Are you listening?
The other day I was sitting in my Central Campus apartment taking a break to let my mind rest from work. I flipped to BET where I saw an image of rapper 50 Cent, looking jacked up on steroids, entering what was essentially a brothel, from what I could tell. As I heard the words coming out of his mouth, I became even more frustrated than I had been while attempting to do my paper with a severe case of writer’s block. “I’ll break it down for you now, baby it’s simple/ If you be a nympho, I’ll be a nympho…Isn’t it ironic how erotic it is to watch ‘em in thongs?” Break this down for me 50; how is that ironic?? And FYI, nympho and nympho don’t rhyme; they’re just the same word. My frustration wasn’t an issue of the objectification of the female body, or the portrayal of the delinquent black male, or the commodification of hip-hop culture, or any of those intelligent sounding concepts you debate about in CulAnth or African-American Studies. My frustration was due to the fact that the song was simply unoriginal, typical, in a word, wack.
In case no one has noticed from the Public Enemy reference in the title of my bi-weekly column, I am a pretty big fan of hip-hop, and beyond that I’m pretty passionate about music in general. However, I’ve become increasingly baffled trying to understand how some of the music on the radio and television becomes popular. Here’s a Cliff’s Notes version of a typical hip-hop song that gets played on the radio a million times a day:
(Hypnotic beat comes on, placing you in a trance under which you will not notice that there are actual words being said in the next 3:30 minutes—and that you are singing them.)
Rapper mentions dark past (real or imagined) of hustling to get by, usually rhyming the words “rock” and “block” at least once.
Describes weapon of choice followed by detailed description of the luxury car he’s hiding it in.
Drops name of new clothing line ever so slyly (read: extremely obviously).
Mentions sexual prowess with the opposite sex (in the most unsexy and grotesque way possible).
Claims to be the best since Biggie and/or Tupac died.
Sings ridiculously simplistic hook at least 10 times before fading out (just to make sure that even if you hate the song with a passion, you’ll continue singing it unconsciously anyway.)
I’m all for a good beat, but where is the creativity? When did artistic quality go out of style?
Are you listening??
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It seems a lot of people don’t take an active part in choosing their music these days, but wait for the radio to give them a playlist. Most people wouldn’t let a stranger pick out their clothes, their food, their shoes, so I find it hard to understand why many are so comfortable letting a stranger choose their music. Case in point: when singer John Legend opened for Kanye West’s set at the Last Day of Classes concert last year, many did not stop to actually listen but booed instead, because he was a nobody who hadn’t “blown up” yet. However, now that John Legend is officially hot, meaning MTV and Hot 97 told us so, many of the same people I saw booing are riding around playing his album in their cars. Listening to music should be an active process, not a passive one. Why do we need the approval of a major label or network to tell us what music is worth listening to? Why don’t we check out local acts or random artists we’ve heard about from friends? Why don’t we let our ears decide anymore?
Are you listening???
I don’t like being elitist about music. What you like is what you like, and in art, there are no “right” or “wrong” messages. Being “mainstream” doesn’t necessarily make you a bad rapper and being “underground” doesn’t mean you are a good one. I hear many hip- hop fans (usually complete with the typical Che Guevara shirt and dreadlocks) talk about how they like “conscious” hip-hop (music with a political message) and not “commercial” hip-hop, but, while I am an Immortal Technique fanatic at the moment, “real” hip-hop isn’t necessarily about who can give the most detailed analysis of foreign policy. “Real” hip hop music can be serious, silly, sad, fun, whatever you want it to be, but creativity is the only necessary ingredient. I have nothing against 50 Cent; he’s proven he has some talent with lines like “I hate a liar more than I hate a thief/ A thief is only after my salary/ A liar is after my reality.” What I am against is the reduced, re-used and recycled concepts, rhyme schemes and stories that I hear in rap music time and time again. And sometimes it frustrates me that we continue to let it play in the background without noticing.
Are you listening?
On their debut album “The Listening,” Little Brother, frustrated like me, has the guts to ask their audience this question. They don’t claim to be “conscious” MCs, restricting their music to discussion of the war in Iraq or the revolution. And they don’t debate about their authenticity or how “underground” they are. Big Pooh, Phonte and 9th Wonder just make innovative, refreshing, good music—about whatever they want. The beats are unique, the rhymes will make you get acquainted with your rewind button again and they can hold their own in a three-hour live performance without bringing all the other members of their label and a random R&B group.
Phonte told the writers of The Chronicle’s Recess section, “Back in the day, people used to buy records, go home and take off the wrapping, read the credits and just sit and listen….Now, people are just making one song and that’s it. Listening to music used to be an event. The art of actually listening to an album is dying these days. We’re trying to get that back with our record.”
For me and other fans, Little Brother has definitely accomplished that mission, and done so without making it an issue of political “consciousness” or of selling out versus “real” hip-hop—just an issue of music.
If you’re a die-hard fan of hip-hop, or if you have eclectic tastes, or even if you just don’t have anything to do at 7 p.m. tomorrow, you should come out to Central Campus. Participate in the art of listening to music again. Don’t let the radio or the television decide for you.
Yo, I bought a brand new album today
Decided to take it home kick off my shoes relax and play
And spin it for the whole joint cause I like to get the whole point
Music is everything to me and I refuse to rock the peace
Cause you’re my favorite emcee
All I want is what you would ask of me; Hi Kwelity
And some Definition
Wonder why we bootleg like it’s prohibition
As difficult as this mission,
I got suspicions that your ears to the streets where we’re whispering
“Are you listening?”
Amelia Herbert is a Trinity senior. Her column usually appears every other Thursday.