the man sound real
one of the main things that interests me about hip-hop, and one of the things that emerges in nearly all of my hip-hop mediated encounters, is the music's relationship to, if not infatuation with, the notion of the real. and by "the real" i'm not talking about some sense of reality, though the concepts are certainly related. the real seems to be more a project of the imagination, a product of representation, than some reflection of what is really out there. "realness," or authenticity, describes the conferral of status as a result of recognized symbols. authenticity takes many forms, often tied up with all kinds of "desired" and "exotic" qualities, and it goes hand-in-hand with "black music" of all kinds (not limited to the american version, but, i believe, awfully influenced by it). at bottom, though, for all of its trucking with notions of difference, authenticity is a recognition--and, powerfully, almost a visceral one--of sameness. it is an empathic response, elicited by a recognition of the familiar. in music--and this is where it gets really interesting--authenticity is tied to particular sounds, particular sonic signals of the real. such a "production" of realness, of course, gives the lie to any core truth underlying authenticity. although authenticity is an imaginary thing, this does not make the experience of it any less real.
or does it? if sounding real is simply about performing the right rhythms with the right timbre, etc., then anyone can do it, so long as they make a concerted effort. the performative essence of music--i.e., it can be learned and reproduced--seems to contradict old beliefs about the natural musicality of certain peoples (e.g., black people and germans). the emergence of white rappers, female rappers, japanese rappers, and even jamaican rappers that sound real is a curious phenomenon. how are these determinations of authenticity made? how do they challenge common ideas about race, gender, and nation? how do they maintain the same myths they seem to dispel? take, for example, a figure such as eminem. in his case, people who might have previously reserved their conferral of authenticity to visual markers, such as skin color, have had to recognize a realness primarily based on flow--a realness which, however, is so tied up with a history of aligning rhythmic musical practices with skin color that it becomes dangerous to talk about them as easily separable. eminem appears to derive his performative power somewhat paradoxically: his convincingly authentic flow seems to contradict racialist ideas about natural abilities and phenotype even while its affective force is propelled by the legacy of these very ideas.
for several years now, i have been thinking about authenticity and hip-hop music. my master's thesis, "producing the real: hip-hop music and authenticity," explored this realm in relation to sample-based beats--in particular, dj premier's beats, their musical arguments against copyright restrictions, and the producer's righteous rants about real hip-hop. premier frequently and assuredly returns to a discourse of the real to defend his practices, but for all of his righteous rhetoric it is the sound of his music that makes the most compelling play for authenticity. it is the sound of his MPC-driven (a popular sampling drum machine), old-vinyl-crackling, hidden-sample-bursting music that signals the real for so many listeners. but, of course, the realm of the real encompasses much more than premier's alignment with tradition or his underground-torch-bearing, anti-establishment stance. in hip-hop, the real comprises many things at many times for many people: artistic integrity, closeness and fidelity to "street" or "ghetto" experiences, the rugged individualism of the thug/gangsta/pimp/playa, devotion to ideas about hip-hop's origins and principles, among others. some definitions of the real are purely tautological, figuring realness as a transcendent, self-evident quality. last fall, when a high school student asked me who i thought was the realest rapper, i said, "what do you mean by 'realest'?" to which he replied, "you know. the most real." of course, one has to wonder to what extent these notions, tautological or not, are bound up with sound. how convincing a flow must a rapper have to sound, and thus be, real? sometimes, as in the case of idol-of-the-moment 50 cent, one wonders whether hype, image, and payola are enough to make a bad rapper a star (and that's bad meaning bad). (of course, such a question is not limited to hip-hop.) sometimes musical authenticity--though important, and sometimes crucial--seems to play backseat to more powerful markers of the real, such as great abs and a bulletproof vest.
let's focus for a minute, however, on musical authenticity (i.e., sonic signals of the real)--a phenomenon that interests me more since it seems somewhat mysterious and at least as powerful as 50 cents's marketing campaign. for one thing, musical authenticity is capable of producing the real even when other important markers are missing, as in the case of white boys or funny-accented, rhythmically-rigid jamaicans (at least in relation to hip-hop's urbane american lingo and loose, cool flow). when a member of one of these assumedly "flow-challenged" groups actually raps in a compelling manner he (or she, though that is more rare) has accomplished something miraculous. he has demonstrated an engagement with the material. something in his musical performance triggered the recognition of shared (musical and verbal) languages and, thus to some extent, perceptions of the world. homework done, empathy possible. and all, strangely enough, signified by sound.
