This is the fifth 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, the second one here, the third one here, and the fourth one here.
Once, years ago, I met an aspiring rapper who wanted to call himself Pen Ultimate. It wasn’t a good idea, and his other option — Filibuster Rhymes — was even worse, but since we have arrived at the penultimate column of this series, I was thinking of him. Before we wrap up with next week’s final installment, I wanted to address some of the concerns that have sprung up over the course of the first four columns. Some of them have been left as comments after articles. Some have cropped up on Twitter. Some have surfaced in person, in conversations, and at least one was shouted at me across the street by a disheveled guy. I have formatted them as questions so that I can answer them. Let’s get to Questlove’s Mailbag.
Quest-ion: In your last column, about disco, you were unforgivably dismissive of the Pointer Sisters. What gives?
Answer: I didn’t dismiss them, and I won’t dismiss them. I just wanted to look at what happened in the early ‘80s, after disco shifted the foundations of black music. After that, most black acts had to Evel Knievel their way to safety. Some made the jump (Kool and the Gang, Cameo, Atlantic Starr) and some didn’t (Ohio Players, Heatwave, BT Express). The Pointers landed, but in a slightly different place. As a child of the ‘80s and a DJ-in-training, I Neutron Danced with the best (and the rest) of them. But there’s a big distance, stylistically and culturally, between “Yes We Can Can” and “I’m So Excited.”
Quest-ion: Do you really think hip-hop is losing steam? It seems like it’s more a part of our culture than ever.
Answer: It’s an argument that seems paradoxical until you think it through. It’s like I said back in the first essay: When hip-hop is everywhere, it’s nowhere. In the aggregate, the genre isn’t challenging culture or channeling change in any real way, and it’s even losing steam as a commercial concern. Look at the brute sales numbers. Ten years ago, it wasn’t uncommon for major albums by major hip-hop stars to sell 3 million copies. Now the commercial heads aren’t doing big numbers anymore. Big Sean went from selling more than 300,000 copies to under 150,000. 2 Chainz moved more than 600,000 of Based on a T.R.U. Story, but was down to 250,000 for B.O.A.T.S. II: Me Time. Rick Ross, for the most part, held steady as a gold-selling artist between 2006 and 2012, with albums in the 550,000 to 750,000 range, but his last time out he got to 300,000. Future’s Honest, one of the most highly touted and advertised releases of the year, moved 11,000 copies in its third week on the chart, and has only sold 85,000 overall so far. Mainstream pop artists are lower across the board as well, but there are still a significant number of winners, whether Adele or Taylor Swift or Lorde or Imagine Dragons or Bruno Mars. There are more, and more stylistic diversity, and more of a sense of choice.
Quest-ion: But what about the millions of underground artists who are doing amazing things with the form?
Answer: First of all, there aren’t millions. There are some, and they should be supported. I like Black Milk, Killer Mike, Joey Badass, Danny Brown, and Chance the Rapper (among others), and I want their voices heard. But how influential are independent records, or local scenes? Again, take a look at the charts: When you get to the lower reaches of the top hundred, those albums are selling fewer than a thousand copies a week. Part of the problem is that record labels invest almost exclusively in proven winners. But there’s also the problem that hip-hop acts don’t have the same tradition of woodshedding, of putting in their time in out-of-the way places and hard-to-find spaces. Identities don’t get built slowly and steadily. They go quickly when they go at all. And so they disappear just as quickly.
Quest-ion: So what?
Answer: Lots of people gave this shrug. I don’t like the shrug. It’s an abdication of responsibility for making sure that art keeps doing the things that art should do. If you shrug, that keeps the wheels turning the way they’re turning. It lets corporations turn you into selfish consumers. It lets them fit you for a new pair of blinkers. And that means that predictability keeps getting prized over experimentation and product keeps getting prized over art. I was talking the other day to my manager and a writer friend of mine, and Big Ideas started getting thrown around, as sometimes happens, and a metaphor came up for this process: the redshift. None of us is an astronomer, but we read the papers, even the non-funny-papers. Here’s what happens: One of the ways that astronomers prove that the universe is expanding is looking at distant light. If it’s moving toward us, wavelengths get shorter and it shifts toward the blue end of the spectrum. If it’s moving away from us, wavelengths get longer and go toward the red end of the spectrum. In DJ/sonic terms, it’s similar to what happens with a siren: When it’s headed our way, the pitch is a little higher because sound waves are bunched up. As it moves away, they spread out and that pitch drops. Well, hip-hop culture has redshifted. The pitch has dropped. Innovation may exist, but it’s not the dominant characteristic anymore. It’s moving away.
