Thursday, September 19th, 2013 at 11:30 am
i was there when the doctor told hip-hop its t-cell count was dangerously low. in 2002, on a road trip back from an unsuccessful first year at college, i was in the backseat of my homegirl’s car staring out of the window as we entered brooklyn from the expressway. above the off-ramp, there was a billboard of common alongside the mcdonald’s logo that splashed the word ‘mcveggie’ and below common’s trademark goatee the slogan ‘i’m lovin’ it’. later that summer, at another friend’s urging, i went to see ice cube’s all about the benjamins in theaters, to witness the emergence of what one buddy dubbed “the new chris tucker,” mike epps. inside, i was both astonished and baffled that the two lions of hip-hop, who had battled over who was more legitimate, and more free from the clutches of its nouveau capitalist obsession, were now shilling movies and burgers like none of that ever happened. being grown and invested much more in its future, they realized what was happening well before i did. still, i reserved some indignation because their shift seemed so flagrantly contradictory in light of a previous stance. the game was lost on me.
in 2009, while channel-surfing — at that point already having collected checks from writing about hip-hop and living dejectedly through its many letdowns like a cousin i’d watched go to jail too many times — i came across the show Gs to Gents on MTV and laughed aloud at the characters profiled on it. fonzworth bentley had lined up a bevy of never-would-be rap artists and scrapped together a reform show based on bringing them into a world of propriety and class. there was riff raff, in all his glory, sporting gold chains and grills. garbling his words into oblivion. dancing and preening like a good old-fashioned coon from yesteryear. it was funny, but in that dave chappelle way. it was hard to determine just who the joke was aimed at, or if it mattered that so many white viewers were laughing at this white man who had committed himself to a profanely, ridiculously black style. riff raff was benefiting from a kind of racial plagiarism, and one that often goes unchecked until its too late, and writers from la weekly are waxing poetic about how brilliant he is to experiment in this way. this kind of profile piece misses the point entirely though. the inherent cultural value of blackness remains, and so riff raff exploits it as best he can and to the most unwittingly racist audience possible. whether or not the tropes he trafficks in are signifiers of black culture seems to escape these observers. the reason it is mockery is because of just how much time riff raff expects us to spend asking that question. his art alone can’t be taken seriously so he swims in the swampy waters of subversion and shading, hoping not to be exposed by the black folks who might find this jive otherwise offensive.