A white boy explains his hip-hop fetish

There is a Yale accent. Of this I am reasonably certain, after several whole minutes of discussion and debate with my friends. My girlfriend described it best as a loud, authoritative tone that is adopted in order to drown out the voices of dissent that do not actually exist. It is the sound that an ego makes when it feels entitled to spew superficial, obvious opinions and then try to pass them off as revolutionary. In short, it is the sound of intellectualization.

Thankfully, I believe I have managed to dodge it, mostly through my complete aversion to such pursuits, evidenced definitively and unequivocally by my transcript. Luckily, though, popular music generally resists these attempts to clarify and resolve its role in society, unless, of course, you’re an American Studies major. I defy you to explain why D12 is necessary with a straight face, which brings me to my present point: Music is instantly visceral. Occasionally someone like Bob Dylan or Bjork will enter the realm of the cerebral, but these artists never really dominate the charts. Instead, and somewhat unfortunately, these artists become cult figures while the majority of consumers gravitates toward the opposite end of the spectrum, the school of instant gratification.

Ignoring all other factors like marketing and capital, most of today’s biggest-selling records contain easy music with easy hooks that require no close, attentive listenings before we understand why we like them. Punk ran alongside disco in the halcyon days of yore, when genres were so rigidly defined that your predilection for punk coincided instantaneously with your radical left-wing politics. Today, the line has become blurred, and anything with an unflinching beat and hook is danceable.

Dance music, including hip-hop and club/house/tent et al., relies on the relentless repetition of a simple musical phrase over, and over, and over, and again, and again. This does not necessarily mean that the music has to be dumb, however. A smidgeon of skill can be applied, even in terms of simplicity (lyrical and/or musical), and popularity can be achieved and maintained, but too often this does not happen, and I still cannot understand why.

ABBA might be the exception to the rule, but their impeccable melodies never really seemed entirely organic because their hooks were almost too perfect that they became frightening. Listen to “Waterloo,” a song that employs Napoleon’s biggest blunder as an allegory for true love. The mere backdrop beckons you to back away slowly, yet that’s impossible because the song is way too much fun.

Dance music is gaining more prominence in rock music these days as several artists assume the perfectionism of ABBA. Franz Ferdinand released the irresistible “Take Me Out” with success, in large part due to the song’s seductive dance beat. The Scissor Sisters have taken the U.K. by storm by combining the Bee Gees’ playful bounce with New Wave’s attitude. These are both fine examples of smart, simple dance music that accentuates fun, but it’s unlikely that they will approach the level of success that many hip-hop acts frequently reach. However, the vast majority of these acts are unremarkable and boring to the point of frustration. Beside Outkast, not many hip-hop artists have done anything ground-breaking or exciting, except, of course, Kanye West, Common, Jurassic 5 and the Roots.

Someone, anyone, PLEASE explain to me why the Roots are not more popular. Okay, I’ll admit that this is one of those venerable hip-hop acts that white people cite as a testament to their open-mindedness and willingness to move behind the confines of rock or country, along with Outkast, Public Enemy, and Run-DMC. And, okay, I’ll admit that I am white, very white. Pale, in fact. My complexion has been described as “translucent” or even “sickly,” but it’s only due to the fact that I don’t like the sun very much, and with my Spanish blood I think I’d tan reasonably well if I actually cared enough to try. So there you go. Still, I am, inescapably, a white boy from Indiana, nonetheless.

Here’s the kicker, though: I spent the first four years of my life in the middle of the ghetto in Gary. G.I., as we call it back home, used to be the murder capital of the country, per capita, so this makes me a proud son, along with Michael Jackson (who’s now whiter than me), of the most bad-ass city in the Midwest. So I believe I’m more than qualified to debate the virtues of the Roots against those of resident numbskulls G-Unit, even if I prefer the interpretive, and roundly unhip, dancing of Michael Stipe to the agile, flawless timing of Usher.

What makes the Roots stand out is the fact that they are a hip-hop band, THE hip-hop band, and not just a collection of faces behind microphones in front of a turntable. A few years ago they stopped in New Haven for a free concert, and yours truly was in the third row with his roommate, marvelling at the incredible skill that each member exhibited on his respective instrument. Hip-hop shows generally sound awful, and the reason is that the acts apply the logic of lip-syncing to the instrumentation. The MC karoakes his own words on top of the beat and the recorded riff, and as a result there is no tension or danger, just a false sense of community. The Roots allow their songs to breathe, and fill in the areas behind the repetitious music with pure energy and focus. ?uestlove’s snare not once slackens, while Black Thought’s incisive lyrics rattle on top of his beat, rather than behind it.

Their recordings are just as impressive. The eclectic trilogy of Things Fall Apart, Phrenology, and The Tipping Point proves that they do value the poignancy of a complete album, and are not looking for a quick fix with one big single. At this point, they have more than enough at their disposal, and they’re all fun fun fun without being dumb dumb dumb.

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