Quest-ion: So what’s the big deal if hip-hop is on its last legs? Isn’t that the case with any art form? Don’t things come and go? Won’t it pass through a cycle of revival or see something else spring up to take its place?
Answer: My point isn’t about general cultural trends of rise and fall so much. It’s about the way that the fall-off of hip-hop specifically affects African-American culture. Everything about African-American culture has been packed into hip-hop: as an adjective, as a concept, as a cultural marker. When that gets exhausted, much of black culture — black cool, black identity, certain kids of humor and community — finds itself stranded in a cul-de-sac. And it’s a cul-de-sac in a neighborhood that’s decreasingly interested in grappling with ideas. If this kind of empathetic thinking isn’t happening in the broader culture, it’s going to happen even less in black culture. People say that things get worse before they get better, but that’s just something people say. Again, I’ll drop some science as metaphor. Materials have a tensile strength, which is a measurement of the maximum stress that they can withstand before failing or breaking. That can happen as a result of violence, but it can also happen as a result of indifference, or craven commercialism, or thoughtless rhetoric, or thoughtless anything else, for that matter. Hip-hop can be stretched in a way that exceeds its tensile strength. Don’t think that there’s not a point of no return. Is that a triple negative? It isn’t not one.
Quest-ion: Why’d you say Jay Z wasn’t cool?
Answer: Exasperated sigh. I’m not knocking Jay Z. I’m not knocking the hustle. I’ve been clear about this before, but people want to muddy the waters, so let me be clear again. All I’m saying is that the culture needs more. It needs art to go with its commerce. It needs existential inquiry to go with its brick-brained blockbusters. In most of the culture, options have narrowed, and like I said a question ago, alternatives have shrunk to the point where the might as well not exist. Rather, they’ve proliferated, but the effect of any one is a blip at best. They’re littler than Little Cat Z. So put that in your Seuss hat.
Quest-ion: I noticed something about Prince. He has a sex thing with magazines. In “Darling Nikki,” she’s masturbating with a magazine. In “Tambourine,” he’s falling in love with a face in a magazine.
Answer: Uh, not really a question. But true that.
Quest-ion: It’s one thing to complain about how hip-hop has failed black America. But what are you going to do about it?
Answer: This is hard to answer, but also sort of easy to answer. What I’m doing about it is writing these columns and making records. The new Roots record, …And Then You Shoot Your Cousin, is just out. I can’t say that it solves any of the problems that I’ve discussed. That would be arrogant. But I can say with confidence that it tries. It’s an example of how, even within our own ecosystem, we’re trying to strike a balance between things that are more commercial and things that are more artistic. We don’t ignore the charts. We’re aware of them. Digital Underground said, “I’m cocoa and I might go pop,” and that’s still a factor. But there should also be cultural products that challenge people next to the ones that are commercial. There should be pondering along with the pandering.
Quest-ion: Anything else?
Answer: Yeah, one more thing. I just said a minute ago that it would be arrogant to say that the new Roots record is going to solve the big problems in black music or black America. And a few answers ago, I said that there are some innovative voices, and they should be supported. And I don’t want to come off as some kind of Doug Downer, lamenting that everything’s gone down the toilet or going there soon. But a little toilet talk is in order. I’ve been doing this for 20 years. On Do You Want More?!!!??! , our first major-label record, we had Ursula Rucker on there performing a long, sexually explicit poem about a gang-bang. We had beat-boxing. We had jazz singing. But even back then, “Do you want more?” wasn’t really a question about whether audiences desired us. It was a question about whether audiences desired that — more risk, more investigation, more emotion, more community. Since coming to Def Jam for Game Theory in 2006, we’ve taken a more serious tone, and talked about it — the world around us seemed to demand it, and ignoring it seemed like the wrong move. If you don’t want those things — not just from us, but from your culture, and specifically your hip-hop culture — there’s something wrong with you. Because that will create a world in which large segments of black America end up not spoken for, more invisible than ever, trapped underneath without any way to stand up. There’s a saying in business: Last hired, first fired. When companies start to trim their ranks, black employees are the first to go. The possibility of meaning in hip-hop is in danger of being shown the door. That’s why I feel some urgency about this. But you know, life is choice. If you don’t want those things, I’ll just embed the elevator video.
Quest-ion: Do you know what time it is?
Answer: It’s late. And getting later.