Voyou Désœuvré

You can tell, because KRS-One made a record saying that it wasn’t.The funny thing about KRS’s track, and (even more) the video, is that it’s all about the past.

Watch: KRS-One – Hip Hop Lives

A friend of mine said to me when Kanye West’s last record came out that he liked it, but it wasn’t hip-hop. I didn’t really get what he meant at the time (I mean, it’s a bloke talking over records, what more do you need, right?). But then I saw a repeat of Jimmy Kimmel with a performance from West, which got me thinking, and then Tha Carter III came out, which got me thinking even more. Maybe this is the early moments of a new genre, in much the same way that R&B arouse out of soul and disco in the late 80s. With Graduation and Tha Carter III (or perhaps Common’s Be is a better place to tag as the starting point?) hip-hop has generated a new form of pop music, something which has been implicit in hip-hop’s de facto position as the dominant genre for some time, but is perhaps beginning to lead to a formal reorganization only now.

This makes sense of KRS-One’s “Hip-Hop Lives.” He misses the point, of course: hip-hop’s death doesn’t mean that no-one listens to hip-hop any more, or even that no-one makes it. But it does mean that hip-hop is a specific and closed set of tropes: exactly, in fact, the set of tropes reproduced and reinforced by KRS’s video. Hip-hop now occupies the same position as jazz, in that it’s a genre as an object of curation, rather than as a catalyst for a movement. Hip-hop continues to be produced, then, but either as a kind of painstaking old-school reconstruction or a mainstream pastiche; the latter, of course, is best exemplified by 50 Cent, the Harry Connick, Jr. of gangsta rap.


  1. Jeff Rubard, 6:22 am, July 18, 2008

    Well, you’re right to identify some kind of shift in the genre status of hip-hop, but it’s not necessarily all that recent an event. L.L. Cool J saying “When my six-pack is faded and rap is outdated” back in 2005 made me wonder a little, but the early part of this decade was actually a great time for hip-hop as opposed to the dead zone of the late ’90s, so I was just glad to listen.

    However, now there are problems with the business model of hip-hop: since it’s hard to get fans to buy records, the radio stations that promote the records are hurting. On a cultural level, it’s hard to see exactly who hip-hop speaks to: there was a recent period when that strain of black culture was dirigente for the American proletariat generally, but maybe that’s not the de facto reality today.

    On a critical level, I guess you could say we are living in the “closure” of hip-hop: the organizing principles are visible to people who care to look. That doesn’t mean it’s a “specific and closed set of tropes”, but that its signifying power is perfectly general: they represent what they want to represent, there’s not occultation.

    Of course there can always be subgenre innovation, like the “New Jack Swing” of Bush I you refer to, but generally speaking hip-hop’s project is realized: it’s not an “heroic” era. You may be right that there will be something else, something very distinctly different, coming out of a new cultural matrix. But in meantime, we can all throw our hands in the ayer.

  2. Jeff Rubard, 7:19 am, July 18, 2008

    Further comment: the sounds of black music in general are bifurcated today. Some of it is real old, even pre-funk, in inspiration: for example, “Shawty Is A Ten” was basically a doo-wop song with modern lingo, and although “neo-soul” is partially white revivalism it has not gone without notice. Then there’s the club crossover music, and although that subgenre’s traditionally known by another name maybe that’s the beginning of the new genre you’re talking about.

Post a comment