Wednesday, May 30, 2007

The Golden Age of Hip Hop Video

Since the latest round of rap attacks started, I’ve been coupling my usual dose of rap radio with several hours a week watching rap videos, and the past month has convinced me that we’re in the midst of a golden age for hip hop video.

Now, I’ve never been much of a music video fan. I’ve always found very few videos in the history of the form have done anything but detract from the power of listening to the music without a visual. But that’s not true today in what I see in a typical hour or two of, say, MTV’s hip hop-oriented format MTV Jams.

For one thing, the videos are more beautiful than ever. Take Young Buck’s video for “Get Buck” for an example. Widescreen and shot in, presumably, the rapper’s hometown of Nashville, it starts with this arresting visual of a golden classic car, rims spinning, in front of a dingy old neighborhood grocery store, while a choir and dancers dressed in black bring a sense of weight to what we’re about to see. Brightly flashing tubas balance the shine from the car, pounding out a rhythm that’s nothing less than riveting.

That’s followed by a bright yellow swap shop with red trim and a red whip displayed in front of it. Marching band and dancers stomp and jump in joyous expectation in front of these settings while the music builds.

And then it cuts to night, and the front of a Western Union check cashing shop, lit bright yellow and red neon, shines with a glorious radiance over the proceedings. The music making is continuously intercut with the dignified and serious faces of participants staring the camera down or showing off their bling or their rides. The final moments of this ecstatic war dance are shot by the headlights of a nighttime street full of these rides, raising the level of excitement to a fever pitch before it ends.

What’s vivid here is a celebration of individual integrity and collective ingenuity and culture, and that’s typical of what makes so many of today’s popular music videos so special—whether it’s Lil Mama’s dazzling mix of dancing and special effects (which include dancing spoons and slamming lockers as a sort of visual percussion) in New York high school hallways, lunchrooms and classrooms or Huey’s much grittier but no less joyous, beautiful and expressive dancing in an East St. Louis high school.

Perhaps most obviously significant are the videos coming from artists like Mobile, Alabama’s Rich Boy and New Orleans’s Juvenile and Baby Boy da Prince. They not only show the devastation of Katrina but also celebrate the culture that developed in those areas affected and that bind artist and audience in the aftermath. Yes, the Southern rappers and fans are showing off their tats, grills, whips and bling, but they are also riding in the Mardi Gras parade, eating crawdads with whole neighborhoods in community picnics and getting fists pumping with what looks and feels like soul saving pep rallies in the streets, often, again, complemented by exuberant marching bands.

Much is made of a certain stereotype of the roles women play in today’s rap videos, but it’s surprising how rare such even debatable examples show up. What’s most common—when the women aren’t rapping or singing themselves--prevalent everywhere from rappers like Crime Mob, Remy Ma, Eve, Missy Elliott, Lil’ Kim and 702, to, of course, the hip hop flavored R&B of Mya, Rihanna, Fantasia, Kelly Roland, Ciara, and alternating videos of almost everything on Beyonce’s current video release—are images of proud strong women of all ages and body types exhibiting the latest dance moves and looking like they are more than enjoying the still relatively young tradition of celebrating black feminine beauty. It’s telling that even the conceptually disturbing video based on Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut, Pretty Ricky’s “Push It Baby (I Wanna See You),” ends with elegant choreography featuring both the boys and the scantily dressed women.

Without even factoring in the more explicit politics of Bone, Thugs N Harmony’s “I Tried,” DJ Khaled’s “We’re Taking Over,” Xibit’s “Grits,” Young Jeezy’s “My Hood,” or G-Dep’s “Everyday,” the overall story adds up to Class Unity 101 with women and men who are often stereotyped as the scourge of society presenting themselves as roundly characters--funny, serious and sexy as they wanna be.

Whether any of the current crop of rap bashers want to deal with it or not, what’s evident in today’s rap video shows writer Michael Eric Dyson’s prescience 12 years ago when he wrote “Gangsta Rap and American Culture,” arguing gangsta as a critique of the black bourgeoisie.

