now what you hear is not a test

Why does my race (white people) have to ruin everything cool? Everything cool?

Item the first: from the upcoming VH1 documentary series, “Lords of the Revolution,” each episode highlighting a controversial figure of the late 60s. Episode 101 is about Muhammed Ali:

In an era defined by protest and turbulence, perhaps nobody captured the attention of America in the late 1960s more so than Muhammad Ali. As heavyweight champion, Ali electrified the sports world with his sharp tongue and showmanship flare. (His spontaneous rhymes, in fact, are often considered to be the precursor of rap.)

Oh my fuck.

Look: for at least a few decades before Rev. Run met Jam Master Jay, the word “rap” was known to mean “talking in a loose, rhythmic manner,” hence the phrase “can I rap with you for a second” used by cool cats in the 50s and 60s, hence the phrase “now what you hear is not a test / I’m rappin’ to the beat” in the Sugar Hill Gang’s song “Rapper’s Delight,” because of the relative novelty (to non-urban America) of someone rapping over a bass track and the result being recorded as a song in its own right, so, while perhaps Muhammed Ali’s rhymes might be a precursor to hip-hop music, they could not be a precursor to rap, because that is in fact what he was doing; he was rapping; everyone who heard him do it called it rapping; people rapped all the time, and while the word “rap” may be synonymous with a genre of music today, it wasn’t in Ali’s day; saying that Muhammed Ali invented rap is like saying Russell Simmons invented poetry, and while it may seem like I’m blowing a poor choice of words out of proportion here, I’m freaking out of my skull because the choice of words belies a fundamental ignorance of (A) black culture, (B) popular music, or (C) the culture of the late 60s, and failing at even one of those, if not all three, suggests poor things for a documentary on the Lords of the Revolution.

(deep breath)

# # #

Item the second: two hipsters covering the theme from the Jeffersons:

This shouldn’t evoke a stronger response in me than “meh,” but I can’t help it.

“Movin’ On Up” is a soulful and danceable song about overcoming poverty through upward class mobility. It translates the American dream – that hard work can pay off for anyone – to the struggling black community. It’s full of celebration at having arrived (on the East Side) and optimism for an even sunnier future. But what really makes it beautiful is being able to bring the whole family along (“as long as we live, it’s you and me baby; there ain’t nothing wrong with that”). We’ve finally got a piece of the pie.

So: rising in social class through the use of labor and capital. Sticking together as a family. And the struggle for black identity in America. If I had to capture the opposite of those three concepts in a single symbol, it’d be a North Carolina hipster playing a trombone on his iPhone.

I’m not saying1 that “Moving On Up” is possessed of some special negritude that means white people could never possibly sing it. Music ain’t like that. And I’m not saying that the theme song from “The Jeffersons” has some untouchable sanctity. You could play it for laughs. Hell, Hitler singing it is hilarious.

But if you want to cover a really good song like “Moving On Up,” you ought to either (A) cover it faithfully or (B) add something of value to it (like humor, or a new and interesting interpretation).

Is this a faithful cover? No. It’s two white guys who just robbed a thrift store. They bulge their eyes and put on fake soul accents for the close-ups. They play their instruments with as little emotion as possible. They shoot the video in front of backdrops so featureless that the Gap would call them bland. They insert editing tricks for their own sake (overlaying a close-up from a different shot on top of their bodies! wacky!). This song could only vault further from its origins if one of them had bagpipes2.

Does it add something of value? No. It’s not particularly funny, aside from the absurdity of two white guys rich enough to afford an iPhone, an HD camera and After Effects CS4 “movin’ on up” from anywhere. And even that’s more of a how-dare-you absurd than a ha-ha absurd. It’s not as if a jazzy number that had a full band and gospel choir in its original incarnation suffered for lack of a slide trombone.

Hipsters! Ruining everything!

# # #

Is this what white guilt feels like?

1 I probably use this phrase more often than any other in this weblog.

2 My thanks to reader Tom D. for coming up with the least soulful instrument on a moment’s notice.


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