A Rational Conversation: SPIN's Christopher R. Weingarten Tackles Indie-Rap Revisionism Following El-P's 'Cancer4Cure'...
“A Rational Conversation” is a column by editor and writer Eric Ducker. Every week he gets on iChat with a special guest to examine a subject that’s been on his mind.
On May 22, 2012, El-P put out his latest album Cancer4Cure. This album, along with the R.A.P. Music release he produced for Killer Mike, has been almost uniformly praised in the music press. An element of many of these reviews is glowing nostalgia for the late-1990s underground hip-hop scene – a movement El-P proved central to with his group Company Flow, and a sound that’s been largely derided in previous years up to now. Here, Ducker and Christopher R. Weingarten, currently Senior Editor of SPIN and a longtime fount of entertaining, controversial Internet opinion, discussed the reaction to Cancer4Cure in regards to current music-critic revisionist history.
Eric Ducker: Are you surprised by the response that the El-P album has been getting?
Christopher R. Weingarten: I’m actually really surprised, and not because it isn’t a great album. Because it totally is! But, as you and I know, whether something is “good” isn’t always why something may or may not get praised in an album cycle.
ED: What do you find surprising about the response?
CRW: Around 2005, the rock-critic world essentially turned its back on “underground” hip-hop – or, in its more derisive parlance, “backpacker” rap – after giving it a solid five years of Wire cover stories, gushing SPIN features, and Pitchfork platitudes. There was an over-correction after dudes felt a little silly for writing about Blackalicious in 2002 instead of Project Pat when, in reality, Layin’ da Smack Down owns Blazing Arrow in every way.
ED: I definitely noticed that, too, but what troubled me then – and what troubles me now – is that people felt like they can’t like one without shitting on the other.
CRW: There was a real “throwing out the baby with the backpacker dishwater” reaction. I think the first time I really noticed it was in 2005, when indie-rock writers suddenly discovered Bun B existed and really went in on Houston rap, as well as Young Jeezy and Atlanta stuff. All of those were totally great records, but then they completely forgot to listen to the Perceptionists album on Def Jux, which would have probably gotten two-page features if it had come out two years earlier.
ED: The discovery of these usually Southern artists definitely caused underground artists to suffer in terms of what type of coverage they got. I think there were some other factors too: A new generation of writers came in who didn’t have the prejudice against Southern rap or Bad Boy/Roc-A-Fella that many established music writers had, and the older writers didn’t want to feel out of touch; there was a certain amount of fatigue –music journalism is largely about covering what’s new, and if you’ve been writing about indie rap for 8 years, you get worn out. Then there always seems to be the need to celebrate something by putting it in opposition to something else — so if you’re into trap rap now, you have to say it’s much more “real” and vital than super-scientifical rap.
CWR: Indeed. Props to the bigger publication dudes like Hua Hsu and Jon Caramanica who never really saw those lines in the first place, but I think the younger writers coming in were definitely bloggers: they were posting old No Limit and Rap-A-Lot stuff. A lot of the people who wrote about backpack rap in 2003 were, like, Fugazi fans who saw a correlation between the way indie dudes toured, weren’t afraid to use noise, and would be “confessional” about their first world problems; but after bloggers blew the doors open, people started seeing the connection as “Hey, I’m into this underground shit that you’ve never heard of.” It became way easier for, like, a Belle and Sebastian fan to be a total snob about regional rap. You could really see it. In 2005, Pitchfork started reviewing random tracks from Saigon and Maino mixtapes all of a sudden. For a while, it wasn’t about what was actually rising to the top, but instead finding obscure pockets and exposing them. But then a LOT of music writing in 2004 to 2007 was like that. Not just rap writing!
ED: Also, it should be said, regional rap in that 2004–2007 era was as a whole a lot better than underground rap music. But there was probably underground stuff from that time that got ignored because it wasn’t in fashion.
CWR: Oh, absolutely! It didn’t hurt that like backpack rap totally lost its way around then, and was scrambling to find the ball. A lot of dudes kind of realized that “independent as fuck” really means “broke as fuck” after a while, and you could see acts hooking up with indie rock dudes trying to get back on track. But yeah, like Blueprint’s 1988 came out during that span. What a criminally underrated rap record! Juggaknots’ Use Your Confusion, totally slept on. The most obvious way this is shown was how everyone slobbered over Clipse’s second album in 2006 while completely ignoring their far, far superior debut in 2002. GQ calling it “the gangsta rap Yankee Hotel Foxtrot” pretty much tells you everything you need to know about rock writers covering rap music in 2006.
ED: It’s tough, though. I can’t always fault music writers/critics/editors for not knowing about all the music out there and not covering it. It’s their job to know what’s happening in the music world, but the amount of music out there is pretty staggering. That said, what I have a hard time with is (1) People pretending they always liked a sound they found out about six months earlier and appointing themselves experts on it and (2) people reversing their opinions based on what’s currently in vogue. I want honesty from writers. If you slept on something for eight years, acknowledge you slept on it. If you changed your mind about something, acknowledge you’ve changed your mind and explain why. Everyone has suspect taste in what they’ve liked in the past and what they like now. That shit shouldn’t be ignored, and it shouldn’t be called “guilty pleasures.” That’s having a subjective opinion.
CWR: You can’t fault them, of course not. But no writer on Earth wants to admit they don’t know something! I think it comes on the application. And I honestly can’t point to any critic going “lol Def Jux,” but “lol Def Jux” definitely felt like the prevailing opinion on message boards and blogs in 2006.
ED: El-P’s second solo album, I’ll Sleep When Your Dead, came out during that 2004–2007 era. As I recall, it was reviewed favorably and received coverage from the places you’d expect, but there wasn’t a collective excitement about it.
