I recently re-watched the 2012 documentary Something from Nothing: The Art of Rap. Though far from a comprehensive and critical examination of rap, it’s nevertheless an intriguing and enjoyable overview of the major hip hop artists and their reflections on their craft.
Near the beginning of the film, Ice-T opines:
Rap has introduced poetry to a whole new generation. We’ve crossed color lines and changed lives. It just seems wrong to me that we still don’t get the respect like jazz, blues or other musical art forms.
He goes on to ask several rappers why rap doesn’t get the full respect of jazz and blues.
Marly Marl responds:
I think it’s because we’re not banded together like jazz and blues artists. You know, you’ll see reunions with jazz and blues artists. I mean, it’s starting to happen now. You know, we starting to realize it now, but, you know, you see blues artists, they have love for each other. I don’t hear about B.B. King battling — battling somebody in the blues world. I don’t hear about in — in jazz — I don’t hear about, you know, Chick Corea talking about, “Yo, that nigga sucks. Yo, suck my dick.” You don’t hear that in jazz. So, you know, it’s a respect thing. So, you know, basically when we start respecting ourselves and showing homage and, you know, getting up there and winning awards and saying, “Hey, I’d like to just thank,” you know, “Grandmaster Flash, I’d like to thank,” you know, “Kool Herc, for even starting this so I could be here getting this.” Once that happens and we start showing compassion for the people before us, that’s when we’re gonna have respect like that. That’s what I — that’s what I feel.
That Mr. Marl doesn’t seem to be aware of the history of jazz and blues is ironic, given that he’s chiding his fellow MCs for not knowing and respecting the history of their music. Jazz and blues have well-established traditions of “cutting contests” and their history is replete with notorious and bitter rivalries. But it is indeed true that rap is often debilitatingly and antagonisticly narcissistic. Until it moves beyond that tendency and starts to respect itself, it likely won’t be respected by others.
DJ Premier answers:
Because it — it’s just like a language. You have to know how to listen to it. If you don’t listen to it the right way, all it sounds like is just a whole bunch of noise with a lot of loud-ass beats bang, bang, banging, and — “What’s all that?” I’ve seen people go, “What’s all that messing up the records?” It’s like, “No, you’re not messing up the record. There’s needles designed for this.” You know, that — which is why the turntables still to this day exist. So they don’t know how to listen to it. And if you don’t know how to listen to it, it doesn’t make sense.
Any art form that’s worthwhile will pose a challenge to its consumers. Rap requires knowledge of the context and culture and conventions unique to that form of expression, but that’s not what’s keeping it from being respected. If anything, mainstream hip hop is far too ready to appeal to the lowest common denominator rather than requiring more from its listeners.
And Nas says:
Threatening. We’re not supposed to be thinking like this. We’re not supposed to be talking like this. What are we doing proud of how we talking with this broken English? How the fuck are we making poetry out of this broken English?
“Why are you guys bringing street conversation to the mainstream world? Stay in your place. Stay out of there. I don’t like looking at you. Fix your pants. Fix your hat. Y’all are supposed to stay in the gutter. Get out of here. What are you doing invading my home? Why are my kids liking your music? What’s going on? I don’t like you. I don’t like you.”
That’s all they’re saying. And we know it.
Nas is correct to note this cultural and racial divide — this is a problem that goes far beyond rap. These are deep-seated social issues that seem likely to remain with us for some time to come. Must we mend these social rifts before rap can move beyond such constraints? Perhaps.
However, the most straightforward answer to the question of why rap doesn’t get the respect that jazz and blues do is also the most mundane: time. Rap simply hasn’t had sufficient time to progress to the cultural status of those other musical art forms. Jazz and blues both have over a hundred years behind them and both ceased being popular long ago.
Jazz began in the early 1900s, reached its “golden era” in the late 20s and early 30s, was the popular music of the country throughout the 40s and then faded precipitously in popularity with a shift to bebop, modal and free jazz and the advent of rock and roll.
By way of comparison, rap is still in its youth, having been on the scene for just over thirty years. It’s currently at the height of mainstream popularity, regularly finding representation at the top of the Billboard charts with the likes of Eminem, Pitbull, Ke$ha, Macklemore, Drake, Jay-Z and others.
If there’s a parallel to be drawn with development of jazz, it will only be after rap’s popularity has waned that it will begin to be widely respected as an art form, studied for its cultural contributions and valued for its place in musical history. At the moment it’s still generally viewed as a crass expression of musical excess and questionable taste — characteristics that continue to be reinforced by many of today’s rappers.
Seventy years from now, will hip hop be relegated to stuffy concert halls and Saturday afternoon NPR retrospectives, having been supplanted by some other nascent musical form? Only time will tell.