I’m not a huge fan of Ghostface Killah; nevertheless I’m given to understand he’s one of the best MCs currently working, and until recently I was happy to accept that he wasn’t to my taste and move on. A few days ago, however, I realized that this phenomenon might presage something ominous about hip hop: that it is following a trend established by other forms of music and will soon lose touch with its audience. His many supporters among music critics and other musicians comprise a core of guides that prevents him and other hip hop artists from affecting us directly, and that hip hop itself has lost an important ability to surprise and educate us.
From what I understand, Ghostface is prodigiously talented, and he’s got the praise of critics, fellow artists, and most of the other people who are better qualified to assess him then I am. But he’s not the one that worries me. It is the core of critics, and other musicians who elevate him to the level of genius that worries me. It’s not that they are wrong to think that Ghostface is talented in a way that I cannot understand. It is that they are putting themselves in the role of tastemaker. They decide who qualifies as an artist, and then the moderate our relationship with that artist. They insulate us from the pulse of genius, and for a long time, hip-hop’s appeal was that it put us in such a close relationship to that genius without the need for someone to explain it.
The same thing happened with classical music and later jazz music. In Listen to This, Alex Ross writes how cognoscenti took classical music from something of every part of society enjoyed (volubly, vocally, and angrily) to something rarefied, that only a few were capable of appreciating, let alone creating. In the early twentieth century jazz knocked classical out of the public mind and accounted for a much higher percentage of music sales… until the genre became the domain of Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, and John Coltrane, and other giants who, for all of their brilliance, managed to lose the interest of the masses and many of whose recordings appeal mainly to other musicians and critics.
I started listening to hip hop in the late nineties, and at the time I don’t recall needing a guide. At the time the genre was about twenty years old, and like other twenty year olds, the possibilities before it seemed somehow obvious and limitless. But we can no longer look at the same records and see different things; hip hop is no stem cell from which anything can develop; it is already too variegated, too developed, and critics, guides, or other ersatz educators help us navigate the many options before us. No longer does hip hop teach us about the world; guides teach us about hip hop, and something’s been lost.