In November, four assholes stormed into the office of Blaze magazine and beat the crap out of an editor there. It was truly horrible--they bashed his face with an office chair. The guys who did it (allegedly from Puff Daddy's clique) will go to jail.

Then in December, Spin, Rolling Stone, The New York Times, The Village Voice, and about 1,000 other publications featured articles explaining how incidents like the Blaze attack are the Next Big Thing in hiphop. Though they were disguised as unbiased, reportorial news stories, these articles were actually variations on what fashion magazines call a "trend piece." To write a trend piece, a journalist only needs three examples of any phenomenon. For instance, if I'm a fashion writer, and I learn that Burt Reynolds, Martin Short, and the chick from Felicity all recently purchased talking parrots, I can easily earn one dollar for every word it takes to convey the "fact" that talking parrots are the hot new Hollywood pets. The publicists of Reynolds, Short, and Felicity would be happy to grant me access to their clients, so I might quote them in a glossy magazine, and thereby testify to their hot trendiness. Everybody's happy.

Music writers smelled a trend brewing when Blaze's Jesse Washington was attacked, because just last summer Washington claimed that Wyclef Jean pulled a gun on him. So that made two. Ice Cube hunts and kills a hiphop magazine editor in the video for his recent single "Pushin' Weight," but that wouldn't do for a third--though its suitability for a trend piece intro or sidebar probably made writers even hungrier for the hat trick. Unsurprisingly--at least to those familiar with the mendacity of trend-mongers--it came quickly (only a week after the lone newsworthy event) and lamely (Marilyn Manson's bodyguards pulling a Latrell Sprewell on the executive editor of Spin). Quicker than journos could say, "Hey--a trend involving us!" the same exact story showed up all over the place.

One fascinating feature of this cookie-cutter article was the supposed explanation for all this conflict: Rappers and rap writers all hang out together, so criticism starts to feel, to the rappers, like betrayal. What a knotty problem, eh? They're all pals! To a reader, this should explain not only the assaults, but the flaccidity of Spin, Rolling Stone, etc. In fact, the two explanations are so closely related that the magazines couldn't discuss the root of the assault trend without drawing an egregious pot/kettle distinction.

Instead, they belittled and insulted hiphop--described it (is if 1999 weren't way too late for this sort of thing) as a separate, more ethically challenged world. Never mind that one of the legs of this trend tripod was a story about a rocker and the editor of a rock magazine. The expected reader reaction to the revelation that They're All Friends was something along the lines of: "Gee, it's not like we can expect the reporters and critics who cover hiphop to refrain from engaging in personal relationships with their subjects. Of course, such relationships are conflicts of interest in most schools of journalism, but seeing as they're all involved in this teeny-tiny subset of the music industry, and they're all young black people in New York City and there's only so many of those..."! For crying out loud! Of the many tough questions these ridiculous non-stories begged off from answering (one big one: Were any of these conflicts over actual criticism, or were they all about photos?), the most looming has got to be: Why would any musician expect anything but a stormy relationship with critics, and vice-versa? For as long as there has been written criticism, the two camps have--at least periodically--expressed hostility toward one another!

The answer lies in the mechanics of the trend piece. It's an issue-dodging, insight-lacking, publicist-pleasing process that has, at many of these highly visible publications, replaced criticism. Artists and the publicists who control access to them have trained many if not most music journalists to traffic in fashion-mag pablum instead of ideas, which, even more than photos, can cause hurt feelings. In music writing, it's gotten so bad that any artist profile that doesn't peddle him or her as The Latest Thing is perceived as a slight. That's what's abominable, yet normal, in the rap-media business. The abominable though thankfully anomalous Blaze assault gave certain editors--editors who fought with artists over reviews submitted for artist approval in advance of publication (why?) and editors who pal around backstage with rock stars (why?)--a chance to say "me too!"

It's a lie. Beating up on so-called critics may be the latest rage (the beauty of trend pieces is, after all, that they're self-fulfilling), but in 1999 as in 1998, a hiphop writer is no more likely to be persecuted for his ideas than praised for his talking parrot.

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