The ideas front: Climb on the hip-hop express

March 19, 1995|By MICHAEL PAKENHAM

If you are a native-born or naturalized citizen of the Hip-Hop Nation, or hold a paid-up resident visa, you know all this. But if rap music is obscure, mysterious, objectionable or repellent, hang on.

Rap: A noisy, noisome, unmusical assault that comes without your bidding out of cars, radios and open windows. Lots has been written about it. Most of that has been defiantly dumb or inaccessible in language or venue.

Anybody who believes there is either delight or duty - or both - in knowing about the main currents of thought and action in America should know about rap, even if it never becomes a personally special earthly delight.

Now comes a valuable book: " Rap on Rap, Straight Up Talk on Hip-Hop Culture," edited and with an introduction by Adam Sexton (Delta Trade Paperback. 270 pages. $14.95).

It is a gathering of a rich cacophony of voices, from Jesse Jackson to William Safire, from Ice Cube to Anna Quindlen, from Run-DMC to Henry Louis Gates Jr. The book is a distilled, nourishing, inclusive compilation of bits and pieces: newspaper columns, essays, transcriptions of broadcast debates, lyrics.

The distinction between " rap" and " hip-hop" : Hip-hop is broader. It includes both rap and various elements of associated culture and usage.

Rap is the anthemic music of the aware, disenfranchised youth of America's post-industrial inner cities. Its most radical form is called " gangsta" (for gangster) rap. Among its critics' complaints: It incites homicide, it's vilely demeaning to all women, it sometimes seems anti-Semitic, it often calls for random slaughter of police and others in authority.

Cool down: Except for social setting, the murderous side is not all that distant from the celebration in " Frankie and Johnny" of Frankie's killing her man because " he done her wrong." There are lots of other parallels, especially in country music (and the folk ballads that are its source). " Kill the umpire!" - what could be more profoundly American than that?

Rap grew out of disc jockey work in clubs, beginning probably in Bronx discos in the mid 1970s. DJs deftly worked pairs of turntables (the classic is designated Technics SL-1200MK2), snatching and scratching sounds from 12-inch vinyl disks to make a new music.

Two phenomena lived on: 1. An ecstatically defiant attitude ("tude"). 2." Sampling," the expropriation of snatches of other peoples' recorded sounds, played as background or accompaniment to an ever-more-intricate spoken narrative.

Sampling can be seen as identical in concept and intent to making collages, gluing bits of newspapers and other printed matter on a sheet of paper or other material, and drawing or painting over and around them. That, as every literate school child knows, was a genius innovation by Pablo Picasso in 1912. It was immediately branded as utterly outrageous, dangerous, subversive - 83 years ago. Civilization survived.

Gangsta rap burst into public awareness in the late 1980s, though it had been around well before that. Today, the largest bulk of gangsta rap CD sales are not in the ghettos, as you might assume, but in the record shops of white-noose suburbs' malls. It plays very well and very, very profitably to the glandular rage of aimless white upper-middle-class adolescents.

There is an argument about whether rap is music. The lyrics are spoken rather than sung.

Chuck it out: How much of Bob Dylan's singing would meet anybody else's tone and melody standards? Opera, especially early opera, is full of spoken recitatives.

There can be no informed dispute that rap texts are poetry, much or most of it remarkably orthodox in form, meter, internal devices of rhyme and rhythm, prosody.

Rap's complexity of nuance, of suggestion, arises from " signifying," " playing the dozens" and "toasts" - ironic inversions deeply rooted in African-American origins and folklore. These were - are - codes understood to express precisely their opposites: "Bad" is just fine, thank you very much; badder is better; baddest is best. This device is, of course, common to virtually all of history's beleaguered or oppressed tribes, both as communication and as cultural mortar.

There have been very substantial initiatives to censor rap, including prosecutions under obscenity statutes, and pressures have been put on recording companies and artists.

That introduces an enchanting irony: The agonies and needs that rap speaks for arise from turf that is ostensibly common to that of the " political correctness" movement.

PC proponents, the foaming-mouthed rottweilers of neo-Stalinist anti-intellectual totalitarianism, are responsible for today's current obscene, ludicrous, Orwellian perversions of meaning: speech codes, gag tyrannies, etc., etc., etc. Weird bedfellows.

There are rich, lovely, life-expanding things happening in the combat zone of ideas.

Sexton's collection is so good it is a pity he did not finish his job: Attribution and linkage to bring the parts into a drawn-together whole. In subsequent editions, that omission should be remedied with author identifications and thumbnail explanations of the circumstances under which each piece was written.

Meanwhile, this book is delightful. Better yet, it could set you free of a fear you neither deserve nor need.

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