Some would argue that the subcultures absorbed by capitalism's centripetal pull go on to affect its core -- e.g., as rock was diluted in prime-time, the mainstream got a little more forthright, a little looser. Hiphop might be conveying a substantive message that way, though no one in the ad-flooded rap glossies seems to know what it might be.
Critics of hiphop-as-pop insist that the ongoing absorption process must be resisted, through either a process of classicizing (maintaining artistic merit based on established principles, à la the college-rap "underground") or race-focused wealth creation (ensuring black entrepreneurial control of black underclass music, like rap's artist-"playas"), or some combination of both. The latter method can be fairly understood as a redress of wrongs committed in rock 'n' roll, though the playas have yet to demonstrate how their money might translate into anti-racist power.
Meanwhile, hiphop artists who yearn for the days when the revolutionary aspects of the music were too glaring to subvert fail to note that the same flavors that disrupted shit in 1987 come across sweet like candy today, and candy is even less nourishing than cash.
What I talk about when I talk about hiphop is a culture autonomous of the demands of the marketplace and those of nostalgia. This is the fragile state in which hiphop first flourished, back when no one knew how to sell it and upgrades came so quickly that the only esthetic tool listeners needed was a chronology. The key properties of the music then were mobility -- a willingness to take the lead even toward an unsure horizon -- and resourcefulness, to the extreme extent where fine art could be made from damn near nothing.
If hiphop artists are going to run the music business and/or revive its enlightening essence, it's these ineffable qualities, I think, that they should aspire to propagate.
There's no denying the fact that capitalism is hardwired into hiphop. The culture's heroic accomplishment -- which anti-capitalists too often miss -- is the extent to which hiphop operates as a support system for unmarketable views and sounds, even as it sells itself 19 different ways at once. It is a system complex enough to maintain internal paradoxes -- gaps in the sort of linear processes journalists like to describe. There are places in hiphop where the issues that the playas and the underground are fighting out haven't even been raised. It's so wonderful in those places, you should donate some bucks and a moment of your time to support it.
Two albums you won't be sorry you bought are Scaramanga's Seven Eyes, Seven Horns (Sun Large/Fat Beats) and Godfather Don's Diabolique (Sneak Tip/Hydra -- vinyl only).
I don't quite understand why these records are so good. But they show that in the midst of all the hiphop money and hiphop history out there, hiphop music is still awe-inspiring. Though they are mystifying, these records are visceral and straightforward. You don't want to approach them analytically, because these artists push the medium beyond its rules. Be warned: You won't know exactly what they are saying.
But Lord do they mean it. The motive confidence -- swaggering yet one more step beyond the literal, mundane, non-rhyming world into a phantasmagoria of loaded syllables -- boggles the mind. Godfather Don and Scaramanga make it seem like the vast majority of previous attempts to use the human voice as an instrument were hopelessly misguided -- relying, as they did, on assumptions about diction that (it turns out) are simply wrong.
These guys build off Coltrane more than Gang Starr. Their work is inside stuff turned out, taking breath and tone to a forum that is inhuman in its directness. Speed, density, skill, conflict, perseverance, wit, devotion, and magnanimity come through like gangbusters. You need not form an opinion on who should control it, or who even really knows what it is, in order to understand.
Though very Brooklyn-neighborhoody and testosterone-fueled, Black Moon was on a mission to prove that those weren't limitations; rappers could excel and bust boundaries without being anything but who they were. They succeeded. This album is to gangsta pop as late-'40s roadhouse R&B is to Elvis in Vegas.
Genius/GZA Liquid Swords (Geffen) ****Probably the best album to discover what all the fuss is about when it comes to Wu-Tang producer RZA. Though it was released in 1995, there still hasn't been a hiphop album like Liquid Swords. Many of its tracks, featuring mixscapes that in music-critic language would have to be described as experimental ambient-drone music, sound no less confounding today. The way they couple with the booming rhymes of RZA's cousin Genius suggests some sort of alchemy at play -- it shouldn't work, but it does.
Buckminster Fuzeboard How to Make C60 BR24 in Under an Hour (Slabco) ****Some kid in his basement made this instrumental album. It takes off from Prince-Paul-style funhouse mixes and somehow squares 'em. It comes across like samples of samples and beats made up of counterbeats, all catapulting away from each other but somehow holding together. I think it's because they're actually orbiting, only in 4-D space -- so it only appears impossible. Don't bother with this one if you don't bother with drugs.
Cenobites The Cenobites EP (Fondle 'Em) ****Vinyl-only release of tracks cut exclusively for Stretch & Bobbito's radio show by Kool Keith and Godfather Don. They make it seem as if every other rapper has no imagination whatsoever.