Friday, July 15, 2011

90's Hit Parade #47

Busta Rhymes - Dangerous

Look, I'm a white guy from a suburban, upper middle class family. I don't know shit about any aspect of black life, inner city life, poverty, violent crime, any of it. In other words, I can only process hip hop through the filter of my own social experience. And one of the most important things hip hop gave to white music fans was a way to talk about money as something other than the root of all evil, or capitalism as something other than a corrupting influence. I remember watching Bones, Thugz and Harmony being interviewed on MTV. There was some stupid question about what to call the particular genre of rap they were creating, and they said something like "We don't care, it's all about the cheeze." In other words, we don't give a fuck what it's called, as long as we're getting paid. I thought it was amazing, because it was impossible to imagine a white rock musician saying anything like that. The punk ethos was adamantly opposed to any association between art and commerce. At it's root, this is a positive idea: an artist shouldn't compromise his vision to fit the audience's expectation. But like anything else, when this philosophy crystalizes into a dogma, it ceases to be very useful, and transforms into this hostility toward the idea that the effort involved in creating music deserves any financial reward. Second- and third-wave punk bands were deeply infected with this neurotic worldview (first-wave punk bands formed without realizing they were punk bands, and wanted to become famous, same as any other rock band--in fact, in the UK, many of them did become famous). You can see this in the vicious hostility that greeted Nirvana when they became famous, or the way Green Day and Offspring were referred to as poseur punk for mall rats when they sounded pretty much like 80's punk bands. Or the outrage over the Buzzcocks music being used in a car commercial. God forbid a band that had been making great music for years get some kind of financial reward for it!

Take, for example, the gratingly ascetic Fugazi. They're a band I greatly admire for most of their business model. They refused to sign with a major label, in order to keep full control over their music. They actively work to keep the price of their albums and concert tickets low. All great stuff, as far as I'm concerned. But they also refuse to sell t-shirts or other merchandise. They consciously refuse a revenue stream. Their fans are holding out money for t-shirts, and they're like "keep it." I'm sure they think "we're musicians, not a t-shirt shop." Well into the existence of the band, Ian McKaye was scooping ice cream at a Haagen Daaz shop, and Guy Picciotto was waiting tables. Did they think there was more dignity in listening to their stupid boss give them shit than in selling t-shirts to fans who want them? What kind of puritanical bullshit is that for an adult to be hanging onto?

Or take the Dead Kennedys, who went through some legal turmoil in the late 90's. This dispute seems to me a very two-sided disagreement among musicians about royalties and licensing (which may or may not have included a plan to use "Holiday in Cambodia" in a Levi's commercial), but all Jello Biafra had to do was drop a few buzzwords about "corporate greed" to win the P.R. battle with their fans (read the user reviews of Dead Kennedy's albums on eMusic to see what I mean). Even if the Levi's story is true (my guess is that it is), I find it baffling that fans would rather see the musicians who made their favorite records spend their 50's and 60's working menial labor than to hear their favorite songs in a Levi's commercial. It reminds me of a t-shirt popular among Harley Davidson enthusiasts: "I'd rather see my sister in a whorehouse than my brother on a Honda." You notice that there's not much concern about what the sister wants, but at this point I'm about 4 degrees removed from Busta Rhymes, so I should start tacking back to shore.

So yeah. In the midst of this idiotic neurosis about money, how fucking liberating it was to hear musicians talk about getting paid like it was a good thing, like it wasn't something shameful! My all-time favorite acquisitional rap line? "Back in the day, a nigga used to be ass-out/Now a nigga holding several money market accounts." God, I love this song for being such a sweaty, horny jam, but I also have to love it for it's naked love of capitalism.


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