This is the second in a weekly series of six essays looking at hip-hop's recent past, thinking about its distant past, and wondering about the possibility of a future. Read the first one here.
What do people think of when they think about hip-hop? I don’t mean the technique of the music so much as its meaning. Technique is a limited part of any art form, really: how well Rapper X raps is important but not central. How devious or wonderful Producer X’s beats are can get you on your feet more quickly, but hip-hop isn’t an abstract sonic art form. It’s a narrative one. And what that means is that matter matters more than art. Or rather: what matters to art is its matter, what it’s about, the ideas it communicates to its audience. The other aspects serve it, but perfect performance and production of empty ideas can’t fake the fill. I hope this isn’t a controversial view. It shouldn’t be.
I’d argue that when people think of hip-hop, pretty quickly they think of bling, of watches or cars or jewels or private jets. They think of success and its fruits, and the triumphant figures who are picking that fruit. This linkage isn’t limited to hip-hop — all of American celebrity, to some degree, is based on showing what you can buy — but it’s stronger there. The reasons are complex, of course, but the aspirational strain in African-American culture runs all the way back to slavery days. Slaves couldn’t own property because they were property. When freed, they were able to exist politically, and also economically. Owning things was a way of proving that you existed — and so, by extension, owning many things was a way of proving that you existed emphatically. Hip-hop is about having things to prove you’re not a have-not; it works against the notion that you might have so little economic control that you would simply disappear.
But what are the haves that you might have? And are they the same haves that people had 10 years ago, or 20? You only have to wind the clock back a few decades to see how drastically this dynamic has changed.
Back in 1986, the group standing on top of the rap heap was Run-DMC, and after rising to international prominence, they released a song about one of their prized possessions. That song, of course, was “My Adidas.” Let’s take a look at how rap stars back in the '80s celebrated what they owned:
walked through concert doors
and roamed all over coliseum floors
I stepped on stage, at Live Aid
All the people gave and the poor got paid
It doesn’t take much scrutiny to see that this is an especially benign form of consumerism. For starters, it’s not about the shoes themselves, in the main. It’s about the group’s experiences on the way to stardom: the audiences that came to see them, the shows they headlined. And fairly quickly, it’s not about them at all — it’s about Live Aid, a benefit concert focused on making sure that “the poor got paid.” In last week’s column, Albert Einstein and I talked about spooky action at a distance, which I reimagined as a version of the social contract: what happens elsewhere also happens to you, and it’s hard to divorce yourself from other people’s circumstances, no matter how much you try. This is that same principle, an illustration of connection. It’s sole music: the shoes convey you to the spot where you can see the haves working on behalf of the have-nots.
But there’s something else, too. Think about the product that’s carrying the song along. It’s a little strange: It’s a German athletic shoe from Herzogenaurach, not Hollis, Queens. But it is also (or was also) part of the Run-DMC uniform: the terry-cloth Kangol hat, the warm-up suits. At the time, Run-DMC was counterprogramming the flamboyance of other hip-hop artists, who were dressing like they were still in the funk and disco eras, with furs and studded jackets. Run-DMC stripped it down, and in doing so, sold a new kind of cool. More to the point, they sold a cool that was accessible to their fans. You could buy Adidas and be in their club, which was a club that you wanted to be in.
What has changed? Well, back in Run-DMC’s day, hip-hop had winners and others, on a sliding scale, all the way down to artists who were making more modest local impact. Now, because of the radical contraction of the market and the reluctance of companies to invest in anything that’s not a sure bet, hip-hop has become almost exclusively about winners, big sellers who have already proven their muscle. And even those numbers are dwindling, to the point where the million-seller club these days contains almost no one — Jay Z, Eminem, Drake, Macklemore, and Kendrick Lamar. You could argue that there are artists a tick down who have more cultural cachet: the big example there is Kanye West, who has sold not quite 700,000 copies of Yeezus. But that’s a half-dozen artists, total, with any appreciable influence.
And what do those artists do? They celebrate themselves, just like the artists of a generation earlier. They talk about products that prop them up, just like the artists of a generation earlier. But what have the products become? Let’s look at one of the descendants of “My Adidas” — a song on Jay Z’s recent Magna Carta Holy Grail called “Picasso Baby.”
