• 14Jun

    #BHF13 – On Macklemore, the Beastie Boys and white rap’s legacy in a post-racial society…

    On July 13th, Brooklyn Bodega’s Brooklyn Hip-Hop Festival – arguably the music industry’s leading live celebration of nurturing the old school roots of hip-hop culture – includes a special celebration of the memory of the one-year anniversary of the passing of the Beastie Boys’ Adam “MCA” Yauch. Intriguingly enough, insofar as looking at the legacy of white rappers (as well as well-respected pop rappers) in hip-hop, the rise of Macklemore in 2013 provides a wonderful point at which to stop and consider not only the excellence of the Beastie Boys, but also the sheer amount of space they created for honest cultural expression within the genre.

    To contemplate rap as being just about rap is wrong. From the outset, rap was all about disco, techno and rock and roll. Nerdy New York City uptown blacks and Latinos plus slick young hustlers not quite as radicalized as Fab 5  Freddy playing the music that the other was listening to, but chopping, scratching and dancing to it in ways that the white population could barely even contemplate. The moment that changed all of that? Punk rock, new wave and deconstructionist rap advocate Rick Rubin pretty much deciding that fellow white downtown NYC punks Adam Yauch, Michael Diamond and Adam Horovitz had what it took to be involved in and important artists for then-nascent hip-hop culture.

    As a child watching all of this with curious eyes on television in Washington, DC, the Beastie Boys were an extremely curious act. As much as I “knew” to use orange crayons (when peach was not available) to color pictures of white people, I also knew that rap was for blacks and – given that my only knowledge of Latin culture were Social Studies units on Mexico at the time – “Mexicans.” Color lines were real to me, and to be very much followed. Thus, when the Beasties hit the scene with 1986′s “Fight For Your Right to Party,” I didn’t know what to think, and I felt really terrible for liking it. The raps were simple and the subject matter was foreign to the culture. The video was loud, crass and silly, as my mother said, “there goes more white people acting dumb. That’s just what they do.”

    It’s amazing to believe that in post-racial 2013, that we’re at the exact same point with white, Seattle-born rapper Macklemore. 2012 was a rap year where strippers, big booty hoes, fast cars and opulence yet again re-defined rap’s mainstream definition. 2013 by comparison? Wow. Here comes Macklemore and his producer Ryan Lewis talking about popping tags with $20 in their pocket at the “Thrift Shop” and heading all-of-the-way to the top of the chart. As much as many rap fanatics thought they knew the culture, yet again it’s white deconstruction and simplicity of the concept that brings in the most people and takes rap to new levels, creating a broadened horizon. In “white people acting dumb,” they may have provided the space for rap music to have arguably it’s greatest expansion and impact.

    As we head deeper into the “post-racial” reality, it’s important to contemplate the initial reasons for the racial revolutions that allowed this era to develop, as well as the evolution of their outcomes that ultimately define the realities of “post-racislism.” As an eventuality of their excellence, it can be argued that the Beastie Boys evolved past being “white,” instead becoming “honest” and “great.” The liberating attitudes of early rap music – that notion of being nerdy, weird or not-quite-hip enough – eventually disappeared from many spaces in the highest echelons of the black rap experience. However, as much as the Beastie Boys conquered being “white,” they still remained defiantly nerdy, weird and not-quite-hip, and the ability for whites in rap to benefit from that experience is a key element to Macklemore’s success.

    If a rising black or Latino rapper does “Thrift Shop,” it’s a tree in an incredibly widening forest of the expanded creativity in rap’s black and Latino traditions. However, when Macklemore does it, it’s special. There’s something to the history of white folks in the largely minority-driven rap tradition that speaks to deconstructing both the whimsical and ignorant answers to white cultural standards with a) an understanding of why there was need for a response and b) being cognizant enough of minority struggles to get invited into the conversation. This notion will always create a “special” spot for whites in rap -a special nexus in the venn diagram of hip-hop culture – where if all of the right points align, an artist can do anything from having a hall-of-fame career to dominating the Billboard charts in 2013-to-date.

    The Brooklyn Hip-Hop Festival celebrates MCA and the Beastie Boys on July 13th. On that day, it’s entirely possible that Macklemore and Ryan Lewis’ “Can’t Hold Us” will be the #1 song on America’s Billboard Pop charts.  An impressive legacy, indeed.

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