CWR: That is true! It was very “quietly praised,” even though it was easily one of the ten best rap records to come out that year of any stripe. Everyone agreed it was a good record, but none of the critics wanted to wave their El-P flag, as it were.
ED: Do you think this back turning on underground rap had anything to do with race? That late 1990s scene was the first time in rap where there were plenty of white artists, and it wasn’t a huge issue. El-P and Slug (who is mixed race but is usually identified as white) were probably the biggest faces of that movement. Do you think the embrace of regional rap at the expense of the underground had anything to do with “authenticity” issues?
CWR: I think the entire way that artists become rock critic punchlines real fast is based on race. [Chuck] Klosterman laid it out in his stupid Tune-Yards piece: “This happens all the time. It now seems super-funny that so many people once believed Arrested Development was among the most important bands of the early 1990s. The idea of anyone advocating the merits of Fischerspooner now seems totally ridiculous. It somehow seems crazy that Cornershop was previously viewed as luminous, even though their songs still sound good to me.” Like, gee, I wonder if it has anything to do with the fact that those bands aren’t made up of straight white men like Nirvana and Beck and Pavement and Radiohead? There’s this really regrettable pattern of critics hoisting up black artists and then turning back immediately: Arrested Development, Terrance Trent D’Arby, Tracy Chapman, P.M. Dawn, Tricky… and now how they’ve dialed back their love of Cannibal Ox and Blackalicious and Mr. Lif and Dalek. (For the record, I still bang Arrested Development and P.M. Dawn and Cannibal Ox and Mr. Lif and Dalek.)
ED: You think they praise black artists for stepping outside of the proscribed barriers of what black music is supposed to sound like, but then go back to wanting “authentic” black music?
CWR: I think that may be an accurate description of what happens – though, just to be safe, throw a couple of extra David Shapiro scare quotes on ““““authentic.””””” People praise black artists for making connections to contemporary alternative music, and then call it corny five years later. It happens all the time. It’s really aggravating and totally racist.
ED: Do you think it worked the other way too, like, “I can’t believe we spent five years listening to these corny white boys trying to rap”?
CWR: Look, if you rode for Ugly Duckling, take your lumps like a man.
ED: Going back to Cancer4Cure, why do you think now people are willing to trot out their late ’90s underground bonafides?
CWR: There’s enough distance, honestly. Where you could have once been clowned for arguing about 7L & Esoteric on the Strange Famous board, now you could claim to have been on the frontlines of a movement! But in, like, a self-deprecating way. It reminds me of how in the ’90s, when Nine Inch Nails was blowing up, people were bragging about being old Goths. Or, like, NOW, because of the whole Cold Cave/Sacred Bones thing, people are bragging about being old Goths in the ’90s! You would’ve been clowned in 2005, but now you’re a darkwave pioneer! But with writing about Cancer4Cure, just tell me about the record, for fuck’s sake. I don’t really care about how you lived through Deep Puddle Dynamics.
ED: I think part of Cancer4Cure‘s overwhelming embrace has to do with the popularity of guys like Das Racist, Mr. Muthafuckin’ eXquire, and Despot. There are younger artists who are hot right now that are tied up with El-P. Each side is, consciously or not, cosigning each other, so writers feel comfortable piggybacking.
CWR: Yeah, and something tells me that if El had kept Def Jux going and Das Racist, Mr. Muthafuckin’ eXquire, and Despot and Danny Brown were all nu-Jukies, this reaction wouldn’t have been as loud and proud. It takes the co-sign of a FASHION LABEL and Nick Catchdubs to make rappers cool now. It’s a whole new model. In 2003, underground rappers benefitted from chumming with indie rockers’ publicists and tour circuits. In 2012, you get in through the fashion labels that are cooler and more attractive than the indie rockers.
ED: In terms of critic selective memory, I think it happens with all genres. I remember when the White Stripes were just starting to break in 2002, and I would read Matador Records-loving publications say things like, “this is the real blues explosion” as a dig on Jon Spencer. But do you think the flip-flopping is particularly bad when it comes to writing about rap music?
CWR: With rap, there’s a macho posturing because the flip-flopping only comes on stuff that’s “softer.” And that goes from rappers joking about Kwame’s polka dots up through critics trying to pretend they were always up on UGK instead of Black Star. (Kwame was dope, by the way.)
ED: Right – with hip-hop you’re always going to side with KRS-One throwing P.M. Dawn off the stage. You’re not supposed to feel sorry for Prince Be.
CWR: For real! P.M. Dawn was an amazing group who pushed boundaries lyrically and sonically. They should be praised to this day.
ED: Do you think your own history with El-P’s music and underground hip-hop from the late 1990s has affected the way you reacted to Cancer4Cure?
CWR: I mean, I loved Company Flow and I loved El-P’s last two records, and I Stanned for no small number of Def Jux records in the early aughts — holler at me, Hangar 18!
But I think the constant looking back at vintage underground rap is completely pointless and stupid and strictly navel-gazing from dudes self-conscious about their own past – especially in the context of what El is doing. I think on 2007’s I’ll Sleep When Your Dead, he set up the model for what El-P would be: an artist who thinks beyond rap, who wants a Melvins bassline and a Reznor synth noise, who might leave a giant gap between each line as sing-song poetry instead of strictly rap-rap-rapping all the time. He’s so, so, so, so far away from the dude who was dropping six-minute dis raps about Anticon dudes. Why do we even have to bring that up? It’s as if someone reviewed the new Green Day record and wouldn’t stop talking about dyeing their hair blue in 1994? Or think about what the Chili Peppers are now, some legacy soft-rock band, and you write a whole essay about the glory days of “I want to party on your pussy.” That shit isn’t helping me understand this record at all!