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The best and worst of hip-hop

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MAXWELL
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By BILL MAXWELL, Times Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times
published November 10, 2002


LUBBOCK, Texas -- During her acceptance speech at the 1999 Grammys, rap artist Lauryn Hill said: "Yo, this is hip-hop, y'all."

I have always loved that one. At first blush, Hill's words sounded infantile, like so many hip-hop lyrics. But her words were not infantile. They represented an unadorned, in-your-face announcement of rap's ascendancy in the contemporary music world.

Since that night, I have listened as other hip-hop artists discussed the genre, their individual work and the impact the movement has had on their personal lives, on African-American culture and on the nation at large.

And since the recent death of Run-DMC's Jason "Jam Master Jay" Mizell, I began listening more closely to what the artists say about their insular, misunderstood universe.

Jam Master Jay's murder brought hundreds of rap artists, from the East and West coasts, into radio and television studios for interviews about their hero's contribution to the most distinct musical form to emerge in a generation.

Although I like the up-tempo melody of most rap songs and the scratch virtuosity of the turntablists, I mostly ignore the lyrics, because the overwhelming majority of them are formulaic braggadocio: a mixture of bad attitudes, the vanity of materialism and personal appearance, delusions of grandeur and an obsession with invincibility even in the face of certain death. (A small corner of rap, like the work of Mos Def, is fine poetry.)

In short, although rap sounds great, much of the stuff is infantile. As I watched BET and other TV tributes to Jam Master Jay, Run-DMC's DJ, I was struck by the artists' physical appearance and by their attempts to express their grief.

After listening to hours of unintelligible mutterings, I began to understand a side of rap that I had ignored.

First, the physical appearance thing. Each rapper I saw wore the kind of garb and accessories that seemed to have been cobbled together by grown-up crack babies fresh out of useful ideas.

The long gold chains, huge medallions, impractical headwear, bulky footwear and outsized, clownish playsuits demeaned the life of Jam Master Jay -- a generous professional and doting father who shunned violence both in word and deed, who kept his distance from hip-hop's thug-or-die fraternity.

On BET, as distraught rappers slumped in overstuffed couches and chairs, garishness and the solemnity of death clashed on the screen. What should have been a tribute to a man who rapped about positive social change and the joys of life became scenes from a poorly supervised playpen.

Next, the oral expressions. On another network, a brother, his gold teeth intermittently reflecting all the hues of the studio lights, said: "Like, like Jam Master Jay was, like, he was, you know, the one. Know whadda mean? Know whadda mean?"

The female artist next to him replied: "Yeah. He the one, all right. The one. Always out there. Know whadda mean? I mean, like, he mixed rock with scratch. But he gone. A loss. Bad loss. He gone. Know whadda mean?"

Another brother: "Nothing like 'Pac and Biggie. Jay was Jay. The Jam Master. Know whadda mean?"

The brother with gold teeth: "I know whatcha mean. Nothing like 'Pac and B.I.G. Nothing like Scott La Rock, Freaky Tah, Big L. and Big Punisher. This was JMJ, man. Know whadda mean?"

If I seem to be making fun of these rappers, then so be it. Listening to them, I realized that, like young children, they lacked the vocabulary to adequately express their sorrow, making them sound as if they were reminiscencing about the mere removal of a character from a comic strip.

Although I am not a hip-hop scholar, I sense that the infantilism of the music's lyrics, ideas and themes is affecting the way the artists express themselves in real-life situations, especially death. How much this peculiarity eventually will affect young devotees, I have no idea.

Anyway, Run-DMC is no more.

The group's survivors decided to disband with Jam Master Jay's passing, which is probably a good thing, because without JMJ at the wheels of steel, the band never would be the same. But I will miss JMJ and the boys, their Godfather hats, black leather outfits, their innovative scratchology and on-stage energy.

Yo, Jam Master Jay and Run-DMC are hip-hop, y'all. They epitomize the best of the genre. Know whadda mean?

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