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Raptitude Tests:
Hip Hop Moves to the Mainstream

HIP HOP
By Steven Hager
St. Martin's, $8.95 paper

THE RAP ATTACK
By David Toop
South End, $8 paper

FRESH
Hip Hop Don't Stop
By Nelson George, Sally Banes, Susan Flinker and Patty Romanowski
Random House/Sarah Lazin, $7.95 paper

Although each of these books makes a brief fuss about the exploitation of the hip hop subculture, only one--Fresh, conceived after hip hop had established itself as a hot subject--is candid or reflexive enough to acknowledge its own inevitable complicity in the process whereby rude forms are tamed and brought to market. Not that they're obliged. Especially as rockbooks go, these are honest, loving, knowledgeable, and (except for The Rap Attack) written with commendable grace. And except for the introduction to The Rap Attack--appended, ain't socialism grand, by the left-wing house which published this eccentric musicological treatise in the U.S.--all avoid the moralistic posturing that might put a guy in a debunking mood. But just because they're so well-meaning and well-executed, their problematic relationships to the dissemination, distortion, deracination, and ultimate destruction of the simple thing they care about are worth examining more closely.

Resistance to commercial co-optation generally begins with either a prior commitment to what's being co-opted or a prior opposition to commerce: On one hand, a possessive/protective identification with something that's been yours for generations (as in bluegrass) or at least months (skinny ties, say, or blackened redfish); on the other hand, the militant leftism and sentimental/conservationist reaction that are often hard to tell apart in cultural commentary. On one hand, Fresh's Nelson George (who shaped the book with Patty Romanowski, although the credits simply list them among the authors of its four essays on rapping, graffiti, fashion, and breaking), a rap fan since he was a teenager at St. John's and The Amsterdam News, or Hip Hop's Steven Hager, who got interested in graffiti early in 1980 and rap later that year; on the other, The Rap Attack's David Toop, a left-wing British musicologist and co-editor of the much-missed Collusion, who didn't catch on to rap until his Collusion colleague Sue Steward brought the news (and the records) back from a trip to New York in 1981.

Although George and Hager have followed (and spread) the story for years and enthuse fondly over its good old days uptown, neither trucks with any myth of the golden age. Having seen hip hop survive more than one greatly exaggerated report of its demise, they have confidence in what George calls "its independent, determined spirit," a spirit both are certain will enable rap and its related forms to "continue to evolve despite the mass media's discovery of them." Too certain, perhaps--no form continues to evolve forever, after all, and in pop music most subgenres transmute pretty thoroughly within 10 to 15 years. Toop's view is wryer, more noncommittal and probably more realistic. Anything but a purist, he takes a gleeful pleasure in rap's cannibalization of competing musics, and while his analysis of recent developments isn't exactly oracular--writing in 1984, he seems to place more stock in Warp 9 than in Run-D.M.C.--he clearly expects things to keep on breaking. But though Toop's tone twists like a postmodernist's, his style plods like a cultural worker's. He betrays a typical lefty credulousness about just how easy hip hop has been to package, and gets a little tight-lipped when he mentions such putatively inauthentic phenomena as punk, Chic, and Beat Street. Thus he leaves me wondering why he closes his text with the title of I.R.T.'s "Watch the Closing Doors." Is it too late for anybody else to get on the train? The implication is more ominous than he probably intended.

The more ominous the better, thinks Tony Van Der Meer, who takes it upon himself to squeeze Toop's uneven and unorthodox text into some semblance of left correctness. Van Der Meer's 1750-word introduction is so clumsily written and loosely argued that coherent summary does it an injustice, but you can probably figure his drift. Hip hop, he tells us, is a "cultural expression ... nurtured by a long heritage of slavery and resistance to racial, economic, political, social, and cultural oppression." Yet somehow it also strikes a chord within "poor and alienated white youth," at which point "white entrepreneurs" try to make money off it "by stripping it bare of feeling and con-tent, leaving only the packaging." So, comrades, what is to be done? "Can hip hop be regained, or is it long gone?" Watch the closing doors indeed.

