Some recent developments:
- The Roots collaborate with the Monsters of Folk and Joanna Newsom
- Various members of Broken Social Scene record with K-OS and Shad.
- Mos Def recruits a couple of Dirty Projectors to recreate a Dilla sample in a live performance [who kill it].
- Chiddy Bang retools MGMT to add a little more bounce to what was already a catchy track.
- Cee-Lo Green covers Band of Horses’ ‘No One’s Gonna Love You‘.
It would seem that 2010 has been the biggest thing for rap-rock cross-pollination since Aerosmith met Run-DMC. And I certainly can’t deny that the results of 2010’s collaborations are significantly more artful than when Fred met Meth [still dig that beat, though], but why do I find all of it so subtly grating?
Full disclosure: I despise an awful lot of indie rock. The self-satisfaction of the musicians, the great unwashed, bearded and emaciated masses fogging up their Ray-Bans and sweating in their toques trying in vain to dance to it…it could not speak to me less.
I am not the first to notice this. Back in 2007, pop critic Sasha Frere-Jones criticized Indie Rock for not being ‘black enough’. Slate’s Carl Wilson took Frere-Jones to task for painting with too wide a brush, while not acquitting Indie of what he thought was its real issue: it’s not poor enough, which means it comes from a place of higher education, a more bookish and nerdy place, less body-centered. Two years ago when he wrote that essay, Wilson concluded that the impetus for rectifying this problem of ‘style segregation’ may have to come from the other side of playing field, since the Indie side is so wrapped up in how clever it is. This is what we’ve seen in the past year, as hip-hop reaches out to Indie artists more and more. And if you think musical miscegenation is the ultimate goal, these are happy developments. But I don’t know that I share that outlook.
In some regards, these collaborations are a reversal of the traditional cultural thievery that’s set the course of popular music from Elvis to the Beatles to Vampire Weekend. In others, they mark a shift from the traditional hip-hop forms that may have run their course [something Frere-Jones mused about in a 2009 article that accused Jay-Z’s Blueprint 3 of not being a hip-hop record because it wasn’t weird enough], though dozens of artists mainstream and underground prove the old forms work just fine all the time. I also wonder if the arguments Frere-Jones and Wilson are making are as applicable in a post-Obama America. Why yes, I am as tired as hearing that phrase as you are, but still I wonder.
I also wonder how calculated some of these maneuvers are. Clearly The Roots were trying to make a different type of record when they recorded ‘How I Got Over,’ and their gig on Fallon introduced and exposed them to artists I don’t think they would have met under any other circumstances [though The Seed 2.0 was a stab at Indie years before they sat in with Fallon]. Cee-Lo seems more troubling to me, since he’s been a little calculated his whole career, I’m pretty sure he admitted as much in a solo song mentioning he chose to appear on Santana’s ‘Supernatural’ album to reap residuals. I suspect his appearance on the Eclipse soundtrack is similarly motivated. But that sort of thinking opens the authenticity in rap debate that I am not even going to engage in right now.
Mostly I just get annoyed that a large chunk of the music media, which is typically Indie-centric, needs crossovers like these as an excuse to write about hip-hop, especially in Canada. In this country it seems like hip-hop artists can’t get any mainstream press until they’re knighted by someone in Broken Social Scene. Seemed like no one gave K-OS much due in the ‘Rise Like the Sun‘ days, no one paid him much mind when he re-emerged on that Rascalz track. These are not bad songs, but I guess they aren’t worth talking about because Brendan Canning doesn’t feature on them. Same thing seems to be happening to Shad this year, with TSOL earning his second Polaris Shortlist nomination, making him one of three hip-hop artists to ever make the shortlist [I’m not including Radio Radio in that list, I don’t care what you say] . Not that he has a chance in hell of winning but hey, quota met I suppose.
This is all snobbery, I understand. And it’s all over-thinking what is at its core a very basic issue: a certain lack of respect that hip-hop receives, that it is only allowed when it blips on certain unexpected radars. It’s the sort of reception that makes me want to throw up my elbows in a b-boy stance, puff out my chest and say, ‘Well fuck y’all if we weren’t good enough for you before.’ But more than that, it makes me want to shake the people lauding the platitudes, because none of the songs mentioned at the start of this post are as good as what these people do on a regular basis without the aid of indie rockers. Nothing on The Roots album is downright bad, but the tracks with John Legend are better. I was bumping Cee-Lo’s ‘I’ll Be Around’ last night and found myself surprised by how much I still liked it. And Shad? At his best, he is hip-hop in the purest form, illustrated in a track like this: headknocker of a beat, furious scratching and dazzling lyrics you can barely keep up with.
I mean, if the collaborations produce weaker results, why bother in the first place?