Friday, August 10, 2007

Reality Music

Bad sign for hip hop: Vibe magazine is starting to sound defensive. The latest issue features contributions from several commentators on whether hip-hop is dying or just slightly winded. Representing the “nothing-to-worry-about-here-move-along” side is Greg Tate who writes:

“The day it matters what anybody over 25 thinks about hip hop is the day hip hop will have truly died as a culture and become like jazz—a history lesson in need of its Ken Burns.”

A more jaundiced view comes from Dr. John McWhorter of the Manhattan Institute (and an interpreter of vocal standards). McWhorter takes the music to task for its glorified cynicism:

“Hip hop and keeping it ‘real’ don’t seem to be working out so well. Let’s face it: It’s always been a pretty lazy kind of ‘real,’ hasn’t it? There’s nothing too difficult about cursing, calling people names, and hating Republicans. What’s difficult, and what real people do, is strive for something better than real.”

What’s realer than real are signs that hip hops commercial appeal might be cresting (a 21 % sales decline from 2005 to 2006). Tate off-handedly dismisses jazz, which in reality is still a vital form of musical expression. When jazz lost its commercial clout, it still had its dazzling virtuosity and its soul. Check out some of the emerging jazz musicians in the smaller clubs in the City and you will feel like the early Christians keeping faith alive in the Roman catacombs. Hip hop however, sold its soul (and cheap to white suburban kids). If the money goes, what is it left with? Cursing, name calling, and hating Republicans make for lousy nostalgia.

To be fair, there have been some soulful hip hop songs, but thing of it is, they usually display a marked jazz influence. A case in point: Us3’s “Grand Groove,” a grandson’s dedication to his grandfather, definitely speaks of someone who worked “for something better than real.” Frankly, Us3 might be too downright jazzy for Tate and the other hip hop partisans manning the barricades in Vibe. They feature instrumental solos after all, which definitely keeps things real.