Friday, February 5, 2010

The controversial and the kitsch: domesticating hip hop defiance

It's a new decade, and hip hop is getting older. Yes, time keeps on ticking...

I've written about it almost a year ago, but questions surrounding the trajectory of hip hop musical engagement within the current socio-political context still linger. I'm sure Bakari Kitwana, Nelson George, Jeff Chang, Tricia Rose, Davey D, Mark Anthony Neal, Michael Eric Dyson and all the "hip hop scholars" and journalists have been entertaining this question to death, but I'd like to continue the conversation in a more intimate, Fil Am funk setting.

In March last year, I wrote:

"With Black Star's late 90s hip hop anthems, I think that Black Star's generational cohort demonstrates a "bridge" that connects the 80s political canvas with the emerging millennium music. The chant "One, two, three..." exemplifies this bridge. To be certain, material from the 80s and 90s still echos today. Generations are never so distinct, but I think certain songs, groups, and anthems point to "road markers" that give character to various eras.

So, what can be said about the ending of the first decade of the millennium? What are the "hip hop political themes" of an Obama generation?"

In the beginning of the new decade, these concerns are ever more pronounced. With the 1990s almost "dead" to many young people, the political and social imaginary of those times are buried alongside that decade. Latasha Harlins's murder, the LA Uprising, the O.J. Simpson trial, Amadou Diallo's slaying, the War on Drugs--the list goes on about the power struggles over the lives and representation of racialized people during during the 1990s. In whatever capacity, hip hop music ambitiously addressed all of these.

Hip hop music still addresses very cogent topics today, no doubt, but the difference-maker in the 1990s is how its played on radio and television. Decades ago, the hip hop that was broadcasted (not queried on the internet) gave you both the controversial and the kitsch. Today, arguably, hip hop is simply kitsch. The dark underbelly of urban life described by Jay-Z in "Empire State of Mind," the "hardness" of Rihanna, or Snoop's brooding and threatening audioscape in "I Wanna Rock" are deployed and received as mass produced, playfully consumed commodities interpreted in a horizontal array of other colorful goods (such as country, rock,, soda, and cell phones). Where Rob Base and EZ Rock entertained us with innocent party music, Snoop reconfigures the mood of "It Takes Two" (1988), makes it sound scary. But its really not. It's party music. Entertainment. Where is the "real" threat?

Snoop's video for "I Wanna Rock" features the Quest Crew who won America's Best Dance Crew a few seasons ago. You bet they have a buncha Pinoys in that crew, which is named after the Quest Learning Center building where the dancers practiced in Cerritos (just east of Los Angeles). Here we see the pastiche incorporation of the innocence of street dance and the deathly pimp persona of Snoop. Both seemingly disparate images have one thing in common: they are both consumed as flattened, equal commodities.

The more I learn about hip hop in the Philippines, the more I raise these questions about hip hop commercialism and the cultural apparatus hip hop provided/s for many participants. For example, Masta Plann's immersion into the Philippine music scene in the early 1990s illustrates an interesting collision of people (Filipinos in the Philippines) who "other/ed" hip hop to a caricatured extent and a pair of young Fil Am rappers from Southern California who stayed faithful to an assembled codifications of hip hop culture--such as the four elements discourse along with the Nation of Islam-inflected "knowledge of self" ethic (i.e. their original name was "Knowledge Brought Forth").

This example of Masta Plann in the Philippines emphasizes the convenient commercialism vs. cultural apparatus dichotomy, because in the Philippines hip hop has been widely consumed without a critical engagement with its politics, pleasures, or cultural context (except of course the small community of hip hop heads influenced by Masta Plann). It is simply "sa-rap" (yummy) music--to be eaten and disposed of without being transformed by it, without worldviews shaken or challenged.

Masta Plann and entourage reflecting a 90s sensibility with plaid shirts (which is back apparently, but tighter), rounded shades, oversized jeans and button-downs

I think today in the U.S. for a
whole generation consuming hip hop devoid of its defiant politics (on the radio), the music is treated similarly as in places like the Philippines. Hip hop in the new decade, for better or for worse, is much less a weapon than a patterned sequence on your daughter's backpack. However, the biggest difference, if I may, is that in the U.S. there is an embedded history of race, economic inequality, violence in urbanization, and musical politics transformed hip hop's politics over time. Whereas in the Philippines, hip hop culture is such a foreign concept that it hasn't had time to be domesticated or tamed in the same way.

And that's not to say that all hip hop was consumed with ardent politics as in decades prior. Other factors matter to how hip hop has been received. In the U.S. in the 80s there was a dedicated community of listeners, many who would gather around the boombox into the oddest evening hours to catch the latest hits put on by mixmasters. There are even stories of early Bay Area hip hop fans who miraculously picked up LA's KDAY on good nights...before the Bay Area played hip hop on the airwaves. Also, people would GO to parties to hear the newest music (complete with a whole "party flyer" culture. And the DJ was the musical arbiter, the gatekeeper of new hip hop). You had to BE with other people, hear other people talk about the music--you would be part of a listening community.

When mullets were hot. 1980s party as shown in my film Legend. Courtesy of Isaiah Dacio.

Today, you can enjoy hip hop music without the culture...without people. In this new millennium, digital technology reigns, and hip hop is consumed right alongside clips of cats playing piano.

The LA Uprising of 1992 may not function in the social and political imaginary of today's young hip hop generation. Hip hop still plays an important role in popular culture, regardless of its saturation in consumer capital exchange. We consumers have real agency in our lives, and this post is not a tired mantra on the monolithic evils of "the media" or the latent progressive value of postmodern expressions. I am just raising questions on how we approach hip hop in the new decade, the new millennium, especially when we have curious youngsters who have direct access to OGs still hung up on the "golden age." We can build.

In closing, KRS-One's anthem "Sound of Da Police" (1993) is almost two decades old and it will always hold a special value for the dedicated hip hop heads of yore and today. But in the new decade, its not the same as in the post-Uprising era. In true consumer fashion, the song's defiance, resistance, controversy can now be contained, exchanged, and commodified into the soundtrack of the year's hottest comedy hit:

"Kenneth! What do you know about egoting!"



boogaleo said...

you know I had Sound of Da Police in my head when I saw someone tagged "fuk da police" out in Marakina City.

so has Hiphop Culture been "domesticated" or "tamed" in the Philippines? I think it certainly has been filipinized.

I have mad respect for folks like the Philippine Allstars who are cultural soldiers, business savvy and have many lessons navigating the Philippine entertainment industry. In one dancer's words "we do what we do, build the (hiphop) scene because it's our way of building a better country, something we can be proud of"

that's pretty radical in the face of 9Million+ Overseas Filipino development workers economically pushed to value everything overseas with young professionals dreaming to go to places as far away as Norway....

I think the Hiphop scene in the Philippines is at the cusp of pushing some amazing work, but it's global/corporate/mainstream industry environment might make it a lot harder compared to the availability of the same systems that spread underground hiphop here (community/urban radio/BET/MTV/Magazines/mixtapes)

but at the same time, my cousins all the way in the province all had their own crump routines with customized mix-cd' maybe I'm just too old school

I still think the main musical apparatus in the Philipines of social and political commentary is folk and rock music.

Anonymous said...

Check out this documentary