Dear Weekend Edition,
I've often joked with public radio colleagues about the way NPR's newsmagazines cover hip-hop. Usually the joke is that rap only gets coverage when it's happening in a foreign language. After all, if it's in another language, then it's not rap -- it's world beats.
There's another form of coverage that crops up occaisionally, too. It's a sort of paternalistic, exoticist, "what is this 'rapping' music?" story that belongs in 1977, not 2007. Jon Kalish's story on the topic of subway car cyphers, which I just heard on Weekend Edition, was a perfect (and perfectly offensive) example of this genre.
This is the 21st century. Hip-hop's been around for 30 years. To get a picture of how inane Mr. Kalish's story was, imagine a piece about how kids are picking up guitars and drums and starting "rocking and rolling" bands. Then imagine that story running in 1983. Mr. Kalish's vague liberalisms about generation gaps don't dampen the problem -- if this is a personal story, then make it a personal story, about a man who doesn't understand an important cultural phenomenon of long standing. If it isn't a personal story, hire someone who understands what he's covering.
The philosopher Antonio Gramsci defined hegemony as power plus consent. National Public Radio, by virtue of being one of the most listened-to media organizations in this country, has plenty of the former, but I won't provide the latter. It is unnaceptable to me that after fifteen years at the top of the charts and thirty years on the cultural scene, hip-hop should continue to be marginalized not only by the so-called mainstream media, but also by public media. One of the reasons that I work in public radio myself is our mandate to represent the under-represented and shine light in the corners of our world that aren't illuminated by commercial media. Are we living up to that mandate when it comes to hip-hop? Absolutely not.
I understand that many people in National Public Radio's audience are older than I am, and didn't grow up with hip-hop as I did. But do we really live in a world where a report on the dominant form of popular music should have more of a "gee-whiz" tone than the report which immediately followed... on Carolina string band music?
Which reminds me... I both enjoyed and was horrified by that story, by Karen Michel. I was delighted when the Chocolate Drops' lead instrumentalist simultaneously defended her group against two classic NPR tropes by saying, "If there's a hip-hop song that we like, we'll cover it -- [but] we don't want to be one of those bands that's like, 'Carolina Chocolate Drops does hip-hop.'" (For those keeping score, those tropes she anticipated and defended her band against are, "hip-hop mixed with something else makes it acceptable to cover" and "black people who reject hip-hop"). I was appalled when Ms. Michel followed that comment with "For now, not to worry. The closest the Carolina Chocolate Drops get to beats is blowing on a ceramic jug." Can you imagine NPR covering a story in which a contemporary musican said he was going to cover a Bob Dylan song and the reporter followed that comment up by saying "For now, not to worry. The closest he'll get to a nasal whine is the snare on his MPC-3000 sampler?" You get the picture.
I want to clarify here that my dispute is not with Mr. Kalish or Ms. Michel. Both offered well-reported stories. I'm upset with the editorial practice that allows (maybe even encourages) the sort of pieces that normalize ignorance about one of the most significant American art forms of the past 50 years.
The Sound of Young America
Jon Kalish wrote a pretty vociferous response to my criticisms on the email list of the Association of Independents in Radio, and I've reposted it here.
Oops, I made a mess.
This weekend, I wrote an email to Weekend Edition Sunday about NPR's poor coverage of hip-hop, specifically in reference to two pieces I'd heard back-to-back on the show, one of which was about cyphers on the subway in NYC. Earlier today, the blog posting was linked to by Current, the magazine of public broadcasting, and one of the reporters, Jon Kalish, responded on the email list of the Association of Independents in Radio (of which I am a member).
Thanks to all who have weighed in on my story from Weekend Edition Sunday about rappers performing on NYC subways. It was quite an experience tagging along with the hiphoppers those two nights I went out with them. Much to the chagrin of Mrs. Kalish, I have taken to wearing my jeans so low that my boxers show. I'm glad my editor at NPR let me handle the story in both a featury and slightly personal way. One of my regrets is that I didn’t get to use any sound of a rapper known as Zeps. He was partial to gangsta rap but had a day job at a law firm.
Zeps was one of the rappers who used words such as “bitch,” “fuck” and “nigger” in front of children and elderly people in the trains and in a ferry terminal. He was one of about three dozen 20-somethings who were either rapping or “dancing on the seats” while the train was making its way downtown one Sunday evening. Maybe you had to be there but I think the scene certainly warranted a “gee whiz” approach to this story. I guess it could have been done any number of ways. But for this piece, to get at the issues involved, and considering that it was for a weekend show, I decided to bend over backwards to bring as many listeners as possible into the story.
