Letters to a Hip Hop Skeptic: Part One – The Setup

After many, varied arguments in the pub (sometimes shouted and never resolved), Charlie Lewis has tried and failed to convince fellow Lost writer Mitch Bennett of the glories of hip hop. This series is as much his love letter to the genre as it is a primer for those of us who never got it.

So here’s the set up: in an attempt to win other a doubtful friend, Every week I’m going to talk about a concept as it relates to hip hop – theatre, love, politics, crime etc – and put together a playlist around the same theme. I’ll talk about a few of my favourite tracks, and let you listen to the rest. I’ll also feature an artist that I think exemplifies what I like about Hip Hop’s take on the subject, and include a few stray and off-topic classics that I think are worth hearing for their own sake.

‘Ah-here we go…’

Dear Mitch,

I know, in some ways, that this is all futile. I could list Hip Hop’s good points until I have no breath left (and probably have already tried. In your presence. Several times. Usually in the pub) but ultimately, fandom doesn’t work like that. Art generally captures your heart organically, not when someone pushes it at you and demands you love it, or justify why you don’t. We’ve all watched a comedy with someone who won’t stop looking over to make sure we’re getting it, and we’ve all been shushed half way through a conversation because the song  currently playing is about to unleash a fuckin’ blazing solo. It’s perhaps the best way to put up a wall between subject and viewer; the pressure to have a response to something at your first experience of it.
That said, you did ask for some recommendations. My first reaction was a paralysed one – how would I do justice to such a diverse genre which means so much to me? If I were to throw together 20 songs and you were to walk away unmoved, my conclusion wouldn’t be that hip hop just wasn’t for you. It would be that I hadn’t shown you the right stuff. I honestly believe this: every nerd and hard case, every lover and loser, every scholar and aesthete has a rapper for then. If that sounds like a bold statement, this series is an attempt to back it up.

Before we get going, a few quick promises. As a white, middle-class, non-American writing about a music that gets its DNA from working class black American communities (as all popular music does, but that’s another argument for another day), I won’t pretend I understand anything that I don’t, or claim any credibility I don’t have.  I won’t pretend there’s nothing in Hip Hop that appals me, and I won’t minimise or defend anything that does. That said, I often detect a wilful lack of nuance and a snobbish double standard in much of the muck thrown hip hop’s way, and I intend to call that out.

Finally, if the word N*gga turns up in lyrics I quote, I’m going to censor it- the people of Flint or Ferguson may have bigger problems than whether I stop rapping along at certain points during Golddigger, but I’ve met a few too many people who think the ability to listen to a Kendrick Lamar verse without needing Urban Dictionary gives them rights it most certainly fucking doesn’t.

The first instalment is perhaps the toughest – you may have this picked up, but I’ve had a hard time knowing where to start. As such, I’ve decided to let myself off the hook a little. I’m going to give you a sampler of the stuff I’ll be sharing over the course of this series, with the vague theme of ‘reflections’. The first thing that hooked me about Hip Hop is it’s the only genre that’s so self-aware, the only genre which, is in some ways, a huge internal conversation. That seems the best subject on which to start for a sceptic, because Hip Hop knows what you think of it – it knows that the millions shifted by the Diddys and Nellys and Fiddys of this world have a painted a picture of empty materialism, casual misogyny and empty hard man posturing.  The rappers that first caught my attention hate that more than you do.

Lupe Fiasco – Hurt me Soul. The first two lines: ‘I ain’t tryna be the greatest/I used to hate hip hop/ yep, cos the women degraded’. Fiasco’s commitment to decency sometimes curdles into joyless moralising. But on ‘Soul’ we see all his best traits in full effect – his introspection and awareness are one thing, but his ambition and skills as a storyteller really set him apart, clattering together a dizzying stream of imagery and situations until you half think his claim that the song is for everybody might not be hubris.

Blackalicious – Blazing Arrows. I love every flicker of wit, warmth and wisdom MC Gift of Gab crams into his delirious flow. I love that Chief Xcel is the kind of producer who listens to Harry Nilsson and thinks ‘There’s some hip hop fire in that’ and I love even more that he’s right.

DangerDoom (feat Talib Kweli) – Old School. – MF Doom will be getting a lot of attention round these parts, as will Kweli. DangerDoom is his collaboration with Dangermouse (he of The Grey Album and Gnarls Barkely fame) and a fistful of adult swim cartoon characters. Here he dismisses gun toting posers as ‘chitlins’ – the cheap off-cuts they fed to slaves (it won’t be the last time he sends you on a rewarding google search).

The Coup – Laugh/Love/Fuck. No po-faced lecturing from this ‘fro-sporting Marxist humanist, who knows a revolution is needed, but one without joy and sex is no good to anyone. ‘If I ain’t involved, I feel I ain’t breathin’/If I can’t change the world, I ain’t leavin’/Baby, that’s the same reason you should call me this evenin.’

Cool Calm Pete – Lost. Korean New Yorker whose soulful beats and lazy baritone flow belies his creative anxieties. He knows there’s no avoiding the grind, but he finds humour in it. He gets laid once in a while, but not often enough to totally forget his ex. He’s getting by, you know?

BlackStar – Definition. The Duo has a surplus of brains and melodic chops and between them just enough skills to keep up.
The rest is a preview, we’ll get to it all in due time. Tell me what you liked. Tell me what you didn’t. We’ve talked enough for you to know I’ll enjoy the argument.

See the next bit here.

Charlie Lewis

Charlie is a committed dilettante, inveterate hoarder and functioning alcoholic. His interests include the extremes of Pop culture (the very good and the very bad), politics, hip-hop, feminism, history and The Beatles. His writing for Lost will focus, as much as possible, on one or more of these topics until he finds a way to write about all of them at once.

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