On Pandora I have a “Flight Of The Conchords” channel. The Conchords, as you probably know, are New Zealand’s 4th most popular folk parody duo, who lovingly — gleefully! parodically! — skip along the top of various genres, including hip-hop.
I think that’s fine, partly because I think hip-hop is big enough to encompass white rappers every now and then, partly because the Conchords manage to both display some chops and turn the joke on themselves, and partly because they’re from New Zealand, so they’re not really involved with our racial shit.
But because I like Flight of the Conchords, Pandora thinks I may also enjoy similarly nerdy white Americans performing folky renditions of hip-hop classics:
Man. Why am I suddenly thinking of Roger Sterling in blackface?
There’s something awfully delicate about a bunch of young white guys “covering” a piece of black popular music to begin with, and when a lot of the success of the new version is rooted in the cognitive dissonance of hearing and seeing a soft-spoken white hipster crooning “About to go and damn near went blind/Young niggaz on the pad throwin’ up gang signs” — the joke is that they’re WHITE! — it seems to me you’re in great peril of crossing the line from loving appreciation to crass appropriation.
Whether you actually sail over that line probably depends on the kind of song you’ve chosen to put your own stamp on. Jonathan Coulton might — might — get a pass for “Baby Got Back,” the original version of which was a celebration of black women’s bodies, and which displayed a surprising amount of Consciousness for what is essentially the definition of a party record. Mix-A-Lot’s exuberant joy in big butts is easily something Coulton could actually share, and the message of (partial) openness to other, curvier bodies that don’t get a lot of respect from the media strikes me as still relevant today.
But it’s hard to see how the guys in Dynamite Hack are really sharing in Eazy-E’s experience of gang life in Compton, even in the sense that Johnny Cash shared in the experience of guys stuck in Folsom Prison. (But if Dynamite Hack ever played “Boyz N The Hood” for an audience of South Central drug dealers, somebody please let me know.) Instead, they’re playing that experience for naughty laughs — “Look at me! I’m a smirky white kid singing about smackin’ bitches! Hilarious and transgressive!” Which might be fine if they were being genuinely transgressive, instead of taming a troubling, nasty piece of work for the amusement of the bros on Frat Row. And Dynamite Hack end the song on a note about slapping a bitch for being mouthy, lopping off Eazy’s last two verses about one of his characters being arrested and going to jail. Macho posturing and being a sexist dick they’re interested in; the legal and social consequences of fighting with cops are less fun as an object of fantasy.
I don’t want to overstate things, here. To some extent even Eazy is exploiting the character of the black gangster to entertain his audience. The fact that he was a drug dealer and lived in Compton mitigates this a bit, but on the other hand, Eazy’s parents both held responsible jobs, and he quit dealing as soon as he figured out he could make more money as a rapper. So you get the feeling his world wasn’t quite as desperate as that of, say, Snoop from The Wire.
Still, there’s something lazy and cynical and not-right about Dynamite Hack. If you love hip-hop enough to want to commemorate the greats of the field, why not try writing your own song? You don’t even have to rap: