Perhaps this serves more as a critique of criticism itself, rather than fandom, but the end result is that being a fan – in this case of hip-hop, but really of any modern art form – can be a tiring, if not confounding experience.
Years ago, my brother once coined a term that stuck with me – “the Grateful Dead effect.” This occurs, he explained, when the irritating antics of a particular fan base obscures the enjoyment of that which they are fans. In the eponymous example, Grateful Dead fans or “Deadheads,” are so deeply invested in the culture that they have created – categorizing every bootleg live performance, comparing version of deep tracks, referring to “Jerry” and “Phil” – that it makes being a casual fan, who may not want to associate with Deadhead culture, something of a challenge.
In the past, the “Grateful Dead effect” felt limited to institutions with notoriously fervent supporters – Phish, Beyonce, or Kiss may come to mind – but it now seems to provide the standard. Recently, I have noticed this effect more and more as fandom itself has become a sort of proving ground, not unlike music, film, sports, or any other entertainment that breeds fans in the first place. While the term “fandom” once connoted support, it now connotes ownership and having the last word.
Fandom itself has become a sort of proving ground.
The word “fan” abbreviates “fanatic,” which is defined as “a person with an extreme and uncritical enthusiasm or zeal, as in religion or politics.” This is a telling definition, since it seems to exclude fans of artists. The “uncritical” aspect in the definition typically applies more to politics, sports teams, or religions, and fans of a particular artist or medium have a right to be critical. And while the “uncritical enthusiasm” may apply to the likes of Deadheads or the Beyhive, for most other artists – who never reached a comparable level of adulation from fans, music critics, or both – so-called “fans” often serve as the most critical constituency there is.
This thought started after a modest discussion regarding Lil Wayne’s Carter V. When I commented to friends that I was excited to hear the album, albeit with no expectations, it spiraled into a flurry of familiar, yet irrelevant, takes: “Lil’ Wayne hasn’t made any good music in 13 years,” “Carter III sucked and was too radio-friendly,” and so forth. (Worth noting is that the commentary around Carter III – that the artist “sold-out” and “traded their sound for more radio play”, implying that the artist went downhill after gaining popularity – felt oddly parallel to that of Metallica’s self-titled Black Album, which I also enjoy.)
Initially, this seemed to reflect the current attitude around music criticism and particularly hip-hop; it feels like every new release is either heaped with effusive praise (Kendrick Lamar, Travis Scott), or is derided for failing to live up to prior works by that same artist (e.g. “’Ye’ is not as good as Graduation, and therefore unworthy of any attention). But ultimately, these feel more like phases of the same cycle, rather than distinct critical views. We bestow legend status upon performers who tap into the zeitgeist, only to dismiss them totally once they fail to take us to the same fevered heights. After all, is it so hard to imagine that in 10 years we’ll be dismissing Kendrick Lamar’s latest effort as “not as good as DAMN?”
Perhaps this serves more as a critique of criticism itself, rather than fandom, but the end result is that being a fan – in this case of hip-hop, but really of any modern art form – can be a tiring, if not confounding experience. While fandom should be about trying to understand or relate to an artist’s work, it now concerns ownership of their output and the narrative around it. Instead, one is left to defend their choices in art, as if there is some measure of objectivity to what’s “good” and what’s not. We know that we probably won’t enjoy Tha Carter V as much as Tha Carter II, but who says we should expect to? If you are a hip-hop fan, isn’t it intriguing and positive for the medium when one of the biggest names is hot again? Hasn’t Wayne given us enough, especially given his absurd output of mixtapes during his prime? Are you somehow more of a “real” fan than me if you make it known how much you hated Tha Carter III?
But so much of that criticism is wrapped up in nebulous, individual experiences. Take another example, Kid Cudi’s major-label debut Man on the Moon. Far from a classic album, this album is a classic to me because its themes – alienation, the loss of a parent, trying to substitute indifference for happiness –really resonated at the time of its release in 2009 (I was a freshman in college, and my mother had passed away 2 and a half years prior). While the general reception to the album was that it was inferior to Cudi’s mixtapes, or only “had a few good songs” (a common, flattening review of many albums), I still love it. And I’m allowed to, even if I don’t listen to it everyday.
