Throwback Thursday: The Hip Hop Wars by Tricia Rose

Paperback, 320 pages
Published December 2nd 2008 by Basic Civitas Books (first published January 1st 2008)

          “Hip Hop is not dead, but it is gravely ill. The beauty and life force of hip hop have been squeezed out, wrung nearly dry by the compounding factors of commercialism, distorted racial and sexual fantasy, oppression, and alienation. It has been a sad thing to witness.”

Rose’s survey on the current state of the hip hop industry is a dazzling display of contemporary cultural probing and criticism. The Hip Hop Wars dissects the music industry, particularly the sphere of hip hop music, and puts it through a methodical and impassioned analysis from the inside out. Two-thirds of this work uses the framework of Critics vs. Defenders, exploring each side of the arguments presented, which allowed for an extremely dynamic and diverse examination of the subject. Simultaneously, Part Two: Progressive Futures offered solutions to the “problem” that hip hop and the African American diaspora, as the community and identity surrounding it, are confronted with. The format itself was refreshing, as it endeavored to offer as comprehensive a view of the industry’s landscape as possible, while also offering solutions to the problems, rather than simply proselytizing to the masses from a perch on a soap box. No, this was a down-to-earth work in that way, in that the author was clearly writing from the concerned standpoint of one entrenched in the soul of the very wounded creature that they seek to heal, rather than from an outsider’s view, hovering above the culture and taking stilled snapshots from their safe locale outside of the battle field, away from the dangers of getting their own hands dirty.

Rose reaches into the heart of the new technologies and music markets that now shape and affect this music, as well as the gaping mouth of the corporate Goliath poised to gobble up this once-expressive art form like the Cookie Monster. She examines the who, what, when, where, and, most importantly, the why of the disintegration of this form of artful story-telling and the complicit-ness of the artists and its consumers in the demise of their own culture, their own music, their own outlet and venue of true personal expression. Neither rappers, nor music moguls nor radio stations are spared in this introspective and insightful survey. Unemployment, the drug trade, and even affordable housing and white consumption, feminism, sexism (all the isms, really), even Shaft and Foxy Brown’s roles in the foundation, intent and culture of hip hop music are examined and explained to create an entire picture of the hip hop music industry and its players.

While I loved The Hip Hop Wars and the passion and thorough research with which Rose displayed her arguments, there were times where she managed to nearly push me off the bandwagon—well, maybe not off, but to the edge. Some of her arguments seemed a bit overwrought and exaggerative, and there are several places in my notes—believe me, this one was highlighted and marked up like schoolwork—where I wrote that I thought she was overdoing it a bit.

However, her overall argument really grabbed me, educated me and entertained me. I felt that I came away with something that I didn’t have before, when I finished the last page and closed the book, and that is what reading is all about; that is what a good argument should do. I would absolutely read this one again and suggest it to anyone considering giving it a whirl. This one proved why we can’t just sit by and watch an art form crumble, watch a culture be commercialized, packaged and sold with such deformities that it no longer represents the subject that it depicts at all—all for the sake of capitalism and mass exploitation:

          “The term ‘street’ became a euphemism for a monsoon of profanity, gratuitous violence, female and male hyper-promiscuity, the most vulgar materialism, and the total suppression of social consciousness.”

That is not what black culture is about, though it is the way that it is portrayed on the radio and in pop culture. The Hip Hop Wars brought to the forefront where it all went wrong, and how we can take it back again. True hip hop is not gentrified or yuppified; it isn’t Barbie-doll packaged and ready for shipping, complete with a thong and gold teeth. It isn’t the minstrel show that it’s become today, and Tricia Rose helps us to both remember and explore that. 4 ½ stars ****

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