Hip Hop is Reality and Art, Punk Rock is a Vehicle For Suburban Nostalgia
I went all in on the punk rock game. I leaned hard on the construct and eventually fell flat on my face; artistically speaking.
It was never a calculated effort. I liked hip hop before punk rock, or what I thought punk rock was. I grew up in the south and the things that shaped me into an adult male were slightly aligned with the perceivable constructs of both types of artists. Grew up poor. Father in prison my entire life. One side of my family all had criminal records, diabetes, and a history of abuse exercised on them or by them. Other side of the family was half religious zealots with the lingering air of molestation and the other half fierce, strong women who were exclusively attracted to broken men.
I had it all: baggage, abandonment issues, poverty, homelessness, a history of violence and abuse, and an existential pain that could only be quietened by replacing Jesus with our punk rock lord and savior, Ian Mackaye. It only took one successful D.I.Y. show as a benefit for a less fortunate family in my home county of Jackson to latch that final hook. I was all in. I was ready to live the word and spread the gospel of punk rock.
I booked more shows. Threw all my limited resources at my band and my scene. Developed relationships that were impossible due to my crippling social anxieties. I felt empowered and more importantly, I felt I was empowering the people around me in my community. It was all immaculate and new. I was reborn. From a quiet scared child, I became the local mechanic for our vehicle of change.
Fast-forward a few years. I listened to hip hop less. I was almost exclusively listening to punk and hardcore records. Specifically, I was listening to records usually made by suburban white dudes who grew up comfortable and had access to musical instruments. Because they had access to instruments and grew up comfortable, they could focus on the mechanics of their instrumentation more. These records were made for the mechanics of the music involved essentially. Records were kind of divided into ridiculous riffs, potent one liner lyrics, choruses, and subtle production techniques. I became pretty good at recognizing most every production technique involved in the making of these records through my involvement in the recording of my band’s records and friendships with other bands and engineers.
I consumed, consumed, consumed, and consumed till I became numb to most of it. The romance was gone. We had fucked in every position possible. All we had was the pillow talk. At the time, I couldn’t figure out why everything began to sound like shit to me. It just did. My friends labeled me as a cynic. I couldn’t talk about music openly with anyone without being painted a negative creep. I was seen as the dude who shits on everything.
It was never a question of how could a dude who sang about positivity for years and overcame so much now be an alcoholic who shits on everything? It was mostly a conversation of stay away from Charles or he’ll try to infuse some kind of harsh reality into our fun times.
I stopped listening to current punk records around 2011. I kept up with the highlights of the year but backed away from the perceivable construct of punk rock. I started listening to hip hop again. Started listening to jazz, blues, folk, and anything interesting with relatable content. It took a lot of cleansing to realize what had happened to me.
What had happened was I became informed and saw nothing of myself in this national scene. I traveled the country and saw every night what local bands and consumers were getting out of the records I was making and the records of the scene. It was all nostalgia, comfort, and a crippling safety net for a two inch fall. No one was making relevant records. Every record or band that did well was a nod to something else. All the lyrics were rehashed, sexist, bland, or plainly bad. The people in these bands were not thinkers, progressives, or dynamos. They were young business people dressed in uniforms equal to any chain store. They were competitors who found a new sport with clear sets of rules and plays to score. They were gamers who were farming to level up.
I signed up for an intellectual and emotional dialogue, socio-political progress, personal growth, and musical freedom. What I saw after eight years of involvement is a limited narrative, fuck boy culture that figured out the algorithm to a perceivably progressive identity, a personal stalemate, and rigid boxes in which to work musically.
Albums like Frank Ocean’s Channel Orange, Wu Tang’s 36 Chambers, Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly, The Notorious B.I.G.’s Ready To Die, or Madvillian’s Madvillainy could not be created in any major facet of the current punk rock scene. Albums like Fugazi’s Steady Diet of Nothing, Jawbreaker’s Dear You, or Desaparecidos’ Read Music/Speak Spanish was not happening anymore.
Lots of different reasons for this. A lack of thick skinned discourse about the reality of the culture punk rock is creating. A lack of diversity in the voices of artists creating the cultural narrative. A lack of visibility for the challenging portions of the genre. A lack of diversity in the crowds supporting the main pulp in the genre. A lack of divergence from the truism the audience wants to hear.
The last is pretty important. The reason it is important is because the branding of punk rock is a brand of revolution and divergence in general, so why does it exclusively pander to exponential levels then? Why do so few records challenge listeners today? Or a better way to frame the issue is to think about the average consumer of hip hop and the prominent records of today.
To Pimp a Butterfly is a strong narrative of the black experience in America bought mainly by a baby-shit-soft white consumer. There’s fear, anger, bravado, and sadness exclusive to the black American experience on every track of the record. Importantly there’s a narrative we need to hear and truism unattainable to a white person’s experience. That is really fucking important. Way more important than sticking to three chords and a case of PBR.
In a short summary of what punk rock needs that hip hop is got:
- diversity in voices of narrative.
- less truism and more illumination to different experiences
- more creative recording production
- less creative boxes and more open source palettes
- intelligent, challenging discourse around the music
- cultural mobility
Let me end this with stating hip hop has it’s problems; homophobia, sexism, materialism, and the usual suspects, BUT, punk rock is exclusively a genre that pretends none of this exists within the culture. The artists involved rarely speak about these problems. That kind of hypocritical existence is poisonous to youth and creates ineffective, complacent artists for the next generation.
We have to get this shit right. As Tom Waits famously stated, bad writing is destroying the quality of our suffering.
Suffering is inherent in existing, but the quality of our suffering is determined by the art we consume and create. Do we want to grow and become better illuminated versions of ourselves? Or, do we want to be petted like lap dogs in the safety of our childhood homes?
I know my choice. It’s up to you to support and create the art the world needs but doesn’t always know it wants.