Minding My Business – Part Three
April 29th, 2005 by Dan Charnas
Hip-hop is where it is today, and looks the way it does today — not because of a diabolical conspiracy — but largely because of its own success, its own mainstreaming.
Hip-hop once existed in isolation, in a political and cultural incubator (one that allowed for Native Tongues, comedic rappers, political hip-hop, etc.), separated from the twin mainstream diseases of banality and materialism. Now, as hip-hop has become less isolated, more successful; that success and inclusion has made it susceptible to those mainstream diseases.
It’s Bigger Than Hip-Hop
What’s being done to hip-hop is currently being done to everything in the mainstream. We used to have mom and pop stores. Now we have The Gap. We used to have cafes. Now we have Starbucks. And we used to have the variety of Dana Dane, Public Enemy, and Big Daddy Kane in hip-hop. Now we have endless varieties of the same guy — 50-Cent, The Game, Lloyd Banks — all on the shelf next to each other like GI-Joe Kung Fu Grip, GI-Joe Deep-Sea Diver, GI-Joe Ski Patrol, and so on.
“It’s bigger,” as the song goes, “than hip-hop”: What’s happening to women in hip-hop is symptomatic of what’s happening to women elsewhere in the mainstream. We live in a culture that commodifies sex, and in so doing, it debases women (and men too, albeit differently). What’s happening to hip-hop in general — the violence, the materialism, the nihilism — is happening elsewhere in the mainstream. We live in a culture that commodifies, dehumanizes and isolates human beings. And hip-hop happens to be the big mainstream music at a time when those processes are waxing.
Hip-hop is where it is today — not because of higher-ups — but because of the lowest common denominator. It is the same lowest common denominator that re-elected Bush; that raises no voice to challenge the lies of this administration; the same one that craves a steady diet of fast food and reality TV shows; supplies the demand for reams of gossip magazines like Us, People and the Enquirer; that buys an SUV as the Earth warms; that would rather fight than negotiate; that would rather be told than to think; that would rather regulate than wisely judge. And we are all swept up in that.
This lowest common denominator is not specific to hip-hop. It is currently poisoning our entire culture, on some last-days-of-the-Roman-Empire-type-s**t.
The Problem is Us
The problem is Disconnection.
Last year I drove across the country alone, and if there’s one thing I got from that trip through middle America, it’s that we are a nation asleep at the wheel. We are disconnected from everything. We don’t care where the meat comes from, where the oil comes from, where the paper and plastic comes from, where the land comes from, where the entertainment comes from… just keep it coming.
And if there’s one indelible image I got from the recent panel on images of women in hip-hop, it was the middle school teacher who said “You wouldn’t believe how many young girls we caught in the hallways and the bathrooms giving oral sex to guys after ‘My Neck, My Back’ came out.” Now, on one level, that makes no sense to me because Khia’s song is about cunnilingus, not fellatio. But, that being said, it is kind of chilling to think that not just hip-hop, but individual songs have that kind of impact. And plausible, from what I remember of my own grade school experiences (let’s just say that Randy Newman’s “Short People” made months of my life into a living hell).
We don’t like to talk about personal responsibility in hip-hop. Like Remy Ma said that same evening, “It isn’t my job to raise anybody’s kids.” And in a real way, it isn’t. But it IS her job to be human. At base, your duty is to be yourself. You also might try not to hurt too many people in the process. Expanding outward, you might develop some feelings of social responsibility and connection. And the truth is that it does take a village to raise a child. And our culture has lost a great many of its villages — both real and virtual — to the culture of consumption, the culture of ego, and the culture of blame and arrogance that is cultivated particularly well by the so-called-Christian right and the current administration.
So here we all are, separately: an army of One, a village of One, looking out for number One. A rapper writes lyrics without caring about who his words might hurt, because it’s all about what he wants to say. A music exec releases that record to buyers with whom he would never associate and doesn’t understand. A radio jock plays that record because it’s sensational and gives him the extra ears that he needs, no matter who’s attached to those ears. All under the guise of professionalism and propriety. After all, it’s just business, right? We’re just minding our own business.
And that’s the problem: Disconnection. The problem is not that “white boy video directors” or white record and radio execs are all up in Black artists’ business. The problem is that they are not in Black artists’ business enough. And the same goes for Black execs, and industry people of all colors and creeds. Nobody is connected. Nobody feels responsible. It’s always somebody else’s problem.
Who’s More Connected?
Let me explain with another personal story. When I was in college, in the African-American Studies department, writing my thesis on the music business, I took it as self-evident that more Black ownership of record and media companies would lead to better representation of Black music in the mainstream. And that it would also lead to better culture, smarter culture. I also felt that white execs, unless they “grew up” in Black music, probably shouldn’t market it, and turn that job over to more competent hands.
But a few short years later, after I had been in the music business for a while, I saw that things were much more complicated. Yes, the explosion of Black entrepreneurship had created some dynamite culture and had blown the doors off a closed industry. But many of the people at the majors who stood in their way happened to be Black, and many who helped them happened to be white. When I was at Warner, for example, I begged and pleaded NOT to have my Black artists managed by the “Black Department,” which would have been something akin to the death of the project. In many cases, it was.
