Wednesday, February 20, 2008

References ≠ Impressive Songwriting

Ok, guys. Just a mini-post again (been a while since I've done one of these), just to point out that we - meaning the hip-hop audience, critics, fans, etc - need to seriously stop being impressed when a rapper references something "intellectual." Just name-dropping something like an 70's film, classic novel or outdated pop culture reference does not make a song any more profound, substantive, witty, clever, or anything else worthwhile.

Now, don't get me wrong. A reference in a song CAN be witty, smart etc... Like, umm... MC Paul Barman doing a sex rhyme and saying, "my pissed off jimbrowski turned three colors like Krystoff Kieslowski"* is funny. It's smart. It's a punny, five syllable rhyme you wish you could've thought of. Ras Kass's take on Francis Crest Welsing's The Isis Paper, despite reaching some questionably racist conclusions, was an impressively thoughtful, literate lesson of a song. Ok, see? I'm being positive and constructive. Instead of just jumping right into the complaint, I'm pointing out examples of how it can be done well.

Unfortunately, it's hardly ever done anywhere near that well... and for some reason fans and critics don't seem to distinguish. Look. Here's a line from the Beastie Boys' overhyped Ill Communication, "Well, it's The Taking of Pelham, One, Two, Three. If you want a doodoo rhyme, then come see me." What's The Taking of Pelham One, Two, Three? Don't get me wrong. I know it's a movie. I've seen the movie. And the content of the film has no remote connection to the content of their rhymes. It's just one of a million random titles they drop in to increase their "hip quotient." The only really good thing about the line is that there's three Beastie Boys, so one of them can say the "one," one of them can say the "two" and the last one can say the "three."

AesopROCK and MF Doom are darlings of those kinda critics... look at the song they did together, The hook goes, "Far as I know we've been blacklist for as long as the Earth rotate on a 23 degree axis." Like one of them just ran up to the other and said, "I just randomly opened an encyclopedia and read that the Earth rotates on a 23 degree axis! How can we work that fact into a rhyme and appear smart?" And the other one goes, "work... into? Just say it. I'm pretty sure we're not getting paid for logical cohesion here." And then they liked it so much they made it their hook.

But if you read reviews, even by supposedly intelligent and discerning critics, they just can't seem to stop heaping praise on the Beastie Boys and every other rapper when they do this (not dissing the Beasties, mind you... they've made some great records. But let's not pretend that they're this generation's Irving Berlin). Reviews can't wait to excitedly point out, "lyrical references include Judge Wapner, Sylvia Plath and Homer’s ‘The Illiad!'" Like, wow, he must be so smart to know who those people are! Everyone from Killarmy to Nas to billions of obscure rappers on CDBaby get these raves over and over. As if just googling a bunch of titles and phrases and dropping them randomly into your raps is some kind of intellectual accomplishment. How about saying something about the dead political activist, or enhancing a point you're making by pointing out parallels between your ideas and the great poem's, instead of just trying to prove that you've apparently heard of them once... at some point.

Here's a good shorthand tip: if the reference to a book (or whatever) in your song doesn't suggest that you've ever actually read the book, or have any idea what it's about, you're not impressing anyone.

...Well, except a lot of people. And if you are one of those people, I think it's time to put on your Analytical Hats and ask yourselves a question. Do these lyrics you're jumping up and down while blogging about actually contain anything more than you could've thrown together yourself in twenty seconds by playing pin-the-tail in your highschool library?

And, wait. I'm not done. There's a new fad blowing up in hip-hop right now that's essentially the same thing. Album covers and press photos patterned after obscure films. Gnarls Barkley made themselves look like the guys from Clockwork Orange? Oooh, isn't that clever. And Camobear Records! They made their new DVD look like... Clockwork Orange, too. Eminem did a semi-famous Clockwork Orange photo (why semi-famous? because people were impressed that he referenced Stanley Kubrick's adaptation of Clockwork Orange!), and of course Cage used Clockwork Orange artwork for an early mixtape with "Agent Orange" on it and probably some other stuff.

Right now, rappers are doing it all over the place. Tragedy makes his cover look like The Matrix. Copyright makes his cover look like The Jerk. DITC make their cover like Dead Presidents, J-Zone copies The Graduate and Guru takes the Back To the Future artwork. Little Brother makes their cover like an old EPMD cover. Sid Roams makes their cover look like the same EPMD cover. Yeah. It's been going on for a couple years and just keeps getting worse. Check out on any given day (yeah, they're still up, apparently)... it's like a gallery of ever-changing ripped off images from recent pop culture. Next summer, when the Hollywood blockbusters roll out, let's see which rappers are the first to use their logos and images for their shitty mixtapes.

It's up to us to stop encouraging them. There's no reason to be impressed.

*Interestingly, a line The Pedestrian once quoted to me as an example of a reason why he disliked Barman... different strokes, I guess.


