It’s hiphop, dammit

Phil Ford

I'm a middle-aged white guy who's into hiphop. There aren't all that many of us. Oh, there's a few — look at Steinski! — but I've always thought that my own birth year (1969) marks some kind of boundary between the era of rock hegemony and the post-rock age. Which is to say, the further white people are born after 1969, the more likely they are to listen to hiphop, electronica, EDM, and so on, while those born earlier are more likely to love them some electric guitars. Dave Chappelle notes the mysterious affinity of white people and the electric guitar:

Enjoy it for the 2 days it'll take for Viacom to make Youtube take it down. Anyway, I'm the kind of white guy who will usually react like that guy in the barber shop.  I have conflicted feelings about the slobbery coating of electric guitar scrunge that covered everything that came out of the radio when I was growing up. Sometimes, there's nothing more I like than some crunchy fuzz-tone guitar-noise rawk. All the same . . . a friend of mine, an opera freak of the highest order, once said that while any reasonable classical-music listener likes Beethoven's Fidelio, no-one who's a true opera freak would say it's his favorite opera. And I think you can say the same sort of thing about the difference between a real rock fiend and someone whose favorite rock guitarist is Robert Fripp (i.e., me). There are times (like this summer when my friends Graham and Ingrid tried to play me some Neil Young) when I'm reminded of something Dan Savage once said:

One of my issues with rock and/or roll is… the electric guitar. I don’t much care for the sounds they typically make. Imagine, if you can, that you didn’t care for the sound of the french horn. Now image that for nearly sixty years popular music—the music of your generation, your parent’s generation, and your grandparent’s generation—was nothing but three jerks playing the french horn and one asshole on drums. It would get to you after a while, right?

Right. This is how I feel, much of the time. I'm not saying I'm right, I'm just talking about what I like. And I like hiphop. I remember being a teenager in 1986, staking out the basement (where our TV was) waiting for the Run DMC/Aerosmith "Walk This Way" crossover to play on Friday Night Videos. I just LOVED that song. I didn't care about Aerosmith; I liked the guys in the porkpie hats rapping. This song was a big deal, because in places like Sudbury, Ontario, this was the only way you were ever going to learn that rap music even existed. In the documentary Scratch Steinski talks about the first time he heard hiphop, which was back at almost the very beginning of the music, before people were even making records of it. He talks about falling in love with the sound right away, "because there's nothing in this music that I don't wanna hear. There's words that are kind of syncopated and rhythmic, and there's this hot drum track . . . it's great! This is music I've been waiting all my life to hear, and I didn't know it." This was sort of how I felt, though it was years before I started buying recordings. But most of the people of my age cohort didn't get hiphop at all, and still don't. The white kids I knew at school treated rap music as a joke, and there's still a certain kind of leaden, elephantine "humor" that gets deployed every time anyone so much as mentions hiphop in academic/intellectual circles. (My old "Professor's Ten Commandments" article at Inside Higher Ed drew some derision of this sort: "If Prof. “Ice” Ford wanna go’ 2 Death Row Records n’ West Coast — fo’shizzle, ma’nizzle, my brother. East Coast, it B’ toast." Ugh.) I'm always falling in love with some hiphop album and wishing I could talk about it with someone . . . undergrads, no problem, but colleagues and peers, not at all. You get a certain amount of second-guessing, too. People sometimes question your sincerity, thinking you're being trendy or a poser trying to cultivate some kind of hip-white-guy persona. No-one asks any questions if you're a 39-year-old white guy who listens to Neil Young, though.

One thing about hiphop before I go: how do you spell it? The word "hiphop" is like "bebop": as a  term for a kind of music, it has its origins in onomatapoeia and, not being already stabilized within the typographic universe (McLuhan's "Gutenberg galaxy"), has started out with some orthographic uncertainty—hip hop, Hip Hop, hip-hop, hiphop, Hiphop. My opinion is that it should be hiphop, by analogy with bebop. Early on you say the same array of possibilities in print (be bop, be-bop, etc.), but as anyone schooled in the University of Chicago style knows, the principle of economy rules: hyphens, spaces, and capitalizations are extras, and there should always be a good reason to use them. In the case of the word "bebop," over time and through use the hyphens, capital letters, and spaces got worn away, and what was left was a single uncapitalized and unhyphenated word: bebop. The most common way of writing hiphop is hip hop, but I don't like the idea of keeping them as separate words, because (a) it's annoying as a keyword search term, and (b) there is no lexical purpose served by breaking the term into separate words. Hip doesn't modify hop; its hiphop, not a hip form of hop. KRS-One says it's Hiphop: "I think that hip-hop should be spelled with a capital "H," and as one word. It's the name of our culture, and it's the name of our identity and consciousness." If anyone would have some authority on this subject, it would be KRS-One, but I still don't like the capitalization. I suppose the capitalization refers to the consciousness, not the more narrow designation of the music. I can't lay claim to any kind of consciousness; KRS-One may be Hiphop, but I just listen to hiphop.

