Thursday, January 29, 2004

In a recent column for, Jean Grae talks about how she can't get her foot in the music industry door and how much that pisses her off. She has some interesting points. I thought Attack of the Attacking Things was pretty wack (I wasn't happy about the $14 I threw down for it), but its failure had more to do with weak beats and bad sequencing than any flaws that Jean Grae might have. She's gotten a ton of press (maybe too much), and a lot of her guest appearances have been tight. After not liking her album, I'm not going to put in the money and effort to track down her new EP, but the one song I've heard is good. Grae definitely has what it takes to be a player in underground hip-hop, and it's kind of incredible that one of the bigger indies hasn't picked her up. She'd be a perfect fit for, say, Def Jux, where a good exec producer like El-P could help her put together an album that would play to her strengths.

But the real reason she hasn't made it (yet) isn't really Attack of the Attacking Things; it's the fact that she's black and female in a backpacker rap subculture that is becoming increasingly white and male, especially with the rise of labels like Def Jux and Anticon. I like Def Jux and Anticon, but a lot of the stuff on those labels couldn't be much whiter or maler; it has more to do with IDM and indie-rock than mainstream hip-hop. I listen to Sole and Aesop Rock pretty much the same way I listen to Four Tet and the Angels of Light; it doesn't really make sense to listen to them next to the Ying Yang Twins or 50 Cent or even someone like Murs, all of whom sound to me like hip-hop (well, maybe not the Ying Yang Twins so much, but that's another story). All this is fine, but guys like Aesop and Sole are dominating the underground right now. Defari got a lot of shit a couple of months ago when he said in an interview that people like Atmosphere and Aesop are taking money out of his mouth by doing this garbage shit that just isn't hip-hop. This was a stupid thing for Defari to say, and it definitely hurt his career, but it raises some important questions. Like, why is such a chasm developing between mainstream and underground hip-hop? I really don't think this gulf is a good thing. I'm glad Sole and Aesop have the room to say what they want, but they're also pretty obviously pushing out people like Defari and Jean Grae - that is, black people who rap like black people. Eminem notwithstanding, it's still pretty much expected that most mainstream rappers will be black or Latino. But in the underground, it's become a liability. It has become lucrative to be white.

Now that Rawkus has gone completely belly-up, there isn't really much of a niche left for black underground rappers. Some of them (Mos, Talib, Kanye) have managed to carve out a place in the mainstream, but most have fallen by the wayside. There is virtually no bridge between the two sensibilities and subcultures. Can anyone really imagine Sage Francis spitting on a mixtape next to Lloyd Banks? Or even Dead Prez? I'd like to see it happen, but I don't think it ever will.

In light of all this, I'm kind of sad that Atmosphere signed to Epitaph. Slug is just about the only guy I can see uniting the two poles of hip-hop, bringing the underground to the mainstream and vice versa. Can you see Atmosphere on Roc-a-fella? I can. I'd love it.

(I realize this is simplistic - it avoids people like Outkast and Bubba Sparxxx and the Ying Yang Twins who are taking mainstream hip-hop in wildly divergent directions. And it avoids underground veteran types like Heiro who have stayed underground and managed to ride quite comfortably on their reputations. There is more to hip-hop than the underground/overground dichotomy, but that split is there, and it's huge, and it's becoming a black/white split, and that sucks.)