We seek out enclaves of fandom so that we can feel a part of a community. But when the messages of the community overwhelmingly end up as the equivalent “you’re not welcome here” (by deviating from fanatic dogma and enjoying the albums you “shouldn’t”, or criticizing the ones you “should”), or “remember how much better things used to be here” (because artist X hasn’t made as good of an album as album Y in 10 years), it starts to feel like a bit of a drain. Instead of a community, we are left arguing among ourselves, like sectarians splitting hairs over an interpretation of our artistic gods. So much of modern fandom involves a strong initial take, which is typically subjected to a popular opinion revision that colors future opinions. Nobody thought Illmatic was a classic upon its release, but if you were to say today Nas has better albums, you would be widely dismissed (and wrong).
I like being the guy in the room whose favorite Michael Jackson album is Bad
On the contrary, debating the artistic merits of our favorite musicians and their work provides a fun insight into the fan psyche. I like being the guy in the room whose favorite Michael Jackson album is Bad and defending my stance. But ultimately, no one’s convincing each other; fans argue how “good” the album is, instead of what it means to the listener and where they were in life when it was released or when they first heard it; these factors necessarily inform any review. No one’s objective, no one owns the definitive review of a work of art, and furthermore no one can argue as much by comparing it to other works of art. “Personal preferences” can serve as a catch-all that encompasses any number of priorities for the reviewer – lived experiences, expectations, and tendency towards contrarianism, among others – so stop trying to prove that yours are the definitive guidepost.
Some of this is semantic – its quicker and easier to say that an album “sucked” than to say that the themes on it didn’t match those in your life (and why). Separating what we feel to be objective about quality, and what we know subjective in our criteria for quality, proves a blurry exercise at best. But acknowledging as much may just be the first step towards understanding why other “fans” may feel differently.
2018 in Music
Music is alive and well. Here are some favorites from records I listened to this year.
Be the Cowboy – Mitski
Mitski has beautiful momentum since Puberty 2. Her latest, Be the Cowboy, ups the ante. (more)
The Tree of Forgiveness – John Prine
Septuagenarian John Prine has honed his craft for well over 50 years and never once had to twerk.
Kids See Ghosts – Kanye West & Kid Cudi
Cudi’s record is the best of Kanye’s multiple releases in 2018, tweets aside.
boygenius – boygenius
Julien Baker, Phoebe Bridgers, and Lucy Dacus join forces as boygenius for an EP that’ll play you like a violin.
Suspiria (Music for the Luca Guadagnino Film) – Thom Yorke
Haven’t seen the movie yet, but this record paints a vivid picture on its own.
Things Have Changed – Bettye LaVette
The freshest take on Dylan since Dylan.
Look Now – Elvis Costello
Elvis is incapable of making a mediocre album. (more)
I’ll Be Your Girl – The Decemberists
A well-oiled music-making machine – it was fun to hear them play with synths this year.
Twentytwo in Blue – Sunflower Bean
Shoulda hit the big time with this decidedly Fleetwood Mac–flavored record.
Rock 2 – The Dean Ween Group
You can expect more of these beer–smelling solo records until Ween make new music.
This is America – Childish Gambino
One of the best songs of the year, and definitely the best video.
Superoganism – Superoganism
These kids can play on my lawn any day. (more)
Sparkle Hard – Stephen Malkmus & The Jicks
The voice of Pavement makes another solid record with The Jicks.
Ordinary Corrupt Human Love – Deafheaven
Alls I know is… this song helped me out this year.
Burning Daylight – Blake Morgan
Restored and remastered version of Blake’s sophomore album shines like a diamond. (more)
Pinkus Abortion Technician – Melvins
A good reminder from the drunk uncle of grunge.
Wide Awake! – Parquet Courts
Some solid tracks, but I wanted to like this collab with Danger Mouse more.
Thank You For Today – Death Cab for Cutie
Latest record has some fans burning their membership cards, and others fainting into their lattes. (more)
Aquarelle – Jesse Harris
Caught Jesse twice in NYC this year and dug his shit.
Egypt Station – Paul McCartney
Inconsistent record from the most consistent artist of his generation. (more)
Kumi – Blak Emoji
Blew the ceiling of Arlene’s Grocery this year.
Down The Road Wherever – Mark Knopfler
Mark’s solo records continue to hit the sweet spot.
