Hip hop is doomed, but hip is forever

MF Doom photographed in 2003 by Eric Coleman


MF Doom performs an early-evening, all-ages show at the Quest in Minneapolis tonight (Tuesday). Click here and scroll down to listen to RSE Radio's two-hour special on MF Doom from Saturday night (it's only up for two weeks, so click now). Doom released his latest album on the Minneapolis label Rhymesayers Entertainment (click there for the imprint's new web site).


Here's Jon Dolan on Doom in City Pages last week, and last Wednesday's interview in Pulse. Here's my cartoon of Madvillain from earlier this year, based in part on my 2001 interview with MF Doom. Here's the Madvillain web site at Stone's Throw. Here's LifeSucksDie, who've covered MF Doom better than anybody--Doom subsequently appeared on his interviewer's, Fog's, debut album. Here's my 2000 article about the old-school/new-school convergence that Doom and RSE have pushed a few steps further: In the Company of Flow: New York's old-school b-boys meet the sons they never knew they had. Here's a complete links page for TC hip-hop. Welcome to our scene, Doom.



Professor Longhair photographed in 1977 by Michael Goldberg. Not in Hip: The History. Not hip-hop. Probably not hip. But cool as shit.

White-boy/b-boy John Leland writes the history of hip in America

John Leland did for hip-hop journalism in the late 1980s what Public Enemy and Boogie Down Productions did for hip hop--he blew the conversation open. Writing in Spin, he gave rappers a new platform and called them on their bullshit, offering broader appreciation in return. At Newsweek in 1992, he used the Sister Souljah controversy as an opportunity to tell white readers what rap fans already knew: that racial divisions in America were deepening, and kids of every color were consuming the divide as entertainment.

Leland is one of the few white guys who writes about race as someone who moves freely between cultures. In Hip: The History (Ecco), his first book, he describes a man who might be his precursor: Carl Van Vechten, a onetime music critic for the New York Times, where Leland contributes today. Van Vechten's "ubiquity above 110th Street in the 1920s inspired the Harlem songwriter Andy Razaf to pen the lyric, 'Go inspectin'/Like Van Vechten,'" writes Leland. The parties that Van Vechten used to throw on West 55th Street were great meetings of high and low culture, black and white New York. At one bash, Bessie Smith "collared the opera singer Marguerite D'Alvarez, who had just charmed the room with an aria, and advised, 'Don't let nobody tell you you can't sing.'"

Cab Calloway photographed by Carl Van Vechten, January 12, 1940. Dizzie Gillespie stabbed him in the ass.

Leland himself provided inspiration for (hostile) lyrics in Public Enemy's "Bring the Noise," and he has a prickly relationship to black music, a consuming passion I share. His Hip is the history of an ideology I didn't know I had. It begins by citing slang expert Clarence Major to trace the origins of "hip" to the verbs hepi ("to see") or hipi ("to open one's eyes") from the West African Wolof language. Looking to slave narratives, the book finds evidence that hipping was a language of covert enlightenment among Africans, a code that fascinated their European captors. In-the-know attitudes had existed as long as humans had been aware of knowing anything. But "hip" was something new: Staying one step ahead of whites meant speeding up the process of adaptation and reinvention, renewing the code continually. The same dynamic persists today as a global capitalist phenomenon we call "youth culture."

Leland tracks the development of hip with attentiveness and range, weaving Jewishness, the Stonewall riots, and grrrl power into his bohemian rhapsody. He describes six "hipster convergences," beginning with the literary supergroup Whitman/Emerson/Thoreau/and Melville in the 1850s--the "O.G.'s" who championed individualism and the beauty of the American vernacular. The Harlem Renaissance, the Beats, bebop, drugs, punk, and dot-coms follow. Along the way, the book traces the long history of blacks and whites holding up mirrors to each other in the blues and in minstrelsy, in rock 'n' roll and in hip hop. That communication across the abyss, Leland says, is the story of America.

Hip mama icon Kim Gordon and daughter, photographed in 2000

Ultimately, Leland seems to regard hip much the way an easy-going hipster might observe the "squares": with sympathy, but from the side. Unlike Ann Powers's Weird Like Us: My Bohemian America, Leland's book is no kind of memoir. It's no how-to-guide, either: Hip has been mistaken for a hipster handbook, but any American history that begins with Mark Twain and Jelly Roll Morton and ends with Ray Kroc and Ashton Kutcher can hardly be romancing the stoned.

Hip's greatest limitation is its refusal to engage, Leland argues. For Hip, the '60s are represented by Muhammad Ali and Bob Dylan--tricksters who stood apart from the movements they spoke to. Yet Leland sees progress in hip's whorish flexibility--hip as the official ideology of mass entertainment. Kurt Cobain's rage at high-school jocks evaporated on impact when those jocks became his audience. But punk rock didn't become a car just because it advertised one. Some part of the message sailed through.

Hip didn't free the slaves. It won't win basic freedoms in North Korea. But when freedom is won anywhere, the same sensibilities of American blues take hold--the romance of the open road, the rejection of domestic life, the hybrid culture of the city. Hip guides us toward the thrill of the unfamiliar. That's where we should be.

(A version of the above article appears in this Wednesday's City Pages, the books issue.)

More John Leland links:

Hip: The History: a hip official site, complete with blog.

New York Post interview: "If we waited for the hipsters to write this book, we'd be waiting for a long, long time."

Rockcritics.com interview: "I question the popular assumption that what we call black culture and white culture are really separate."

Brand Autopsy on hip as marketing ideology: "I was struck with how hip is, at times, connected to the backbone of marketing."

The Washington Post review: "Some of the coolest people you meet are hopelessly out of fashion, have no idea what's considered hip at the moment and couldn't care less."


Luc Sante in the Village Voice: "Leland has let his ear be bent by many 'creatives' who are probably sincere in their belief that what they do is just like art, that it's abstract. Dig it, they're not selling cars�they're selling CDs by the hipsters whose tunes are used in the commercials! They're subverting the system from within! And the check is in the mail and I won't come in your mouth."


Michaelangelo Matos interviews John Leland at Nerve.com: "I think [hip is] what I've been obsessing about the whole time I've been a journalist. Not necessarily in terms of what's hip and what's not hip, but the racial questions that are at the heart of the book, and that really tell the story, are what I've been writing about for 20 years, and what I did as a music critic."


Other white men who aren't stupid:


Race Traitor: "There is a sick way in which white people want to emulate that which is considered 'badass' about a certain existential position of Blackness at the same time they do not want the burden of living as a non-white person."


William Upski Wimsatt, Bomb the Suburbs: "One day the rap audience will be as white as tables in a jazz club, and rap will become just another platform for every white ethnic group--not just the Irish--to express their suddenly funky selves. In the meantime, every Josh, Eric, Martay, Brian, Laramie, Chris, Frank, Andrew, Jamie, Alex, Sista PA, and Upski of the white race plunges deeper in to a debt that we have no intention of trying to repay."


Cool quotes to live by:

Dad, I don�t like cool. I like beautiful.

-- Hollis Mae, daughter of Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker

Cool schmool.

-- Bratmobile

Articles you might like if you wrote this book (ha ha, I'm a loser):


An oral history of Twin Cities hip hop/reactions and bonus photos


This Is Hardcore: It made less history than '77 punk. It sold fewer records than Nirvana. But the suburban rebellion of Eighties America found its own potent way to say no.


First Love: an oral history of First Avenue


Mallman's three-day show: a hipster's response to the conflict of our times


School of Funk: Prince's 1970s


A hip history of London Calling

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