New American Songbook

"In 20 years of listening to hip hop, its music and stories have never left me unchallenged or unchanged. Throughout its history—from Kool Herc to KRS and beyond—hip hop has told the story of America through the styles of noir, memoir, jazz and rhythm and blues, comic books and blockbuster action movies. It is everything we say we are, and those things we maintain we are not. This is the new American Songbook." - KMUW commentator, Zack Gingrich-Gaylord  

New American Songbook can be heard on alternate Mondays, or through iTunes.

There’s a scene in the third Mad Max movie, ‘Beyond Thunderdome’, where Max, recently banished from Bartertown, wakes up surrounded by children convinced he’s their messiah, Captain Walker. As they relay their mythology, they make use of familiar objects, or rather they make mis-use of objects: records become prayer-wheels, picture frames now move across rock paintings to keep place in the story. All of their stuff is pre-apocalyptic, including the functions of it. Now, after the apocalypse, the artifacts have lost most of their original context and usefulness, leaving the children free to make new associations.

In the late 80’s, jazz musician James Mtume was asked his views on sampling in hip hop. Perhaps unsurprisingly, he felt that sampled musicians should be paid for the use of their songs—actually, he went farther, deriding hip hop as ‘Memorex music’, and its creators as ‘the glorification of mediocrity’.

When you take away the words from a hip hop song, strange things can happen.

Hip hop is getting old, which no one in the early days really expected it to do. Sure, there was always the expectation that hip hop would be around in an archive—you could look back on it fondly, pull a dusty cassette out and take it for a spin—but I’m being more literal here: hip hop is actually getting old. Its practitioners are aging—some currently recording are closing in on 50 years old. Chuck D from Public Enemy is 56.

One of the most fundamental forms in hip hop, both metaphorically and physically, is the cypher. Dating back to the earliest days of hip hop, the cypher is the term used to describe a group of rappers or emcees, formed in a circle, delivering their rhymes in a frenzy of rhythm, improvisation and boisterous crowd participation. The cypher is both the primordial soup where new rhymes are born, and a coliseum where weak rhymes go to die.

Veteran emcee Sadat X, well-known as a founding member of the group Brand Nubian, recently released Agua, his eleventh solo album. Sadat X is 47 years old, and the entire album displays a mastery of form that doesn’t break any new ground, but hits all the right notes.

Hip hop made for kids generally falls into two categories: bad and boring. These can and do overlap. The issue is mainly one of effort and integrity—we think kids’ music should be simple and easy, and so not much work is put into it. Hip hop with a younger audience in mind is also often an afterthought, a market worth enough to have a product, but not worth having a good product. Children deserve much better, and fortunately, there is better out there: a hip hop group called ‘The Dino 5’.

A critic of any art has two jobs. The first is to measure a work whether it's a song, a painting or whatever, and set some criteria. How does it work technically? How do the methods employed a advance the content of the piece? Is there a consistency between the narrative and the structure?

The second job is then to take stock of the piece and how it exists in the world. Does it add or subtract meaning? Does the piece move forward an understanding of the world, or does it maintain the status quo?

generationbass / Flickr / Creative Commons

This commentary originally aired on July 20, 2015.

Our American identities are largely formed around the concept of work, both the noun and the verb, and as our national music, hip hop is no different.

The album "The Cold Vein" by the group Cannibal Ox is almost indescribable. Released in 2001, the album is produced by El-P, now well-known as half of the rap super-duo Run the Jewels; the music is dense and menacing, chordal and inorganic. Two emcees, Vast Aire and Vordul Mega, deliver what sounds like dispatches from the world on the other side of the singularity.

What is this world? It is desperate and mechanical, flesh fused with metal, and always winter. The heart of the album is in the song "Pigeon," where the city bird is woven into a metaphor for survival at all costs.