Remembering Hip-Hop’s Response to 9/11

It may be unfair to single out rap artists for their response to the tragic events of 9/11. Artists in every discipline, from music to movies to literature and visual art, have struggled to comprehend this defining moment. But in a genre that prizes topicality and ghetto realism, whether it’s a carefully edited documentary or an exaggerated form of musical verité, the halting way rappers chose to address the World Trade Center attacks is particularly glaring.

In the immediate aftermath of the attacks, there was mostly silence. The rapid-reaction MP3 infrastructure that swirls around any major event today didn’t truly exist yet, so most of the late-2001 release slate didn’t mention it, including Jay-Z’s The Blueprint (famously released on September 11) and Dilated Peoples’ Expansion Team. However, contemporaneous work took on new significance, including Cannibal Ox’s diary of New York squalor The Cold Vein, Trick Daddy’s condemnatory “Amerika,” and DMX’s street-revolutionary anthem “Who We Be.” Advance artwork for The Coup’s Party Music featured Boots Riley and Pam the Funkstress blowing up the twin towers with a radio tuner, but it was quickly replaced after the attacks and before the album’s November 6 release.

The lone exception to this disquiet was Sage Francis’ “Makeshift Patriot.” Recorded and released several weeks after the attacks as a free MP3, it has a reportorial perspective as he compares the terrorist-manned planes to Trojan horses and recounts how “the fallout was far beyond the toxic clouds where people were like debris.”

By the end of the year, stray references to 9/11 began to appear. “Who the f*ck knocked our buildings down?/ Who behind the World Trade massacre? Step up now,” rapped a newly patriotic Ghostface Killah on Wu-Tang Clan’s “Rules.” On his anti-war song “Rule,” Nas took a more expansive view, rapping, “Lost lives in the towers and Pentagon, why then/ Must it go on/ We must stop the killing.”

This approach prevailed during the next few years, as 9/11 became a throwaway metaphor for urban blight and American resilience. “This that 9/11 music right here, man,” bragged Jim Jones on “Ground Zero” from the Diplomats’ Diplomatic Immunity. (Ironically, the Diplomats also called themselves The Taliban.) On “A Ballad for the Fallen Soldier,” Jay-Z compared a street hustler’s life to someone serving in the armed forces. “They’re both at war,” he observed. “Off to boot camp, they’re both facing terror/ Bin Laden been happenin’ in Manhattan.”

While music about 9/11 has mostly disappointed, the subsequent War on Terror – along with the Iraq and Afghanistan wars — inspired a wave of memorable critiques against President Bush. “Bin Laden didn’t blow up the projects/ It was you, n*gga/ Tell the truth, n*gga,” chants Mos Def on Immortal Technique’s “Bin Laden,” which along with Jadakiss’ “Why” and Mr. Lif’s “Home of the Brave” advanced the conspiracy theory that the Bush administration orchestrated the 9/11 attacks as a Faustian global power grab.

Meanwhile, 9/11 as an event unto itself has largely gone unanalyzed. Perhaps hip-hop artists are more comfortable with using the U.S. government as a stock villain for all the hardship that has befallen us since that day, from never-ending wars to economic catastrophe, than imagining the complex forces that irrevocably changed 21st-century American life.

(Rhapsody – September 6, 2011)

A note on Tyler, The Creator’s Scum Fuck Flower Boy

Tyler, The Creator’s Scum Fuck Flower Boy is a good album — and that’s coming from someone who has criticized Tyler quite a bit over the years (and still feel the same, thanks). But it’s frustrating to see critics try to comprehend the sexual complexity Tyler reveals on the album in light of his earlier lyrical outrages. Being “queer” is not shorthand for progressivism. Roy Cohn was gay. Peter Thiel is gay. Tyler’s penchant for “dolphins” and “dancing in pink panties” doesn’t necessarily excuse his past homophobic and misogynist language.

BTW, I’m not being censorious here. I like Syd’s music despite her occasional reduction of women to drug-addled strippers. I like Frank Ocean’s music despite his bragging about boning “bitches.” Many rappers and R&B singers have espoused similar themes; take your pick. I didn’t like Goblin (although I acknowledge its game-changing nature) because it was a meandering mess, not because Tyler presented himself as a bigoted misanthrope.

