Friday, March 4, 2011

Rap's Coming Insurrection: A Review of mansbestfriend volume 5, an Exegesis of Based, and an Exploration of the Negativity of the Underground

I used to think I was a Communist, a silly dream
It was a lonely place, now everything I do is for me
And I don't like how it sound, but that's the way it go*

In August of 2009, Sole & The Skyrider Band released their second LP, Plastique, on Fake Four Records. The record sees Sole's inner-cyberpunk unleashed and looking for war. The music is a dystopian soundscape, all drums crashing like cars, and the lyrics at points get so caustic that they burn off their own tone. But from an album whose first words are, "To the children of privilege / Taste the pavement / You paid to see an entertainer / But this ain't entertainment," or an artist whose most popular chorus goes:

Cops ain't shit to me
Jobs ain't nothin but free pens and long-distance calls
Thought I had it all, but God got birth control
The white man's the fucking devil
I wanted to be black at age 14
So when they say I don't respect the culture
Truth is, I only rap cuz I ain't smart enough to write a book
I've never paid a parking ticket
It's $20 now and $300 then
You want your money? come and get it
But better bring two hundred guns and a hundred men

what less would you expect?

Over the course of his career, Sole's output (in all its ups and downs) has closely mirrored the best strains of underground hip hop. Both have always had, as their core, a negativity; a fundamental rejection around which a project is built. This is negativity not in its colloquial sense, as meanness or wanton destruction, but as political or philosophical project; negativity as response to a set of established (often implicit) real conditions that refuses the idea that politics can or should be done (or even conceived) in a vacuum (think, for instance, of the difference between Socrates in the Republic and Diogenes wandering the city with a lantern, saying "I'm looking for an honest man!"). Whether it is the underground insistence on creating an alternative space to the perceived paucity and desuetude of the mainstream, or Sole's explicit attacks on political, aesthetic, and traditional (rap) forms through the creation of his own rap, the force of negativity in (underground) hip hop is dominant.

The other day, someone thanked me for making real music
My response, "Art imitates life."
The worse the music it is, the realer it is
I'm a fake
On pieces of wood, pinned, like an executed slave or a bug
That might be true, if the sun would only show
I don't wanna be real, like a prison guard or bank-teller or a politician
This is my castle, only ghosts can live here
I had to kill everyone to save the city

God grant me the MIC to hack away at negative change
Can you read bones?
I can read a face like a milk carton
Like a cliff
Like a trash heap with fresh food in it
And a blank face forming in the center

This poem was written for a machine gun
But the weapon jammed, and my generation don't know how to fix things

Following Plastique, Sole began work on the Nuclear Winter mixtape series (volume 1 was released in January of 2010, and volume 2 is currently being released piecemeal through youtube and soundcloud as it is completed) which adapts the rap mixtape format to the Situationist praxis of d├ętournement, he announced his departure from the collectively-owned label anticon. of which he was a founding member, he released his first book, an "illustrated epic poem" collaboration with Ravi Zupa called The Pyre, and he released a new installment in the mansbestfriend series (mansbestfriend volume 5). And he is slated to release the next Sole & the Skyrider Band album on May 2nd.

Test me I’m negative
Must be my blood type
Like the target on my back

Since Plastique (and especially since leaving anticon.), Sole's ethics have turned towards a Lil B-inspired approach, focusing on proliferating his music to the point of oversaturing the niche he has been cast in for the past two decades, and reorienting the content of his music to a more generally (or you might say, perhaps a bit cynically, more nominally) "positive" outlook.

Never work is my anthem
I never stop working
Even when I’m sleeping
Or in a bath where I’m reading
Proletarian dreams
I got nothing but work

The weight of this shift, from a political perspective, is the transition (on the level of business praxis – Sole's personal politics may or may not reflect this) within the spectrum of hard left political traditions, from one inspired by Marxism to one inspired by anarchism. One way to oversimplify this would be to say: rather than using the business-end of the rap game as a way to attempt to promote a collectively-owned and managed commons, he has begun using it to promote a commons free of ownership. Both are equally anti-capitalist; they simply draw on different theories in their approach.

