” In his attempts to deprive Minaj of her right to make her own artistic choices, the straight white male Rosenberg came off like quite an asshole. “I know there are some chicks here waiting to sing ‘Starships’ later,” Marantz quotes him announcing from the stage of Hot 97’s annual festival, Summer Jam (emphasis mine). “I’m not talking to y’all right now.” Because women enjoy trivial pop music of the type represented by Minaj’s scheduled performance on the main stage and wouldn’t understand the “real hip-hop shit” Rosenberg was presenting on the side stage? Compounding his apparent insensitivity to how ridiculous he can come off, when he and Minaj sat down on the radio to make nice a year after the Summer Jam incident, Rosenberg made the classic ‘some of my best friends are...’ bigot’s comment, claiming, “I was a women’s studies minor in college!”
Worse, perhaps, than Rosenberg’s tone-deaf stupidity in regards to his own attitudes, is the way Marantz treats him like the hero of the situation, never pointing that out that a DJ is a selector of music that, by curating a certain group of music to his taste, is already a gatekeeper. By limiting the aesthetic choices of artists, he is going too far. Marantz ends his profile of Rosenberg with a vignette depicting him going to rapper Joey Bada$$’s house and choosing which songs will make it onto his album and which songs are too pop to fit the ideal of hip-hop he has in his mind. Minaj, during the radio summit with Rosenberg, is quoted as saying, “I’m choosing to get back to my essence and just feed the core hip-hop fan,” and Marantz follows this with: “If Rosenberg’s goal had been to steer her away from dance-pop, this was vindication.” After Minaj’s surprise appearance at the next Summer Jam, Rosenberg is quoted as saying, “I don’t take full credit--but she didn’t sing or dance, did she? She didn’t do any silly voices, did she? Straight up-and-down rap.”


There are many problems with this statement; I’ll attempt to unpack some of them. For one, Marantz and Rosenberg both seem to completely miss the irony in Minaj’s performance and in her persona in general. Marantz writes that Minaj appeared on the Summer Jam stage “Wearing a baseball cap and shredded jeans--a remarkably straight-forward outfit for a woman who once dressed as a gumball machine--[then] rapped two verses, struck a street-thug pose, and left the stage.” I would argue that there was nothing “straight-forward” about Minaj’s outfit or performance--it was just as constructed and carefully chosen as any other outfit she’s worn or performance she’s given. Minaj operates on a postmodern level where identity is constructed and was performing a certain ‘authenticity’ to make a point about the statements Rosenberg had been making about her. Heather Havrilesky, in her “Riff” column for the New York Times Sunday Magazine for May 5, 2013, gets at precisely this aspect of Minaj’s persona. “[H]er overall fakeness--the constant rotation of purple, green and pink wigs; the visible yellow push-up bra; the seven-inch platform heels--is celebrated precisely because it’s fake.” Havrilesky writes that, for Minaj, the most important thing is to “be obvious in your pretending.” When she struck that street-thug pose at Summer Jam, it was precisely that--a pose.
The other important thing to point out about Rosenberg’s comment that Minaj didn’t “sing or dance… [or] do any silly voices” is that these qualities don’t seem to be inherently bad to Rosenberg--only when they are coming from Minaj. Rosenberg’s beloved Kendrick Lamar’s brilliant 2012 LP Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City is deemed a timeless classic by Rosenberg--and is also a record on which approximately 90% of the tracks feature Lamar singing and/or using (arguably silly) vari-speeded vocals. What is it about Minaj’s use of these techniques that Rosenberg finds offensive, while Lamar not only gets a pass but is showered with praise? I would argue that it is again Rosenberg’s attachment to notions of authenticity or ‘realness’--witness his use of the passe term “sell-out” to describe what was wrong with Minaj’s “Starship.” Kendrick Lamar doesn’t present himself as a gangbanger or drug dealer, but he continually deals with those subjects from a street-level, authentic point-of-view, while Minaj’s postmodern persona calls into question her ability to speak from that same plane of authenticity.


It’s not an unusual trait for someone approaching middle age to begin viewing the culture they experienced as a voracious youth as the best that things will ever be. The further away we get (in time) from the music we loved as teenagers, the more those sounds become imbued with the rosy glow of nostalgia. I don’t believe that anyone truly invested in an artform can be wholly immune to the idea that the works that first made them fall in love with that artform are somehow special. And not just special to you, but intrinsically and inherently special in and of themselves. I am only two years younger than Rosenberg, and so we are essentially from the same generation of hip-hop fandom (not to mention the fact that we’re both straight white males who grew up obsessed with the culture dominance of New York, especially as it pertained to that artform).
Over and over in the article, we’re given evidence of Rosenberg’s obsession with “the gangsta rap of the mid-nineties.” Schoolboy Q points out that, “He likes real music--Wu-Tang, Nas,” i.e., artists that first made a splash in ‘93. Rosenberg’s morning show segment wherein he propagandizes for his point of view, “The Realness,” uses as its theme music “a 1995 song by Group Home.” That, and the Jeru tha Damaja instrumental mentioned by Joey Bada$$ near the end of the piece, were both, in all probability, produced by DJ Premier, the master of mid-nineties New York boom-bap. Like a lot of hip-hop geeks from our generation, many, many of my favorite examples of the form were released between 1993-1995. How could it not be? I was 12, 13, 14, just getting into hip-hop--into music--and was thus impressionable to a degree that I probably never would or could be again. Plus, shit was good. It’s not for nothing that The Source magazine (Bible of rap geeks in those days, mentioned by Rosenberg as being carried under his arm throughout high school) deemed 1994 The Golden Age of Hip-Hop.
BUT--when you love an artform, you want it to be alive, to progress, to be exciting and new all the time. Marantz quotes Rosenberg as saying, “I want a future where hip-hop is still relevant. But I want that music to be related to what hip-hop originally was.” Unfortunately, his idea of “original” extends back only to the period when he originally discovered the music, not all the way back to its beginnings. The music began with a group of young people taking pre-existing music and--with both love for that music and disdain for keeping it pure and precious--twisting it into something new, into an expression of their own creativity. As an older hip-hop fan, when I hear new rap songs that alienate me, that sound foreign and incomprehensible, I am excited all over again by the infinite possibilities of the form. If only Rosenberg and hip-hop’s other conservative gatekeepers could remember not the sound of the music that first made them fall in love with the artform, but the feeling of falling in love with it.




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