Monday, September 13th, 2010

On Hip-Hop Criticism, Race and Generation :: Richard Beck Vs. Thomas Chatterton Williams

Here is a compelling piece by Richard Beck in the new N+1. Along with Nitsuh Abebe’s “Decade In Indie” piece and Rachel Maddux’s “Is Indie Dead?” piece, this is some seriously passionate, seriously good writing.

They are good because of their risk and ambition, their desire to take on Big Questions in this age of microniched segmented superserved thinking, good because they can also be granular, especially attuned to not just the fit but the fiber of the subjects, good because when we think they’re wrong they are even more worth debating, good because those of us lucky enough to have book contracts or tenure or steady work or at least be on the other side of 35 ought to be jarred out of our smug righteousness over having solved similar such–but never the same–questions in our own youth, and even more out of our narcissistic despair over wasted young minds.

Rich Beck’s target here is Thomas Chatterton Williams’s book, Losing My Cool: How a Father’s Love and 15,000 Books Beat Hip-Hop Culture, in which Williams describes his relationship with his dad and his attempt to come clean from a foul lifestyle he ascribes to hip-hop.

In many respects, Beck’s piece does to the book what PG&E did to San Bruno. It is overkill. It is true that Williams’s thin book doesn’t merit the weight of Beck’s response. But then Rich has a lot to say–about the uses of hip-hop, identity and race, and most of all, the aesthetics of hip-hop music.

I find myself disagreeing with Beck’s premise that thinking about hip-hop should only amount to thinking about music, because we’ve come too far by now. Thinking about hip-hop is also thinking about race and generation and identity.

But Beck is right that the good thinking about the music may be getting lost–at least in terms of what’s being published on dead trees (because the WordPresses and Movable Types are full of granular discussion about the music). The last third of his essay offers a template for what could be a lifetime of interesting work on the aesthetics of hip-hop.

If he chooses to pursue it, Beck’s theory will have to make much more intellectual space for the voice, specifically the Black voice, at least if the focus is on North American hip-hop music–this is a problem with most of the mid-90s British writing on hip-hop that seem to be his inspiration. But I read his point in the here and now as a correction.

But I’m most moved by another of the points Rich makes:

Given the racial climate of the early 1990s, it was probably inevitable that newspaper columnists and Congressional candidates would use hip-hop as an excuse to attack “black people,” (Jeff note: those are his quotes) or to defend them, or to diagnose their problems, or to argue that their problems just weren’t worth addressing at all, because of the hopelessness of the whole thing. But politicizing debates is what politicians are supposed to do (it is literally their job). Cultural critics and academics had the chance to do better, and failed.

The throat-clearing face-saving thing to do would be to stammer, “B-but we tried.” For the record I don’t have any illusions that the columnists or the politicians on the other side felt any remorse about the “hopelessness of the whole thing”; they simply wanted to use culture as a weapon against youths of color and they succeeded. In any case I certainly saw CSWS as my attempt to “do better.”

Yet the criticism stands.

Often one generation will invoke Santayana like Jim Jones: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

But when the next generation has a chance, it often retorts, “What has your past left me?” It’s a question both Chatterton Williams and Beck are asking.

Fair enough.

posted by @ 10:46 am | 0 Comments

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