Hip hop – both as artistic tradition, and living body of artists – is much, much more sympathetic to the anarcho-leftist tradition than it is to the Marxist. To see this sympathy in practice, one only has to look at the relative level of popularity between the two most popular representatives of these traditions in rap: Public Enemy and The Coup. The number of people who would even just recognize the name of The Coup as being a rap group is almost certainly significantly smaller than the number of people who would consider themselves rabid Public Enemy fans. The most likely reason for this sympathy seems to me to be the fact that rap takes entrepreneurship as its basic model of work, and so has a much more natural sympathy to the right-libertarian political position – it being, more or less, the ultimate cult of the entrepreneur – than it does to anything either centralized or communal. And since there is a thin line between the underlying arguments of right-libertarianism and of left-anarchism, a line which consists, almost exclusively, of a theory of capital, the tendency to misidentify anarchists as libertarians is already in place. When you compound this with the fact that rap has a very strong tradition of being obsessed with establishing its own authenticity, and insisting that its exclusive subject is reality (over and against theory, especially), the ability of someone to exploit the proximity of these political traditions to advance left-anarchism with complete sympathy from the right-libertarians is almost unimpeded.

They always say
"You gotta be radical when you're young
To grow up and be a good conservative"
That's dead wrong
Be head strong like Sadaam Hussein's fallen statue

Concomitant with Sole's political/philosophical transformation is the rise of Lil B in the eyes of the underground and fringe-mainstream hip hop world, which he rides on the wave of his philosophy/meme, "Based." That Sole has taken up this idea for his own purposes at this particular juncture in his career is at least as much a tactical maneuver as it is a historical accident.

Based is, if you take Lil B's claims exclusively, basically just a retread of tired corporate culture bullshit like The Power of Positive Thinking, with a bit of hip hop's perennial obsessions (about authenticity, craftsmanship, &c) sprinkled in for good measure. This is of course not to say that he knows not what he does, or to discount what he has to say about it out of hand, or even to suggest that there is no possible value in positivity as such – although you probably won't catch me wandering the streets talking to myself about how beautiful the world is and shit – but to attempt to (perhaps a bit polemically) get beyond what is simply stated about something, and see how that thing actually works.

No such thing as the illuminati
Just a dynamic corporate body
Fuck the smoke in mirrors, steady aim
Alex Jones CIA plant
Like cocaine
Stop sending me links to Zeitgeist and Loose Change
Junk food filling up your brain
They keep you occupied with youtube while the world is in flames
Hash tag I’m #justsaying

Looking at the effects that being Based has, and the things that it really promotes, it gradually becomes clear that the real point of becoming Based is to establish in oneself a philosophy which looks something like an absolute conviction that everything one thinks, feels, considers, or vaguely encounters is worthy of communicating in its totality on a generically-determined scale. That is: to be Based is to reach a state at which one's very essence becomes communicable. And one step to becoming Based (if I can be permitted this teleology) is to recognize communication as an imperative.

The most obvious counterpoint to this understanding of Based is the song Age Of Information. But it is important to note that in the song, Lil B's claim that "information has hurt the race" is primarily not a problem with communication, but with a specific form of communication, an atomized, scientistic method of communication, which is being attacked on the basis of its not being sufficiently communicative. This is where generically-determined comes into play in the definition. And this generic element is why the utopian demands of the Based philosophy – presumably everyone is capable of becoming Based, which would mean every incidental thing that happens to every human being can and must be communicated – are less interesting in and of themselves than are the demands they effect on the forms which it propagates itself through.

And forget the last decade of poverty
These days I’m killing em
Like if Ice Cube was reading French philosophy
And still making Death Certificate

If hip hop is marked as a political aesthetic by its juxtaposition of the plenitude of its production (the bricoleur aesthetic of sampling creates a situation in which music production draws from an infinite (or near-infinite) base of sounds) with the scarcity of its lyrics (strict de facto 'quality control' measures enforced by fans on rhyme structure, syllabic regularity, and lyrical content force any innovation into an oppositional ghetto where the music is marginalized and the purity of the emcee is constantly in question, forcing them to adopt a reactionary stance on every formal question except the one they are innovating in, and constantly discouraging any subsequent development of the innovation (see: "biters")), then Based goes a step farther than even the saturation of vocals with autotune (which made fuzzy the line between production and vocals, and then exploited this weakened border to smuggle a sense of plenitude over and allow for the incorporation of previously unacceptable lyrical content (viz. Kanye)) in providing a position from which to productively antagonize this configuration. If you are convinced that all things can and must be communicated, and that rapping is the ideal form of communication, then it is inevitable for you to butt heads with any regime of lyrical austerity. This is, presumably, why Lil B can have lines like "Even though I'm in the game / Bitch, I'm not a rapper," or "short films" like "Am I Even A Rapper Anymore?" It's what the kids call an existential crisis – those moments when you realize that everything you know is riven from everything you know, that reality is incommensurable with reality, and you become acutely aware of all the pain that causes.

