Anytime something new makes an appearance; whether it’s totally original or simply a slightly different twist to an old standard, there will inevitably be some oxymoronic amateur-experts pissing in the wind for press time with the adolescent Q: “But is it really art?” The question, once released, breathes the odoriferous emanations of decayed dreams from smelly smart-ass wannabes with halitosis, too much cheap perfume, and a six-month spread of toe-jam, and it yells, “I’m alive and I’ve found my purpose!” Unfortunately, for all, the question is bipolar with a split personality, and it goes viral. It is born on the air and the web, carrying out its infectious purpose: attempting to stifle creativity. Fortunately, but not for all, there is an antidote; it is called an open mind.
This, of course, does not imply that everyone has to like rap. You can hate it, degrade it, or double-negative rate it; but you should at least be self-assured enough, and mature enough, to give it its due. It’s not an art fart it’s an art form. And Jay-Z, an ex-crook with a hook, took it by storm.
Art fart or art form? Most days I might wonder how such an inept question can still be asked in the twenty-first century. But then psych-class comes to mind – the fool’s rendition of the human condition – and I realize the question will forever reappear when any new addition to the art world draws near.
A hand print on stone ten “G” years before J.C. Superstar is considered art. Handwriting on a stone wall in NYC today is graffiti, and may need a peace treaty in the form of bail to get out of jail. Although, Jean-Michel Basquiat broke the mold as one of the relative few who got paid without doing time for what most cities still consider a crime, as we see in Jay-Z’s Decoded, on pages ninety-six and ninety-seven. So are the two artists, or sages? And are they from hell, or from heaven?
When a nameless figure puts a crucifix in a beaker of urine, it is called art and sits in a museum. But when rappers, like Jay-Z, say “nigger” or “peeing” it sparks more debate than the Shroud of Turin.
Why should anyone be surprised that project dwellers, and diddy-bop killers, will see through ghetto eyes?
Every culture throughout the history of the human race has left a trace of who they were, are, and hoped to be in the guise of art. Should it now stop with rap and hip hop cuz’ it comes with the chill of the ghetto? Hot lead and cold hearts are a requirement to survive in their environment. Ditto. They’re schooled in the hood and they beat feet on the street; so graffiti and hip hop 24/7, nonstop, are merely their Americana: folk songs, folk art. And the horse before the cart just happens to be heroin; not heroine, Lady Liberty, carrying torch and flag, with a tit hanging out while dressed in drag, a soldier at war proclaiming to all, all are still born free: even in your misery.
However, if sacrificing for one’s art will elevate an amateur to an artist, than growing up ghetto-bound, slicing and dicing, will separate the hard from the hardest; and many who answer the call will fall; even if it’s just a war to exist, to survive, to be. Let’s hear it from Jay-Z:
The cliché is, be careful what you wish for, because you might get
it. Nearly every rapper who’s made it big – or has even been modestly
successful – has had to deal with getting one of his heads chopped.
Rappers like Pun, Big L, Ol’ Dirty Bastard, Pimp C, among many,
many others, have literally lost their lives just when they were about
to peak. Rappers at the top of their game have been locked up, some-
times for long bids. The stories you hear can really make it seem like
success can be a curse: rappers who’ve been dangled over balconies
for their publishing money, driven out of their hometowns, fucked up
by drugs, sued by their own families, betrayed by their best friends,
sold out by their crews. There are rappers that blow up and blow
through whole fortunes, squander every opportunity, and before you
know it end up back on the block. The crazy thing is, we don’t even
question it anymore. We take it for granted (p.93).
And don’t forget Tupac Shakur and Biggie Smalls (p.72-73), whose art has already endured long past their entrance to the hallowed halls.
Yes, I’m pretending to write in the style of someone who knows. No, I’m not a rapper, just an old fart who learned how tolerance grows. And I may not be a black gangster from a Brooklyn ghetto, but I am a fair-skinned half-breed from an L.A. barrio. I know a lot about fighting, and T&A delighting, and my tour in the Army was a bonus to charm me; learning new ways of survival in a blood’n’guts revival.
Artists express themselves in whatever way they can; whether it’s hob-nobbin’ with the Ivy League, or runnin’ from the man. They tell their tales in P.O.V. and hope you get the drift, and secretly they hope to live long past the twilight shift. And if some jingle-jangle finds its way into their jeans, they wish to bear it well, without insanity scenes. Art for art’s sake or art to make a point, hip hop and rap don’t run from a scrap. But if it’s to be the real thing, don’t forget the hustle, the bling, and a joint.
Hip hop is an art, but there will always be naysayers. Rap can be smart, like an onion’s many layers. But ya’ gotta keep digging like a cherry-popped frigging. Blood from a turnip, blood from a stone, yet ya’ gotta dig deeper to make it your own. Yes, hip hop is art, but it’s got a bad rap. So in this bad rap essay, I’ll show some r-e-s-p-e-c-t, and let Jay-Z have the last say:
This is why the hustler’s story – through hip hop – has connected
with a global audience. The deeper we get into those sidewalk cracks
and into the mind of the young hustler trying to find his fortune there,
the closer we get to the ultimate human story, the story of struggle,
which is what defines us all (p.19).