sampled slips remixed

Hip-hop is America. Its only real crime is being so much so. It boils “mainstream” standards and practices down to their essences, then turns up the flame. Violence, materialism, misogyny, homophobia, racialized agony, adolescent views on sex and sexuality… These are the common, bankable themes in mainstream hip-hop because these are the common, bankable, all-American obsessions. They’re the underbelly items that have always defined this country’s real, daily-life culture. What that means is that top-of-the-line hip-hop and its true artists (be they “mainstream” or “underground”) soar on the same terms that America’s real artists – and everyday folk – have always soared: by being un-American, by flying in the face of the fucked up values and ideals that are wired and corroded in this country’s genetic code even as no-lip lip-service is given to notions of equality, justice and fairness. They soar by actually struggling to embody and celebrate life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, even though those ideals were really only ever meant to be accessible by a privileged few. And niggers were never ever meant to be part of the smart-shoppers crowd. (Year-end wrap-up; LA Weekly, December 1998 see pg; 87)

Criticism for me has always been rooted in the very personal impulse,

You don’t need to be a student of sociology or psychology to realize that much of the turmoil that has enveloped the globe over the last few years is simply due to ever intensifying questions of identity: What does it mean to be Christian, Muslim or Jew? To be black, white, Asian or Latino? Gay/lesbian, straight or bi? To be atheist or devout believer, capitalist or socialist? What does it mean to be an American? Lying at the crux of many of these questions is the rhetorical equivalent of a lit match tossed on spilled gasoline: What does it mean to be a man? For over a hundred years now, the movies have played a huge role in answering that last question, in shaping and defining masculinity. Templates created by mainstream, box-office hits are then challenged or subverted (or merely reinforced) by indie, art-house and underground cinematic treatises. Notions of machismo and masculine honor feed and sustain themselves across national borders as inner-city kids in America consume images of martial arts warriors shipped from clear across the globe, as Mexican youth take in the cross-genre film-sampling of Quentin Tarentino for representation of north-of-the-border male cool. It’s all part of the never-ending quest to bottle that fragile, intractable, elusive, intimidating, daunting definition of a man. (Flaunt Magazine DVD column; Men’s Issue, Feb. 2005)

and the art I have been most viscerally drawn to (and that which has inspired what I think is my strongest writing)

Long before the Internet and multi-media corporations made it too easy for a movie or pop star to rule the world, long before Madonna and Lil’ Kim pushed the envelope of sexual imagery, and eons before Angelina Jolie crafted a fledgling rainbow tribe from impoverished nations, Josephine Baker – the barely literate daughter of a St. Louis washerwoman – did all of the above. Now a symbol of international glamour and the patron saint of expatriated black artists, Josephine Baker made her name in provocative, controversial, risqué theater fare that juggled the avant-garde with tricky, resilient and profitable racial stereotypes. Her filmography only captures some of her far-flung talent. While the three recently released DVD titles – Siren of the Tropics; Princess Tam Tam and Zou Zou – are as delightful (check the ecstatic Charleston that Baker dances at the end of Tropics) as they are problematic (the same trope – savage native-girl falls in ill-fated love with a white Frenchman – repeats in every film) the real value lies in the DVD bonus materials. There, the icon’s adopted son Jean-Claude Baker, actress Lynn Whitfield (HBO’s The Josephine Baker Story), New York Times theater critic Margo Jefferson and dance critic/historian Elizabeth Kendall break La Baker into three categories – the woman, the stage performer and movie star, the cultural icon – and offer anecdotal and analytical information that humanizes her while deepening her mythology. (Flaunt Magazine DVD column, September 2005)   

has been that which wrestled with the questions that have plagued me since adolescence, having to do with issues of race and class and sexuality,

What I love about Jean-Michel Basquiat’s work, even when I don’t actually like it, is that it is a struggle for new language in the effort to overthrow… everything. But it also hums a slivered craving for validation from that which it claims and seeks to challenge. When your life is not valued, when you are shoved to the margins, the art you create to reflect who you are and what you experience of the world might likely be a howl of protest against the so-called norm; the howl may be violent or deceptively soothing. To those who are not tone deaf, it will be both at once. And those with perfect pitch might also detect the subtle attempt to harmonize with the status quo.

Your life doesn’t align with that which is valued and elevated, so why would or should you create along lines and formulas that exist to exclude you? Your creativity manifests along the same lines of your life and experiences. You need new language.

Here’s the paradox: Basquiat’s work was about exploding formula and convention, about harnessing the energy and vision of the street (low culture) even as he was a serious and learned student of the masters (high culture) with whom he wanted to be counted. His calling was to create art along the same grids he lived his life – chaotic, beautiful, overwhelmed with information and history, full of humor and biting wit. High culture and low, effortlessly intermingled. The historically correct manifestation of niggerdom.

