Can I Live? The Rap Writer’s Essential Question

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I’ve never played the piano, unless you count that mindless tinkering we all do as kids. I’ve always looked at that box of wood lined with keys like a Rubik’s Cube; a puzzle that doesn’t compute between my ears.  I couldn’t tell you the difference between the long, sleek, white bars or the stubbier, taller black ones which offset them.  Yet, there’s this undeniable feeling I get every time I hear “Shimmy Shimmy Ya” by ODB that can only be described with a feeling. That simple jangly intro is synonymous in my mind with youth and energy. It’s the sound of simultaneous pain and jubilant celebration from one of the Wu Tang’s most troubled geniuses.

I’ve never worn silk panties, but I love their texture. I’ve never been a detective, but I’m fascinated by The First 48. I can’t drive a race car yet I’m convinced that Ricky Bobby is a national treasure. So what does it all mean? After reading blog posts for years, engrossing myself in music related social media, and spending thousands of hours listening and researching new music, I found myself posing all sorts of rhetorical questions in the mirror.  Have I been faking it for the last two decades? Have I overstayed my welcome in a culture that raised me? All at once, it became apparently clear. I ain’t shit.

That’s true, but only if you ignore the twenty-plus years of my life I’ve dedicated to listening, researching, writing, and reporting on hip hop music and culture. I’m no rapper, unless you count my infinite stopped-at-red-light-bars, or my iPod classic shuffle while cleaning my apartment when no one is around to correct my misinterpretations.  But, I’ve been a hip hop writer (and fanatic) long enough to know that you need only two things to make a valuable contribution to this infinitely expanding and ever fleeting world of digital media: eyes and ears. If you’re able to look at and listen to the sights and sounds of the culture with an open mind and expandable palate, you’ll never find yourself in the line of fire from the Hip Hop Police.

So do you have to rap to write about rap music? Do you have to live it to feel it? For starters, as a writer you don’t have to be real to relate. You simply have to relate. I got punched in the throat during my first fight on the playground in 6th grade.  It wasn’t on a street corner, and it certainly didn’t involve money or guns. But it hurt like a bitch and provided two valuable lessons. One, I’m not made of glass. And two, I found solace in the form of Eric B. and Rakim pumping through my Walkman earphones for reasons I couldn’t yet explain.

In my craft, which I’ve spent years honing, I have to fully engage in a piece of music to effectively cover it. When I’m able to feel the anger, energy, misery, or the joy in a track it becomes my job to articulate that response in the form of words. That reaction doesn’t come necessarily from a place of complete symmetry with the origin of the art itself.

Hip hop, both past and present, has always relied on whip appeal. This crazy, rhythmic, urban punk rock roared from American slums in the 80’s scaring one old politician at a time and completely took the world by storm. Turn on the TV at any hour and you’ll only wait a few seconds before seeing hip hop’s influence in advertising, character development, and tone.  Ironically, chart position used to act as a heat gauge where sales equaled stature, but now? It’s all about blog power. Who would have thought 15 years ago that an artist’s rise could be traced back to the website who took a leap on a co-sign? The internet is the A&R, label, and manager all rolled into one. This also means we’re inundated with daily amateurish coverage of hip hop music and culture to the point of saturation.

Ultimately, in order create meaningful critiques and reviews, music must generate raw reaction. The goal is to execute and present a final product that provides material for endless debate. And just like all art, in writing you have hits and misses. Some sites are complete trash, while others continually set the bar higher and higher each year. Yet, the tie that binds the trash from the flash is the love. Music writers, even when they write about something they hate or they’re simply bad at putting words together, must attack each piece with passion.

Critics have a tough job. They’re looking at a potential 50% disapproval rating from the rip. Then you start breaking music down into sub-genres and small niches and it becomes damn near impossible to please even half of the audience. Take critics of trap music for instance. They may never comprehend the mood and nervous energy of a genre born and bred to capture the mania of the round the clock drug game.  Not every writer, even the professionals, will take the time to connect the cadences and jittery rhythms of the music with the lifestyle.  But a smart, culturally aware writer, regardless of a lack of Pyrex experience, will find a way to shine a lasting light on it.

It’s also important to remember that as “real” as the rap culture claims to be, there’s just enough evidence to prove that we pander to and celebrate musical actors and actresses, quintessential fakers; and there’s nothing wrong with that. So what are we really relating to anyway?  I’d say we’re mostly captivated by the art of storytelling. And another painful truth is some fans and critics will never bother to understand the cultural center of a song or record, because they simply don’t care on that sort of visceral level.

And sure, rap writers get wet over the “Golden Age”, and I’m guilty as charged.  Of course I have a set of classics I abide by. I’m a student of the 90’s.  It’s the culture I was raised in. It’s the music I heard during some of the most delicate and turbulent moments of my youth. But let’s be honest, there’s nothing wrong with establishing that personal canon as a gauge by which you formulate your opinions as a writer.

Truth be told, a boat load of trending rappers don’t rap anymore; they hop from foot to foot when the social media balance swings one way or another.  What started as ringtone singles became Youtube dance crazes. A ton of the internet sensations that blogs and sites inflate and co-sign (sometimes on the strength on a few sub-par SoundCloud uploads) appear to live in a state of perpetual turn up, one that’s not physically or realistically possible.

All that crazy energy may be necessary for the evolution of the culture as a whole, but it remains to be seen if today’s mood music will stand a significant test of time.  Maybe we’re moving away from an era of classics? Singles will probably replace the notion of the full-length LP. But if we keep pushing these one- hitters we’ll have to keep digging deeper to unearth and separate the gems from the turds, and I’m completely fine with that.

I write about music that moves me. I watch films that appeal to me. I eat at restaurants that serve great food.  I don’t rap, act, or chef.  Just because I can run, doesn’t mean I’m trying out for an Olympic sprinting team. And because I truly feel Future’s music doesn’t mean I’ll ever fuck up a single comma. Either way, I’m going to keep oversharing, one new release at a time. You’ll keep reading and reminding yourself that we don’t have a clue. It’s the way of the world these days. Traffic is traffic, get money.

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