Allow Me To Reintroduce Myself

hiphop.jpgI grew up listening to country and pop. For a kid in South Texas, especially one with a mother who liked country and who kept the radio locked to Y100, this was not uncommon. I was raised on twang and heartache, but I also spent time with the pop hits of my youth, which instilled in me a love for alternative rock that continues to this day. My sister actually helped me understand the power of those formative musical years when she said it this way: everyone always loves the music they were listening to when they learned to drive. Those songs and sounds will forever be fused with your heart and soul, and for me, that was country, pop, and rock. In high school, I added classic rock to the growing rotation of artists I explored, from Cream to Led Zeppelin, and though I briefly dabbled in jazz, the stuff never stuck with me beyond Kind of Blue and Birth of the Cool High school also meant listening to popular music, and that meant hip-hop as well as pop and rock. There was nothing unusual about this, and I was aware of the major hits like everyone else; listening to the radio and glancing at TRL meant knowing about "What's It Gonna Be?!" as much as "How's It Going to Be." That kind of broad-based, catch-all approach to the hits continued through college, which was probably the last time I ever bothered to keep up with what was happening in popular music, and though I wasn't as tuned in as I was in high school, I still picked up the songs that made enough noise. From a hip-hop perspective, that meant songs like "Roll Out," "Ms. Jackson," "'03 Bonnie & Clyde," etc. Yet I've only recently begun to explore hip-hop in greater depth. When I did, several things happened. The first was that I worried I was only doing so out of some misguided attempt to reconcile my white liberal guilt with the ignorance of a culture that had spawned pretty much every major American musical art form in history and did so from the mouths of people whose elders had been ritualistically imported and slaughtered until very recently. I honestly wondered if it was even okay for me to be doing this. I had heard the jokes and made them myself over the years, lines to the effect that hip-hop was fun music but utterly, totally black and therefore not acceptable for me to like except in an ironic or party-oriented way. In high school, we referred to white guys who loved hip-hop as "wiggers."1 Yes, high schoolers are animals, but racism is always born of fear, and terms like that demonstrate a fear of liking something foreign. The second was that I realized just how fucking good some of it is. Every genre has its own bad artists, and hip-hop's no exception, but there are some brilliant MCs and producers out there. I got hooked on the beats and samples, the way personas would change and inflate between songs and over time2, the method with which different artists used language and internal rhyme to pack their verses. The third was that I realized that hip-hop, like all other genres, is a land of blurry borders. The music borrows from and influences pop, rock, and classic R&B to a fantastic degree. Listening to it means getting another vital piece of the American cultural puzzle, and to write it off as music only for one race or not appropriate because of who created it is shockingly, horrifyingly stupid and cruel. I also realized that, in a way, I'd come full circle. My early love for country instilled a passion for the sound but only when done well; I can't abide modern country but will always make time for good artists in the genre from any era, from Cash to The Jayhawks. Country music has always been about a specific type of culture, and its biggest personalities have cultivated personas based on larger-than-life claims backed up by real-world troubles. Some of the biggest country songs of all time are about the songwriter's problems with substance abuse and the law, whether real or embellished, and how they keep trying to get ahead and overcome anyway. Hip-hop is the same thing, just from another culture. I discovered I was hitting the same weird race wall that too many people hit. Hip-hop is almost exclusively the domain of black artists, while country is almost entirely white; yet it doesn't follow that the fans must break down along those color lines. If anything, it's insane to think that. Italian food isn't only for Italians; songs by women aren't only for women. I'd been suckered in by the same attempts to segregate the audience that had been defeating people for years. I know this only the beginning of unpacking all this, and these brief paragraphs in no way get it all done. But it's a good start.
1. It should go without saying that I'm ashamed of the frequency with which I used such terms in high school and, sadly, college. Ditto the use of "fag" and all instances of "gay" meaning "stupid." Kids can be real children.
2. For instance, Jay-Z's adorable switch from the guy who said in "Big Pimpin'" that he'd be "forever mackin'" to the one who said in "'03 Bonnie and Clyde" that all he needs is his girlfriend.