Why is Pitchfork obsessed with The Clipse?


There's been quite a bit of invective flying around the blogosphere on the subject of The Clipse (and their ilk) and the Indie Rock Community. Pitchfork Media, the website reviled by every indie elitist for being so absurdly indie elitist, has made some moves towards hip-hop recently, not least of which was picking The Clipse's "We Got It For Cheap: Vol. 2" mixtape as one of the best albums of 2005.

For those who don't know, the Clipse are a rap duo from Virginia Beach, affiliated with superprodcers The Neptunes. Their big hit, "Grindin'" was typical of their near-total lyrical obsession with cocaine dealing. They are the kind of guys who brag about learning to deal drugs as small children from their grandmother.

Anyway, the charge against the indie hipsters from the hip-hop hipsters goes something like this:

For a long time, the rock intellegentsia was uncomfortable with hip-hop. They were OK with Public Enemy (political lyrics, noisy beats), and some were into the whole Native Tongues thing (presence of jazz, less mean stuff). Then when hip-hop hit the mid-90s P. Diddy era, they checked out.

Indie rock & the rock snobs embraced hip-hop in the late 90s, with the "alternative" hip-hop movement, which decended from the Native Tongues. Folks like Mos Def, Talib Kweli, et al. Later on, folks like Jurassic 5 and Black Eyed Peas took this thread and made it astonishingly corny, but the indie rockers notice for a while -- they didn't actually care about hip-hop any more than they cared about country music when they owned a couple Johnny Cash compilations and that Loretta Lynn CD that Jack White produced.

Of course, eventually, the indie rockers figured out that BEP and J5 weren't "cool." So they dropped them like a hot potato (there are still some J5 holdouts, but whatever). Their quest to find "authentic" hip-hop took them towards white rappers, like Aesop Rock and Sage Francis, who made up for their lack of flow/voice/blackness with complex lyrics and a lot of talk about how hip-hop they were.

At some point, the hipsters figured out that this white rapper stuff was distinctly uncool (this whole time, they were thinking the opposite). So they switched up. All of a sudden, they were advocating for new twists on hyper-traditional street hip-hop, stuff like Camron and the Diplomats, and the Clipse. This was "authentic hip-hop," in their eyes. This allowed them to like Jay-Z (or at least Reasonable Doubt), even though his music was good to dance to, and Beanie Sigel even though it was violet but not revolutionary. And that's where we stand today. End scene.

The argument on the hip-hop side is that this represents some kind of racism on the part of the indie rockers. They're defining blackness or authenticity in association with drug dealing and violence. Then they're living vicariously through this blackness/danger, like everybody's always saying 15-year-old white suburbanites do with 50 Cent records.

The whole controversy is run down from a Pitchfork-friendly perspective here on Status Ain't Hood. Here's some shit talking about it.

My personal inclination is to agree with the hip-hop side, but as a white guy, who hangs out with indie rockers most of the time, I feel like I have a bit of insight into it.

Indie Rock critics are used to tremendously shattered genres. Shoegaze-agro-jazzcore or whatever. They've also developed, over the past thirty five years, a very specific perspective that allows them to glorify pop music as an art (which was tough, especially in the beginning).

One of the things that gets rock critics off is aesthetic purity. Robert Johnson is 1000% Robert Johnson. The Sex Pistols are 1000% the Sex Pistols. Johnny Cash is 1000% Johnny Cash. They reward artists that find their genre niche, their identity niche, and really do the s**t out of it. When this idea moves from Pioneers like the above to the super-sub genres, it means doing the heck out of those super-sub genres... the Strokes got famous for really really being The Strokes, even if what that is is kind of limited. (I don't mean to suggest that derivativeness is part of this, although it can be).

This thinking oftend doesn't translate all that well to hip-hop. Hip-hop records and artists tend to be very self-contradictory -- that's part of their appeal. Thug/lover archetypes popularized by LL and later Tupac, for example. Rapping and singing on the same track ala Ja Rule and 50 Cent. Hip-hop artists also tend to want to appeal to a broad audience. Most of Jay-Z's records have lots of different sounds, and lots of different ideas of what Jay-Z is (gangsta, dealer, lover, party animal, etc).

There are of course artists with very specific and clear identities and aesthetic focuses... and guess what? They're the ones being celebrated these days. The Clipse are the perfect example of this. They have this thing they do -- which is be snide and scary and rap about drugs. They do it GREAT. Camron and the Dipset are the same, plus an added aesthetic distinction -- they have a very unique and interesting style.

Of course, this idea really helped a lot of past rock critics' darlings, too. Kool Keith leaps to mind. The Def Jux-y guys. Jurassic Five even.

I think the main difference now vs. three years ago is that rock critics are getting more comfortable with the idomatics of hip-hop. There was a time that they could only deal with the anger if it was "political." They're getting over that. Most of the critics darlings still have either very hard, agro sounds or softer, native-tonguesy sounds, but that's changing too. And everybody likes Kanye, right?

I guess my thesis here is that there is some racial weirdness in this, but it's less than it once was, not more. This is more of a symptom of a classic problem -- applying rock standards to another genre/culture. But it's a step in the right direction.

*Interesting discussion about the piece on Okayplayer.com*