[Marxism] David Drake's The Death of Hip-Hop
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Mon Jan 30 17:20:01 MST 2006
DAVID DRAKE'S THE DEATH OF HIP-HOP
a dialectical view of hip-hop culture
In Stylus Magazine's broad theme, The Death of Hip-Hop, David Drake writes
unquestionably one of the most advanced interpretations of hip-hop music and
How? Because he considers hip-hop as an ensemble of contrasting ideas and
influences. While refusing to fashionably reduce hip-hop to bombastic,
reactionary or puritan rhetoric, he situates hip-hop, not as something
static or even linear, but as a democratic and participatory organism; as
something alive which is authored by people and which perpetually undergoes
change. Thus, he endeavors to break from hip-hop's narrow definitions with
a revolutionary view emancipating it from the claws of conventional
There are some subtle shortcomings in this 1,000-word piece;
shortcomings which could have disastrous consequences, but we shall deal
with these later. For now, we will begin with its contributions.
Drake's piece begins with the critique of some prevailing
analyses of hip-hop: hip-hop as something that was; modern hip-hop as a
bastardization of its intent; hip-hop as "a dramatic arc from rise to fall
to eventual death-and a shot at redemption." There are others; hip-hop as
once "revolutionary", but is now a debasement of its former self; hip-hop as
inherently anti-capitalist or bourgeois, etc.
There are a host of popular and contending conceptions of hip-hop, and they
all fall short for an equal amount reasons: the refusal to consider hip-hop
as a totality (e.g. the self-righteousness of those who decide what hip-hop
is and is not); the enshrining of hip-hop in a non-existent past (e.g.
hip-hop was more "positive" or more "revolutionary" in the late 80s and
early 90s); the complete negation of it altogether (e.g. the idea that
hip-hop is a mouthpiece for materialism and misogyny).
Drake attempts to show from the outset that capitalism and hip-hop are and
have always been joined at the hip. Hip-hop is a cultural superstructure
that exists in motion with the ideas and institutions of capital. A case
could be made for each, and often individuals fall on one side of the
spectrum that either hip-hop is "capitalist" (which is not even
grammatically correct, let alone theoretically) or it exists in opposition
to capitalism. Any responsible and dialectical approach would show that
hip-hop is indeed an offspring of people of color and poor folks living
under capitalism, but that within hip-hop a mass of contradictory ideas
exist which are pushing it forward.
Often what happens is that one writer whose intention is to paint hip-hop as
sympathetic to capitalism irresponsibly pieces together quotes from various
rappers to buttress their argument; the same by writers in opposition to
this tendency. The result is that hip-hop is vulgarized and presented
one-dimensionally and while there is validity to these arguments, they can
never embrace all of hip-hop.
What the author is at war with in this short and bittersweet essay is all
the above predispositions which will be dealt with in some detail. A
reoccurring theme in Drake's piece is the tendency among writers to preserve
hip-hop in an imagined past.
In the EIGHTEENTH BRUMAIRE OF LOUIS NAPOLEON, Marx writes, "The tradition of
all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.
And just as they seem to be occupied with revolutionizing themselves and
things, creating something that did not exist before, precisely in such
epochs of revolutionary crisis they anxiously conjure up the spirits of the
past to their service, borrowing from them names, battle slogans, and
costumes in order to present this new scene in world history in time-honored
disguise and borrowed language." There is a propensity among people unable
and/or unwilling to understand the present, to attempt to relive the past
through the obvious signifiers: customs, language, dress. But it would be
near reverence should anything more than fifty words be written to show the
fallacies and immaturity of this conception.
Another dominant view is that "commercial" hip-hop, as opposed to
"underground" hip-hop (so vast a category that it ultimately says nothing)
is negative and/or reactionary, while the latter is positive and/or
revolutionary. This argument can immediately be dismissed once the
contradictory nature of both of these broad categories are recognized. I
have often encountered the juxtaposition of rappers like Lil Jon, Jay-Z, The
Game, and Ludacris to artists like Common, Mos Def, and Talib Kweli. It
would not take much to show the conservative and/or reactionary tendencies
of the latter group of rappers via the popular means of quoting.
You will find, in almost equal proportion to the former artists, just as
much misogyny, materialism, and conservatism among underground artists. On
the flip side, because "hip-hop is a large and contradictory animal" you
will find as much, give or take, radical and progressive tendencies in
"commercial" artists. In "Hate It Or Love It", The Game raps, "Waitin on
shop money to lamp, sittin in the Range/ Thinkin how they spent 30 million
dollars on airplanes/ when there's kids starvin/ 'Pac is gone and Brenda
still throwin babies in the garbage/ I wanna know what's goin' on like I
hear Marvin/ No schoolbooks, they used that wood to build coffins." Any
writer who quotes The Game and fails to include rhymes like these are
negligent at best and just a straight-up hater at worst.