jamaica is far enough from the naked dominance of american blackness (though still, in many ways, under its sway) that a convincing or "authentic" hip-hop flow stands out here. i recognize it in jamaicans, they in me. the transformative effect that "real" flow has on social situations here is one of the most powerful manifestations of it i have witnessed. in cases where i have rapped for a small or large group here, the act works a kind of social alchemy. i seem to gain instant acceptance. intimidating relationships neutralize. group dynamics change. old, suspicious assumptions about me are replaced with new, more accepting ones. large men embrace me, give me hearty pounds on the fist, prostrate themselves in mock submission before me. (i kid you not.) in their verbal responses, many of them employ the very terms--real, authentic--that i have been using to describe the phenomenon.
recently i had "realness" conferred onto me once again--and with a phrase that neatly puts its finger on the issue of musical authenticity. the conferral occured just before dami, becca, and i went into asylum for oldies night (see last blog). it was only 11 when we got to knutsford boulevard (way too early to go in), so, on dami's recommendation, the three of us killed some time by hanging out at a "chill spot" (half back alley, half parking lot) around the corner. the spot already played host to a small group of young men, hanging out near their cars, smoking, talking, and occasionally performing for each other. we stood about twenty feet from them, casually observing their interactions while dami built a spliff. (we were also engaged by watching a group of stray dogs chase around a couple rats.) before long, it became clear that one of the men was more a rapper than a dj. dressed in baggier-than-average clothing with a loose wrap around his head (not at all bobo dread style), he stood apart from the group, listening intently to his headphones and rapping along to whatever he was listening to (it turned out to be a beats cd). after a while, most of the young men departed, leaving the rapper and another man, who soon became his audience. the rapper launched into a song, and his style--with its slippery rhyme-scheme, loose rhythms, and reference to playa-haters--was unmistakably hip-hop. he was no dj. he sounded like your average aspiring rapper--completely unremarkable save for the setting. when he stopped rapping, he was straight jamaican. suddenly, i could not understand him so well anymore. why would this jamaican youth choose to express himself in so foreign a tongue? didn't it seem like a put on to some people? but, then, why should hip-hop's expressive resources seem any more valid for me than for him? certainly my rapping seems like a put on to some people. and as my conversations with performers here consistently reveal, many young people in jamaica grew up with hip-hop as accessible to them as i did. hip-hop has been in-the-mix here for some time. it is, at this point, a rather "natural" part of the environment, the soundscape of contemporary jamaica. it's prominence shows no sign of decline, and its influence on local musical styles continues to grow. one interesting result of hip-hop's strong presence in jamaica--especially at this time, with nuff jamaicans watching BET daily--is the way that hip-hop accrues authenticity as a musical style, allowing as unlikely a person as me to command a jamaican stage show and street-corner alike.
it is always striking to me how much the feedback i receive focuses on authenticity. after dami and i complimented the rapper on his flow, dami introduced me as a producer and rapper and suggested i bust something. i threw down a typical battle-rhyme, full of mildly humorous braggadocio. when i finished, the rapper and the other onlooker seemed impressed. the first comment that i caught, and the one that most sticks in my memory, was the onlooker saying, "the man sound real." i think he really hit the nail on the head with that phrase. and i wish i knew better what it was about my performance that sounded real to him. when i push people on it, i usually get the sense that my "clean" rhythmic delivery and intricate rhyme schemes (i.e., my flow), combined with my language and the timbre of my voice, seem to convey a serious commitment to the music (and thus, perhaps, to "the culture," "the community," "the people"?) and an original voice. of course, if the explanation is so kitchen-sink, the defining elements so holistic, the concept remains in the realm of mystified musical processes. and, much as i can dig the mystical realm sometimes, too often mystified music reduces to racial stereotypes or some other ideas about natural, inborn abilities. as much as i want to debunk authenticity as an ideological product, however, i also want to call attention to its "reality" as a phenomenological experience. the experience of the "real" in music seems to be an immensely powerful thing. it is worth investigating, especially when it so conspicuously follows one around.
often i wonder about the difference in reception i get here and back in the states. though plenty of jamaicans have been skeptical about my rapping prowess, no one has expressed doubt or disapproval after hearing me. the same is generally true for most non-whites back in the states and most people under 30. plenty of white friends, however, doubt my authenticity deeply. hearing hip-hop come out of me seems to make some people uncomfortable. the brave, and naive, ones tell me i sound "too black." the less brave, and still naive, tell me i sound "too angry" or not-like-myself, which basically means "too black." as far as i'm concerned, people who deny whites an authentic voice if they "sound black" are not properly hearing what we call "black music" as the result of a particularly messy historical process whereby american racial encounter became transmuted, through a mix of white fear and fascination, repression and exploitation, into a highly exchangeable, overdetermined product (see ron radano's upcoming book for a more eloquent and evidence-based explanation [ron's my advisor at UW, if you didn't know]). when this product manifests itself as music--and popular music at that--it gets "in the air," so to speak. at that point, regardless of where those rhythms or melodies or timbres originated (usually an apocryphal answer anyway), they can be learned by anyone with the determination and, yes, desire to do so. to describe the process in this way is not to dismiss the unresolved problems of race in the united states, but it is to call for a more nuanced understanding of it. what is it that people are hearing when they think i sound real or black or angry or not-like-myself (other)? how is it that music can communicate such a thing in so powerful a manner. why? do i sound real because i, paradoxically, sound like that which i am not, like the other, like i am black? or do i sound real because i sound like i've done my homework, like i've spent some serious time with this stuff, like i love it, like i'm in the know?
