On February 10th, 2011, Chuck D, Common, and Joan Morgan assembled in the brand new Student Activity Center at The University of Texas campus in Austin. It was an evening comprised of in-depth discussion, astute analysis, and the usual gripes.
If you know me, you know that Public Enemy is one of my all-time favorite groups regardless of genre. Their It Takes a Nation of Million to Hold Us Back (Def Jam, 1988) is not only what I consider the best record ever recorded, but was crucial in my lifelong fandom of Hip-hop (my own first book is named after a Chuck D lyric from the record). Chuck and P.E. were essential to my getting through high school and undergraduate studies.
Common has been one of my favorite emcees since I first heard Resurrection (Relativity, 1994) in the early 1990s. Not only was he the first rapper out of Chicago that I heard (peace to E. C. Illa), but he seemed to be keeping the Native Tongues torch burning bright at a time when they were fumbling (no disrespect; they got their grip back). He has taken risks, pushed boundaries, and remained successful where others follow trends or fall off.
Joan Morgan is a bad ass. She’s been doing Hip-hop journalism since before it had a name. Her presence and insights in this talk were invaluable, and I wish we’d had more time to hear from her (I’m hoping to interview her for the site at a later date; fingers crossed). Her angle is vehemently feminist, nuanced with knowledge, and tempered with truth. When Nicki Minaj became the topic of discussion, she was one of the few people I’ve heard speak on the Regis Philbin incident. That story should’ve been in everyone’s face, but it was invariably buried.
If nostalgia is the longing for a past that never existed, then the SAC Ballroom was full of just that. Joan asked if the crowd thought that Hip-hop was better “then” than it is “now,” and most of the hands in the room went up. I find this very troubling. I was one of the few, including our three honored guests, who actually there “then” (I heard students around me say that they didn’t know who Chuck D was until they looked him up after hearing about this event). I continue to argue that Hip-hop is better now. Sure, everything that came out then was that next new shit. The genre was young and finding its way (I would also argue that it still is), so there was plenty that hadn’t been done or heard yet, whereas now those styles have been done and heard. But for every Public Enemy and Common, there was an MC Hammer and a Vanilla Ice. Go back and listen to the average record from 1984, 1986, 1988, 1990, 1994 — pick a year: Most of them sound dated and not near as complex and interesting as the worst thing out today. Sure, there are exceptions, but as a whole, Hip-hop is better now. It just is. Thinking that you missed the best of it is problematic on many levels.
Chuck mentioned the fact that fans now have access to the past in a way that the fans of then never did. This is a key insight. Technology curates culture. You cannot assume that the next generation doesn’t know about something from the past. They might not grasp the historical context of say “Fight the Power” by Public Enemy, “Wicked” by Ice Cube, or even “Fuck the Police” by N.W.A., which were uncompromising responses to volatile times in our nation’s history, or to grasp what it was like to hear The Low End Theory, Straight Outta Compton, Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) — or It Takes a Nation of Millions… for that matter — when they dropped. But you can’t assume they haven’t heard them or seen the videos. It’s all out there.
On the other hand, Common blamed technology for the lack of creativity and “feeling” in current Hip-hop. This argument troubles me as well. It’s a non-argument that leads to an infinite regress. Hip-hop’s detractors claim that sampling — whether with turntables or sequencers — isn’t really making music. They claim that at best it’s lazy and at worst it’s theft. No one at this talk would agree with that, but it’s the same argument. Saying that technology takes away the human element and therefore the feeling of music or that it makes it too easy thereby giving someone an unfair advantage is the same thing as claiming that sampling isn’t a viable way to make music in the first place. It’s all about what you do with it. Heads know better.
These are not new issues, and I was hoping we’d moved past them. Hip-hop — then and now — is still the most interesting thing happening in music. I will always love H. E. R.
Here’s a handheld video (no cameras were allowed) of the Q&A session with Common, Joan Morgan, and Chuck D in the SAC [runtime: 8:13]: