Wednesday, November 19th, 2003
WHOSE BEST MUSIC WRITING?
While we’re on the topic of music journalism and canon-making, may I rant for a second? Ah fuck it, it’s my blog I’ll rant if I like.
I’ve been going back through Da Capo’s so-called Best Music Writing of Year 200x. (I believe I bought the first one back in 2000, and have either borrowed the rest from the library or bought them used. That’s my little form of protest. No royalties for the monkeys. I don’t pay for brand new Charles Murray or Dinesh D’Souza books either.)
It’s not hard to notice what’s going on.
All the book editors have been guest edited by old white males. (Only Jonathan Lethem has been under 40.) Most of the pieces selected have been written by white males. Many of the pieces have been about dead or nearly dead or pretty somnabulent white males.
(Full disclosure: my piece on go-go for Vibe didn’t make the cut for the 2002 edition. Who cares. I don’t need no stinking badges. As some white guy once said, gimme truth!)
If you read the Da Capo series to find out what the best music journalism is about and who the best music journalists are, you would have to believe that rock is still dominant, that rap is still a marginal genre, and that women and folks of color just don’t make the highest tier of best music journalists. In other words, you’d be still sucking in the 70s. If Ward Connerly were a rock critic, his best-of anthologies might look like this.
In fact, I’d wager unscientifically that most of the pieces in these books on the subject of hip-hop are not by hip-hop journalists or even hip-hop generation journalists, and are not from hip-hop magazines. Hell I could be wrong. But I doubt it. Undeniably many of the articles on hip-hop are by old white males.
Look, I don’t think old white males can’t write about hip-hop. I’m not that petty-nationalist. But if by excluding all but less than a handful of selections from hip-hop journalism in four years you are telling me only old white males can write well about hip-hop? Let’s talk.
Take this piece by Nik Cohn in the 2002 edition.
Nik Cohn is best known as the guy who fabricated the story about the Italian disco stallion in Brooklyn and saw it turned into Saturday Night Fever, for which he earned a nice payday. Proving that if you are a white male journalist and you make up a story, you may be more likely to end up in Hollywood (see also Steve Glass) than back at ya mama’s crib (see Jayson Blair).
And that if you keep at it long enough you even get celebrated as a Respected Music Journalist. Proving that music journalism is an oxymoron by itself. It’s never about facts, it’s about myths.
But back to the story–which is advertised on the back cover blurb in these words: “Nik Cohn infiltrates the New Orleans rap scene”…not you kid I, as Yoda would say. Let’s leave aside for a moment the discussion of “infiltration” and age and race and rap and audience, shall we? That could take a while. And get to the story.
Nik Cohn is prone to writing lines like, “Soljas lived and died by the G-Code”, and sections like, “They seemed like nice girls, well behaved. They talked about their nails, and boys, and Destiny’s Child, and boys. Then Choppa came on the stage, and the girls flew into the gym. ‘If you like your pussy ate, say Aaaahh,’ Choppa said. And all the nice girls went, ‘Aaaahh.’”
This from a guy whose bio reads, “Nik Cohn was born in London in 1946…”
Nik Cohn also writes sentences like this: “Calliope niggas made the St. Thomas look like church.”
Now stylistically, the lack of attribution and all that can be seen as artful. You know, the omniscient narrator blah blah blah. In this case, omniscient narration can also be seen as total bullshit.
This is not a debate about whether or not Nik Cohn has the right to write what he wants. The question is about his authority and the use of the voice. Nik Cohn substituting his own voice for the voice of his interview subject–if his subject did indeed say that and Nik Cohn did not invent his subject–is the perfect way of describing what’s wrong with the white man’s burden approach to these anthologies.
I mean, “Calliope niggas”, please. Tell me Nik Cohn is omnisciently walking around the Calliope projects with that sentence dropping out of his month, let alone the St. Thomas projects. This is a guy whose bio ends, “He now lives in Shelter Island, New York.”
Who is he writing for? The Granta audience. And now you, too, consumer of “the year’s best writing on rock, pop, jazz, country & more”. (You didn’t miss it, hip-hop is in the “& more” section.)
As badly and as often as I bemoan the state of hip-hop journalism, it’s nice to get a slap upside the head like this once in a while.
Hip-hop journalism is nowhere near as bad as the state of music journalism, which apparently is still stuck in the same old racist, rockist canon-making. Geezus, it feels like the late 80s and we’re fighting to have women and people of color included in the curriculum all over again.
