A Better Way To Say It

Some of the commenters over on Bloggingheads are complaining that in the segment Matt and I did yesterday, when we discussed hip-hop’s rise this decade, we don’t adequately acknowledge that white people have been listening to hip-hop for a long time.  This is one of the things that I like about writing (even though doing BHTV is a lot of fun)–I don’t have to hit publish until I’m dead-sure I’ve found the best way to express something (though on this blog or at my day job, you don’t get video of me describing myself as a “ray of sunshine,” so BHTV has some clear advantages).  I wanted to clarify a couple of the things that I said about hip-hop in the segment.

First, of course white people have been listening to hip-hop since the beginning.  I don’t think anyone doubts that.  And of course the genre’s popularity has been growing steadily.  But I really do think the aughts were the decade in which hip-hop became arguably the dominant genre in pop music.  It’s amazing how many standard three-and-a-half-minute pop songs have rap verses, something that would have been incomprehensible a decade earlier.  Some folks might have done it, but it would have been an innovation, rather than a standard feature.  Latoya Petersen asked on Jezebel yesterday, “Since When Is Ke$ha’s ‘Tik Tok’ Considered Rap?” and while I think it’s a legitimate question, it also speaks to a larger shift in pop genres: do we consider a song with a pop verse and chorus, an R&B verse, and a rap segment a pop song?  A hip-hop song?  A R&B song?  That ambiguity is extremely creatively excitingly, and I do think it’s a unique feature of this decade’s music.

And it’s not just that pop and hip-hop are interacting.  It’s that “urban” has ceased to be a useful label to explain how hip-hop’s audience is different from, say, rock’s audience.  American culture has shifted such that popular culture and style are much closer to so-called “urban” tropes, and hip-hop has also shifted towards mainstream cultural norms, whether it’s Kanye West and Andre 3000 getting in good with the high-fashion establishment; Ghostface showing up repeatedly on 30 Rock, which, by any measure is a fairly white and square show, Tracy Morgan notwithstanding; or Jay-Z declaring nonchalantly “I sold kilos of coke / I’m guessing I can sell CDs” or urging young men to “Throw on a suit, get it tapered up.”  In other words, mainstream American pop culture and hip-hop have circled towards each other, until they’re dancing to some of the same steps.  Both of their moves have something to do with racial attitudes, whether it’s white Americans assimilating hip-hop style, slang, and norms, or hip-hop recognizing that rebranding and restyling could be a shrewd marketing move.  That trend may not have begun precisely on January 1, 2000, but I do think it’s culmination–or at least a major step forward–happened in this decade.

And I’m not really swayed by the argument that hip-hop’s sales are declining.  So are records in other genre, but sales aren’t actually a perfect measure of cultural influence.  Illegal downloads, mixtapes, and YouTube views are key too.  If sales of every song with a hip-hop guest verse were included, I bet those figures would look different.  And record sales can’t measure shifts in style, whether it’s lyrical, production, clothes, or videos.  Timbaland’s reach into pop alone is enormous, something that before 2002 (his work with Beck excluded) basically wasn’t the case–he branched out tremendously in the aughts.

I’m not entirely sure yet what I think this all means.  I think pop, hip-hop, and rock will all survive as distinct genres.  But I think we’re going to continue to see fascinating genre fusions, and that our music will be richer as a result.  I think this decade was big for hip-hop in a number of ways.  But I think bigger ones are on the way.