In case it isn't evident how inaccurate and baldly oversimplified this account is, let me run it down for you. Hip hop does resist consumer capitalism's economic/social/cultural oppression, but it also accepts and even affirms it (and not always dialectically, as they say); like all Afro-Americana, it's rooted in slavery, but it owes much of its spirit to the real if brutally partial social/cultural/political freedom American capitalism affords. Hip hop's white audience isn't notably "impoverished" and may not even be "alienated," whatever exactly that slippery catchall means in this context. Many of the entrepreneurs who've crossed hip hop over have been black and Latin, and their most significant incursions--moving graffiti into the gallery, translating rap to disc--have been formal, though every such change inevitably alters "feeling," another catchall.

Admittedly, Van Der Meer is a straw man; his kind of demonistic hyperbole is dying out even among leftists, Toop among them. Yet the sad fact is that none of these books provides any more useful a dissection of hip hop's co-optation, commercialization, popularization, historic triumph, or whatever you want to call it. Toop doesn't even try. His history is musicological and mostly discographical (though he did get some good interviews when he finally came to New York), distinguishing casually if at all between seminal and marginal records and quite expeditious about how rap "packaged itself." Hager offers a good helping of relevant data, bringing us through the two phases of graffiti's art-world acceptance, pinpointing crucial journalistic moments (though not his own Voice profile of Afrika Bambaataa, which is where Beat Street began), and devoting an epilogue to the fallout from the biggest of all hip hop's breakthroughs--the crassly out-of-context appearance of the Rock Steady breakers in the crassly pop-populist Flashdance. But Hager is an ace reporter, not a critic or social historian. He doesn't have the theoretical chops to stipulate the aesthetic failures of what he calls "overly commercialized" hip hop, or to analyze the potential (and limitations) of hip hop's mass appeal. And though all the essays in Fresh begin in the streets and end in the big-time media, only Sally Banes fleshes out historicist assumptions with linked examples.

Banes's account of the changes in break dancing post-"media hype" (her term) is impressive and a little depressing: Soul Train locking and other acrobatic borrowings help inflect the style to-ward "theatrical legibility," streetwise 14-year-olds give way to young-adult careerists, obscene gestures disappear, and the supremely expressive moment of the final freeze atrophies into part of the exit. But she offers virtually no description of the hype itself, and though she's forthright enough to indicate that it began with her own 1981 Voice cover story, she brushes by what is generally agreed elsewhere: that by the time she found out about the style it was dead as a street phenomenon, preserved mainly in the neoclassicist proselytizing of the late breaking Ritchie Colon a/k/a Crazy Legs, one of her primary sources. Pretty mind boggling: a folk form revitalized by a basically nonexploitative piece of criticism. Kept alive, that is, by the hint of a promise that it needn't remain a folk form--that there might be some rich-and-famous in it. This promise was of course fulfilled. But without Sally Banes--and her art-world informants Martha Cooper and Henry Chalfant, who have since published their long-planned graffiti book--there'd be no Breakin', no Beat Street, no ghetto kids diving for dollars outside Gimbel's. Certainly no Fresh, probably no Hip Hop, possibly no Rap Attack.