Shall I dig my old picket signs out of the garage? Call up Jesse Jackson? Chant “Hey hey ho ho greying white rock critics have got to go”?
So to all the old white guys at Da Capo and to you future old white guy guest editors–read David Tompkins, Kris Ex, Harry Allen, Sylvia Chan, Jessica Hopper, Jon Caramanica, Tony Green, Elliott Wilson, Hua Hsu, Gabe Alvarez, Cristina Veran, Rob Kenner, Joseph Patel, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Tonya Pendleton, Sacha Jenkins-shit you want more? There’s plenty more. Read about broken beat, dub, reggae, mbalax, salsa, Tejano, Latin rock, afrobeat, kiho’alu, qawwali. Your readers do. Your heroes do. Hell, you’re behind the curve.
You could also invest next year in Raquel Cepeda’s anthology collecting some of the best hip-hop journalism of the last two or so decades called And It Don’t Stop (not from your press, I note). A beginning corrective which may unleash some Columbus-style discoveries in your offices but then again probably not.
Get it? No?
Let me put it like this: If Lester Fucking Bangs was still alive, he’d probably be mentoring a young girl of color from New Orleans who grew up with Juvie, Jubilee, marches, merengue, magnums, samba, second line, the Sex Pistols, and the housing authority police. She wouldn’t need to make anything up.
And if you didn’t hear her, it would be all your loss.
Wednesday, November 19th, 2003
SMELLS LIKE A READING LIST, A-K
I’ve been teaching a class on Saturdays at Media Alliance on breaking into music journalism. Came up with a list of books for folks to check out and thought yall would find it interesting…
Not to be confused with a canon, but certainly loaded.
Bangs, Lester. Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung
The classic collection of essays that has justly defined the legend. For most folks, this is where music writing begins. But for me it starts with…
Baraka, Amiri (Leroi Jones). Blues People
This classic survey of the development of black music from slavery through jazz works on a number of levels—as history, polemic, and finally, as brilliant criticism.
Barrow, Steve and Dalton, Peter. Reggae: The Rough Guide
More than just a record guide, this is something close to a definitive history of the development of Jamaican music from the 60s through the present. Peppered with reviews, oral histories, and useful chronologies.
Bowman, Rob. Soulsville USA
Four out of five music critics have recommended this 1997 history of Stax Records that was 12 years in the making. Beautifully written, exhaustively researched, the gold standard.
Brewster, Bill and Broughton, Frank. Last Night A DJ Saved My Life
A fine narrative history of the development of the modern DJ. Diggers love the classic club playlists which allow them to turn their own bedrooms into the Roxy, the Paradise Garage or the Loft.
Christgau, Robert. Grown Up All Wrong
The collected writings of The Dean, one of the two most influential critics alive and the curmudgeonly curator of the annual Village Voice Pazz and Jop Poll, which once was, before hip-hop arrived, the last word on critical consensus. Doesn’t include his explosive essay on Ice Cube’s Death Certificate, but the rest amply rep his ability to cut through to the hearts of icons.
Cross, Brian. It’s Not About A Salary
The definitive history of L.A. hip-hop lets the pioneers, the stars, and the street heads speak in their own voices. Spans three decades of black cultural production in the City of Quartz. Generously illustrated with his beautiful black and white shots of the scene in the early 90s, which now have historical, not just aesthetic value. Goes for $100+ on ebay. Will not be reprinted.
Ego Trip’s Book of Rap Lists
Somehow anticipated the Blenderized lists-as-journalism movement, and still did it 1000x better. Captures the sheer ambivalent, mixed-up, polycultural, middle-finger fun of being a hip-hop head like no other book except Upski’s Bomb The Suburbs. Will probably remain one of the top three books ever written about hip-hop when we’re old and grey and angry at the noisy young’uns.
Eshun, Kodwo. More Brilliant Than The Sun
Equal parts ornery, airy-fairy, and visionary. An Afrofuturist revisionist history that links Herbie Hancock with Kool Keith. Takes the position that “keeping it real” is the death of black music. Farther out than David Toop, though not as far out as Dave Tompkins.
Fricke, Jim and Ahearn, Charlie. Yes Yes Y’all
Replaces Hager (see below) as the definitive account of the old school, told in the pioneers’ own words. If the book lacks some contextualizing, it’s still hard not to take in the photos and flyers, read the excerpted transcripts, and not be carried away by the joy of the whole thing.
