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Jay-Z’s Problems With Hip-Hop and How The Roots Can Fix Them

December 2, 2009

At some point over the Thanksgiving holiday, I found myself on the couch flipping through TV channels.  Wait, let me be more accurate.  At many points over the holiday, I found myself on the couch flipping through TV channels.  OK, OK you got me.  I often find myself sitting on the couch flipping through TV channels.  Are you happy now?  Anyway, during a particular fit of flipping, I ran across some sort of Jay-Z marathon on Fuse.  I have a healthy dose of respect for Hova, so I stopped surfing to check in on an interview that he did following the release of Blueprint 3.  In the interview Jay made some very interesting comments regarding the current state of hip-hop music.  To paraphrase:  It sucks.

Now don’t read any disses into that statement, it was clear that Jay wasn’t interested in beefing with any fellow rappers.  Rather, his point seemed to me to be that rap music in 2009 finds itself in the same place that rock music found itself in the late 1970’s.  Rap holds the dubious distinction of being the most dominant form of popular music in America right now, the same as rock music was in the waning days of the Seventies.  Jay pointed out that the illustrious history of rock music in that era gave way to such luminous hair metal acts as RATT, Poison, and Motley Crue.  During the Eighties, much of rock music became a distorted version of itself where theatricality pushed the music to the side.  Rap seems to be headed in much the same direction.

Hip-hop is as much a marketing tool as it is a musical form these days, requiring most popular products to have some level of street cred.  To his credit, Jay recognizes that he’s no longer one step from from the streets of New York–he’s part of a larger world with different values.  Put him up against the recent antics of 50 Cent, who I don’t think understands how foolish he looks hocking his new fragrance on Chelsea Lately while doing publicity for an album called Before I Self-Destruct.  As Jay put it in this interview, hip-hop artists have lost their hunger and it’s taking a toll on their music.

It was only natural that the interviewer would ask what genres of music are “hungry” these days.  Unless you’ve been hanging out at the McCarron Pool Parties in Brooklyn, the answer might surprise you.  The undisputed King of Hip-Hop gave a quick and definitive answer:  indie rock.  Jay then recalled seeing Grizzly Bear over the summer and gave the band a lot of credit for their music and live stage presence.  According to the Master, if rap doesn’t wake up and get its edge back, it’s primed for a takeover.

Enter Phildelphia’s The Roots, America’s best house band.  While nobody claims that they invented live instrumentation within hip-hop, they’ve certainly perfected it.  Their stint as the house band on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon proves that they can play with anybody, anywhere, regardless of the musical style.  And in my opinion, they’re at the forefront of the next wave of hip-hop music, where genre boundaries are destroyed and the turntable takes a permanent spot next to the electric guitar in the makeup of a band.  While Jay may see this as a cause for dismay, I see it as a tremendous opportunity.

To The Roots, it doesn’t matter who you are, if you can play, you’re OK.  Take prog-rockers Dirty Projectors, for instance.  Although this New York band shows some definite R&B influences on their latest album Bitte Orca, they are more widely known for the Yes-like intracacies in their guitar and vocal arrangements.  I raved about thier performance on Fallon in September, and apparently they impressed The Roots too as the fellas from Philly showed up onstage with the Projectors a couple of weeks ago at Brooklyn’s Bowery Ballroom.  Add a little surprise David Byrne into the mix and you’ve got one helluva show.

The vibe that’s happening right now in indie music is truly electrifying, as Jay-Z correctly points out.  But there’s no need for this to occur in spite of hip-hop–as The Roots have shown, the two worlds are not mutually exclusive.  Add in to the mix such hip-hop leaning indie acts as TV On the Radio and the instrumentation in the music of international rappers K’naan and Blitz the Ambassador, and what I think we’re leading up to is a period of popular music that will rival (if not surpass) the golden age of the 1960’s.  The great equalizer of the internet has assured most musical acts of a comparatively modest living, which means that bands are just doing it because they love it and no longer pining away for their “big break”.  Plus, I believe that the effects of fame and fortune on the lives of many pop stars has led plenty of indie artists to be just fine with their level of noteriety and popularity.