Lil Peep & XXXTENTACION – Falling Down
Posthumously released earworm.
20 OF THE MOST DISTINCT VOICES IN HIP HOP
Hip Hop has been woven into the fabric of our lives with some very distinct voices. They are unique, unforgettable and not easily duplicated. Here are 20 reminders to refresh your memory just in case you forgot.
So LISTEN UP! Did it ring a bell? Did they make your list?
20. Cardi B
19. Kodak Black
18. Andre 3000
16. Foxy Brown
15. Ice Cube
14. Young Jeezy
13. Too Short
11. Lil Wayne
8. Notorious BIG
7. Uncle Luke
5. Slick Rick
2. Snoop Dogg
1. Busta Rhymes
How UK and US Gangster Rap Show Us the Difference in Each Country’s Gun Laws
The gun debate in the US has hit an all-time climax. Mass shootings across the United States have spurred conflict between gun-control and gun-rights advocates. In the whirlwind of talking points from both sides, you often come across gun-control activists citing our friends across the pond as an example of the positive results of gun-control laws.
Firearms are tightly controlled in the UK, and in return, according to the United Nation’s Office on Drugs and Crime, have one of the lowest rates of gun homicides in the world. The US, on the other hand, is one of six countries that make up more than half of the gun deaths worldwide, according to a study published in The Journal of the American Medical Association in the summer of 2018.
The difference is evident between these two western powers, and a deep dive into the laws of the two countries may provide even more explanation, but how exactly does UK and US gangster rap highlight concrete gun law differences between these two nations?
In the modern, popular vernacular of American hip-hop, gangster rap mostly lives in two main sub-genres; trap and drill. Both genres have roots in particular cities. Trap was born in Atlanta. “Trap” refers to drug manufacturing and distribution houses where a lot of Atlanta rappers emerged out of and into the rap game. Drill, a native sound of Chicago, known for its dark, violent, and nihilistic lyrical content, was birthed from the streets of the Southside of the city.
That’s where we’ll start our dive into modern American gangster rap, Chicago, where gun violence has plagued lower income areas of the city. One of the most notorious drill artists is a rapper by the name of Chief Keef. Keef rose to prominence in 2011 as a 16-year-old. However, run-ins with the law, including an alleged shootout with police, put Keef in and out of juvenile detention centers and house arrests. While for most, being caught in the system might be a bleak and unproductive time, Chief Keef was still able to launch his rap career.
In 2012, Chief Keef released his smash hit, “I Don’t Like.” The song brought Keef into the mainstream. It was remixed by superstar Kanye West, and although the exact number of music video views on YouTube is unknown (due to it being removed, then re-uploaded multiple times), it is well into the multi-millions.
This is where a lot of our comparison between UK and US rappers will live, in the music videos themselves.
In the original music video for “I Don’t Like,” Keef and his companions are pictured toting handguns (starting at 2:25). They wave them around, stick extended clips in them, seemingly unfazed by past gun charges linked to Chief Keef.
Jumping to the trap scene in Atlanta, you see much of the same; artists showcasing guns in their music videos. 21 Savage is a 26-year-old trap artist from Atlanta that has reached mainstream success. Much like Keef, he grew up in a violent, gun-ridden neighborhood; and his music reflects that life. The music video for his 2016 song, “No Heart,” opens inside a trap house where a number of men sit around a table playing poker. Pistols and assault weapons riddle the table as the men play. As the video progresses, storylines arise where 21 partakes in acts of gun violence, including shooting a store clerk with a pistol, and an associate with a semi-automatic weapon.
The reach of trap and drill have moved far past Atlanta and Chicago. As the internet has brought the world closer together, the sounds and style of trap and drill have molded street music across America. Whether you’re listening to rap from New York, Miami, LA, even Canada, you can hear and see the influence trap and drill have had on the music. This is not to say trap and drill artists were the first to feature guns in music videos in the US, but they certainly increased the frequency.
Now to be clear, this discussion is not to pin hip-hop with showcasing guns in American media. Rappers promote guns no more than cowboys in westerns or characters in a Quentin Tarantino movie. The point here is to point out the stark differences between gangster rap in the US and the UK. And while there is certainly censorship, restrictions, and consequences for guns in American rap, it doesn’t come even close to what their counterparts in England face.
