From Irony to Authenticity

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My relationship with hip hop goes way back…to elementary school. In fourth grade, I was a huge M.C. Hammer fan. And I loved what Vanilla Ice did in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 2. As I moved into junior high, I fell in with Blackstreet and Coolio. They were beautiful times.

But then I found punk rock, which seemed at odds with hip hop. The musical styles were so vastly different that my budding teenage heart did not have room for both. Johnny Rotten sneered Freak Nasty right out of my life. From there, things only got worse. My estrangement from hip hop turned into vehement dislike. By the time I graduated high school, I fucking hated hip hop. Rapping was a no-talent, misogynistic endeavour that deserved no consideration. It was the worst of the worst, right up there with Clint fucking Black.

A few months ago, I got some new coworkers. The two of them love hip hop, particularly that of the old school. We have to drive around together a lot, and they always cranked the hip hop radio station. Since I deplore the radio anyway (a high school hold out that is not going to change until radio does), I didn’t put up a fight. We could listen to whatever they wanted, especially since the hip hop station is unlikely to play the latest Foo Fighters or whatever antiquated Red Hot Chili Peppers song the kids are into these days.

And, in those car trips, I found some tunes that brought unbridled joy to my little heart. Such as the great “Knockin’ da Boots”:

It had never occurred to me that this music could hold the very same appeal as the shitty movies I watch. Who needs Birdemic: Shock and Terror when you’ve got “Beez in the Trap”?

Who gives a shit about Tommy Wiseau when I can hear the off-key singing of Ja Rule?

Nobody, that’s who.

So I listened to that stuff over and over, and everything was good. I giggled and mocked. I told so many people of my love of shitty rap songs. I was so enamoured that when the opportunity opened up in this goddamned linguistics course I’m taking to investigate a topic of my choice, I immediately decided that I wanted to do something with rap lyrics. But what? At first, I was just going to analyse them for their use of the African American English (AAE) dialect. But as I started researching, I learned some really cool shit. First, no one really knows the origins of AAE. It may have been a distinct slave dialect or it may be a African-English creole language. There’s a lot of debate in the linguistics community. Secondly, more hotly debated research suggests that as time goes by, AAE becomes less and less like the Standard American English dialect. It seems to intentionally rebel.

That struck me as something worth researching. I could compare a long-time rapper’s early work with his/her more recent stuff to see if I could find a change in language, grammar, etc. I chose Ice Cube as a subject, simply because I was passingly familiar with him from his, uh, dramatic work. A brief bit of research placed his origins with N.W.A., a Compton-based rap group (also featuring Easy E and Dr. Dre) that I’m sure you’ve heard of. I gave this a listen:

And suddenly, shit got real.

Other than Easy E, there’s nothing funny about N.W.A. And, for the most part, there’s nothing funny about the rest of Ice Cube’s discography. Ice Cube raps about the plight of the African American man in a serious, intelligent way. He doesn’t sing stupid melodies; he doesn’t write love songs. His lyrics are intense and sobering, often punctuated by the sound of gunfire. The fact that he’s a millionaire actor seems incidental. His lyrical abilities and gritty musical accompaniments scream his message.

Today, I found myself listening to everything the guy ever released. Nonstop. All day. I never got tired of it. And I was listening with rapt fascination, taking in the words one by one like doses of medicine. I was shocked and gratified. The experience was transformative.

Never underestimate the power of irony. Listening with self-conscious mockery is still listening. Maybe hipsters are on to something after all.

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