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New American Songbook

New American Songbook: Stetsasonic's Critical Hip Hop


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’.

To be fair to Mtume, he’s a musician and not a critic, and he spoke honestly, although maybe unskillfully, from that perspective. There are interesting critical arguments to be had around sampling—even now, nearly thirty years later. Unfortunately for Mtume, those arguments were obscured by his polemic.

Fortunately for us, some members of the hip hop group Stetsasonic happened to hear Mtume’s interview and created one of the best examples of critical hip hop music around. In ‘Talkin All That Jazz’, Stetsasonic directly confront Mtume’s accusations point by point, and tease Mtume by sampling his song ‘Juicy Fruit’:

Mtume’s views haven’t changed much over the years, but there is always a tension between criticism and art. At its best, criticism is not an antagonist to art, but its revelatory partner—rather than dryly explaining away artistic mystery, or offering a mere review, great criticism advances and contextualizes artistic imperatives. Yet, we often forget that art can do the same for criticism, pushing the critic to ask deeper questions, to see further, to do better—things we could all use a little help with every now and then, regardless of our mood.