Sunday, August 14, 2011

How the Wall of Sound Came Down: Indie, Hip Hop, and Musical Equality

When I was writing my posts on the death/defence of the hipster, in my research on the hipster background I learned that hip hop and punk both sprang up during the 70s in New York, and started to ponder and speculate about this. The issue of race and music that forms part of the (Anglo world) hipster “debate” (if you can call it that, because it largely consists of suspiciously hipsterish magazines, from Canadian Adbusters to New York Magazine to the slightly more balanced, or just more ironic, British Pigeons & Peacockshyperbolically attacking hipsters) was what originally inspired me to make a post about the hipster phenomenon. Because happening concurrently with the hipster's rising profile were frequent press attacks on indie music for the crime of being too white (notably by the – of course – white New Yorker critic, Sasha Frere-Jones); and then Christian Lander sealed the deal by starting a blog-to-books in which “white people” was used as a euphemism for “hipster.” 

Like Frere-Jones, I wondered how we'd reached this impasse in popular music/culture, and I went about answering the question by tracing the origins of indie music back to punk, since the indie scene was one of the sources of the hipster, and it was hip hop and indie that stopped talking to each other (until recent developments). I came up with the tentative hypothesis that hip hop and punk didn't need to talk to each other, because they were parallel developments. I didn't bother posting about this, though, because it would require a lot of research into the history of popular music that I didn't have the time for.

Conveniently, however, the BBC has done that research for me, and put it into an entertaining documentary, Once Upon a Time in New York: The Birth of Hip Hop, Disco and Punk, which I only just found out about by pure accident on Twitter. The narrative of the doc is very much like the one I pieced together from my casual online research and previous sketchy understanding of the trajectory of pop music/culture history, although it also filled in details I was unaware of, particularly about the origins of hip hop.

First, there was The Velvet Underground, whom Warhol brought to attention. (Warhol provides the transition from studio-era Hollywood glamour to the new music-based popular culture of youth, fashion, and rock. Oh yeah and drugs, drugs, and drugs.) Then came The New Yorks Dolls, who inspired the CBGB bands. At the same time, disco was invented (apparently by white, though not WASP, DJs) and benefited from the new atmosphere of gay rights and visibility – and pre-AIDS hedonism – after the Stonewall riots. This culminated in the rarefied, elitist, decadent ongoing party of Studio 54. But while the beautiful people partied it up at Studio 54, over in the economically deprived South Bronx, disco turned into hip hop. It was then transported over to the arty (white) scene of the CBGB bands via graffiti artists – which the New York art world (notably Warhol, again) took up. Which led to the first popular rap song, Blondie's “Rapture,” by a CBGB art band-turned-disco.

To summarize: the New York gay scene contributed to both art punk (the Warhol drag queens) and disco. Disco led to hip hop. Hip hop culture then influenced the New York art scene (as pre-Stonewall gays previously had). But it was art punk and hip hop that were the "parallel" movements, as Chris Stein of Blondie put in so many words his reaction to being introduced to the hip hop scene, which he saw as being similarly "destructivist/reconstructionist". One was largely the creation of students/artists who were inspired by the outsider inclusiveness and permissiveness of New York, as exemplified by the Warhol Factory scene and the Dolls. One was the creation of the economically deprived, trying to find a creative solution to the injustice, hardship, and violence of their lives, and a positive outlet for their rage and frustration.

The most obvious thing that punk and hip hop had in common was this rage and frustration, although this was more evident in UK punk and in the hardcore, political American scene (which the BBC doc doesn't deal with) than in the art-punk bands (and the doc didn't include Iggy and the Stooges, I guess because they weren't New York-based). From what I glimpsed in the doc, the early hip hop of Zulu Nation also had a positive social message very different from either the angry, punk-like political hip hop of Public Enemy or the gangster chic that would ensue. (Please be aware, my knowledge of hip hop is scanty indeed.) What punk and hip hop also had in common, though, was their disaffection from an increasingly commercialized music industry that rewarded polished musical virtuosity. As David Johansen boasts in the doc, “We single-handedly lowered the standards of an entire industry.”

In my potentially racially insensitive/uninformed unposted ramblings about the origins of the hip hop/indie divide, I speculated that we conceive of black and white musician “artistry” in different terms. To sweepingly generalize about it, black musicians are considered artists as musicians (and dancers). White musicians are, in contrast, considered artists as artists; since punk, musicianship is a decidedly secondary concern, at best, and in some versions, musicianship and “authenticity” exist in inverse ratio. Black musicians make music that is art; art-punk and post-punk musicians make art that happens to be music.

