“There’s more to hip-hop than the n-word
Offence-seeking critics should get over the swearing, and see hip-hop as one of the most vibrant musical genres.”
So begins Tom Slater’s defence of musics most controversial corner, over at Spiked. We’re all getting so caught up in hip-hop’s semantic frills, goes the gist of it, we’re failing to see the substance that lies beyond.
It’s a multi-faceted issue too big for one post, so I’ll let two aspects ride for now, partly because I haven’t – thank God – heard much in the way of homophobic lyrics myself and partly because I can at least understand the ’empowerment’ argument for the ad nauseam use of the word ‘nigger’, even if I’m unconvinced by it.
This leaves the gutter language and the general equation of women with disposable hankies. More than enough to blast some big holes in Slater’s apologetics.
First, however, for those of you who may have seen my Twitter avatar, I have to disclose my unlikely position in this debate. I am a white, 50-year-old Daily Mail reader who likes hip-hop.
Those may be the only words still capable of shocking Tom Slater.
How it comes to this, I have no idea. All I know is that I heard my first rap number in the autumn of 1979 and it registered. Maybe the writer in me was subconsciously won over by the idea of a song’s tempo being driven by the spoken, rather than sung word. All I know for sure is, I ‘get’ it.
I can’t tell you where rap becomes hip-hop or vice-versa, or whether they’re the same thing but I get it. I hear that unmistakable beat and I’m listening. I am to the genre what my Uncle Arthur was to classical music – no expert but “I know what I like, son; I know what I like…”
And the flip side applies with equal vigour. I know what I don’t like.
I don’t like language that was only ever meant to be a buffer zone between anger and physical violence being presented as a valid component of the creative process.
I don’t like sex being lyrically stripped of all the love and charm that makes it worth a damn in the first place.
My hip-hop playlist, you won’t be surprised to hear, is somewhat petite and exclusive.
Like many rappers, however, I write for a living. My standards are high: I can think of numerous things I’ve written that could have been rattled off in half the time had I just been willing to call someone a mother****ing douchebag and been done with it.
But that wasn’t good enough. Because silly, old-fashioned me believes that what separates a real writer from someone who’s just playing at it, is putting in the hours. The real writer takes time to pinpoint the words that reveal exactly what he’s angry about, why he believes he’s right to be angry and what he thinks should be done about it and the potency of those words isn’t diminished one iota by the fact that he’d happily use them all in front of his grandmother.
On the contrary, in fact. Your average rapper might be appalled at the idea of a no-curse rule but he would probably produce a far better track because of it. Because when he has to use words that genuinely explain and convey, and has the talent to meet that challenge, he can transport even this middle-class white guy into any ‘hood he wishes. He can leave me in no doubt as to what makes him angry, sad or ecstatic. That’s exactly what good writers and meaningful words do.
The F-word, on the other hand, only ever lets off steam. We can hear it anywhere, so it takes us nowhere and it reveals little of its author other than the possibility that his vocabulary may not be that great.
What’s more, and here’s where I think Tom Slater’s argument breaks down, when a track is drenched in expletives and a snarling dismissiveness towards women, it is futile to expect us to “see past its brash exterior”, because there’s nothing beyond it to see. Our ears are already assaulted, our lip is curling, our mind made up. We can’t “criticise it in terms of the quality of the picture it paints, rather than the language that it uses,” as Slater contends, because too often the unsightly globs of crudity mask whatever subtle brushstrokes might exist in the background.
Ultimately, an artist has no-one but himself to blame for this. If my novel takes five chapters to get going and all the Amazon reviews say they gave up on it after four, the onus is on me to change the first five chapters. That’s the deal in the media, your audience ultimately decides what’s good, not you.
Which is why the assertion that we should “get over” the swearing in hip-hop is perhaps best met with another one. Tom Slater should “get over” the fact that not everyone is as easily pleased as he is.