The result is an exciting mix of genres and bands, where you’ll continue to see live mashups like the Roots and Dirty Projectors, hip-hop remixes of indie rock songs (see Wayne, Lil and Bear, Grizzly), and unexpected collaborations (try out The Very Best or BlakRoc).  I, for one, am so hyped I think I’ll sit back down on my couch and channel surf again.  Later!

10 Comments
  1. December 2, 2009 1:38 pm

    I couldn’t agree more with your assessment of the Roots. I was only a marginal fan of the band before Fallon took over for Conan, but integrating them into the show as well has they have has not only made the show cooler by association, but grown a massive audience of folks who not only see how great they are, but beome familiar with their respective personalities as well. And that’s saying a lot, since there are an estimated 4,000 people in the band.

    At first, I thought “this experiment with the Roots won’t last long, because they’ll want to get back to performing and touring proper after a while; but this will be fun while it lasts.” I never expected it to work as well as it has.

    • Caleb permalink
      December 3, 2009 12:19 am

      I think the gig has just increased their exposure in really interesting ways. We’ve discussed on the site before how bands have to be more creative in their pursuit of revenue and from that perspective I can’t see the downside for The Roots. In that way, they’re basically a bar band that plays for millions of people each night and they get their tips through exposure.

      I’m willing to bet that Fallon is financing their day-to-day stuff, so the touring that they do is extra. Plus, I’m telling you these guys play with EVERYBODY. I didn’t even mention in the piece that members frequently play jazz shows with the likes of Robert Glasper and others.

      They really are working musicians and I predict that the hybrids they’ve spawned serve as an example to other artists in all genres. And this time around, the revolution will not be televised…oh wait, I guess it will. Take that, Farrakhan!

  2. Jay St. Orts permalink
    December 3, 2009 6:41 pm

    Great Roots shout-out, Caleb!

    How ’bout them on DC’s Block Party?

    They will play with–want to play with–everyone. If I could come up with a good reason, I bet they’d help me close off the end of my dead-end street and throw a concert.

  3. December 4, 2009 5:24 am

    While I do agree with Mr. Beyonce that indie is probably the hungry genre of the now, there is a stark difference between “indie” and rap, rock, jazz, blues that preceded it.

    1) Indie is made up almost exclusively of white kids from the burbs. They’re affluent and comfortable, literally not hungry. Blues was born out of poor blind men in the south, rock evolved from from the sons of those blind men making their way to the Phillys, Detroits etc and rap is grew from the vacant lots of the ghettos that the next generation grew up in.

    2) As an extension to my first point, indie rockers are hungry for the wrong reasons. While the pioneers of the aforementioned genres exploded because they literally needed to make a better life for themselves, indie kids are hungry to give the Nicklebacks and Creeds their whatsfor. And not that this is a bad thing, but its hardly the fire in the belly that drove the ambition of our forefathers.

    3)Not to place the race card, but I’m going to play the race card. If for arguement’s sake we’re going to label indie as it’s on exclusive genre, then the big big difference is the fact that the tracks weren’t laid down by brothers. For all the great rock music we’ve come to love, we can thank the likes of Chuck Berry, Chubby Checker and the Motown stable of talent and rap is pretty much completely an African American enterprise. It was that ambition of theirs to be great that really laid the foundation for the growth to come. Now that the likes of the Roots and Jurassic Five are making waves, the quality of the game has been greatly improved.

    Finally, an interesting side bar. Indie never used to be a genre, it was industry jargon thrown around to describe any act that had no representation. Seeing as any Tom, Dick or Harry can start a label in their basement, no one is really independant anymore. And many of the “indie labels” are actually proprietaries of Universal, Warner etc and considered boutique labels. The term indie is just a liberal guilt term that white kids have adopted so they can dance worry free to the Handsome Furs and MGNT and not call it top 40.

