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Sharp Darts: Don't Hate Them Because They're Hip

One of Chicago's hottest scenes has attracted the inevitable backlash.

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In late May the old-school hip-hop site Unkut.com put up a post called "The Search for the Biggest Douchebag in Hipster Rap." Site curator Robbie Ettelson defines the hipster-rap scene as a "new wave of 'ironic' rappers who seem hell-bent on achieving new levels of sucking," dismissively calls their style "Party Rocking," and complains about the "gimmicky, calculated vibe" of everything they do. "Whether it's wearing 80's gear and garish print hoodies, rapping about skateboards and BMX bikes or making songs about nail polish/lip gloss, these wacky young 'uns are poised to take 'tarded rap to the next level." The post ends with a poll, "Who Is the Biggest Hipster Rap Douchbag [sic]," and five of the eight contenders presented are from Chicago: the Cool Kids, Kanye West, Kid Sister, Lupe Fiasco, and Kidz in the Hall.

The poll also fingers out-of-towners N*E*R*D, Lil Mama, and M.I.A.—Spank Rock and Jay Electronica get a pass—but there's no question that Chicago is the capital of hipster rap (a term I'm using only for consistency's sake, under protest). Add locals Hollywood Holt, Mic Terror, and Flosstradamus to Unkut's five and you've got the lion's share of the genre's major players.

Like current punk and emo, hipster rap is defined by fashion as much as music—brightly colored streetwear, throwback hip-hop accessories, skinny jeans on guys—which is how a sonic explorer like Kanye can get lumped in with retro revivalists like the Cool Kids. Most criticism of hipster rap only goes clothes deep, and even for relatively philosophical haters like Ettelson, the sight of a rapper in anything but baggy jeans and a hoodie seems to trigger homosexual panic. He calls out N*E*R*D for making "looking gay... hot for a minute" and "Kanye 'Liberache [sic]' West" for making "fruity sunglasses blow-up." Presumably he's never seen the video for "The Message" where Grandmaster Flash rocks tight jeans, cowboy boots, and a leather-daddy cap.

Jersey City rapper Mazzi has joined the hipster-rap backlash, posting MP3s and YouTube videos for two dis tracks, "Lesson A" and "Lesson B," that call out Jay Electronica and the Cool Kids by name. He doesn't cut much deeper than Ettelson when he rips on them for their "tight-ass jeans" and "prob'ly tighter thongs," but "Lesson B" ends with an interview with Q-Tip where he makes a few actual points, criticizing youngsters for copping styles that he and other old-schoolers helped create.

I haven't seen the Cool Kids respond to Mazzi, and I couldn't raise them on the phone—they seem to be staying out of the shit flinging. But Mic Terror, who isn't even named, has released a "Lesson C" online. It doesn't exactly improve the tone of the debate, consisting mostly of fag and terrorist jokes (Mazzi is of Arabic descent). At press time the two of them had gone one more round without getting past name-calling: Mazzi dropped "Class Dismissed" and Mic Terror replied with "Detention."

It's a shame nobody in hipster rap has yet attempted a more responsible rebuttal, because it wouldn't be hard to make one. Heads who came of age in the 80s or even the better half of the 90s tend to feel a sense of ownership toward old-school culture that can make them seem a little humorless about it, notwithstanding how much fun some of that music was. The way hipster rappers screw around with old-school signifiers has raised some hackles, and I figure the haters play the authenticity card because criticizing hipster rappers for being unserious—which they generally are—is about the same as dissing fun. Hipster rap actually embodies the same sort of utopian, big-tent ideal that old-school hip-hop did, treating the music as a force for bringing people together across racial and cultural lines. Its artists look forward as much as they look back, working on the leading edge of the interplay between rap music and dance music.

Q-Tip's complaint in particular seems off when you consider that pretty much every musical subculture reuses elements from the past, sometimes even more blatantly than hipster rap—think electro, new rave, or freak folk. In his interview he almost collapses his own argument, essentially saying that hipster rappers are inauthentic because they weren't around when the styles they're biting evolved. By that standard nobody under 60 should be trying to play rock'n' roll.

The authenticity argument often implicates not just the rappers themselves but also their audience. In a post called "It Takes a Nation of Haircuts to Hold Us Back," Oh Word blogger SachO claims hipster rap is "intended for an affluent, generally educated white audience wanting to dabble in the excesses of black music absent from more restrained contemporary rock without really investing themselves in the less comfortable aspects of black culture." White kids want the funky otherness of hip-hop, in other words, without all the scary black people. But in Chicago at least, the hipster-rap scene has always drawn mixed crowds. It's not the less comfortable aspects of black culture it avoids but the less comfortable aspects of hip-hop culture—the thuggishness and ignorance, hardly confined to black artists and fans, that high-minded blogs like Oh Word and Unkut.com go out of their way to criticize in mainstream rappers.

Andrew Barber of the Chicago-centric hip-hop blog Fake Shore Drive, which has been acting as a forum for this hipster-rap beef by hosting MP3s and videos from both sides, likes that the scene is "bringing the fun back to hip-hop, which has been bogged down... by negativity over the past few years." It may not put much of a premium on socially responsible lyrics, but its inclusivity makes it seem pretty enlightened anyway. "Seriously," he writes, "go to one of their shows or parties and you'll see kids from all different races, religions, and socioeconomic backgrounds having fun together and partying peacefully. How could you hate something like that?"

Calling hipster rap fake doesn't just insult hipster rappers and the people who love them—it insults hip-hop itself. The pioneers of the genre struggled to establish it as a legitimate pop form, and by the late 90s it had become one of the great common languages of global musical culture. Is it really respecting that triumph to insist that a movement of such world-changing scope isn't big enough to contain hipster rap? The people going nuts over this stuff grew up immersed in hip-hop culture, whether they're black or not, and it's entirely predictable for them to want to start fucking with the formula. Hip-hop is grown-up now, with kids even, and it's going to have to go through the tug-of-war over norms and values that always arises with a generation gap.

"The essence of hip-hop lies in the battle," says Barber. "It's a very important aspect of the culture and I'm all with it as long as it stays on wax. Or I guess these days on YouTube."v

Care to comment? See this story at chicagoreader.com. And for more on music, visit our blogs Crickets and Post No Bills.

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