Shit Just Got Surreal!
Hip Hop, eh? It’s all bling this bling that, but is it…?? We were lucky enough to rope in the very charming and wonderfully talented Daniel Ross (BBC Music, The Quietus, Popmatters) to tell us all about the subversive and sometimes eccentric world of Hip Hop and how the genre’s delirious aesthetics is more often than not steeped in the strange and dreamlike world of Surrealism. Or something like that. Here’s the D’wonderful and D’marvellous Dan to explain more…
Character Rules Everything Around Me – The Surreal in Hip-Hop
Surrealism lends itself happily to a lot of genres – every genre has its loons, for sure – but few have been so insidiously affected by it as hip-hop. The tenets of surrealism, with its non-sequiturs, wilful ridiculousness and favour of flying fancies, pervade so much of hip-hop since the 90s that it is perhaps the most rightful location of it in modern culture.
Simon Reynolds wrote in 1999 that hip-hop’s biggest characters had made the journey from describing their plight and rhyming their way out of poverty to the playa-hater mentality and aggrandised flamboyance. You might argue that the surreal element has made a similar progression – it is now an unwitting bi-product, accepted at face value by all. Today’s hip-hop world is one of the most surreal in modern pop music, but that surrealism began in nothing more than performance style and gradually worked its way into a broader, more conceptual guise and now forms a bubble around it. We want our rappers barmy, idiotic and laughably materialist and if they can be bothered to write some words about how twatty they’ve been to achieve their position, then all the better.
We should start at the beginning, though, should we not? Beginnings, it’s safe to say, rarely occur with such force and freshness as that of the Wu-Tang Clan on 1993’s ‘Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)’. Andre Breton wrote in his initial surrealist manifesto that its exponents should express what is truly in the mind (in its most depraved form if necessary), and the mental expulsions that the Wu-Tang Clan blurted into a dank studio are most certainly that. When Ol’ Dirty Bastard garbles his respects to his fellow Clansmen on ‘Da Mystery Of Chessboxing’ and later when Method Man has a coughing fit at the end of ‘Method Man’, premium bullets of the surreal are fired at the listener with no regard for how they will deal with it. Rather than re-record with more precision, they allowed what was at the pit of their performance to rule.
The ensemble finds time to collectively plumb the depths of their borderline-psychotic minds during the lengthy intro to ‘Method Man’, detailing with stoned-off-their-tits fastidiousness their preferred methods of torture. When, with a giggle, Ghostface Killah suggests laying the testicles on a dresser before smacking them with a baseball bat, we can confidently assume that the inhibitions associated with an album’s recording process have been hurdled. Surrealism, at its base, is the brazen expression of one’s innermost – the Wu, and early gangsta rap, excelled in its deployment.
As hip-hop galloped forward and intellectualised, the surrealism began to grow. Old hands like De La Soul had already proved that surrealism could be conceptual with 1991’s ‘De La Soul Is Dead’, a record that bravely brushed off the Daisy Age and took its cues from Parliament’s all-conquering Mothership. They were surrealists in character, not just in their words. Fast forward a few years, and New York avant-garde enthusiast Sensational (formerly known as Torture) is reportedly homeless, has left the Jungle Brothers (after having joined them aged fifteen and contributed to their ‘J Beez Wit Da Remedy’ record of 1993) and is rapping over loops of Karlheinz Stockhausen recordings. He pretty much dribbles into the mic, his free-form lyrics forming the basis of his careworn, wormy little songs.
Sensational’s 1997 debut, ‘Loaded With Power’ features a brand of dusky surrealism that has the Wu’s skill with the non sequitur, but with a more consummate reach. Every aspect of his sound his surreal, from the dense arrhythmia of ‘Vibration’ to the almost-impressionist vocal squalls of ‘I Like Crispies’, in which our man Sensational’s vocals are painfully amplified and distorted. It’s as if the meaning must be obscured to be fully felt by the audience – palpable unease transmitted by his own deliberate blurring of his musical intentions. Of course, there are countless more examples in the hip-hop underground of surrealists at work (try the neurotically precise exaltations of K-The-I??? if you have a spare afternoon), but few have used the surreal with such bombardment as Sensational.
Now, this is where it gets tricky. Must surrealism be intentionally used in art for it to still be classed as surreal? If the surrealism is unwitting, unintentional and unknowing, then can the artists themselves be classed as using the surreal as a tenet of their product? As we established at the beginning, today’s successful hip-hop artists are utterly mental. Kanye, Flavor Flav or Diddy’s decadence, idiosyncrasy and hedonism align them with much of the traditional surrealists, but their art cannot be said to express uninhibited personality or thought. It is a more industrial brand of surrealism, if anything.
Flavor Flav is a perfect example of the modern surreal in hip-hop. He may have made his mark as part of Public Enemy’s astute hip-hop dominance in the 80s and 90s, but his rise to fame and current position as an idiot-savant amongst the media’s savviest has made him more notable for just being himself, rather than any music he may produce. Does Flavor Flav know that he’s a brilliant bell-end? When he lasciviously woos scores of women on ‘House Of Love’, does he know that the audience is compulsively drawn to watch it because they can’t believe that he’d do this on television, not because he’s such a ladies’ man? Difficult to say.
What we can say about the likes of Flavor Flav is that the larger-than-life characters like him (or larger-than-death in some cases) are triumphing at the moment. 50 Cent is not a gangster any more, if indeed he ever was, but his purported character takes up so much of his profile that it’s impossible to ignore. As far as the industry and its consumers are concerned, Kanye West is an ego, not an artist and Diddy is a businessman, not a rapper. Even the critical beacons like OutKast trade in part on their darn-wackiness. These characters dominate the genre rather than any of their records – and isn’t that the most surreal thing about it?
As far as surrealism itself goes, the rise of the hip-hop character is perhaps the perhaps the perfect denouement. The reign of logic is over, and hip-hop is an industrial marvel. As the original Surrealist Manifesto of 1924 states, “the marvellous is always beautiful, anything marvellous is beautiful, in fact only the marvellous is beautiful”. Andre Breton, its architect, probably wasn’t thinking particularly of the Benjamins, the ‘hos and the Glocks when he scribbled all that down, but the sheer size of hip-hop’s ambitions and achievements make it the most natural home of the surreal in modern culture.
Thanks, Dan! Feel free to pop by anytime!
Keep up to date with Dan’s exemplary writing skills by checking out the aforementioned publications. Ta!