Even further, these videos, particularly by the predominant mix of Southern rappers, serve to expand the old hip hop concepts of the four elements—graffiti, break dancing, MCing and DJing to include new forms. That’s what the grills, tats and even the most erotic dancing is all about, on one level, but there’s also the emphasis on clothes and cars, which ties back to the low rider tradition, blue suede shoes and dreams of pink Cadillacs.

At the same time, DJs have long been producers as much as turntablists, but in this PC laden world where music is shared via YouTube maybe more than actual television, the visual arts also include the videos themselves. It’s not altogether rare today to even see video remixes, alternating images between various videos like a DJ spinning two discs together. Today’s rappers not only rhyme and toast but they also non-verbally shout, grunt, chant, dance and snap their fingers in call and response, and the cameras emphasize this rich mix and weave it together in energizing new ways.

Lately, I’ve been weary and annoyed fighting these same old fights, but a daily dose of these videos, and I’m more than ready and willing to get back to work.


See examples of some of these videos in my previous post's links.

Check out Living In Stereo, as a matter of principle but also for the little article I wrote about Rihanna's "Umbrella."

Also, if you don't receive Rock & Rap Confidential's free e-mail distribution, please write and request it. I've been committed to writing for the newsletter for 20 years now, and I've never felt it was more important than right now. (The article above is actually something that couldn't fit this issue.)

Finally, please check out the next three nights of Tavis Smiley on your local PBS outlet. He is showcasing half hour segments from Jonathan Demme's new documentary on the lives of Hurricane Katrina survivors. It's called Right to Return: New Home Movies from the Lower Ninth Ward, and I can't overstate how important it is (what it's all about really). Here's a New York Times article from a couple of days ago that gives a nice description--

May 28, 2007
Demme’s Tales of Ordinary Heroes in New Orleans

Victims and despair were what Jonathan Demme expected to find when he headed to New Orleans with his camera. Instead, he said, he discovered tough-minded heroes, who became the stars of his unadorned film “Right to Return: New Home Movies from the Lower Ninth Ward.” Beginning tonight Tavis Smiley will turn over the entire week of his PBS program, “The Tavis Smiley Show,” to broadcast parts of the film.

Mr. Smiley’s 30-minute show will feature five roughly 20-minute episodes carved out as discrete appetizers from Mr. Demme’s film. (On WNET In New York, Episodes 4 and 5 will be broadcast back to back on Thursday.) Mr. Demme said he planned to show the stitched-together episodes from Mr. Smiley’s show, with additional material, at the Silverdocs: AFI/Discovery Channel Documentary Festival, a six-day international film festival in Silver Spring, Md., in June.

Mr. Demme, the Oscar-winning director and producer whose work includes “The Silence of the Lambs” and “Philadelphia,” said he had enough material eventually to make a 10- to 15-hour documentary, with five seasonal chapters. “A memoir in the moment,” is what he calls each story he has documented.

In “Right to Return” viewers get to know preachers, artists, single mothers, young professionals. Mostly these people talk: about rebuilding, dealing with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, about what their neighborhood was like and what was lost, existentially and literally, when the waters ravaged the city. They describe waiting for insurance money, electricians, debris removal, mail service.

“I just thought everyone who can point a camera in the right direction should go down there and point a camera in the right direction,” Mr. Demme said in a recent interview about his trips to New Orleans. “This is the great American epic of our time.

“I had thought we would record the death throes of an obliterated culture. The culture was not obliterated. These are not tragic figures. These are the American heroes who’ve gone back into these damn neighborhoods.”

Mr. Demme is the film’s director and producer. His partners in the venture, Abdul Franklin and Daniel Wolff, are also producers. “Right to Return” has a home-movie, seat-of-the-pants feel. The assumption is that the viewer knows the big story and now can get a close-up view of smaller stories from the citizens of New Orleans.