I further speculated that this was because the original art-punk musicians (The VU through the CBGB bands) drew on an avant-garde European tradition, whereas Africa-American musicians drew on their own tradition, in which artistic expression was primarily in terms of music and dance (and in which an avant-garde could appear in the course of the development of a music genre, as happened to jazz... which inspired such precursors of art punk as Captain Beefheart). My guess about the art-punk tradition, at any rate, was supported by comments in the documentary, such as Chris Frantz's of The Talking Heads: “We thought of ourselves as artists who happened to be musicians as well.” Interestingly, this perception of oneself as artist as something prior to, or in addition to, musician, could coincide with being an accomplished musician, as in the case of David Byrne or John Cale. Just as Picasso “knew how to draw,” so the art-punk musician could be an anti-virtuoso in approach despite being musically knowledgeable and gifted. And what “being an artist” seems to mean here is having a conceptual, cerebral approach to music-making; even if in some cases (like Patti Smith) this was combined with a love of the instinctiveness, immediacy, and animal magnetism of rock and roll. Occasionally, black performers, such as Grace Jones, have adopted this cerebral/conceptual approach. But it's been rare enough that when Janelle Monae recently did it, it seemed revolutionary, especially in a pop music landscape in which “what is black” and “what is white” had become so rigidly defined.

When white critics or fans complain that rock music, as indie, has become “too white,” they need to take into account that rock was always white. By definition, it was a white interpretation of R&B. With punk, which was anti-rock, “rock music” started all over again; a violent, critical break with the past comparable to Modernism in the Western high art tradition. Or to some kind of popular music Reformation. Early punk/art rock had all kinds of R&B, jazz, and funk influences (found in bands/artists from Beefheart to Iggy to The Clash to The Talking Heads). But the reason we're in a “post-rock” era now is that punk rejected rock and hip hop, like its parent, disco, never had anything to do with rock.

Rock was white people inventing a form by appropriating black music. Punk was white people making their own music. (We of course don't like to think of white people making “their own” anything, for fear of immediately arriving in white supremacist territory. But I'm going to let that sentence stand as a neutral observation.) In individual cases, the bands comprising this broad “movement” had black music influences, but unlike rock, it wasn't by definition a white interpretation of a black musical form. And once the punk ethos was in full swing, there was no reason anymore for white musicians to appropriate black music. Punk and hip hop could respect each other, but they had very little to take from each other: they were both anti-corporate rock and radio pop; they both expressed the anger and aggression of outsiders of one sort or another and revelled in anti-bourgeois “urban realism.”

“Indie” was simply what post-punk came to be called. It has been defined in a lot of ways, some of them contradictory: it's the trad-rock set-up of singer, guitarist, bassist, drummer (e.g. The Smiths, the Britpop bands, The Libertines, The Strokes); or it's the post-rock group that rejects that set-up or its traditional sound (e.g. later Radiohead, Arcade Fire, Grizzly Bear, Dirty Projectors). Either way it's often associated with the “twee” sensibility of the sensitive, cerebral, elitist college students that listen to and often create it (even though Morrissey and Marr, the creative duo behind seminal indie band The Smiths, who were precursors of the twee “genre,” were never college students). Even in non-twee instances, like Nirvana, with its hardcore punk and art-punk (Pixies) influence, “sensitivity” was cultivated as a virtue, and “passivity” perceived as the net result. Indie and hip hop broke into the mainstream at the same moment – the early 90s – and the lines were firmly drawn: college students (perceived as white) listened to white boys whine; everybody else (perceived as black or “the wrong kind of white person,” with credit to Christian Lander) listened to rappers brag. Who knows what people who were neither white nor black listened to, because apparently nobody cared: the legacy of rock was going to be fought over in these terms. Sometimes the issue got a bit confused, since Eminem did quite a bit of whining, while Morrissey – though no one seemed to notice – did quite a lot of bragging. (The first time I heard “I decree today that life is simply taking and not giving / England is mine, and it owes me a living,” it took my breath away with its arrogance.) (For that matter, Morrissey can make “I've never had no one ever” or “I am the son and the heir / Of nothing in particular” sound like brags.) But this didn't stop the generalizations, of course.

