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Just Off-Camera

"They respect you if you write. The dumber the world gets, the more the words matter." -Dan Jenkins


Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Phony Rappers (And Why I Might Be One)

One of the things that emerged from the buzz surrounding SNL's recent "Lazy Sunday" video was that people took notice that what Chris Parnell and Andy Samberg were doing was not simply being a couple of white guys trying to emulate successful black rappers. One Village Voice blogger hit the nail on the head with his analysis:

The video doesn't ape rap-clip cliches, either. It's more student-film: logos coming up anytime they mention a brand, jerky stop-motion between verses, Parnell and Samberg wearing scrubby parkas instead of the Puffy-in-97 shiny suits that white people still wear when they're making fun of rap. I wouldn't be sad if more videos looked like this; it's a whole hell of a lot more appealing than the Nine Inch Nails bleached-out yellow tint that rock-video directors have run into the ground again and again.

And the comedy doesn't depend on making fun of rap for being dumb or the goofy white rappers for being goofy-white. It's the punchlines: "I love those cupcakes like McAdams loves Gosling," "You can call us Aaron Burr from the way we're dropping Hamiltons," "We're about to get taken to a dreamworld of magic." More than that it's likeable, something that Parnell and Samberg might've thought out while bored one day and run out the next day to film. (My girlfriend Bridget: "It's really cute! I want cupcakes!") What's most disarming is the specificity: here's what we're doing today, let's make a song about it. After a particularly weak year for indie-rap, it's something that white rapping herbs across America could learn from: sledding and 7-11 runs and Animal Planet are more interesting [than] another f----Bush song, and you don't have to act like a buffoon to make them funny. Why isn't everything this easy? Tom Breihan, SNL Narnia-Rap Skit: Better Than Actual Rap?, Status Ain't Hood, Dec. 20, 2005.

Get the point here? It's not Parnell and Samberg dropping lines like "I'm so gangsta, let's pop a cap and smoke a blunt, word." They're rapping about something genuine, they do it well, and that's what resonates with their audience.

Now, to give you an idea of the kind of rap that is not going to catch on, let me introduce you to Camden public defender Ruth Ann Mandell, a 47-year-old white woman who has taken to rapping. She raps about things like antismoking messages.

For starters, her rapping alter ego is named "Ruthy the Rapper." I can't imagine anyone who takes rapping seriously naming themselves that. Variations on given names are common in rap (Nelly was born Cornell Haynes Jr., Eminem is a phonetic spelling of his given initials). So if she just went as "Ruthy," I'd have no problem - but adding on the alliterative expletive "the Rapper" is just corny, not to mention redundant. She's on stage rapping; clearly she is a rapper.

Among those who sing her praises are "'educational poet' and rapper friend Shak ir Fidhdh, 54," who calls her "the feminine to the masculine Eminem." Mandell's chiropractor, another 54-year-old named Simon Aslanian, adds, "I think her talents, though obscure, compare to Eminem's. I think she's got that thing."

Have these people ever actually heard Eminem rap? (I'd say the 54-year-old chiropractor has probably heard "The Real Slim Shady" on the radio once.) His lyrics range from criticizing President Bush to being a protective father to killing his ex-wife to shoving a gerbil up his ass. And yet, with all that range, I could never, never, never picture Eminem rapping a public-service announcement telling college kids to quit smoking.

Furthermore, Eminem didn't become the success he is because he was "the white Biggie Smalls" or "the white [insert any other famous rapper here]." He's a rap legend already because his style is unique and he flows almost effortlessly most of the time. Biting off other people's rapping isn't going to make you legitimate - the best rappers all were emergent in their own right.

Even the reporter who wrote the article on Mandell had a hard time finding college kids in the audience who were willing to give her resounding praise.
"She's got a good message," Will Baumgardner, 24, said after her show. "I just think her performance needs work."

After thinking it over, Rickie Sylvestie, 22, gave Mandell a tentative thumbs-up. "She was good," he said.

Katy Trunkwalter, 21, was the most enthusiastic as she danced and spun in time with Mandell. "She got people excited, and for a good cause," the Rowan senior said.
The first two reviews sound like they came from kids who wanted to be nice. And as for the third, well, Mandell uses beats from popular rap songs, so that might explain the dancing and excitement.

The bottom line is that Mandell might be well-intentioned, but it sure seems to me like she's simply trying to embrace a popular medium in order to reach kids with her message. It doesn't work unless she fully understands the medium itself, and I don't think she does, nor does she understand her audience. It's kind of like the musical equivalent of showing those old-geezer Colonial Penn life insurance commercials on Adult Swim. Not only is the message not going to be quickly dismissed by the audience, it won't even make sense. At the risk of sounding like Holden Caulfield...she's just a phony.

(Thanks to Philadelphia Will Do for pointing out this goofy-ass PD.)

***

However, while we're on the subject of dumb rap, I have a confession to make. Back in my adolescent years, the two songs that defined rap to me were Warren G.'s "Regulate" and Salt-N-Pepa's "Shoop." My best friend and I used to trade the lyrics to "Regulate" back and forth like Warren and Nate Dogg. Then, Salt-N-Pepa's version performed at Woodstock '94 (to me, the musical event of the decade). Their rendition of "Shoop" appeared on the 2-CD Woodstock '94 album, and we began rapping along to that as well.

I remember one summer evening, we were driving back to Philly from the Jersey Shore, and a mix one of us had made was playing in the tape deck. "Shoop" came on. Immediately, my best friend, riding shotgun, and I began rapping along. I saw another of our friends, sitting in the back seat, looking stunned, mouth agape at two 16-year-old boys singing the lyrics to a chick song. Hey, what can I say, that song is catchy.

Anyway, about 10 years later, I still know all the lyrics, and so what I really want to do is rock it at karaoke sometime. However, I can't maintain my dignity and sing "Shoop" now that I'm in my mid-twenties, so what I really need to do is find two girls who also know the lyrics, have them take most of the song, and then - this is where it gets awesome - I want to strut on stage and rap Big 'Twan's part (specifically, in the exact way he did it at Woodstock '94, because it's cooler that way). If you remember the song (again, specifically, the Woodstock '94 version), then I hope you'd realize how sweet this would be.

Of course, the problem here is that I first have to find two girls who (a) know the lyrics to "Shoop," (b) are willing to do something this goofy/awesome, and (c) know me. And I have a feeling that group C doesn't intersect with groups A and B.

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