Entry from September 25, 2009

Just over a year ago, I wrote an article for The American Spectator which took to task a review of “Grand Theft Auto IV” that had recently appeared in The New York Times for treating a video game as if it were a work of art — which, indeed, the reviewer (Seth Schiesel) had taken it to be. At the time, I thought this a self-evident absurdity and am not sure I don’t still see it as such, but I received corrective e-mail from some people, including some conservatives, who believed that at least a favorite video game or two of their own, if not “GTA,” should be treated as art. As I say, I didn’t find these missives quite persuasive of the truth of their author’s points of view, but I was grateful to get them. They made me aware, as I hadn’t been before, that even if I didn’t agree with it there was a serious case to be made on the other side.

Now I’d like for someone to do the same for rap. Part of what had aroused me to denounce not just “Grand Theft Auto” in all its incarnations, as well as the attempt to dignify it as art — insofar as there’s any dignity in that anymore — was the belief that fantasies of criminal behavior seem unlikely to me to be quite without real-world consequences including, at some undetermined and perhaps undeterminable remove, actual criminal behavior. Now a story in yesterday’s Washington Post tells of a rapper calling himself Syko Sam who is under arrest for the murder of four people in Farmville, Virginia. Mr Sam, whose real name is said to be Richard Alden Samuel McCroskey III, was supposed by the Post’s correspondent, Paul Duggan, to have been a fan of “horrorcore, or death rap,” which he calls “a screechy subgenre of hip-hop that celebrates homicidal lunacy in songs that are the musical equivalents of slasher movies.” Today, the Post has another story on how the Virginia “Slayings Spur Harder Look at Horrorcore.” The author, Chris Richards, writes of a festival in Michigan recently attended by Mr McCroskey and his victims.

The festival featured performances by Scum, Dismembered Fetus, Phrozen Body Boy and Con-Crete & Bloodshot, whose song “Fight” cues up first on Serial Killin Records’ MySpace page. The song embodies the horrorcore aesthetic: A looped Metallica riff traces circles around a thundering crunk beat while the rappers hurl clumsy rhymes in raspy voices. The music offers the sort of escapist violence and gore that heavy metal first explored in the ‘80s — some of it self-serious, much of it total kitsch. “Dead Zombie” by the rapper Komatose, also on the Serial Killin MySpace page, offers the couplet, “Eating brains sloppy, I’m a dead zombie.” Songs by other Serial Killin artists are extremely visceral, laced with profanity and disturbing imagery. Mental Ward’s “All That Blood” accentuates unprintable verses of mutilation and murder with the refrains “Gimme, gimme all that blood” and “I’m controlled by the devil.”

What, I wonder, is the distinction between “self-serious” and “total kitsch”? The one would seem to imply the other. Also what, exactly, is “escapist” about violence and gore? I suspect what he means is that fantasy violence acts as a kind of safety valve to prevent people from engaging in the real thing — a view that might also have been expressed by those he quotes defending horrorcore from its detractors if it had occurred to them. He doesn’t bother citing by name any of those whose fingers, he says, have pointed to horrorcore in the wake of the murders.

To me, horrorcore doesn’t sound all that different from gangsta rap or rap in general — or, for that matter, from “Grand Theft Auto” — as all involve violent fantasy. Mr Duggan quotes Tonya Hill of Farmville as saying that “Everybody’s blaming it on MySpace. . .They say it’s the Internet just bringing in creeps” — which latter assertion, whether or not MySpace bears any blame for four murders, seems undeniably the case. I mentioned it myself in my last post but one and today Michael Gerson, also writing in the Post makes a similar point. As with video games, it seems to me to be unlikely that violent and hateful fantasy, including the pseudonymous “flaming” of the Internet can be entirely unrelated to actual violence.

But I am well aware that rap is far advanced — much farther than video games — in its claims to intellectual, artistic and academic respectability. A couple of weeks ago, Baz Dreisinger reviewed Adam Bradley’s Book of Rhymes: The Poetics of Hip Hop in New York Times Book Review and criticized it for not going far enough in advancing “Bradley’s central claim,” which is that “The best M.C.’s . . . deserve consideration alongside the giants of American poetry. We ignore them at our own expense.”

But who’s the “we” here? Bradley wants to legitimize rap by setting it in a canonical context, but aren’t we past the point of justifying it? True, CNN is clueless enough to ask, as it did on a 2007 program, “Hip-Hop: Art or Poison?” But no one is really still debating whether hip-hop is a bona fide art form. “Rap rhymes are often characterized as simplistic,” writes Bradley, who admits to finding himself “in the position of defending the indefensible, of making the case to excuse the coarse language and the misogynistic messages.” He needn’t try so hard; in his tone of unwarranted protectiveness, he seems to forget that hip-hop now earns highbrow props worldwide. After three decades, it doesn’t require a defense attorney.

Doubtless I am equally clueless myself, but this is an unashamed argument from authority that doesn’t even try to make the case for rap as real poetry on its merits. It doesn’t give a single example of wit or subtlety in rap that can stand comparison with the greatest poetry. The only example he gives is of onomatopoeia, and that (“Woop! Woop! That’s the sound of da police,” KRS-One rapped) does not exactly bespeak literary immortality.

I deduce that, as is ever-more typical of our polarized culture, hardly anyone will read this book, just as hardly anyone reads political books, who does not already agree with its thesis. But now the call goes out to those few who do, those pop culturalists who have a some knowledge and appreciation of real poetry who are prepared to argue the case that rap deserves to be considered alongside it for what Mr Dreisinger so elegantly calls its “highbrow props.” Somebody must have made the case in a serious way, and I’d like to know who it is.

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