I just want a Picasso, in my casa
No, my castle
This is on the opposite side of the planet, ethically and socially, from “My Adidas.” It associates personal satisfaction with a product, but on an entirely different scale. I went to the mall the other day. They didn’t sell any Picassos. You can accuse me of a certain amount of humorlessness, and I’ll plead temporary insanity. But let’s look back into the lyrics. Jay Z isn’t just collecting art. He’s using the brand names of other famous painters to declare himself, by association, as an artist.
It ain't hard to tell
I'm the new Jean Michel
Surrounded by Warhols
My whole team ball
Twin Bugattis outside the Art Basel
Whereas “My Adidas” highlighted consumer items, “Picasso Baby” is all about unattainable luxury, fantasy acquisitions. Within the first ten words of the song, Jay Z ensures that no one in his audience can identify with the experience that he’s rapping about. He would never want to be in a club that would have you as a member. But this doesn’t offend his audiences. They love it. They want to be just like him so they can exclude people just like them. There’s an even more egregious (comic?) example, from Ace Hood, with his song “Bugatti.” I’ll quote the chorus.
I woke up in a new Bugatti
I woke up in a new Bugatti
I woke up in a new Bugatti
I woke up in a new Bugatti
I woke up in a new Bugatti
Now I’ll quote a verse:
Niggas be hatin’
I’m rich as a bitch
A hundred K? I spent that on my wrist
Two hundred thousand, I spent that on your bitch
You and your model put that on the list
I don’t know exactly how much a Bugatti costs. Oh, wait: I’ve been told by my business manager that it costs Amused Laughter. Very few people I know, including several best-selling artists in various musical genres, can afford this item, which depreciates as violently as whiplash the minute it’s off the lot. Something about the song, though, creates an environment where I feel a twinge of shame admitting that. And I won’t even get into whether I can spend a hundred K on my wrist.
But what does it mean that hearing the song somehow makes me measure myself against its outsize boasting? For starters, it means that hip-hop has become complicit in the process by which winners are increasingly isolated from the populations they are supposed to inspire and engage — which are also, in theory, the populations that are supposed to furnish the next crop of winners. This isn’t a black thing or even a hip-hop thing exclusively. American politics functions the same way. But it’s a significant turnaround and comedown for a music that was, only a little while back, devoted to reflecting the experience of real people and, through that reflection, challenging the power structure that produces inequality and disenfranchisement.
Who’s to blame? It’s hard to say. Certainly, Puff Daddy’s work with the Notorious B.I.G. in the early '90s did plenty to cement the idea of hip-hop as a genre of conspicuous consumption. Before those videos, wealth was evident, but it was also contextualized, given specific character that harmonized with the backgrounds of the artists. Run-DMC had East Coast cool and cachet; Dr. Dre had West Coast cool and cachet. But Puffy had — and wanted to tell everyone he had — a different idea of power, an abstract capitalist cachet. His videos, and the image they projected, played as well in California as in New York, as well in Chicago as in Florida. It was a cartoon idea of wealth, to the point that specific reality no longer mattered. In literary terms, it was pure signifier. It would take him a little while to formulate that into a manifesto, but when he did, he hit it on the nose. “Bad Boy for Life,” in 2001, contained a line that says all that anyone needs to know about this strain of hip-hop: "Don’t worry if I write rhymes / I write checks.” Picasso, baby.
A few years back, there was a video on YouTube that featured the rapper Lil Boosie. It showed him counting out his money onto the pavement of a parking lot. You can see it here. I haven’t studied too much contemporary performance art, but whoever’s doing it — Vito Acconci, Marina Abramovic — can’t be doing anything stranger than this. (You too, James Franco.) The money is a pure abstraction. Nothing is purchased with it — no goods, no services. It’s a series of symbols being thrown to the ground, one after the other. And as each one lands, the message gets stronger and stronger. You don’t have this money. You may never see this many hundreds. You don’t belong here.
The last stop on this train, at least for today, is the “Otis” video that Jay Z and Kanye West made to promote the hit single from Watch the Throne. In the video, which was directed by Spike Jonze, the two of them go to an industrial space and proceed to demolish a Maybach (another car, like a Bugatti, that no one can afford), after which they drive around the lot, four models in the backseat. What are they destroying with their hammers and their saws? The car? The idea of the car? The idea of the car in other videos? And what are they building as they destroy? The idea that they exist at a level where they can afford to discard something as valuable as the car? The idea that their cool transcends money and the things that it can acquire? The belief that art should always violate and remake consumer products? A hierarchy of image that somehow, strangely, privileges the human element? The car was eventually auctioned, and proceeds were donated toward the East African Drought Disaster. Spooky action at a distance.