“We had two cameras,” recalled Mr. Wolff, a writer and film producer. “We got in a rented car and just drove. There was no script. There were no written questions.”

The week of “Right to Return” on Mr. Smiley’s show begins with an episode filmed in winter 2006 and ends with one from winter 2007. Each episode concludes with an update from the people interviewed. Although the camera lingers on neighborhoods full of waterlogged debris and gutted and disarrayed houses, “Right to Return” focuses on the people and not the physical destruction.

One recurring figure is the Rev. Melvin Jones, known as Pastor Mel, first seen in the winter of 2006 playing cheerleader to a room full of sad-eyed men by reminding them of the people they plucked from the water. His own story is that he overcame drug abuse and homelessness to become pastor of Bethel Community Baptist Church in the Ninth Ward, which has a program for male substance abusers. Pastor Mel lost his house and his church but is rebuilding both. He wants others to stay and fight too, he says.

“The answer is not the government taking the land and selling it to a developer for a sweetheart deal,” he says in the film, repeating rumors he has heard of government plans to transform mostly black New Orleans into what he calls a “boutique city” for tourists.

The spring 2006 segment features Herreast Harrison, the widow of Donald Harrison Sr., who was the Big Chief of a Mardi Gras Indian tribe known as the Guardians of the Flame. She is also the mother of the jazz saxophonist Donald Harrison Jr. and the grandmother of young trumpeter Christian Scott. Every year the Guardians of the Flame would dress up and sing in the streets of New Orleans.

Mrs. Harrison, an educator, talks about saving a few Mardi Gras costumes but losing so much when her home of 40 years was destroyed. In the film she fingers a feathered headdress from Mardi Gras.

“When they masqueraded in the neighborhood, they brought beauty and eloquence,” she says, explaining that the tribe’s music and manner transmitted a culture that mingled African and American Indian elements.

Her daughter, Cherice Harrison-Nelson, talks about being an artist who helps schoolchildren use art to cope with the dislocation of the storm, despite, she says, being told by FEMA that she should relocate to Houston. She has lived in a series of hotels, she says.

Carolyn S. Parker, filmed last summer, talks about trying to lure her neighbors back to the city. But her son, Rahsaan M. Parker, declares, “You wouldn’t be able to survive 18 hours the way we’re living down here.”

Mrs. Parker cheerfully notes the irregular mail service and says her only wish is to be back in her home by Christmas. She has been slowly rebuilding her house but is still in a trailer.

“Right to Return” ended up on television by happenstance. Mr. Demme said he was working on his documentary about Jimmy Carter when his path crossed Mr. Smiley’s. After hearing about Mr. Demme’s project and looking at the footage, Mr. Demme said, Mr. Smiley gave him the gift of airtime. Mr. Smiley said that it was the first time he had done such a thing and that his gesture was compelled by the power of Mr. Demme’s film and by the plight of New Orleans.

“The media descended on New Orleans for the Katrina story, but the real struggle is asserting the right to return,” said Mr. Smiley, who has made a name for himself in broadcasting but also as a player in black arts and politics. “This is a story that for five consecutive nights tells what people have gone through.”

Mr. Demme’s film would seem to invite comparison with Spike Lee’s 2006 documentary, “When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts,” but Mr. Demme sees his project as picking up where Mr. Lee’s ended. Unlike Mr. Lee’s critically acclaimed four-hour film “Right to Return” stays away from experts, hurricane scenes and shots of bedraggled storm victims.

Pastor Mel, for one, said he was hopeful that the combination of Mr. Demme’s artistic imprimatur and Mr. Smiley’s journalistic and political bona fides would spur action on behalf of the city.

“We’re Americans here, not just New Orleans residents,” he said in a telephone interview.

“We’re just normal, everyday working people doing what we’re supposed to be doing, and things like the Internet are not back, the lights are not back, the telephones are not back, the sewers and the streets are deplorable. It’s all God helping us.”
Copyright 2007 The New York Times Company