Since black musicians and white musicians each had their own thing to do now, it's hardly surprising that indie got more and more “white.” It was made by white guys whose reference points were white guys (punk and art-rock musicians), whose concerns were white guy concerns. (And when critics talk about indie music in general terms, they're always talking about guys. Partly because a “white guy” is more demonized, in liberal contrast to a black guy, than a white woman would be, and partly because, as I argued in my second hipsters post, the “decline” of the white guy is of greater symbolic importance to Western culture than whatever's happening with white girls. Especially to white leftist critics and commentators.) Likewise, hip-hop artists (also with exceptions, notably the eclectic Outkast) were mainly interested in other hip-hop musicians and a rich, thriving tradition. And yet ironically, as I argued in my original hipsters post, even as this pop cultural divide rose to greater and greater prominence in guilty white liberal reflections on the rising popularity of indie, in the same decade, the 2000s, more and more efforts were being made to bridge the gap from both sides of the hip hop/indie divide. And the audience coming of age now is one for whom both-sides collaborations like Gorillaz were seminal.

By the end of the 2000s, hip hop and indie were so well-defined, and had attained such a level of cultural influence (indie for the hipsters, hip hop for “everybody else”), that they were forced to take notice of each other and consider whether mutual influence would be rejuvenating. This is something to celebrate, and not just because it would end “musical segregation.” Arguably, there was never any reason to fear that the segregation of “black” and “white” musical styles would lead to segregation of audiences (and hence music dividing rather than bringing together white and black youth), since overwhelmingly, white kids wanted to listen to black music – even if it sold even more when it could speak directly to their white lower-middle-class suburban concerns, as Eminem did. It's something to celebrate because these two healthily-developed, separate traditions, which both originated Once Upon a Time in New York, now have plenty to say to and learn from each other, precisely because they've developed separately for so long and reflect different cultural experiences and approaches to art and music. And because both could be accused of losing their “soul” in the process of this segregation: hip hop by going pop and mainstream (and therefore blanding out), indie by getting further and further from the R&B origins of rock (and therefore blanding out).

Hence Beyonce (although R&B pop, not hip hop), in a July interview in Dazed and Confused, turns the white liberal perception of indie upside down by proclaiming indie-rock concerts “just so soulful.” I don't think you have to be an indie snob (and I'm not; the only Grizzly Bear song I've heard is the one Donald Glover rapped over) to question whether it would be advisable for Beyonce to make an experimental album (although I would like more hit singles like “Crazy in Love” and less like “Single Ladies,” Beyonce, if you're reading and taking notes). But at least theoretically, the creative situation for both black and white popular musicians is far more favourable now than it was at the birth of rock and roll. Nobody needs to appropriate from, conform to, or imitate anybody, because there are two well-developed, visible traditions with large, influential audiences and roots in two different approaches to art and music, and with – in their most interesting expressions – a joint commitment to experimentation that looks beyond the rock tradition, mainstream pop, or even the conventional song. That they're curious about each other, from both a creative and a cultural perspective, is only natural.

And for the first time, there's a “white tradition” that's there for black artists (like Monae, with her Ziggy nods) to claim as part of their musical heritage. Any white liberal commentators wanna whine about that? Instead of looking back with longing on the days when only white musicians could have success playing black music, and comparing that to "integration" (or "miscegenation," as Frere-Jones saucily preferred), we should appreciate the present situation, when black and white musicians can come together and influence each other as creative and commercial equals. 


  1. One of my favourite indie/disco/hip hop/funk crossover bands: TV ON The Radio

    One of them died recently it's so sad.

    I will read the post with some added funk!

  2. another hip hop/indie crossover - OutKast from 2003. White indie hipsters were well into Outkast in the UK:

  3. Yeah, Outkast gets a mention in the post, but I hadn't heard of the other one, going to take a listen now!

  4. sorry I will read it properly I am just getting in the zone... :D

  5. It's a fascinating topic but I never trust journalists' versions of pop music history. They always package it too neatly. Its such a complex subject and worth studying but like you say, you haven't done the research.

    I recommend with some reservations, the work of Dorian Lynskey Uk music journo:

    My main addition and criticism of the argument is:


  6. oh also I am reading 'Cut and Mix' by Dick Hebdidge (who wrote Subculture)

    Cut and Mix is all about Black and Black influenced music from the Carribean, especially that which evolved in Britain, e.g. Dub, Two Tone and Ska, Mc-ing etc - it's from the early 80s but it seems relevant.

    It's such a MASSIVE topic I admire you for tackling it. Maybe it's just too massive.

  7. I didn't so much tackle it as put in my unworthy two cents, which was more analysis of the analysis than straight analysis. But that book sounds great. I've been interested in Carribean culture since getting into Maya Deren (and I like the little I've heard of dub).