    Here’s a funny story. In the mid nintees the heavy metal bar in Winnipeg had an indie showcase every month with acts from all over. I remember one in particular, the local band Bonaducees where headlining. The opener? None other than the pride and joy of Grand Prairie, Alberta: Nickleback.

  4. Caleb permalink
    December 5, 2009 2:46 am

    Thanks for your comments Dave! I think you make some interesting observations. I probably wasn’t as clear as I should have been on my point to the whole piece, which was to highlight the fact that there are bands out there who are putting genre distinctions to the side in favor of simply playing music. I hope that trend continues and leads “indie” music to the point where we can get rid of all these ridiculous genre and sub-genre categories. To that end, I consider the term “indie” less a genre description and more like a shorthand way of saying “music that is (mostly) outside of the corporate conglomerate structure”. I’m not sure how Jay-Z meant the term, but I think the same point is made either way.

    With that said, I have to respectfully disagree with your contention that “indie rockers are hungry for the wrong reasons.” I don’t claim to know what motivates certain artists or bands to make the music that they make and to the extent that their motivation can be discerned in some way, I would argue that it doesn’t really matter. Take Vampire Weekend, for example. I happen to like their first album, mainly because I have an affinity for all styles of African music and I’m not offended when it gets mashed up with pop. Based on all I can tell, they meet many of the criteria you outline above (e.g. white, upper/middle class) with the added bonus that they often sing about topics that only an Ivy-leaguer from Connecticut would identify with. But despite all that, I still like their stuff. I don’t have to know what a Mansard Roof is to enjoy the song, in the same way that I don’t have to join the Nation of Islam to love Public Enemy.

    Which brings me to your point about race. I certainly don’t deny that the roots of rock and roll are in blues music and that popular music as a whole owes a major debt to the black musicians and artists that have paved the way. I celebrate that heritage, along with the amazing gift that is jazz music, which I don’t write about too much on the site. But after acknowledging that rich heritage, respectfully I’m not sure if I get your point. Are you saying that “indie” rock acts aren’t as good as the blues, jazz and soul pioneers? If so, I think that’s much too broad a generalization to make, akin to saying apples are better than oranges. I don’t want to misrepresent you so if I’ve missed your gist, please let me know. But in the interests of full disclosure I’ve argued on this site before that this decade of music may very well rival and even surpass in some ways rock’s “golden age” of the 1960’s, so I do think there’s some very strong music being made recently, again regardless of the motivation to make it.

    Last thing on race, I think it’s just as arbitrary a distinction to make in terms of the quality of music being made as making a statement about motivation. I love Kyp Malone and Dev Hynes’ music, I don’t really think about whether they’re black or not. I don’t care too much for Mayer Hawthorne’s brand of soul music, but it has nothing to do with the fact that he’s white, it’s strictly on musical terms. Having said that, I recognize that the experience of black folks is vastly different from my own white middle-class upbringing. As a result, I listen closer when Kyp Malone sings “Smiling Black Faces” and I realize that it would be flat insulting for me to pick up a guitar and sing that song. There’s a distinction to be made between the music and the message contained within. I can criticize “Smiling Black Faces” on a musical level, but I’ve got no basis to criticize the subject matter. (for the record I love the song and have no musical criticism to make)