Rappers promote guns no more than cowboys in westerns or characters in a Quentin Tarantino movie.
Gangster rap in the UK lives in two main sub-genres; grime and similar to the US, drill. Much like their American peers, many of these artists grew up in low income, high crime areas. Their songs also tell stories of the violence they’ve experienced growing up in these communities.
If you’re familiar with UK grime and drill, you’ve probably stumbled across the YouTube channel, GRM Daily. For those in the US, GRM Daily is a close equivalent to World-Star Hip-Hop. GRM promotes and features music videos from a slew of UK rappers. They currently have over 1.5 million subscribers on their channel.
Of the top seven most viewed grime/drill videos on GRM Daily (they also feature dancehall and R&B), zero have guns in them. Compare that to World Star’s YouTube channel where three of their top seven videos show a firearm.
While there is certainly censorship, restrictions, and consequences for guns in American rap, it doesn’t come even close to what their counterparts in England face.
Mixtape Madness is another YouTube channel that features drill and grime. It’s sort of an underground version of GRM Daily, with about 500k subscribers. You could argue that the artists featured on Mixtape Madness are a bit grittier, a bit more street than the one’s on GRM. Still, of their top 20 videos, zero feature any visuals of any sort of firearm. While I can’t provide any concrete numbers or statistics, in my own experience consuming UK drill and grime, I have never seen a gun in any sort of UK hip-hop music video. There is certainly a lot of finger pointing, and lots of gesturing, but no actual guns.
Some UK drill/grime music videos even feature warning disclaimers. For example, the video for “9er Ting,” a song by Hackney artists Unknown T and KO, starts with a text disclaimer that reads, “This music video is purely for entertainment purposes. The makers of this video do not condone violence of any kind, and seemingly violent acts portrayed in this video are simple artist expression.” Wow. A disclaimer before a gangster rap video? Extremely rare in the US, but not so much in the UK.
If you click through the videos on Mixtape Madness’ channel, you will quickly notice that most of the artists in the videos are portrayed wearing ski masks. In fact, KO, the artist mentioned above is never seen in a video without a mask. Why? Because in the UK, lyrics and visuals can be used in court as evidence. Because of this, the phrase, “No face, no case,” has become popular in the drill/grime scene. If you’re an artist simply rapping about guns or violence in your music, you could be at real risk.
This seems extreme, right? Do rappers in the UK really have to put disclaimers in their videos and wear masks? The answer seems to be, yes. Artists in the US have been unable to perform in certain places due to parole restrictions. The New York rapper, Tekashi 6ix9ine was even ordered by a Judge to refrain from shouting his gang’s affiliation in songs. But a west London drill group, 1011, has been banned from making music without police permission. A court order issued June of 2018 requires the group to notify police within 24 hours of releasing new videos. Additionally, the order says that the group must give 48 hours warning of the date and location of any performance or recording and permit officers to attend. The group is also restricted from using certain lyrics.
The first time I watched the group’s music video for their song, “Guess Who’s Back,” I found myself squinting at the video, confused, something was off. The lips of the rappers in the video didn’t seem to sync up with the lyrics of the song. As I watched, I realized the video wasn’t even the video for the song. It was some other artist’s video with 1011’s song dubbed over. The original “Guess Who’s Back Video” can’t be found.
West London drill group 1011 has been banned from making music without police permission.
While the examination of UK and US gangster rap certainly highlights the difference in gun laws, it also leads us to uncover an attempt by British authorities to censor black music. What happened to 1011 is censorship, and it will do little to actually curb any sort of violence in the UK. Chief executive of the Index on Censorship Jodie Ginsberg said about the incident, “Banning a kind of music is not the way to handle ideas or opinions that are distasteful or disturbing. This isn’t going to address the issues that lead to the creation of this kind of music, nor should we be creating a precedent in which certain forms of art which include violent images or ideas are banned. We need to tackle actual violence, not ideas and opinions.”
It’s sort of sad. You’d think this comparison of UK and US rap would allow for a great deal of enlightenment. Instead, it mostly highlights two major problems in both countries. However, all this does still say something about the gun debate in America. UK and US rappers both discuss guns and violence in their music. The only difference is the guns themselves.
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