Chris Robinson @crmusicwriter

mostly music, sometimes books


To All the “Critics” Who Dismiss Hip Hop’s Musical Value

To all the “critics” out there who hate on the aesthetic worth of hip hop music: stop writing about hip hop, because you do not know what you are talking about.

One would think that since hip hop has been treated as a serious music worth studying and writing about both in and out of academia for quite some time now that statements along the lines of “hip hop has little harmonic or melodic value” would have died out.  But statements like this continue in blogs (even those by established writers with wide readerships), in respected online and print media, in every day conversation, in higher education, and in many other discursive spaces.

I am particularly bothered when music critics go outside of their expertise to offer their aesthetic judgments on a music they know nothing of, and this happens constantly in regards to hip hop.

While I’m not about to drop 95 theses on you, I am gonna hit you with 5 reasons why the critics I’m talking about need to stop writing about hip hop:

1.There’s the old cliche that people should write about what they know.  The importance of this, especially in terms of music criticism, cannot be overstated.  Whether they know it or not music critics – and critics of the arts for that matter – are cultural authorities (dig my last post on Wynton Marsalis) who wield power that can be used, either consciously or subconsciously, to reaffirm social hierarchies and power inequity.

Writing about music that is outside one’s expertise, especially if the writer occupies a privileged social position, not only disrespects the music, the musicians and the fans – which is bad enough – but it can have negative social impacts as well.  For example, having a black music defined by privileged whites has helped reinforce and perpetuate the marginalization of  African Americans in American society.  This is why African American intellectuals have always critiqued the institution of jazz criticism for its overwhelming whiteness.

There is a reason why I don’t write about and pass judgments on Balinese gamelan or Mongolian throat singing: it’s because I don’t know a damn thing about them.  Just because I take on what John Gennari calls “the critic’s pose” doesn’t make me qualified to talk about every form of music.

And there’s a selfish reason for these critics to stop writing about hip hop as if they know that they should consider: they’d stop looking like idiots.

2. On the trope that “hip hop has little harmonic sophistication”:  Even if that was true, which of course it’s not, plenty of canonical jazz lacks harmonic sophistication.  Is there anything less harmonically sophisticated than the 16 consecutive bars of Dmin7 in “So What”?

3. On the trope that “hip hop has little melodic sophistication”: Like #2, even if that was true, which of course it’s not, plenty of canonical jazz is not “melodic” – at least not in the way these critics mean.  There’s a whole lot of music from Coltrane, Cecil Taylor, and other canonical jazz figures that isn’t melodic.

4. Related to points 2 and 3: just what aesthetic framework are these hip hop hating critics using to condemn hip hop’s lack of harmonic and melodic sophistication?  More than likely, they are coming from a Western European point of view – which simply is the wrong approach to take to judge a music that was not created within that aesthetic tradition and framework.  There are a whole mess of artists, scholars and critics of black music (including Amiri Baraka, Samuel Floyd, Henry Louis Gates Jr., Olly Wilson, Guthrie Ramsey and others) who point out that judging black music (and black arts in general) on its own criteria and aesthetic framework is not only the best way, but that it is the only way to judge black music; i.e., applying a European-based hermeneutic to an Afr0-American music will only result in an analytical hackjob.  Long story short, analysts and critics of black music should address black music on its own terms.

5. Where do these critics think hip hop comes from?  If those who criticize hip hop for its lack of musical sophistication would do their homework they’d learn that a huge amount of the musical basis for hip hop has its roots in “harmonically and melodically sophisticated music” (scare quotes to emphasize point #4).  Yep, there’s a whole lot of jazz, funk, soul, r&b and other musics who aren’t derided for their lack of musical sophistication that are the foundation of great hip hop.  Oh, and have they heard Prince Paul and Automator (aka Handsome Boy Modeling School) flip some Vivaldi, Beethoven’s Fifth, Mozart, Brahms, and Boccherini?

To conclude, I would urge all uninformed “critics” who feel the need to diss hip hop without having actually listened to any to read these five points, think about their writing and subject position, and then to stop making blanket statements about something they know nothing of.  Not only will this show their readers and hip hop’s musicians and fans respect, but they will stop spreading ignorance.

It’s time for these critics to put down their pens and put on some headphones.

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