The line delineating American culture from hip-hop culture has vanished. Will Larry King, rockin’ a deftly-coordinated wave-cap-and-headband combination, interview the Clipse next week? Probably not, but if Eminem can win an Academy Award, Baby can get more air time than Britney, and Common can croon for Coke, then the mainstream has clearly upped its gully quotient. The assimilation of hip-hop is not a new phenomenon, and there have been obvious signs of its integration for many years.
The nostalgia engendered among contemporary hip-hop fans who grew up watching MTV’s seminal “Yo! MTV Raps” speaks to this point. Ed Lover dancing on cable’s most culturally influential station while wearing a purple Cross Colours shirt is just a single piece of anecdotal evidence one could easily cite.The most unfortunate and irksome component of the trend, though, has been the misappropriation – or, perhaps misguided abuse – of certain terms, notably “old school” and “back in the day.”
The misuse of such expressions is both rampant and endemic of a larger movement that has obscured what the expressions should mean and where hip-hop should be headed. Case in point: Last weekend, a gentleman with whom I am friendly visited Ann Arbor. We were discussing music when he said to me, “I’ve gotten into hip-hop lately. I like a bunch of that old school music; groups like Naughty by Nature and Wu-Tang. You know, music from back in the day.” I didn’t know whether I should have laughed, cried or thrown up in my mouth after hearing his ridiculous admission.
Naughty by Nature is not “old school” and the Wu is not from “back in the day.” Admittedly, neither of the relative expressions has a finite definition that precludes its use in the manner which my friend chose, however, discussing the early ’90s in the language of authority seems slightly presumptuous and musically shortsighted, wrongly rendering that not-so-distant past as the genesis of a musical mode with roots that stretch much further back.
Additionally, when we use those terms so capriciously, what happens to those artists who truly are old school and did actually toil back in the day?
Before answering those questions, I feel compelled to acknowledge that this verbal abuse seems most commonly perpetuated by white people, and this matters because as hip-hop goes big time, it becomes available to America’s white population.
Ladies and gentlemen, start your letters. He dropped a race bomb.
As the picture accompanying this column shows, I am one of those people, however, I declare myself exempt from indictment because I don’t commonly use either term, as they sound almost hackneyed at this point. Additionally, I am not making a sweeping statement that all white people use the lingo or that, subsequently, all misuse it. Rather, I am simply observing that most commonly I hear “old school” and, especially, “back in the day” misused by my white friends and compatriots. Black people can definitely abuse the terms – and, to say the least, there are a bevy of television and radio personalities who are guilty of this crime – yet the serial misspeak among whites particularly interests me because it is they who have adopted these terms from another culture, not vice versa.
Regardless of race, I care so much about this issue because as hip-hop becomes embedded deeper and deeper in the American mainstream, it is doing so divorced from the old school music made back in the day on which it so heavily draws and in which it should continue to find inspiration. I don’t doubt that James Brown, the true Godfather of Hip-Hop, will remain a prominent musician, but as the Emotions and the New Births recess further back into the depths of memory, it is likely that they will soon be forgotten or disregarded.
For hip-hop, such losses would be calamitous, because the wonderful music of the ’60s and ’70s has played a crucial role in the development of the more modern sounds. From Grandmaster Flash and the Sugar Hill Gang using music made by the Incredible Bongo Band to Eminem and Jay-Z sampling Labi Siffre, rap has always drawn on the past.
A sustained memory of those forbearing artists now appears dubious. To make an unadventurous guess, I would wager that many more people know Dr. Dre’s “Nuthin’ But a G Thang” than the song which spawned it, Leon Haywood’s “I Want’a Do Something Freaky to You.” If I am wrong, then let serendipity consume me, however, I don’t foresee any such felicity. Furthermore, the same gentleman of whom I previously spoke would like term the former “old school” with a total ignorance of the latter.
It may be a natural cycle for the Naughty by Natures to supercede the Charmels, or even the Stylistics, over time, but the classic hip-hop pumped out in the early ’90s was predicated on the work of artists contemporary with the latter set, and it is with that sound that artists should work and for that music that fans should pine. Sampling a sample seems like an egregious admission of apathy, and music fans should not allow such a condition to become the norm, watching Will Smith’s “Men in Black” get cited in liner notes next decade after being lauded as a track from back in the day.
With the exception of producers like 9th Wonder and Kanye West, fewer and fewer producers are exhibiting the appreciation for sampling and the true old school that characterized the classic work of greats like Pete Rock, Public Enemy and A Tribe Called Quest. Similarly, only a small group of modern acts, like the Legendary Roots Crew, have explored the beautiful hip-hop that live instruments – like those championed by Earth, Wind, and Fire or Gladys Knight – can produce.
The best hip-hop’s foundation rests back in the day, and currently, that designation has become fungible and transient. Call me old school, but I have a problem with that.
Joseph Litman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.