The vitality and energy of so many of the works was staggering. The depth of captured emotion and unfettered intellect, the unstoppable flow of ideas that float off the canvases with so much power that it’s almost overwhelming.

Most artistic and cultural “norms” are about gate keeping as much – if not more – than they are about actual quality. The powerful institutions that house, support, legitimize and critique art and artists are created around ideas and language that cradle some bodies while marginalizing others. On the surface, this makes perfect sense. It’s called standards, refined aesthetics. Less cool is the fact that it’s also about codifying lives, experiences, culture and comfort zones of the dominant cultural or political class while keeping others in their place, forcing them to jump through hoops or chase the dangled carrot of validation.

When you are the one marginalized and you struggle to represent self and experiences, you can either do so by funneling your shit through the vocab and paradigms that have been historically set in place and elevated (and, in doing so, you effectively reinforce the primacy and superiority of the dominant/established order) or you struggle to create new models, thereby not only challenging but even mocking or dismissing the accepted model which likewise dismisses you. You may not create beauty, you may not create lasting “art” but you forge a new tongue, force a new way of looking and interpreting – a new value system. The power of Basquiat’s work, it’s almost palpable life force, is its rail against… everything you thought you knew.

Juxtaposed against and in tandem with the work of Josephine Baker, Basquiat’s work underscores the flip-side-of-the-same-coin nature of Negro primitivism and the Negro avant-garde, the discomfiting and the reassuring, the clichéd and the visionary, the raw sexual outlaw and the forward-pushing artist, the instinctual sensualist and the nuanced artist/intellectual… (Rough and admittedly repetitive notes I scribbled in the margins of the program as I walked through the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art’s Basquiat exhibit; August 13, 2005)

having to do with the ways that pop culture reflects and shapes the realities and dreams of the audience, but also how people construct themselves from the cultural artifacts they are sold (movies, music, TV, radio, music videos.)

The metaphorical black body is always splayed and cut open on the cultural coroner’s table – nude, insides spilling onto the floor, blood dripping, bowels exposed. All our secrets, the many enclaves of blackness – from the nether regions of ’hood life to the little-examined realities of the Negro elite – are scooped out and placed into jars, to be catalogued and studied. Theorized and sold. And the experiences that are wrung from the organs, the bones, the skin and the flesh become metaphors for other people’s experiences, tools for them to expand their own consciousness, models for their salvation. (Some random shit that floated into my mind as I was assembling this book.)

I’m just trying to figure shit out for self, then share whatever I deduct just in case it might be of interest or value to someone else.

We all receive the same lessons, the same information. People have a way of contouring consciousness along their very specific identity outlines and not pushing much beyond the borders. They might realize – if they do the work, if they truly fight the power and don’t simply relax their gag reflex – that much of what the cultural-corporate-political apparatus propagates about them is untrue. Yet many seem completely at ease accepting the distortions and misrepresentations of (other) others as being absolute truth. We’d like to believe that the cross-pollination of cultures that hip-hop represents and sparks, and that globalization and unbridled capitalism use as their selling points, will forge new mind-sets, new perspectives. But without doing the hard work of pushing past prejudice, of refraining from the battle of my imaginary friend in the sky can kick the ass of your imaginary friend in the sky, of doing more than uncritically embracing fucked up cultural habits and justifying them as tradition, all the cultural consumption is just this – fleeting fashion, disposable music, fucking across color lines and confusing cum with consciousness…. (Some more random shit that came to mind as I was assembling this book.)

A friend recently sent me an email link to a personals ad on Craig’s List. The header and body read:


Good looking, healthy, fit, smooth and muscular 33-year-old black man seeks white (preferred) or non-black partner to engage in intense race play. Scenarios include racial slurs, humiliation and dominance. Light bondage okay. Toys and light spanking. Master/slave set-up.  Experienced or novice. I want to be controlled and humiliated. Not looking for a lot of back and forth in an email chain. Serious only. If this is not your thing or it offends you, just click the next ad and move on. Not interested in negative commentary. Thanks.

My friend was apoplectic. “What the fuck is this?!” he wrote beneath the link. “What is wrong with my people? This nigga [Oh, the irony, the eye-row-knee! – EH] gonna actually set up a situation where he LETS some white boy [metaphorically] shit on him? Call him nigger? BEAT his ass? And this nigga is the one asking for this shit? He’s the one setting it up? What the FUCK is THIS?”

“Twenty-first century hip-hop?” I offered.

 —Ernest Hardy, March 22, 2006