In case you think I'm trying to blow my newspaper's horn, that's not my intention. (For the record, I had no prior knowledge of Banes's piece--or of break dancing--and served only as a contact between Hager and his editor, Thulani Davis.) While Hager is kind enough to credit the Times's Robert Palmer and me with furthering "the growing acceptance of hip hop" in 1981 and 1982, and while I'm proud to have caught on to rap sooner than most critics, I'm all too aware in retrospect that The Voice should have been on the story in the late '70s, when I came across D.J. Hollywood at the Apollo without realizing that he wasn't just strange but fucking incredible. In my analysis, critics (not counting Sally Banes, of course) had only an ancillary effect on the commercial fate of rap, which had already been fed into the music machine when we arrived. By 1981 Blondie had released "Rapture," Tom Tom Club was recording, and Blue's hip hop nights were on their way to the Roxy; soon thereafter Sylvia Robinson and then Russell Simmons would make street hits out of two watershed records, "The Message" and "It's Like That"/"Sucker M.C.'s." Journalists helped disseminate, of course, but not as primary "tastemakers." It was a friendly alliance of bohemian rock and rollers and black bizzers which assured that in 1985 Run-D.M.C. would have fans in North Dakota, and if Palmer and I hadn't been around other writers would have noticed soon enough.

Because critics pack clout in the visual arts, they've had more effect on the salability and formal development of graffiti, though not as much as the Times reporter who found Taki 183, various middlemen/entrepreneurs, the Transit Authority, or our white-and-proud mayor. Unfortunately, while graffiti has been salutary for the art world (viz. Keith Haring and allied street people), the art world hasn't been so great for graffiti, diminishing its physical and social scale. Perhaps folk forms fare better when thrown straight into the maw of the culture industry. I wouldn't get too absolute with that one, though, and in any case it's a side point dwarfed by the central truth that all these writers either take for granted or studiously ignore: hip hop's originators have never resisted the blandishments of the outside world. Art, commerce, whatever--as long as you weren't the law and seemed ready to give them money or publicity, they'd deal.

In this, hip hop is just like any other classbound--that is, nonbohemian--urban subculture. There have been exceptions in its past, and there are probably more now. But for the most part, graffiti writers want to be artists, breakers want to be dancers, and rappers want to be pop stars--all vocations that beat working, not to mention unemployment. Sharing such broad general ambitions, some are more subversive than others: Rahiem of the Furious Five plays the crooner not just to reach a wider and less discriminating audience but also because a record company is letting him, while Afrika Bambaataa tries to co-opt back, bending Kraftwerk and Billy Squier and even James Brown to his own funky purposes. But all have tended to interpret their continuing mainstream nonrecognition as a matter of time, of failed communication, of insufficient influence, at worst of racism--not of the recalcitrant authenticity of their styles.

In short, to fuss about the exploitation of hip hop is quite often to take sides against the hip hoppers themselves--even though in the end that exploitation is certain to prove a juggernaut that the hip hoppers (and even the exploiters) can't control. To counsel purity isn't impermissible, but it's certainly complicated, with ramifications that stretch far beyond the scope of this review, or indeed of any piece of writing of any length on any similar subject that has ever come to my attention. Reviewing gamely on, I must conclude that the attractively straightforward is-it-honest-or-not approach cultivated by Hip Hop and Fresh does scantier justice to co-optation's complications than does The Rap Attack's sly postmodernist delight in cultural dislocation. If only Toop were less evasive about the details and mechanics and extent of these dislocations. If only he shared Bambaataa's affection for the commercial culture he transmogrifies, or understood in his heart why Grandmaster Flash looks up to Rick James.

These if-onlys aren't rhetorical. As books, the cultural objects at hand are limited in both outreach and immediate impact, and so their complicity in hip hop's exploitation is no big deal; they merely take an honest profit on an established phenomenon. But, as books, they are relatively permanent, and unlike the films and paintings and records they refer to they carry a lot of historical context with them. Thus they will help define a tradition, a way; of thinking about this particular subculture; just because they're honest, loving, and knowledge-able, their failures will bear fruit along with their successes. I don't blame them, or claim to have done any better myself. But I am sure of this: however labyrinthine the resultants, the tensions between dissemination and exploitation, reaching out and selling out, must sooner or later be graphed accurately and sympathetically. If they aren't, we're never going, to get a handle on how we talk to each other and change the world.

The Village Voice, Jan. 14, 1986