Whether NPR does that too much isn't for me to say, though I am aware that the Arts Desk, for which I toil, has generated pieces recently about the rapper Juvenile and the rise of reggaeton in the Bronx.
The assertion that I don’t understand what I’m covering strikes me as a rash judgement that ignores my 27-year track record with NPR. I know, I know, the record doesn’t always count for much in the blogosphere. But please know that I started doing stories about hiphop culture when this young podcasting lad was still in diapers.
I've done pieces about graffiti artists, rappers participating in an anti-apartheid recording project, Ice Cube’s endorsement of a Nation of Islam “scholarly work” and mixtapes, to name a few.
I happen to free-lance for NPR, so the suggestion by my little podcasting friend that “it's OK to hire someone who gets it,” or as he later puts it “hire someone who understands what he's covering,” doesn’t really apply. NPR acquires free-lance pieces from many people, so I would invite those who think my tone or approach to this hiphop story was wrong to try your hand at reporting for NPR. Hey, they’ll even work with free-lancers who are still in their teens, but that usually invovles some adult supervision.
Manhattan-based newspaper/radio reporter Jon Kalish...
RIGHT NOW, in The Sound of Young America's forum, one of the greatest such gathering places in God's United States or The Tubes of the Interwebs, you can find spirited discussions of these topics:
Of course, there are hundreds more. So why haven't you visited the forums and signed up?
Mistah FAB - Ghost Ride It! (Above)
A fabulous moment for hip-hop. GET IT? FABULOUS?!
Seriously though, Fabulous rips a spectacular Blaze beat, with Swizzy serving ably in his strange new role as New York rapper hypeman. Those swoopy strings are great.
And I can't get enough of that Mistah FAB song, which is allegedly the first single on his major label debut album, "The Yellow Bus Ridah." The song's been floating around for a while, though it sounds like the official version won't have a direct sample of Ghostbusters. One question though: why did this video premier on VH1.com? That's weird, right?
*EDIT* Eric suggests this great video from Denver native DO the Fabulous Drifter
The second-best show in public radio (TSOYA is *not* the first) has finally started podcasting!
The Walsh Brothers have been tearing up Boston for years now, but they're bringing their bizarre, compelling hilarious tag-team act to New York for TSOYA-sponsored show at the UCB Theater Saturday night.
The Bros. combine rapidfire two-headed storytelling with elements of sketch, standup and anything else that comes along (see above), and the result is really something wonderful. Don't miss it, New Yorkers.
Word on the street is that John Hodgman is scheduled to be on the Daily Show TOMMOROW. He certainly WON'T be on TONIGHT, with guest BILL GATES as the INTERNET SEEMS TO BELIEVE.
YOU BE THE JUDGE.
Some would say it was by Dave Chappelle, on Chappelle's Show.
I would say it was by Prince Rogers Nelson, in his video for "Batdance."
I've been reading Tim Goodman's television cricitism, first for the San Francisco Examiner, now for the Chronicle, for about a dozen years now. He's no Joan Didion, but his writing is clear, sometimes funny, and he has a wonderful sense of the populist possibilities of television. He's also the rare critic (in any field) who engages comedy and drama on equal terms. He was an early and vocal supporter of some of my favorite series of the past ten years-- Sportsnight, News Radio, The Dana Carvey Show, Arrested Development. In fact, he was such a vocal supporter of the last of those that his name was dropped into an episode early in season two.
He has a really nice appreciation of "King of the Hill" in today's Chron.
What makes this collection of oddball Arlen folk work is that Judge and his writers always reveal the humanity in each character. And the absurdity. It truly is the small things that make you laugh the hardest (and most frequently) in this show, because it is so wonderfully nuanced.
For example, Hank and Peggy only have one child because, well, Hank's got "a narrow urethra." And instead of taking a sledgehammer to the whole Southern thing, Judge (who grew up in Texas and lovingly spoofs it throughout) tends to opt for something like Bobby going to Tom Landry Middle School.
There is a sweetness to the skewering, an impressive balance between gigantic, opposing targets and a sense of Americana that is at once ironic and heartfelt.
King of the Hill might not inspire a cult like The Family Guy or Futurama, but it's a better program than both -- one of the best on television. At it's heart, it's a perfectly executed family sitcom. Deeply flawed, deeply lovable characters in a deeply flawed, deeply lovable context. Perhaps it suffers in intellectual circles by not being mean to the south or to southerners, but it's tops in my book. Nice to hear someone say so.
Bill Withers sings "Grandma's Hands" and "Use Me." Beautiful voice, beautiful man.