Frith, Simon. Performing Rites
A British cultural studies pioneer who has done more than any other academic to establish pop music as a field worthy of study writes a corrective to the current bland, overly celebratory excesses of that same field. Makes you hear the Pet Shop Boys and read Adorno differently.
George, Nelson. The Death of Rhythm and Blues
A relentlessly original survey of the tortured relationship between black music and America’s racial integration experiment from post-WWII through the dawn of Def Jam’s mid-80s crossover. By itself, his recounting of the forgotten history of black radio, from segregation to the origins of “urban” radio, is invaluable.
Gillett, Charlie. The Sound of The City
An expansive, enthusiastic and entertaining survey of the rise of rock from the end of World War II through the 60s, tracking the rise of the music, the artists, and the industry. Also indispensable for the footnotes that list rosters of indie and major labels through the decades.
Hager, Steven. Hip Hop
Fearless journalism and book one of the Old Testament of hip-hop. The book that established hip-hop studies, hip-hop journalism, and yes, hip-hop hagiography. Also the book that became “Beat Street”. After the movie came out, Hager gave up and went on to become editor of High Times. Original goes for $300+ on ebay. Mostly reprinted in last year’s Adventures In The Counterculture.
Kelley, Norman, ed. Rhythm and Business: The Political Economy of Black Music
Fine, if incomplete, recent effort to bring analytical tools back to the study of the economics of pop, a noble effort itself amidst the Blenderizing of music journalism. It’s incomplete because both hip-hop’s transformation of the music industry and media industry consolidation are events that are still very much in motion.
Kofsky, Frank. Black Nationalism and the Revolution In Music
Brian Cross’ favorite book. Written in 1970 in the flush of liberation movements, this is a scathing critique of jazz critics and a revisioning of jazz from a unabashedly post-Third World Strike, pro-Black, pro-Marxist point of view. Pretty fly for a white guy.
Friday, November 14th, 2003
If you’re in the Bay Area next week, come out for the New California Media Expo. From 2:30 to 4pm, there will be a special reception for youth media featuring Dr. Ben Chavis of the Hip Hop Summit Action Network. This will follow two special youth-oriented workshops.
More info on the day and the NCM Awards Banquet is below…
NCM EXPO & Awards 2003
November 18 and 19 in San Francisco
The NCM (New California Media) EXPO gives you a unique opportunity to meet leaders of ethnic and youth media along with key decision makers from corporate, small business, governmental, mainstream media and non-profit sectors who want to expand and specialize their communication strategies.
NCM EXPO, November 19, 2003 9:00 am – 5:00 pm
San Francisco Exhibition Center, 635 8th Street, San Francisco, CA 94103
A one day tour of ethnic and youth media and their leaders all in one place. Workshop topics cover issues from bridging the generation gap to how youth media cover America’s faultlines. A full list of workshops are available here.
Special guests and speakers include FCC Commissioner Adelstein, San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown, Sean Walsh Campaign Spokesman for Governor-elect Schwarzenegger (invited), Dr. Robert Ross of The California Endowment, Jim Canales of The James Irvine Foundation, Tessie Guillermo of The Community Technology Foundation, and the nation’s leading multilingual pollster and NCM partner, Sergio Bendixen. Some of the youth media participating include Shout Out, Just Think, Bay Area Video Coalition (BAVC) and Youth Sounds.
Visit here for more information.
NCM Awards Banquet, November 18, 2003, 7:00pm
Westin St. Francis, 335 Powell Street, San Francisco, CA 94102
Celebrate the winners of the fifth annual NCM (New California Media) Awards, dubbed “The Pulitzers of Ethnic Media,” by The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer. Join us in honoring exceptional communicators Tavis Smiley, host of the Tavis Smiley Show; Sandra Hernandez, CEO of the San Francisco Foundation; and Bill Imada, Chairman & CEO of the I.W. Group Inc. and in-language and English journalistic excellence in ethnic media.
Register online here or call 415-503-4170
Banquet tickets are $100; EXPO tickets are $25
Friday, November 14th, 2003
Here is a scathing analysis of Al Sharpton’s attacks on Howard Dean from The Black Commentator. A must-read.
Monday, November 10th, 2003
Back from NYC. In a week there, I can do a year’s worth of work! (I’m killing myself now for missing Zulu’s 30th…that’s how rammed I was.)
