Monday, May 19, 2008

Death of Hip Hop (...again?) What say you Grandmaster Flash?

As Bold as Love points us to another scribe, this time at, bemoaning the death of thoughtful wordplay, and innovative beat engineering in commercial hip hop, word comes from that Grandmaster Flash's autobiography is on the way.

First off, I am admittedly not a hip hop head. However, every time I read variations on this "death knell of hip hop" article I wonder why instead of writing various perspectives on the lowered standards and/or lack of innovation of the form in its commercial aspect, why aren't these writers looking at underground artists. I expect that focus wouldn't sell as much ad space, or generate as many clicks/hits (translate: readers) on those pages. But it would take the conversation about hip hop, or for that matter about any artistic form that seems to have become a gaseous ballooned parody of its former self, to where the art form itself is still alive, innovating and enervating.

OK, but on to Grandmaster Flash who is teaming up with writer David Ritz to put to the page the story of the Grandmaster's life, The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash: My Life, My Beats. Due out June 10, 2008, the book is positioned to cement as bona fide history Flash's reputation as a primary architect of hip hop. When the canonizing starts isn't that when the reports of the death of a creative genre or period are no longer considered to be wholly exaggerated? At least that's the point at which a genre becomes codified with particular distinguishing markers, possible edicts and demarcations of inclusion and exclusion, hierarchies of what Bourdieu would call "taste" and ideological camps, plus with canonizing comes particular types of research and documentation allowing for greater inroads into the scholarly realm, and conversely allowing for scholars to get to bring their skills to bear on a medium that likely gave them great pleasure while they were growing up and/or toiling to get that de-gree (to quote a Nikki Giovanni inflection). With canonization comes the before and after, the calls to revitalize the form and/or the celebration of creative contributions whose style, sophistication, emotional depth, composition, etc. harken back to the days of the forefather and occasionally acknowledged foremothers. Certainly, these are interesting times.

Lastly, does anyone else notice the way David Ritz has a lock on many of the music autobiographies and biographies of African American artists (Ray Charles, Etta James, Marvin Gaye, Jimmy Scott, B.B. King, Smokey Robinson) creating/innovating in the r&b/rock, soul, blues, jazz, and hybrid (let's face it Ray Charles unapologetically covered the field--and thank you Mr. Charles for that) musical forms during the mid-to-late 20th century? According to his website, Ritz's specialization, during his 30 year career as a writer, "has been the collaborative autobiography, a form I both respect and love. I've written sixteen such books, in addition to two independent biographies." Also, Ritz hasn't exclusively collaborated with African American musicians or written about them. He's also collaborated with comedian Don Rickles and former CBS label head Walter Yetnikoff on their memoirs, and with classical pianist Lang Lang on his forthcoming memoir (July 15, 2008), as well as with Priscilla Presley and Lisa Marie Presley on their family portrait of Elvis. Ritz also provided text for a Rolling Stone photography book on celebrities and their tattoos. But in the main it's African American figures (or African American originated musical genres), even when they aren't musicians (athletes Laila Ali and Gary Sheffield, and actor Felicia "Snoop" Pearson (The Wire)). I don't have a particular opinion on it a present--I'm just noticing, particularly because I'm reading his collaborative autobiography with Etta James, Rage to Survive: The Etta James Story (1995). It's clear he had the ability to get James to trust him enough to open up and articulate a lot of the pains and demons of her life, as well as the great love she had and has for various friends, fellow musicians, and her intense passion for singing. Reading the narrative, I feel like I'm hearing her voice--though of course I don't know the sound or meter of either her actual or narrative/storytelling voice. I'm only halfway done, so no more writing about it until I've reached the end. (pictured above right: Etta James at the 2006 St. Louis Jazz and Heritage Festival (aka Jazzfest))

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At 10:09 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

What gets lost is the kind of funkiness that Quincy Troupe captured in the Miles Davis colab. Great writing and top shelf research is an undeniable achievemnet in itself, but the essence of how many people of color live their lives is lost when done by white writers (unless they grew up in and are a part of the kind of funkiness in which their subjects lived; but acting as idolizing voyeur is a long shot from living a shared experience). The funkiness I talk about can be equated to soul, rhythms of a marginalized-group life, etc.

At 11:00 PM, Blogger audiologo said...

Anonymous, thanks for the response. An interesting point that gets at questions of subjectivity, lived experience, and authenticity. I think Davis felt comfortable with Troupe, intellectually, artistically, and in that Troupe was also a black male artist in the US.

Troupe also just let Davis speak and bury himself as the trumpeter would, with his unapologetic narratives about pimping women for drug money and repeated instances of domestic abuse.

Having finished the James/Ritz memoir what disturbed me most is how little the book focused on her artistry. For all Ritz's opening remarks about how much he respected James as an artist and a person, there is very little of what makes her a great artist on the page. About 2/3rds of the book deals with her extensive drug abuse. Understandable, as she struggled with it most of her life. Notably, this was also a major part of Davis' autobiography. But the difference is that Davis' view of himself as artist absolutely comes through first and foremost. In as much as it began as a calling that gave her great joy, singing as well as the industry machine of music allowed James to survive, literally. But that industry also encouraged some of her most self-destructive behaviors; that's not addressed in the book either. It all makes me wonder what a black woman co-writer/collaborator with a background in music would have asked James about her life as a musical artist, and what the resulting book would have been.

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