    Closing out, regarding “indie” record labels. Although I agree with your contention that there are many labels that are mere subsidiaries of larger corporations, I don’t think that necessarily implies that there can’t still be quality music on either kind of label. The poster child for subsidiary stupidity is Reprise records dropping Wilco after they made YHF and then Nonesuch records picking them back up and putting the record out. Interestingly enough, both labels were owned by Warners. Same mothership, but the individual label heads still had enough autonomy to make those decisions. Plus, I would maintain that there are plenty of labels out there that have no major corporate affiliation whatsoever. I haven’t researched thoroughly, but it seems that the grandaddy of indie labels Sub Pop still maintains its independence, as do Jagjaguar and one of my favorites Six Degrees. But even with that, Sub Pop puts out music I hate (Pissed Jeans) and Columbia records carries the Avett Brothers, who I love. Bottom line, “indie” is a familiar term that we use so that we’re all talking about roughly the same thing, in the same way that describing me as a “Kentuckian” and Matt as a “Kentuckian” gets us in the same ballpark but doesn’t tell you anything about how much cooler Matt is than me, or how much better looking he is, or clue you in on his sexual orientation. You’d have to do a google search for that one. :-)

    Having said all that, I’m certain open to debate and disagreement, in fact I love talking music whether we agree or disagree. I truly respect your opinion and point of view, just wanted to offer my own thoughts for whatever they’re worth. Thanks for reading!

  5. December 5, 2009 5:17 am

    Hey mang,

    I actually read this post for the first time a couple of days ago and it was ruminating in my head for a few days. And reading the post again in full and your reply, I’ve come a bit back to your side. When I responded, not making any excuses, but it was after hours of writing on other stuff and my response was fluid, but not cultivated well, especially as it pertains to your post.

    Two quick points:

    – You’re observation about Kentuckians is dead on. The analogy about blanketing indie is right, in the same way that I can’t say that rock music sucks because Nickleback sucks; Jimi Hendrix was rock music, and awesome. And that being said, there are a lot of bands that could be described as indie that I truly appreciate. Part of my very late night vitriol stems from personality clashes I’ve had in “the biz” in my neck of the woods. I’ve worked with acts in Winnipeg who certainly don’t fit the indie category description, and they kind of fell into a funny place where it became tough to get ahead in the indie scene as it is a frustrating clique round these parts. And what drove me bananas is that these acts I was involved with were scoffed at by the “indie types”, despite the fact that the former was literally indepentant and the latter had representation. So that’s just a chip on my shoulder, that clouds my judgement.

    – As far as the hunger is concerned and etc, what I’ve really really come to love about hip hop and rap (what isn’t garbage anyway), is that I’ve always appreciated a good hustle, something that was apparent in rock and jazz…and I don’t get that sense with some of (not all) of the indie acts today. It’s good…but it just seems to lack ambition, which is something I’m personally a fan of.

    So to sum up the quick points that became long, I think my fatigue and ruminating made me boil the down too thin. Giving it a sober second thought, I injected too much grumpy in there.

  6. Jay St. Orts permalink
    December 5, 2009 9:41 am

    Great discussion, to the both of youse guys. In my Web crawls, I don’t see very many comment sections that are as interesting (and even-handed, respectful, etc.) and complementary to the subject as I often see here. Refreshing.

    Written with as little bias as possible,

    J. St. O

  7. Caleb permalink
    December 5, 2009 10:39 am

    Dudes, thanks for the discussion. Dave, I hear ye and can identify where your coming from. Your point about “hustle” is well-taken. I truly appreciate you taking the time to comment, I’d like to see more musical “debate” as I think our music writing leaves open the opportunity for discussion, and frankly because it’s fun.

    I would be remiss if I didn’t make two final comments in true Brown Tweed fashion. After great thought and consideration, I have come to these conclusions regarding this topic of conversation. In fact, I hold these axioms to be true and believe them to be the ultimate statements to win any and all arguments. They are as follows:

    1) Megan Fox humps robots.

    2)Kaloric Kardashian eats small children.

    Boo-yah! Thanks gents.

  8. December 5, 2009 1:58 pm

    I’m quite pleased. After I’d written that response last night, I thought I’d effed it up and it didn’t post…and then with the bourban and wine in me I didn’t have the will to churn it out again. So I was thrilled to see this morning that not only did it successfully post, but two solid responses awaited.

    Jay: Gracias.

    Caleb: In true Dave Shorr fashion would you believe me if I told you I railed Megan Fox? No? I wouldn’t either.

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