I was in town to drop my first draft off with my editor Monique, and to do a convening on hip-hop at the Ford Foundation. OK, now I know I can’t just drop a nugget like that on you and be out, but I have to be right now. Like I said, a year’s worth of work to start up. More later, I promise.
Two things to finish up…
1) Lyrics Born killed it at SOBs on Wednesday night. Catch him on tour yall. It’s a must see. If you need specific info, check the LB website.
2) Re: talk radio for the hip-hop generation, I got this important correction from Jay Smooth at NYC’s WBAI. Let it be noted also that his website is a must-check. If you love this, you’ll love that fa sho.
“WBAI does have a politically oriented hip-hop show
that has been representing for 12+ years (now the
longest running underground show in NY), namely the
Underground Railroad on Saturday nights at midnight,
as seen on our website here:
Also worth a mention is our youth collective who produces Rise Up
Radio, on Fridays at 11AM:
Jay Smooth, WBAI”
- Who We Be + N+1=Summer Reading For You
- “I Gotta Be Able To Counterattack” : Los Angeles Rap and The Riots
- Me in LARB + Who We Be Update
- In Defense Of Libraries
- The Latest On DJ Kool Herc
- Support DJ Kool Herc
- A History Of Hate: Political Violence In Arizona
- Culture Before Politics :: Why Progressives Need Cultural Strategy
- It’s Bigger Than Politics :: My Thoughts On The 2010 Elections
- New In The Reader: WHO WE BE PREVIEW + Uncle Jamm’s Army
- DJ Nu-Mark :: Take Me With You
DJ Nu-Mark remixes the diaspora…party ensues!
- El General + Various Artists :: Mish B3eed : Khalas Mixtape V. 1
The crew at Enough Gaddafi bring the most important mixtape of 2011–the street songs that launched the Tunisian & Egyptian Revolutions…
- J. Period + Black Thought + John Legend :: Wake Up! Radio mixtape
Remixing the classic LP w/towering contributions from Rakim, Q-Tip + Mayda Del Valle
- Lyrics Born :: As U Were
Bright production + winning rhymes in LB’s most accessible set ever
- Model Minority :: The Model Minority Report
The SoCal Asian American rap scene that produced FM keeps surprising…
- Mogwai :: Hardcore Won't Die But You Will
Dare we call it majestic?
- Taura Love Presents :: Picki People Volume One
From LA via Paris with T-Love, the global post-Dilla generation goes for theirs…
- Cormac McCarthy :: Blood Meridian
Read this now before Hollywood f*#ks it up.
- Dave Tompkins :: How To Wreck A Nice Beach
Book of the decade, nuff said.
- Joe Flood :: The Fires
The definitive account of why the Bronx burned
- Mark Fischer :: Capitalist Realism
K-Punk’s philosophical manifesto reads like his blog, snappy and compelling. Just replace pop music with post-post-Marxism. Pair with Josh Clover’s 1989 for the full hundred.
- Nell Irvin Painter :: The History of White People
Well worth a Glenn Beck rant…and everyone’s scholarly attention
- Robin D.G. Kelley :: Thelonious Monk : The Life And Times Of An American Original
Monk as he was meant to be written
- Tim Wise :: Colorblind
Wise’s call for a color-conscious agenda in an era of “post-racial” politics is timely
- Victor Lavalle :: Big Machine
Victor Lavalle does it again!
- ++ Total Chaos
The acclaimed anthology on the hip-hop arts movement
- Asian Law Caucus | Arc of 72
- AWOL Inc Savannah
- B+ | Coleman
- Boggs Center
- Center For Media Justice
- Center For Third World Organzing
- Chinese For Affirmative Action
- Color of Change
- Dan Charnas
- Danyel Smith
- Dave Zirin
- Davey D
- DJ Shadow
- Elizabeth Mendez Berry
- Ferentz Lafargue
- Giant Robot
- Hip-Hop Theater Festival
- Hua Hsu
- Humanity Critic
- Hyphen Magazine
- Jalylah Burrell
- Jay Smooth
- Joe Schloss
- Julianne Shepherd
- League of Young Voters
- Lyrics Born
- Mark Anthony Neal
- Nate Chinen
- Nelson George
- Okay Player
- Oliver Wang + Junichi Semitsu :: Poplicks
- Pop + Politics
- Raquel Cepeda
- Raquel Rivera
- Rob Kenner
- Sasha Frere-Jones
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- Theme Magazine
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