  1. 1.)  Paul Barman and 00s MF Doom both use multisyllables and relatively obscure references.  The only difference between them (aside from the fact that Doom isn't terrible) is that Doom's fanbase is comprised largely of white nerds, while Barman's is comprised entirely of white nerds.  This whole enterprise seems like a very hipster-like kneejerk reaction to people receiving hip points for things that aren't sufficiently hip or obscure.

    2.) The visual reference aspect of your argument is bunk. That's not a fad; rappers have been doing that forever to reference movies, TV shows, older albums, etc.  Part of the referential nature of rap.

  2. Response part 1 of 4)
    Hi.  I wasn't really making a case for either Doom or Barman being better MCs... just comparing the two specific lines; and how we (the hip-hop audience) react to those types of lines in general.  You make a good point, that both are multi-syllabel rhymes, so one shouldn't get credit over the other for that (although Aes and Doom rhymed two syllables here, while Barman rhymed five... if you allow that the third syllable doesn't really match).  It's more that Barman's line was A) related to all the other lines in his song and B) was a witty (IMHO) play on Kieslowski's work (you have to at least know he directed a Trois Colours trilogy to "get" it)... whereas the Aes/Doom reference really comes out of nowhere and just makes you wonder why they said it.

    I probably could have come up with some better examples in both cases, though.

  3. Response 3 of 3... not 4 after all)
    You make another good point on #2, too: that rappers have been doing making random pop culture references forever; a la Kool Moe Dee playing James Bond in his "I Go To Work" video or Afrika Bambaataa's early comic book-style album cover.
    But see, I'm not really criticizing the rappers themselves (although I think it's time to put Clockwork Orange dress-ups on hold), so much as saying the critical response (both from general audiences and the "official" critics) seems to be that they're getting more and more impressed by it.  That Eminem photo I use in my graphic got magazine write-ups praising him for it, in non-hip-hop publications.  Why?  That's not a rhetorical question... I'm asking you why do you think mainstream entertainment journalists were impressed with that photo (I read at least one blog praising Gnarls Barkley for doing C.O., too)?

    You say: rappers have been doing it forever.
    I say: the fact that rappers have been doing it forever, if anything, actually makes it LESS impressive, not more.
    If you're going to pattern your next mix-tape cover on a Hollywood film, hwo about picking one that makes an ironic or artistic statement about the music contained within?  How about if there's a clever in-joke or visual pun in there somewhere for audiences to appreciate?  And, if the rapper can't be bothered to do that... fine.  I'm not saying we should run them out of town with pitchforks and torches.  I'm just saying we shouldn't hold that cover up as "genius," then.

  4. Response 2 of 4)
    I think maybe you've overlooked that I'm not complaining about rappers making references... but that there is an important distinction between making references arbitrarily and making them well (where they have some effect and actually enhance its context), that is not being recognized.
    Like, ok - here's another pair of examples, this time both are by the same artist (so playing favorites can't enter into it):
    On the same album, Chino XL said two lines:
    "Avoid battling me like I'm Eazy-E's blood samples."  Now this line is a (politically insensitive) joke, that also implies some knowledge of the rapper on his and the audience's part.  It's in questionable taste, and I'm not saying it's hysterically funny... but there is a joke buried in there and I'd say it's a fairly decent line.  Or at least that it lives up to certain standards.
    Then later on the LP, he says he was, "thinking about taking my own life like Marlon Brando's daughter."  Now the only connection here is that Marlon Brando's daugther did, as he said, kill herself.  Knowing anything more about the case doesn't give you any more insight into what he's saying (her case and the story he's rapping about really have no meaningful similarities).  It's just a fairly random pop culture reference thrown in, I believe, because by the time he was writing this he was known for making lots of clever references and he was looking to make more.  The problem is, it wasn't clever or creative and IMHO, that line detracts from that song.  It's the difference between a good and a bad punchline, I guess.

  5. Fair points.  I actually agree with you for the most part.

    I was trying to be funny with the Doom/Barman thing.  Didn't quite work.

    I am also sick of rock writers praising rappers (or anyone) for referencing stuff that's supposed to be over their heads.  There's something condescending about it. And there's something stupid in asuming that people are intelligent simply because they reference certain films, texts, and obscure musicians.

    I won't front, I laugh at Chino XL's lines about 10% of the time, but mostly they're contrived and unnecessary, same with most punchline rappers.  I like Breeze Brewin in punchline mode, though.  

    The best kind of references, as you say, are organic.  It's Illmatic Nas mentioning Pappy Mason to give his music local color.  It's Resurrection Com and his Southside of Chicago-isms (as well as his extended wordplay/pop culture punchlines).

    One of my favorites from MURS: "Fuck with me and take a bite out of self destruction like 'We're All In The Same Gang'"