You know how the CIA cooked up crack to devastate the inner cities? Maybe hip hop was devised by street scientists to transform the academy into a gibbering nation of Arnold Horshacks ooh-oohing that they know what a DJ scratch "really means"--that is, what the urban subject who reclaims technology signifies as a hermeneutic construct within the realm of hegemonic interrelations under the discursive rubric of late capitalism. (Somebody, quick--slap a footnote on that sucker and mail the royalty check to Professor Tricia Rose c/o New York University: Ain't no biting styles allowed up in here.)
Strong as crack and just as white, theorizing about hip hop is a cheap, addictive high that's sure to make you mutter some dumb-ass shit. (Damn right--I speak from experience.) One Planet Under a Groove: Hip Hop and Contemporary Art--now on display at the Walker, straight outta the Bronx Museum of the Arts--can't entirely escape that bind, but it wriggles free quite often. Sure, many of these artists wind up replicating hip-hop techniques in order to reach conclusions that hip hop and its audience wisely take for granted. But more often the exhibit strikes up a two-way "rap"-prochement with the culture whose discourse it samples.
See--mofos got me doing it now.
But let's get our ground rules straight. Nobody's saying "Get Ur Freak On"--or Cannibal Ox or Hype Williams's "No Scrubs"--isn't contemporary art. But we're talking art-art here. You know: Art. Well, maybe I do know Art and maybe I don't--you'll never get it out of me, copper. But hip hop has known Art ever since squigglers Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat were down with the uptown. Ever since Fab 5 Freddy, the cat brought in to smash a bottle over the bow of this mother ship on opening weekend, brokered the earliest deals. One Planet Under a Groove charts the way "street culture" has impinged upon the institutional world--from a skewed perspective, sure (guess whose), but with clear acknowledgment of its bias.
It's such an engaging exhibit, in fact, that only afterward do a few of the pieces leave a sour afterthought of, "Nah, that ain't it." Like when you shut off The Blueprint and your disbelief plummets out of suspension. "But wait--I don't think all women are hos." "Didn't Jigga bite that line about your reign being 'short like leprechauns' from Biggie?" "Um, why does he keep saying 'not guilty' if he got three years probation?" At its best, One Planet's energy carries it past the gaps in its logic, past its reliance on received commonplaces. Just like hip hop.
Just ask Greg Tate--or at least stop by the Walker lobby and rip the three pages of that wily crit's "Graf Rulers/Graf UnTrained" from out tha exhibition catalog. Let's be grownups, says Tate, and call our subject what it is: "high art" with an interest in vernacular style. Throughout, Tate's Rammellzee-in-the-36-chambers pun-clusters explode inward: Dig his explanation of why the descendents of slaves wouldn't want curators to "frame and hang" them. That, friends, is freestyling.
Well, kinda. As always, Tate's verbal thrust strains against the static nature of the page, which flattens the nuance available to an MC. Similarly, these visual artists struggle against the institutional world out of the time they inhabit, appropriating the energy and immediacy and deliberate untimelessness of hip hop. But often the medium stifles them.
Take Juan Capistran's The Breaks. The artist busts moves on a Carl Andre minimalist floor piece in San Diego's Museum of Contemporary Art, a buddy snaps some pics, art is made. But Capistran's real artwork is the prank itself--the displayed photos that record it are just the proof. More successful is Sanford Biggers's Mandala of the B-bodhisattva II, an intricately patterned rubber mat that patrons are invited to break on, to create art rather than observe it.
The artists also reimagine hip-hop techniques. Darioo Robleto's I'm Not So Sure the World Deserves You melts down some records--a pair of Sun Ra sides, "Planet Rock," and Parliament's "Aqua Boogie"--into fancifully painted music boxes. The punch line: Those boxes play whitebread pap--"You Light Up My Life," "Around the World in Eighty Days," and "Moon River," respectively. Result: Black visionaries with purportedly galactic pedigrees are "remixed" into white vacuity in order to contrast differing cultural notions of escape. Nice.
Other effective pieces generate free-floating verbal/visual puns. Edgar Arceneaux's Spock, Tuvac, Tupac consists of three sketches (the Vulcan, the Klingon, and the MC), and allows you to draw your own comparisons. David Hammons's In the Hood trims a dark hoodie away from the rest of the garment, creepily suspending the covering to suggest a decapitated Jawa. Mel Chin's reconfigured objects teeter on the edge of didacticism without toppling in: HOMEySEW "9" displays one standard Glock 9mm alongside another, its guts replaced by the contents of a first aid kit, while his Night Rap molds a cop's nightstick into an operating microphone.
Still, the most forceful "street" piece is an uncredited, communal effort: a publicly annotated ad for the 1983 Steve Guttenberg flop The Man Who Wasn't There. As it did at the time, the poster hangs alongside one of the freeform doodles Haring scrawled over blank poster boards throughout the subway. Some of the scrawls comment on the film title: "Just like the trains." "Suck his invisable [sic] cock." Another gripes, "Haring stop it enough already." Sure, Tupac belongs in a museum. Eric B? Hell, yeah. But Steve Guttenberg?
Hip hop has as strong a curatorial impulse to hoard relics as the medieval church. Expect mass genuflection before the squiggly black-and-white rococo sleeve that Basquiat designed for Rammellzee & K-Robb's seminal what-he-say? 12-inch "Beat Bop." As backward-yearning as any GOP back-to-the-futurist, hip hop is ever searching for proof that life was flyer, beats were doper, and style was wilder back in the day.
To its credit, One Nation rarely indulges in such readymade reminisces. But it's still stronger on the old days, good or not, when Haring and Basquiat traded on their dubious street cred. The exhibit slips when it starts to interrogate hip hop's current visual stereotypes. Thug glorification, mo' money problematics, the reduction of women to decorative 'hood ornaments--important subjects, but hard to broach creatively. It's almost enough to make you nostalgic for the way Basquiat's Untitled (Defacement) eulogizes graf writer Michael Stewart, fatally bum-rushed by the NYPD (back before 9/11 endowed the police with retroactive infallibility). Enemies from without are easier to take on than those from within.
The nadir of the exhibit's moral challenge to hip hop is Susan Smith-Pinelo's split-screen DVD display Cake. On one half, Jay-Z, Dr. Dre, and other platinum-selling gynephobes cavort with lip-smacking, rump-shaking cuties. On the other, Snoop Dogg barks through his softcore debut Doggystyle. So y'all mean to say that "Girls, Girls, Girls" objectifies women with the same visual devices as Snoop's porno turn? Well, duh.
Still, it is a universally acknowledged fact that some internal balance has broken down in hip hop. The culture was supposed to be self-policing, a notion tied up in the art of the battling: Used to be that any newcomer could confront the ruler with wit and exuberance. What happened? May as well blame Puffy for Cristal-izing the notion of playa-hatin' into a Calvinist insistence that the most deserving are richly rewarded. Combine this core-thug smugness, rendered impervious to criticism, with a justifiable reluctance on the part of black performers to criticize other blacks publicly, and you've got a closed system resistant to change.
As hip hop spreads over an increasingly broad canvas, it inevitably becomes harder to tell whether you're critiquing hip hop or just global capitalism. Frederic Jameson's old question: Is postmodernism an aesthetic strategy or simply a cultural condition--something you create or something you're born into? Hip hop's answer is both: You can't draw a line between them. Which makes art that could poke around at that intersection crucial. Damn--where is Basquiat when you need him, anyway? Or Roxanne Shante?