Toward the end of Part 1, I posed a question in response to Jon Caramanica’s recent NY Times blog post, White rappers pay homage to the past, in which Jon Caramanica concludes that white rappers are achieving legitimacy by studying and emulating the music of earlier [Black] MCs and not calling attention to their own whiteness. The question was, “what songs and albums does Caramanica consider to be “legit” hip hop?”. The legitimacy of a song, artist, or album is fundamentally a matter of opinion and the variety of opinions seems wider in hip hop than in any other genre. More importantly, it’s debatable how well-informed the majority of these opinions are. There are more popular wack rappers than logically possible.
This “legitimacy” question is also important because Caramanica compares white rappers past and present. The standards set in 1988 sounded and looked very different from those established in 1998 and, who even knows what today’s standards are. He writes, “Rappers like MC Search and Pete Nice of 3rd Bass, and Everlast of House of Pain did their best to blend in, but even if they succeeded, they were still anomalies. Vanilla Ice — who looks better in the rearview, it should be said — was one of hip-hop’s first Antichrist figures. Each of these artists was a small assault on hip-hop’s self-conception and self-presentation.” I agree that the earliest white rappers threatened the self-conceptualized image of their Black and Latino contemporaries who largely created the music and culture. What I disagree with is Caramanica’s implicit suggestion that the current prevailing (and hopefully fading) themes and personas associated with rap remain to be self-conceptualized.
Over the last twenty years, the music and people that have defined hip hop for most listeners have increasingly been financed, promoted and distributed by forces from outside of hip hop — major record labels and huge multinational media conglomerates. We all know that the music has often badly reflected the diverse creativity that exists in the genre. Many big-name rappers, almost all of whom are Black, have very little legitimacy, so why should white rappers even try to measure up to them? If white rappers like Action Bronson, Machine Gun Kelly, and Cam Meekins seem particularly influenced by mid-90s era rap, it’s probably because the music is great and it continues to inspire them. Maybe they, like so many fans who’ve grown up on hip hop, have decided that there hasn’t been much music released since the mid-90’s that’s worth caring about. Sure, good music has come out since then, but being able to easily discover music that doesn’t get radio or video spins is a pretty recent phenomenon. To this day there are many hip hop fans who believe that quality rap doesn’t come out anymore. They might be aware of one or two rappers worth following, but hip hop is dead to them besides that. I’ve noticed a lot of these fans to be white, but it applies to people of all colors.