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[whitespace] Hip-Hop Notions

A new movie and exhibit look at the legacy of the hip-hop movement

By Gina Arnold

YOU'LL PROBABLY THINK I'm totally insane, but thus far, my favorite movie of the summer is Pootie Tang, a fascinating piece of fluff based on a skit on The Chris Rock Show. Pootie Tang, a black superstar--rap singer, martial-arts hero and children's role model--speaks in an entirely made-up language.

His mission in life is to keep kids away from fast food, cigarettes and malt liquor, all of which his archenemy, Dick Lecter, the "head of corporate America," manufactures. The movie depicts the silly battle between these two superpowers--that is, between corporate America and cool black celebrity chic. But such a battle is not so much an allegory as a fairy tale. In real life, cool black celebrity chic--especially within the worlds of rap music and sports--is entirely allied to corporate America.

Even so, Pootie Tang is a thought-provoking production. Despite being a movie for, by and about black culture, it contains no real violence, sex or profanity, something that can't be said about any other non-kids' movie in the theaters today.

I can't help but think that Pootie Tang will be closed before you even read this, but it really does provide a great ironic comment on the state of American hip-hop culture--as does Hip-Hop Nation, the current exhibit at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco. Both the film and the exhibit are indicative of a new phase of revisionist thought about rap music and hip-hop--a phase that could almost be called hip-hop's obituary.

Hip-Hop Nation (which runs through Aug. 12) is divided into three main categories. One is a history of Bay Area hip-hop, going all the way back to Sly Stone. The second section includes art by artists who are inspired by hip-hop styles, all of them born after 1968.

Finally, there is a section titled "Roots, Rhymes and Rage--The Hip-Hop Story," which is on loan from the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. In addition, there are hands-on displays, including a hip-hop resource center with books as well as videos, films, computer programs and MP3s that gather information from all over the world.

The day I attended, three B-boys were sitting on a bench watching videos of old-style breakdancing and whooping it up. It seemed like a pleasant way to spend a summer afternoon, hanging out in the cool white halls of a museum and soaking up culture directly through the pores.

ACCORDING TO THE exhibit's liner notes, hip-hop culture is divided into four elements: breakdancing, DJing, MCing and graffiti art, of which the first three have found wide commercial success.

The least interesting aspect of the whole exhibit is the visual art component, which is neither provocative nor fresh. Hip-hop really is an aural art form, one that works best in the ears rather than in the eyes.

There is no doubt at all that hip-hop is an important (and exciting) aspect of late-20th- and early-21st-century life that can, in addition, tell us an awful lot about the black American experience. And yet, therein lies the rub. There's something disconcerting to me about seeing all these simple items iconized into holy artifacts.

Much of the exhibit consists of album covers, posters, turntables, handwritten lyric sheets and costumes. There are, among other things, bits of Queen Latifah's high school diary, set lists from Public Enemy shows, tennis shoes worn by the Fat Boys and Biggie Smalls and the giant glitter-covered stage-jackets of Puff Daddy, Salt N Pepa and even Eminem.

Lots of magazine covers in the show proclaim rap "the next big thing." I didn't really like the idea that merely hitting the cover of Newsweek gives legitimacy to a thing when, in fact, just the opposite is true.

But it's not surprising that the magazines are included: after all, the exhibit was curated by Kevin Powell, a writer for Spin and Vibe who got his start as a cast member of one of the first episodes of The Real World and must put great store in such rationales.

The exhibit also really downplays the violent, sexist and homophobic nature of hip-hop, saying only that the artists of the "Golden Era" (1982-88) were high on "black nationalist zeal" and were reacting against the racist policies of Ronald Reagan. Well, excuse me, but I don't think so. Hip-hop certainly has an element of that, but much of it is about sheer unadulterated capitalism--just like Reaganism itself.

And if that isn't Republican enough for you, then putting down women and shooting brothers in the street surely are, playing as they do into the conservative white right's hands. And, alas, they still do.

Indeed, the best thing I saw at the exhibit was a tiny sculpture called The Pez Project by Packard Jennings. It depicted three fallen rappers--Biggie Smalls, Easy E. and Tupac Shakur--as Pez dispensers, complete with little Pez packets that could be dispensed.

It made me think about how those three men--as artistically talented and sincere as they were--were also just commercial mouthpieces for their record labels, dispensing a certain prepackaged ideology.

The same thing is true of much of today's rap, and that is something well worth thinking about and exploring, in art, in video and in journalism to come. The black CNN? Well, maybe once upon a time. Nowadays, it seems as if rappers are creating news, not merely reporting it--and the images they are sending out aren't all that wonderful--which is exactly what makes Pootie Tang so funny.

In a way, both that movie and this exhibit treat rap music as if it's all over and done with, and though that might not be the case, maybe it means that it should be.

Olympian Times

TEN YEARS AGO this August, my best friend and I got a wild hair up our butts. Spur of the moment, we took a week's vacation from our respective jobs in order to take part in the International Pop Underground Festival in Olympia, Wash. The festival was organized by K Records founder Calvin Johnson and featured some 50 bands, including the Fastbacks, Fugazi, L7 and others.

There was also a pet parade, a cakewalk and a Planet of the Apes movie festival. It was, not to put too fine a point on it, one of the best weeks of my entire life. I mean that quite literally: a few weeks later, the LP Nevermind--by Olympia's finest band, Nirvana--was released, and the '90s began in earnest.

The International Pop Underground Festival marked a real epoch in both my life and in the world at large (coincidentally, it took place the same weekend that the Soviet Union was dismantled), and as such it can never be repeated. However, on the weekend of July 17-22, the fourth (non) Annual Yo Yo A Go Go Festival will take place at the same location (the Capitol Theater in Olympia) and will even feature some of the same bands: Bratmobile, Unwound, Mecca Normal, the Canaanes and Dead Moon, as well as other good acts from the same region and beyond. (Foremost among these are Mark Robinson and Unrest, the Beat Happening spin-off Dub Narcotic Sound System, and the Japanese band Seagulls Screaming Kiss Her Kiss Her.)

I know it's short notice, but sometimes that works best. If you have the time and the inclination, there are a lot worse ways of spending a week in July. For more information and registration, check out www.yoyoagogo.com or www.buyolympia.com or write to YoYo a GoGo, PO Box 2462, Olympia, WA 98507.

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From the July 12-18, 2001 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2001 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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