Hip-hop heroes

July 31st, 2008

Fact: There has yet to be an A-list rapper from the Washington, D.C. region. We’ve got rock stars (Dave Grohl), comedians (Dave Chappelle) authors (Michael Chabon) and actors (Ed Norton), but no one from our region has joined the stratospheric ranks of Biggie, Tupac or Jay-Z.

One of the things I love about hip-hop is that just about every up-and-coming rapper I interview is convinced they’ll be D.C.’s first breakout rapper. It’s honest, endearing — and refreshing, considering how deferential and accommodating people in other creative fields can be.

Flip this on its head and imagine that D.C. never produced Dave Grohl, Tori Amos or even Ian McKaye (more important for his influence, I suppose, than records sold). Suppose for a second that a local rock band won an a.m. slot on the Warped Tour and I asked them if they’d be the first band from the region to “make it.”

I’m confident I’d get some mumbled response like “We’re really honored to even make it this far. There are some great bands here today. No matter what happens, we’re just doing this for their fans and love of music.”

I’m also confident what they really want to say is “Are you @$% kidding me? Hell. Yes. While the rest of the world is wasting away at their television sets, we’re working really, really hard on these songs and there’s no doubt in my mind this is going to win the Grammy, the Oscar and land us the cover of Rolling Stone.”

But when Oasis says they’re “bigger than the Beatles” they just come off as jerks.

You’d never see R.E.M. saying they’re “bigger than Elvis.” Humility is an American virtue. We’re not supposed to talk about our skills or talents in any way that makes us seem better than someone else.

Unless you happen to be a rapper. And, for that, I love you. I don’t care what anyone says, people want validation and success for their creative efforts. Rappers are the only ones honest enough to admit it.

(This is not to say there are no humble, deferential rappers. There are.)

Also, just about every rapper I interview calls hims or herself an “artist.” Some even correct me when I make the mistake of saying “musician” or, worse, refer to their group as a “band” (Exhibit for the defense: D12’s “My Band.” Exhibit for the prosecution: The Roots).

Sure, hip-hop is an art form, no better or worse than opera, poetry, film, etc. But, how many other people in the creative industries call themselves “artists?” Very few. And, those that do typically live in Williamsburg on a diet of bean sprouts and tofurkey. Pretentious? That’s the point.

Remember when blowhard Sean Penn chastised comedian Chris Rock at the 2005 Oscars? Rock, who was hosting the awards ceremony, did a fairly funny bit making fun of the fact that Jude Law was suddenly everywhere in Hollywood because he’s a poor man’s Tom Cruise.

When Penn took to the podium (hours) later, he responded to the joke, “Jude is one of our finest actors. What Jude and all other talented actors know is that for every great, talented actor, there are five actresses who are nothing short of magic.”

Penn and Rock are no less serious about their respective crafts. But when Penn shoots his mouth off, people roll their eyes. His public perception is that he doesn’t see himself as merely an actor. He’s an artist (let’s make it even more pretentious: “artiste”). Translation? He’s a super-serious egotistical jerk who lives on another planet and doesn’t understand that it’s a comedian’s job to make jokes. He’s so absorbed in his craft — sorry, art — that everything else is infinitesimal.

As Gene Simmons once said, “I’m sick of musicians saying ‘I don’t care what you wanna hear, I’m gonna play whatever I want ’cause I’m an artist.’ You’re an artist? Paint my house, bitch.”

Rappers don’t have to deal with any of that. The whole notion of “pretentious” doesn’t exist in hip-hop.

It’d be ignorant to ignore race and the evolution of hip-hop. Hip-hop evolved in New York City as an inexpensive, democratic way to produce music (guitars are expensive, beatboxes much less so). Factor in an element of social commentary and protest — “Kumbaya” doesn’t exactly make the same point as “Fight the Power.”

Assertiveness, boasting and bragging is as much a part of hip-hop as the “G” chord is to rock. “Rapper’s Delight” is not the first hip-hop song, but it’s certainly one of the most celebrated from hip-hop’s early days in the late ’70s. Master Gee’s lyric “I’m goin’ down in history/as the baddest rapper there could ever be” pretty much set the tone: hip-hop is a celebration of bravado, of skill, of being the best. When Kanye West says if the Bible were written today, he’d be famous and important enough to be in it, or when he complains his video for “Touch the Sky” needs to win awards because it “cost a million dollars, Pamela Anderson was in it, I was jumping across canyons,” he’s not doing anything outside of hip-hop’s norm.

And that’s why I love it.

Staff writer Josh Eiserike knows Mýa is from the area, but c’mon… singing the hook on “Ghetto Superstar” isn’t exactly “The Blueprint.” He can be reached at 703-878-8072.

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