Wednesday, April 01, 2015

In Defense of Labels...

Somewhere along the way -- I'm guessing in the late 1980s -- it became declasse to "label." Probably as a response to things like the Civil Rights Amendment, the Equal Rights Amendment, and various minority groups gaining more and more equality. So the days of rich white men "labeling" women and minorities (with stereotypes and false prejudices) were numbered, and the act of labeling people was considered a vestige of a more primitive time.

Naturally, since people are stupid, anti-labeling wasn't relegated to the negativity of racism, gender politics, sexual orientation, and class warfare, but to other walks of life. "You don't have to put a label on it" started to apply to other things, like internal feelings, people's personalities, and the arts. And while this is admirable to a certain extent, it suddenly became not okay to label anger "anger," and an asshole "an asshole." Every emotion was a complex bundle of stimuli from one's biological makeup and their upbringing. And people who were clearly scumbags were "more complex than that" and nice people "once you got to know them."

Fine, I am willing to look at the complexity in human nature and refrain from boiling a complex system of nerves and electric brainwaves down to a glib, reductive sound byte that doesn't tell the whole story. 

There is something a bit chilling, even, about the way we label things like politics, where every politician that makes an appearance on television has (R) or (D) after their name, as if they are sorted into one of two camps. This kind of information used to be instructive, so as to indicate a person's political bent. But now, since the tail wags the dog, the (R)s and (D)s are actually a kind of badge that a politician has to live up to. If you are, for example, a REPUBLICAN IN NAME ONLY, you are probably human garbage, worse than a (D) and unworthy of having the blessed (R) before your name. Instead of forming an ethos and then picking a camp, your camp picks your ethos for you. 

This is very troublesome and yet it's a topic for another day. For today I speak to you of labels in music. And I don't mean record labels, nor Parental Advisory labels, but rather genre and subgenre labels that I think are absolutely crucial to one's enjoyment and understanding of music itself.

One of the most annoying things that I can hear from a modern musical artist is "I don't want to put a label on my music." You hear this from people like Kanye and Madonna, and you usually hear it after they have built up a nice little career staying in their lane, doing the kind of thing they're good at, right before they veer off into some weird direction. So in order to prevent himself from being labeled exclusively a "hip hop artist," Kanye has to do things like make songs using Auto-Tune, or with Bon Iver, or make all his SNL appearances look like undergraduate performance art pieces. 

But you know what I like about Kanye? When Kanye is doing things like "Through the Wire," or "Gold Digger," or "O.T.I.S." Do you know what those songs have in common? They are soulful, they use breakbeats and traditional hip-hop samples, and they don't add in pretentious bullshit.

But Bill, you are probably saying, Kanye is a capital-A artist, and he has the right to make any kind of music he wants to. And you're absolutely right. What he doesn't have the right to do, in my humble opinion, is continuing to carry the flag of hip-hop (and "hip-hoppers," if people are still using that term) when he is making watered-down, cross-bred music that has nothing to do with the music I grew up listening to.

Kanye is a perfect test case here, because he started out as a regular Chicago rapper, hanging out with Common and John Legend and the Roots, making what those of us in the know very condescendingly call "real hip hop." But the problem is that in the last 15-20 years, Kanye, as big a megastar as he's become, has completely abandoned the aesthetic of what hip-hop used to be. And he's taken the entire hip hop industry with him!

So instead of Kanye making different types of songs and calling it "branching out" from hip-hop -- into soul, pop, electro, what have you -- the stuff that he does now is considered the New Hip-Hop. 

And it stinks.

I want no part of this new hip-hop. There are a couple of good, new artists out there that I like well enough -- Kendrick Lamar, Earl Sweatshirt, Action Bronson, Chance, Pusha-T (sometimes) -- but they are really exceptions to the rule. They are putting out what we'd call "boom bap" hip hop, which is the kind of shit I want to hear. The rest of the current class (guys like A$AP Rocky, Wale, Gucci Mane, Wiz Khalifa, to name a few) are doing things that are very popular, but to me it all sounds like utter garbage. 

Which brings me to my original point: I need labels.

I used to be a true expert on hip-hop and hip-hop culture. Though I grew up in a suburban/college-educated setting, I was an absolute omnivore when it came to rap music. (And my memory is so shitty that I can legitimately say that I've forgotten more about rap music than most people ever knew.) But today, I am no expert. And part of the reason is that I don't have the time nor the energy to sift through all the bullshit that passes for "hip-hop" these days to get to the stuff I want. And that makes me sad.

Finding new hip-hop songs and artists used to be one of the legitimate thrills of life in my teens and 20s. I have tapes upon tapes upon tapes that I would collect from record stores. I could recite entire albums front to back (still can in some cases). I was able to tell which rapper was with which clique, who hard worked with whom, who had beef, etc. And my knowledge of the intertexuality and meta nature of the music itself -- arguably the thing that drew me to it in the first place -- was peerless; the Venn diagram of popular culture and rap lyrics was always a fascination with me, and still is.

It goes without saying that this applies to other genres of music too. I'm not saying that I have to be married to one genre of music or another -- I have around 1,500 albums and the selection is eclectic. But I definitely need labels not only so I can explore the stuff I might like, but to prevent myself from wasting my time with shit I hate.

A good example of this is country music: as a rule, I will always say "I fucking HHHHHAAAAAAATE country." And for the most part I do: country music that is on the radio or being given awards on Sunday night television can eat my shit. If you like it, that's fine, I will not waste one second of my precious time on earth listening to that rubbish. 

But there are a couple country-ISH things that I don't mind listening to. I enjoy the southern guitar pickin' of John Fahey. I like bluegrass and fiddle music quite a bit. And if it's folk, it can turn a bit country and still be okay. I don't like twang, I don't like slide guitar, and I hate the sentimental story-song. 

As mentioned before, there is a subgenre of rap and hip-hop informally known as "boom bap," a term coined by either KRS-ONE or Q-Tip ca. 1993. And boom-bap is miles way from (and streets ahead of) the kind of rap that is popular today. 

If I am going to take a chance on a new hip-hop album, I need to know about it. Back in 1991, you could take a chance on a tape at Camelot records based on one video you saw on Yo! MTV Raps the day before, and probably 80% of the time or better, you would have yourself a solid album. Now, that is impossible. I haven't found a wall-to-wall great hip-hop album since maybe Cannibal Ox's The Cold Vein, in 2001! To try and buy a hip hop album today, in 2015, would be a fool's errand. 

But when I know that the album isn't just a rap/hip-hop album, but a Boom Bap album, I can give it more of a listen. Not because I need to pigeonhole my tastes, but because I know that a boom bap album will have the elements that I like: breakbeats, soul samples, kick-drums on the 2's and 4's, clever punchlines, call-and-response refrains rather than repetitive 8-bar choruses. This is what I like, and I have the right to like it.

So whenever someone says "Hey man, it's music, don't try to label it," I'm going to make a mix tape for them in which I put nothing but binaural drone, ambient street sounds and Yoko Ono's screeching and tell them to be more open-minded about their musical tastes.