The problem with many of these folks was not that they were Black. The problem is that they were disconnected: from music, from passion, from culture, from the rest of the company and even from each other. From reality. And, to be fair, they were set up to fail by white execs who really didn’t give a shit about them. So there’s your institutional racism.
When you look for a partner, in business or in life, you want somebody who is plugged in, somebody whose blood surges and someone who feels like they’re a part of you and you of them. That’s what makes a particular human endeavor great.
Whether that partner is white or Black, you want them minding your business, you want them caring about you as if they were caring about themselves. That is why, my friends, Warner had such great Black music (Prince, Funkadelic, Chaka) BEFORE they had a Black department. Because the top-level executives didn’t make Black artists somebody else’s responsibility. They made it theirs (until the day Mo Ostin hired Benny Medin
a). Clive Davis, another example. Made Black music his top priority, and he gets more respect from Black artists and their inter-generational audiences than almost anyone in the music biz.
So what are we to make of someone like Jimmy Iovine, then? Like Clive, here’s another guy who made Black music a top priority. Jimmy was not disconnected musically. Rather, he was disconnected as a human being. He got into bed with gangsters. And if you get into bed with gangsters, if you don’t care what kinds of people they are, then you probably don’t feel connected to the communities from which they came. And you damn sure aren’t going to quibble about their lyrics or their imagery.
Chuck D half-joked recently that he wanted to do a “home invasion” on Jimmy Iovine. I understand what he means. If Jimmy had some sort of personal stake or experience or connection to what his products represent, I think he might think twice about the content of that product. But Jimmy, because he’s white and privileged, can simply mind his own business while Rome burns. And what’s really startling is that so many Black entrepreneurs and executives, many from those burning streets, act about as disconnected from those streets as Iovine.
Think about it: Was the image of hip-hop any better off in the hands of BET’s original owner, Bob Johnson? What kind of images did No Limit and Rap-A-Lot and Cash Money thrive on? Is Radio One a more worthy caretaker of culture than Emmis? “Black Owned” conjures up this romantic notion of “community ownership.” And it is not. More often, the reality of “Black Owned” simply means that the capitalist who owns the business happens to be Black.
In this mainstream culture where cash is king and everything has a price, the rarest commodity is connection. And you can’t find that ingredient in easy racial equations. You have to go, literally, soul to soul.
Connection and Censure
Hip-hop was vital because it was a community of connection. Community means a lot of things, but one thing it means is censure. Anybody gets out of line, talks shit about Black women for example, BAM! they’re going to have to answer to a bunch of people.
But here’s a subtle point: Some of the greatest art, hip-hop included, is created by people who risk censure. NWA was such a case. Some of the greatest hip-hop ever, and it faced a lot of censure from many corners.
So there is a place for NWA. There’s a place for a video like “Tip Drill.” There’s a place for that, there’s a place for “vulgar” humor, there’s a place for stupid reality shows, there’s a place for porn. There’s even a place for pimps and hos and gangstas. Rick Rubin used to say that there were only two types of art: Good and Bad. I believe that “Straight Outta Compton” was art of the highest order, brutal as it was. It also inspired a lot of bad art — based less on passion and connection and more on disconnection and sensationalism. And when people are disconnected, when there’s no community, when there’s no feeling of connection and responsibility enough to cause people in the right places to speak up, there’s no censure. Those images can metastasize and end up dominating the entire culture.
Maintaining that connection takes work, and for most people and most enterprises, it’s not sustainable. So as it plays out at Hot 97, at record companies, at video networks and in the population, those connections — those feelings of mutual responsibility — have withered. Where you once had Dr. Dre and Ed Lover — guys with connectivity going up and down, guys who you could even call “activists,” in a sense; you now have Miss Jones, who is obviously so disconnected from the world outside the radio station and the Arbitron books that she can’t tell the difference between what’s funny and what’s tragic. You can have Nelly sliding a credit card through a girl’s ass cheeks in his video and nobody — not Nelly, not the director, not anybody at the company nor the network — takes full responsibility for the impact that has on the culture and what it communicates to young men and women.
Connection is the most human faculty. Even though I don’t have a daughter, if I can connect with you about what it’s like to have a daughter exposed to some of these images; then, as an executive, I may think twice about how I work with artists and their art. Even if I’m not Black, I know what it is to be human, and how it feels when my own dignity is violated. If I’m Rick Cummings or Flex, and if I feel more connected to the audience that I serve, I may think twice about the steady diet of “beef” I broadcast as the flagship of hip-hop.
Minding Our Business
More than ever we need to be in each other’s business. I need to be in your business. You need to be in my business. And by minding your business, I’m minding my own.
That’s why I react so strongly to people who’ve tried in the past to invalidate my own connection; to say that it’s “none of my business.” It’s simply not up for argument with me. I just intuitively know that connection is better than disconnection; and that — to paraphrase Al Smith —the cure for the ills of connection is more connection,
Disconnection is the sin. The more I feel connected to you, the more you feel connected to me, the less suffering we’ll have. All human suffering comes from some form of disconnection.
Minding my own business, of course, would be easier. But then it wouldn’t be much of a life, would it?