I’ve been spending a lot of time lately with Frank Kogan’s Real Punks Don’t Wear Black, probably the best non-Lester Bangs collected-music-writing book I’ve ever read, even if he does include all these long-ass unreadable screeds he wrote when he was like twelve. Probably my favorite idea within the book is the Superword, which Kogan describes a lot better than I could:
“A Superword is a word like ‘punk,’ which is, among other things, a battleground, a weapon, a red cape, a prize, a flag in a bloody game of Capture the Flag. To put this in the abstract, a Superword is a word or phrase that not only is used in fights but that is itself fought over. The fight is over who gets to wear the word proudly, who gets the word affixed to himself against his will, etc. So the use is fought over, and this – the fight over usage – is a big part of the word’s use.”
That’s about the simplest Kogan ever puts it, and he devotes pages and pages to this thing. His favorite example is “punk,” but virtually every genre of music becomes a Superword at some point or another; people start fighting over what exactly it is and what can and can’t claim that status. My favorite Superword is a term I try to never use: hip-hop.
Fighting about hip-hop is big in New York. Virtually every rap show I’ve been to here has included some sort of entreaty about “real hip-hop”: this is a real hip-hop audience, those radio stations aren’t playing real hip-hop, fuck all that fake shit that isn’t hip-hop. Depending on who you’re talking to or how you’re using it, hip-hop means either all rap music in general or bleak, formalist, austere New York street-rap. More often than not, it’s a term of exclusion. Here’s someone called madnice, commenting on my Jay Dee playlist: “you didnt check for his stuff?!!! well you arent hiphop then.” Or OPTIMUSTRYME, commenting on my KRS-One post and referring to the bit where I mentioned that I was collecting Dinobots when KRS was beefing with MC Shan: “Although I was playin with Transformers and legos and watchin Go-Bots, i was still hitting the record button and goin to sleep while recording the hip hop stations on friday nights in brooklyn.” For these guys, having an opinion on hip-hop is directly contingent to being hip-hop, and being hip-hop depends on adhering to certain aesthetic and cultural codes. A term like hip-hop means more than a term like rap music. Rap music means music with rapping on it. Hip-hop means burned-out Bronx tenement houses in the mid-70s and climbing fences into train yards and stealing electricity from street lights to fuel open-air DJ parties and Busy Bee battling Kool Moe Dee and KRS-One pushing Price Be offstage. The term has baggage, and that’s why I don’t use it.
New York is the birthplace of hip-hop, of course, and it’s had something of a persecution complex ever since it stopped being rap music’s biggest commercial hub. “Laffy Taffy” is just the biggest and hugest in a long, long line of scapegoats, the song that New York loves to hate even as hordes of kids in Brooklyn and Harlem do the lean wit it, rock wit it dance on corners and in subway cars. One of the only New York shows I’ve been to where nobody said anything about bringing New York back was Jay-Z’s big show at Continental Airlines Arena last October. For someone as big as Jay, it’s not even an issue. He’s bigger than hip-hop, and he can cede a stage to T.I. and Young Jeezy just as easily as he can to Nas and the Lox. When he stands next to Southerners onstage, it feels like a natural move, not a self-conscious acknowledgment of the genre’s geographic decentralization, even if the crowd gives Beanie Sigel twice the love it gives T.I. In contrast, there was a whole lot of “bring New York back” talk at last week’s Ghostface show. A lot of that talk came from DJ Premier, the producer whose music gets more mention than any other when people bring up the “real hip-hop” trope. “I have enough fans; I love what I do,” said Preemo. He also said that he was going to test the audience’s knowledge before playing a bunch of his old records: “A lot of y’all are commercialized.” I’m not entirely sure what Premier meant by that; it’s not like anyone’s getting paid to like Dem Franchize Boyz. But he’s considered to be a living embodiment of hip-hop’s late-80s/early-90s Golden Age, and the crowd treated him like an avenging hero, which maybe he is.
But things are a little more complicated than that real/not-real binary, as Premier would probably admit if he wasn’t busy playing firebrand. It was easy to forget watching him throw down his classics, but Premier is producing half of the new Christina Aguilera album. Things get tangled when you start thinking about that collaboration. Like, was Christina looking to do classic distilled hip-hop when she decided to work with Premier? And does Premier then become something other than classic distilled hip-hop in working with Christina? Premier is certainly a great producer, but his whole guardian-at-the-gates schtick felt somehow empty last week, if only because hip-hop is itself a total polyglot genre. It was originally intended as party music, after all, an outgrowth of disco rather than a refutation of it, and “Laffy Taffy” is musically a lot closer to Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five than, say, Papoose is. Over the last five years, my favorite Premier tracks are the ones he’s done with half-singing/half-rapping Southern interlopers: Devin the Dude’s “Doobie Ashtray,” that one track from the last Cee-Lo solo album. It’s worth noting that Premier wasn’t considered to be true/distilled hip-hop when he first emerged with Gang Starr; with “Jazz Thing,” that group pretty much announced itself as a part of the jazz-rap subgenre, and as far as I know, everyone accepted that as a logical offshoot of mainstream hip-hop but certainly not the genre’s center. I’m excited to hear the stuff that Premier’s doing with Aguilera; experiments have a way of producing better art than purism does. At no point in this MTV News article does Premier defend Christina Aguilera by calling her “real hip-hop,” but he does seem to be excited about the music that the two of them are putting together. I’d like to think that that Premier is closer to DJ Premier the living, breathing person than the DJ Premier I saw onstage last week.
Maybe “hip-hop” should be redefined as just another regional subgenre of rap music, just like reggaeton and snap music and crunk and Miami bass and everything else; that might be the only way for “real hip-hop” types to see the genre’s enormous worldwide musical and cultural impact as expansion rather than corruption. As I’m typing this, there’s a huge immigrants’-rights march coming down Broadway, just two blocks away from me, and I hope I’m not trivializing that march too much when I compare its cause to the struggle that non-East Coast rapper’s struggle to be taken seriously in the hip-hop arena. History has never been kind to isolationism, and New Yorkers might do well to look out their windows today.