when i first started rapping about thirteen years ago, i was much more conscious, and self-conscious, of the dissonance between my appearance and the strong, black character of rap music. i still routinely weird-out white people who don't know me well enough, haven't worked through race enough, and haven't listened to enough hip-hop to accept my voice as an "authentic" one. and i assume i probably weird-out or piss-off black people who have similar issues. by and large, however, i receive enough affirmation to erase any anxiety i once had. i believe my politics are in the right place and my motives are good. i recognize and struggle--in various ways--against injustice along racial (and other) lines, and i try to be conscious of the tacit and not-so-tacit privileges that my skin-color grants me everyday. i think a line from my song america perhaps best sums up my recent thinking about race: "when will you appreciate the irony of elvis?: admit it's frightenin' that white men dye their hair to look like black men tryna look like white men, but it's also funny." mimesis and alterity, knomesayin? in other words, it goes both ways. and it's some fucked-up shit, too. might as well have a sense of humor about it. might as well try to understand the way it operates on us and between us. one of the reasons authenticity stands so tantalizingly before me (is this a dagger?) is that i believe it holds some key, some explanatory insight, into the relationship between music and race. i mean...i'm sayin'...do i look like i can rap?
not to get too black-and-white about the whole thing, i should note that "it goes both ways" for hip-hop and dancehall, too. as i attempted to illustrate in a previous blog, jamaica has been in the hip-hop imagination for some time. if one goes by the kool-herc-big-bang theory, there is no hip-hop without jamaica. so while hip-hop shines in the minds of some jamaicans as a site of great authenticity and attractive subjectivity, jamaican subjectivities and musical styles hold the same kind of familiar/exotic, realer-than-real sway over the imaginations of many an american hip-hopper. aside from hearing this in all kinds of hip-hop recordings (see the blog), i have also noticed the phenomenon at an ethnographic level, as friends and acquaintances, including producers and rappers, from the states make requests for some real jamaican rap/hip-hop/dancehall (or mcs/rappers/djs). you know--with that authentic sound. (this is another story, however. i will have to save what-sounds-authentically-jamaican-to-an-american-hip-hoppers'-ears for another blog.)
what sounds authentically jamaican to jamaican ears is yet another story. allow me to close by offering a memory that involves one powerful jamaican's ideas about what constitutes an authentic jamaican voice. sometimes the intersections of musical style and identity, of race and place, can make for painful and uncomfortable situations:
one night last september, while i was living in jamaica for a month conducting some research and making some music, i went over to the house of buju banton, one of the most popular and successful jamaican artists of the last decade. i was accompanied by two young jamaicans: both musicians and both rasta, but with very different styles. whereas mak was deep into hip-hop, kazam played guitar and spoke glowingly of sam cooke, nat king cole, whitney houston, and shakira. at one point, i was standing on the porch while kazam played guitar. buju, his back toward us, ate dinner. kazam got his courage up, made his quiet strumming more audible, and began to sing a song he had written. (he told me later that he had walked past buju's place many times as a youth and vowed that one day he would go in and sing for the dj.) when kazam finished the song, buju, who had yet to turn around, addressed him:
buju: "who are your influences?"
wayne : "that's the same question i asked him."
buju: [turning] "that's the same question you asked him?" ... [to kazam] "you sound like a white punk-rocker. who you like? green day?"
kazam: "i like everything. bob marley first."
buju: "you sound like you're from southern california."
wayne : "if he sounds like a white punk-rocker from california and makonnen sounds like a puerto-rican rapper from the bronx, what do you make of that?"
buju: "i'd say they're both pretty strange."
kazam was pretty devastated by the exchange and i was pretty annoyed at buju's lack of kindness. kazam muttered to himself for a while, including such phrases as, "music has color. yeah." i did my best to convince him that he'd laugh about it someday. i'm not sure if kazam can laugh about it yet, but i did get a chance to hang out with him the other day and i'm happy to report that kazam continues to perform, record, and smile an awful lot. (when i rapped for him, his brother, and some friends the other day, it was apparently the first time he'd heard me. he grinned and jumped around the room during my performance. soon as i finished, he offered me a tiger-paw and exclaimed, "where you come from, my youth?!"--another perfect, and provocative, response to my rapping.)
meanwhile, buju's latest album, the recently-released friends for life, includes a song featuring fat joe, a puerto-rican rapper from the bronx.
i mean, what's realer than that?