There are other arguments which could be given some attention, but in the
interest of time we will move on to some of the essay's flaws.
The possible shortcomings of Drake's essay are contained, as sharp as it is,
in his first paragraph. "Everyone loves a story. The problem is that every
person's story is its own truth, omitting and observing the facts as they
see fit. Oftentimes hip-hop is forced into this literary structure, a
dramatic arc from rise to fall to eventual death-and a shot at redemption.
This classicist story is linear, a dialectic approach of dominant ideologies
reacting to outdated modes of thought. Old school begot hip-pop begot
gangsta begot native tongues begot bling-bling. It is a story of the rise,
fall, and eventual death of rap music. (The story often concludes with
redemption (i.e. the "underground," where the old spirit is kept alive.) In
actuality, hip-hop is a large and contradictory animal these days, and it
defies such generalizations."
His beginning is witty and precise, but immediately falls from grace when he
vulgarizes the term "dialectic". In fact, his error is twofold. On the
hand, his approach is mainly dialectical. It encapsulates all of hip-hop's
contradictory tendencies in a process of change, but like Antonio Negri, the
Italian author responsible for EMPIRE and MULTITUDE, he misunderstands the
word itself. Like Negri, he depicts the dialectic as an obtuse, rigid,
binary, and partial process of transformation which material phenomena pass
through, only Negri believes the dialectic was, at one time, applicable, and
is now outmoded. On the other hand, Drake does not see that there is some
truth to the idea that "Old school begot hip-pop begot gangsta." etc., etc.
First, if there is such a view of hip-hop, it is certainly not a popular
conception. Never have I encountered it in my years of research. Second,
while it may exist, this view, as rigid as it is, is much more objective and
advanced (though still not as advanced as his) than the views previously
There are dialectical elements in Drake's approach, though he is not aware
of it. His dismissal of the term "dialectic" is based in his
misunderstanding of it, which, to him, crudely compartmentalizes hip-hop.
His definition of dialectics might be akin to the likes of Mao or Stalin
whom contributed nothing to the method of dialectics, but in fact distorted
them. But dialectics, materialist dialectics, doesn't view history or
things as progressively linear, but as a myriad of divergent tendencies
working themselves out through motion and interaction.
Another drawback in his essay is the failure to see hip-hop's regional
developments as making up an organic, national unity; a totality. Drake
states, "The real story of hip-hop isn't.hardcore rap rejecting pop or
"positive" Native Tongues rappers rejecting gangsta; hip-hop's story is
regional." While Drake is able to articulate that hip-hop is a plethora of
contradictions and tendencies, he falls short of illustrating the
intercourse between the regional versions of hip-hop which encompasses and
has set in motion a national whole.
Hip-hop is not simply a fragmented and regional culture, but a unity of many
independent developments. Drake unconsciously contributes to another form
of crude categorization which is the equivalent of saying "gangsta rap begot
native tongues". The recognized spokespersons of hip-hop (that is the
popular rappers, DJs, and producers) are merely representations not just of
local, but of national circumstances and consciousness. The independently
valid, regional manifestations of hip-hop are creating the basis for a
national hip-hop, a hip-hop which is uniquely American. On the other hand,
these provincial adaptations were propelled forward by others, beginning
with New York, which, when NY was the only regional sound, it was
simultaneously the national sound. It is this unending intercourse between
the provincial manifestations and national unities which creates a higher
form and expression of hip-hop's totality.
This is precisely why you can listen to contemporary East Coast or West
Coast rap and find the difficulty in labeling either as such. In fact, the
terms East Coast and West Coast have lost their significance. To give a
highly relevant example, within the last year the cover story of a prominent
hip-hop magazine was appropriately dubbed, "East Coast vs. West Coast? Who
There is without a doubt a regional hip-hop, but there is also a national
hip-hop which grew dialectically, not in a crudely linear fashion, out of an
interregional discourse. Jay-Z is a perfect example of an artist with a
national sound. This is not just attributable to his nationally-acclaimed
success, but because of hip-hop's numerous internal developments. If you
listened to a Jay-Z song from ten years ago, say "Da Graveyard" on Big-L's
"Lifestylez Ov Da Poor and Dangerous" you could immediately distinguish him
as an artist with an exclusively regional sound. Music nowadays, while
there are new regional contradictions surfacing, the South for example, is
developing an analogous sound, undistinguishable by region.
The strength of Drake's piece, despite its shortcomings, is its break with
the traditional views of hip-hop and should not be dismissed based on the
criticisms above. His essay is a critical and sorely needed insight into
the contradictory nature of hip-hop. The reconciliation of the
contradictions in his piece can only be worked out through subsequent
The topic of "the death of hip-hop" in-itself is quite abstract, which
leaves a gaping hole for broad interpretation. Its very title is
presumptuous and easily forces writers to fall on either side of the binary
option: hip-hop is dead or it is not. Drake says, "'hip-hop' is dead. Long
live hip-hop." Amen.
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