Where is the new turntablism?

Last weekend, I went to Skratch Bastid’s BBQ afternoon party at the Phoenix Hotel. It was fun, if not as decadent and raunchy (or “messy,” as my friend put it) as past bacchanals at a San Francisco hotel that encourages guests to “rock out.” Cosmo Baker spun a pleasing array of 90s and 00s chestnuts along with some vintage P-Funk. Skratch Bastid peppered his set with rhythmic scratching of the kind rarely heard since Serato and other digital setups conquered the professional DJ world. And Just Blaze’s set elicited a rousing, drunken (at least among many in the audience) singalong of the best of 00s radio rap.

In short, it was a joyful anachronism. Most of the music played were tried-and-true classics. The only contemporary rap voices I heard was a little bit of Kendrick Lamar, A Tribe Called Quest’s “We the People,” Vince Staples’ “Big Fish,” and YG’s de rigueur “FDT.” There was nothing that would surprise, upset or challenge a “real hip-hop” fan.

Skratch Bastid is part of a younger generation of hip-hop DJs keeping the spirit of turntablism alive. (I haven’t listened to his mixtapes yet.) But as entertaining as his set that afternoon was, it also illustrated why the form hasn’t evolved since the late 90s, when the Invisibl Skratch Piklz, Triple Threat and the Beat Junkies mounted a valiant stand against the lamestream’s formulaic DAT tape antics.  These days, DJs with cutting-and-scratching skills seem reluctant to engage with new rap beyond obvious “conscious” folks like Kendrick. Instead, they drift into other, less culturally-fraught styles, whether it’s Jake One blending 80s boogie-funk curios, A-Trak pumping up radio hits by Lil Uzi Vert and Kanye West with EDM, or the LA beat scene blurring together grime, house and footwork. Some of it could be classified as hip-hop DJ’ing, but it’s often too diffuse to qualify as such.

I know that many of those beat scene folks fuck with rap in the 10s, too. When I saw Flying Lotus perform three years ago, he gleefully used Waka Flocka Flame “Hard in Da Paint” to pound the audience into a frenzy. But he’s a laptop wizard, and doesn’t use the kind of cutting techniques that pioneers like Q-Bert employ. Where are the jocks beat juggling the sepulchral opening tones of Future’s “Mask Off,” or chopping up Playboi Carti’s “milly rock” hook on “Magnolia”? Where are the DJs mounting a movement as aesthetically relevant as turntablism once was? If it’s out there, I haven’t heard it yet. I’m waiting, and I’m all ears.

“Take off that Onyx T-shirt”

This is a screen cap of Eminem during his interview in the forthcoming HBO documentary The Defiant Ones. When I saw it, I thought about two things:

*In 1994, I witnessed KRS-One give an incredible performance in San Francisco. This was when he was at the height of his powers, and often mentioned as one of the best rappers alive, if not ever. But what I remember most is how he’d frequently stop mid-song and dive right into off-the-dome freestyles, riffing extemporaneously and lodging random disses. One of his unexpected targets was Onyx; he turned to one of his hypemen and said, “You should take off that Onyx T-shirt.”

I don’t know whether he had “beef” with Onyx, or if he just didn’t like their music at the time. Much like the subliminals at rival rappers that Kool Keith lodged during his Ultramagnetic years, Kris’ remark may have been the kind of unfiltered opinion you can rarely get away with nowadays, not with Complex and other trendspotting sites ready to pump up any lyrical remark into a controversial “stray shot,” and not with audiences filming every performance with their phones for social media dispersal.

Having said that, when I saw Chance the Rapper perform at the Greek Theatre last year, he said something to the effect of, “Are you ready for the blessings? Not the fake blessings you hear about…but the real blessings.” It was clearly aimed at Big Sean’s “Blessed,” and how the Detroit rapper equated material success with being in God’s grace. However, Chance’s critique went unmentioned on the Internets.

*Did you notice that Eminem is developing a bit of a widow’s peak in the photo? It looks like he’s starting to lose his hair.