Sunday, September 20, 2009

How to Write About Hip Hop

(Originally posted at Culture Bully; this is the updated version.  Also, be sure to check out the sequel, "How to Read About Hip Hop.")

I’m completely aware that “explaining the joke” makes it less funny, but I want to point out right away that this essay is satirical. So stop sending me angry emails.

1. Before you even get to the reviews themselves, remember, just because hip hop is a global cultural force enjoyed by billions doesn’t mean you have to treat it like it is. If you run a website, alt-weekly, college newspaper or whatever, one token hip hop review per month should just about do it. Too few, and people might accuse you of rockism or even racism; too many and, well, that’s never going to be a problem, is it? Not sure what to review? Just check Pitchfork and see what they’re into; they have their finger on the pulse.

2. If you're an editor, assign the newest mainstream hip hop release to the nerdy white guy on your staff who listens to Wilco and Fleet Foxes. Assign the newest underground hip hop release to the other nerdy white guy on your staff who listens to Wilco and Fleet Foxes. If you have a "hip hop guy/girl" on staff, fire him/her immediately; this troubled economy is no place for luxury staff positions.

3. Remember, music journalism is the opposite of regular journalism. Avoid "scooping" other music writers, and instead focus only on artists whom everyone already loves and knows about. There may be a brilliant yet overlooked indie MC in your city, but hey, Common has a new hat!

4. Your goal as a writer is not to talk about what you see as the positive and negative aspects of the music; it's to prove to people how well you personally understand hip hop, how "down" you are, and how out-of-touch everyone else is. Insinuate one of two facts: that everyone who listens to underground hip hop is an elitist, headwrap-wearing backpacker, OR that everyone who listens to mainstream hip hop is either a wannabe thug criminal or 14 year old white girl. There is no middle ground, and the boundaries between the two hip hop sub-genres are always clear and well-defined.

5. When reviewing underground or socially-conscious hip hop, make a point to emphasize how the artist "doesn't just talk about bitches and bling." This will make your readers' heads explode, because no hip hop artist has ever rapped about anything other than "bitches and bling" in the history of the genre. It doesn't matter what the artist actually does talk about.

6. If you're based in the Midwest, be sure to compare every MC who utters anything remotely introspective or emotional to Slug, and any MC with any shred of political awareness to Brother Ali, no matter how different their actual sonic or lyrical qualities may be.

7. Use the word "organic" a lot.

8. Don't try to actually understand the music, much less the culture behind it; use the same criteria you use for any release when reviewing hip hop. Talk about how it's not melodic enough. Or how the loops are too repetitive. Or how the rapper is too boastful. Or how live instruments automatically make hip hop much better. Be sure to sneak in a few sucker-punches about how sampling is just glorified theft.

9. If the rapper is expressing a political thought of any kind, it's "preachy and overbearing." Remember, we have a black president; these hip hop guys should rap about partying or love or something now. Conversely, if you're one of those "down for the struggle" types, compare any and every amateur MC who mumbles "fuck the police" to Chuck D and KRS-ONE, if not Malcolm X.

10. When you have a gimmick to write about, you don't have to actually engage with the music itself. Maybe the rapper has a funny name that you can fill up three paragraphs explaining. Or maybe his/her album is a mixtape about pirates; they're in right now. Or maybe you can just make something up based off a throwaway bar on a random track; did he reference a character from "The Wire?" I think we have your lead-in!

11. Compare white MCs to Eminem, no matter what they actually sound like. Similarly, compare female MCs to Foxy Brown and Lil' Kim, despite their growing irrelevance.

12. Use the words "deep," “socially-conscious” and "revolutionary," even if the messages on the album all boil down to "be yourself," "don't trust the government" and "I like rapping."

13. When writing about "street hip hop," you can only take one of two stances: you can either say that rapping about selling drugs and shooting people is absolutely evil and devoid of any and all artistic value, or you can say that it's ultra-edgy "ghetto reporting" and that these MCs are our new protest poets, performing an invaluable public service. Again, there is no middle ground, and everyone is going to judge you by the stance you take.

14. When mainstream rappers say sexist or homophobic things, it's not worth talking about because we should all just expect it. When underground rappers say sexist or homophobic things, they're just displaying their realness; they're not like all those indie-rap nerds. Either way, never criticize anyone for sexism or homophobia.

15. When you open up the press kit of an unknown indie hip hop artist and read things like “Artist X is the new face of hip hop, blazing trails worldwide with his rabid fan base and mind-blowing live show” or “Artist X is the perfect combination of 2pac, Biggie and Kanye, but with that southern flavor that’s so hot right now,” BELIEVE IT. Why would they lie to you? A good press kit writes the review for you. How nice!

16. Music writing isn’t so much like other kinds of nonfiction writing; it’s more like poetry. If you like the beats, don’t talk about what samples are present or what producer is an obvious influence, say things like “The undulating, chicken-fried bassline meshes perfectly with the twittering hi-hat chirps while every snare is a far-off supernova—distant yet magnificent; the overall effect creates a ghetto-gothic gumbo of post-9/11 paranoia, neo-throwback boom-bap and objective subjective reality.”

17. If you call an artist by their government name (especially first name only), it elevates you to his/her status in the minds of your readers. This is good, because writing about hip hop is a lot like hip hop itself; it’s not so much how talented you are as it is how people perceive you.

18. Pretty much everything even halfway good is a “classic.”

19. If you choose to write about hip hop in a format beyond an album review or interview, perhaps a scholarly paper or book, feel free to use the culture to validate any agenda you already have. Also, don’t write about hip hop after 1997 or so; just regurgitate what Jeff Chang has already said about the Bronx and whatnot. Finally, assign complex literary, aesthetic or philosophical meanings to everything—samples, throwaway punchlines, album covers, everything. When you overanalyze a piece of art, you can talk about it using your language, on your terms, completely out of context. It’s much easier than actually trying to understand where the artist is coming from.

20. Once your piece is published and people start posting comments on it, be sure to respond to every single one of them. Also, take every comment personally. If someone didn’t like your positive review of the new Slaughterhouse or Esoteric album, insinuate that they MUST love Soulja Boy and the Black Eyed Peas. WRITE IN ALL CAPS TO ENSURE THAT THEY KNOW YOU’RE SERIOUS.

Any other tips people want to share?

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