About Phil Ford

Chairman of the Committee for the Memorial to the Victims of Modernism
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13 Responses to It’s hiphop, dammit

  1. mark says:

    Hey Phil, long time, no comment. I’m another middle aged white guy who likes hip-hop (I’m a hyphenator). I remember when my brother and I first heard it, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, Kurtis Blow. It must have been about 1980, it seemed so fresh and so different. We started buying every record we could find, those Sugarhill releases in the light blue covers. I think by that time we had had about all of the Allman Brothers we could take. While I like electric guitar (I had Hendrix posters on my walls as a teen), I think I started getting a little sick of it with teen angst bands who tried to do Nirvana without the talent, or maybe sensibility is the word. Personally, I wouldn’t mind hearing some more bass clarinet. My age shows in my taste: A Tribe Called Quest, The Jungle Brothers, Public Enemy, though I won’t deny that Lil Wayne can really rap. I think the words need to evolve: start out as two words, hip hop; become hyphenated, and then, at maturity, morph into oneness: hiphop. BTW, it was the 10 commandments article that drew my attention to this blog.

  2. ben wolfson says:

    “hip hop, Hip Hop, hip-hop, hiphop, Hiphop”
    You left out the most ridiculous option of all (actually the only ridiculous option), the one that The Wire uses for reasons best known to themselves: “HipHop”.

  3. I just want to go on record as saying that I’m immediately suspicious of anybody who likes Neil Young. (Although I admit I quite like the acoustic version of Hey Hey My My.) I’m not much of a Hiphop fan either, but I’m much less suspicious of people who like it. On the other hand, I was born in 1979, so I’m younger than most of the people you’re having problems with.

  4. oook blog says:

    Ethnocalumny

    Man, I just LOOOOVE it:(via Dial “M” for Musicology)…

  5. Eric says:

    Phil,
    Madvilliany – man, it’s the shit! If you haven’t heard it, get it NOW!

  6. Dan Johnson says:

    I think it’s better to hyphenate it if only in order to distinguish it from the “Hi-Phop” movement, a type of music made by fops who are high.

  7. Andy H-D says:

    Here I was thinking that one of the cool things about the electric guitar was its total mutability as opposed to the homogenous Triple Rectifier whatever that seems to be in vogue. But namechecking Fripp certainly acknowledges that.
    However, one way of telling the story has hiphop’s turntables reminding the guitar of this neat trick. (Through Tom Morello, of course)

  8. David Cavlovic says:

    My Dear Phil.
    You are NOT middle-aged! Yet! I was born in 1963. I middle-aged. Anybody born after 1968 (ah Woodstock!) can like hiphop without embarassment.

  9. Matthew says:

    Yeah, watch out about that “middle-aged” thing. Us poor Nixon babies are still young! Or at least we’re immature. One or the other.
    I managed to avoid the “trendy” label in my hiphop fanhood by a) coming to it very late (the last ten years or so), and b) acquiring a taste for mostly old-school, 1980s, pre-Dr. Dre repertoire. One of the happiest nerd days of my life was when a teenager gave me that “jeez you’re old” look-and-sigh because I was espousing the virtues of Eric B. and Rakim.
    By the way, my wife’s favorite opera is “Fidelio,” but she’s a singer, so it might be like a mountain climber saying their favorite hill is K2.

  10. ben wolfson says:

    “I just want to go on record as saying that I’m immediately suspicious of anybody who likes Neil Young”
    Arc: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arc_(album) is pretty sweet.

  11. Michael Leiser says:

    Phil,
    None of your suggested spellings work. Successful popular music genres are monosyllabic: blues, jazz, soul, rock, pop and, I would suggest, rap.
    Apologies for the late comment. I drift off sometimes. (A bit like your blog…)

  12. Phil Ford says:

    Yeah, but calling an instrumental album by Cut Chemist or Faust and Shortee “rap” is wrong on the face of it. Rapping is MCing, and hiphop heads get mad when you suggest that MCing is all there is to the music. Perhaps for this reason, a lot of fans make a distinction between “rap” (meaning the more radio-friendly, commercially successful, mainstream stuff) and “hiphop” (harder, more demanding, more obscure, sometimes artier).

  13. Michael Leiser says:

    Good point, and “distinction” is a great word to use in that context. For Cut Chemist, Stones Throw, turntablism and related chinstrokes I’d suggest “prog rap”. Step forward, the Emerson Lake & Palmer of rap.
    Happy new year, by the way.

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