Introducing Based to the rap genre forces a division within the political aesthetic, wielding its aesthetics against its politics – what we hear when we listen to Lil B is rap, but it's not good rap; and I would insist that the reason it's "not good" is not a problem with his craftsmanship (he seems, quite honestly, to be doing exactly what it is he's trying to do, and he's doing it a lot and has been for a while) or any other aesthetic category, but because the politics that are naturally attached to that aesthetic are being flaunted. Combined with Lil B's absolute sincerity, what you see is a superlative example of denaturalization.

When the struggle between lyrical austerity and communicative transparency really gets heated, after negotiations ("well maybe I'm not really a rapper; well maybe the majority of this stuff is disposable except the songs where he's biting a regional style; well maybe...") have terminated, having pre-established “Based” as a philosophy - rather than as simply an aesthetic choice amongst a number of choices – is crucial, as it provides a delimited, but intractable, space from which to launch the offensive.

What this could very well mean (aside from “a lot of really shitty rap music”) is that what we are witnessing is the possibility of a real revolution (in the Foucauldian sense of an epistemic shift) in the history of rap music. The episteme in question is rap's lyrical austerity, and its revolutionary replacement will be conditioned by the ideas that overthrew it, namely, Based. At the very least, given the way things are progressing, with the ascendance of Based (and more directly, the digital technologies and historical particularities that provided the condition of possibility for both Based and its ascendance) we are going to witness the complete dissolution of the current configuration of the underground hip hop scene. What I mean by this is that instead of seeing the current generation of rappers die or fade out or retire only to be replaced with more people continuing their project (re-oriented for their historical moment), there will be some fundamental structural change that will make the current configuration of underground hip hop completely incomprehensible and anachronistic.

Ain't no underground left, gotta come up
Yeah I’m on that

However, given enough militancy (on the part of both artists and fans), coupled with certain strategic coups, we might witness the dissolution of the very possibility of the underground, as the reactionary episteme on which it is premised (which is to say, that which it defines itself negatively aganist) is replaced by a utopian plenitude. If Based wins, as it were, and insinuates itself and its real premise into the hearts, minds, and crafts of the coming generation of hip hop artists, then they must also reject any idea that restrictions on communication are an axiom of the genre, and also the self-imposed police force that enforces it.

So keep your backbiting, Indy hip-hop is dead
Commentary to yourself
Or I’ll ruin it all myself
Like I ruined rap in 1998

The idea of a "plenitude," or "utopian plenitude," is a fairly hazy concept, so I'd like to take a shot at clarifying what I mean by it. Plenitude, in the sense of political economy, can have two obvious definitions, which one might broadly call capitalist and socialist. The capitalist political economy is structured around an economics of scarcity with an infinite capacity for growth, thus marking a plenitude of potential development. The socialist political economy is structured around an economics of plenitude with a finite capacity for growth. This is a really rough definition, but the difference is basically between an infinite, undeveloped world, and a finite but sufficient world. The reason for privileging the latter over the former, in the rap world at least, is that it refuses a false catholicism (that rap's development is necessarily a universal good) and makes space for real freedom. And since rap's freedoms, given its position in the current capitalist social order, are basically reduced to "the freedom to please the market," it definitely needs to find some real freedom somewhere.

Economic guillotine they put your head up on that
I don't cater, to the lowest common denomin’
So I’m obscure, like an American definition of poor
This rap is my tundra; I’m the last wooly mammoth
Running from ghosts of savage businessmen ran this
Border wars fought, cuz I don't recognize the face of DNA
Pol Pot, or distant relative dolphins, that went food
The world is spinning, while suckers stand still
Getting by, staying stoned, looking cool but being owned

Passionless dictatorship of the proletariat yeah we on that

If, as I'm arguing, rap is currently (or imminently) engaged in revolutionary struggle, then the question that must be answered is: where, and how, do we fight? And if, as I argued above, there already exists a more-or-less porous border which left-wing rappers can exploit, by drawing on the anarchist tradition's proximity to right-libertarianism, then we seem to have established a fairly compelling case for a first front. And if, again, Based is the philosophy that has the potential to overturn the reactionary epistemes of rap, then the question of how must certainly begin with Lil B as our Sun Tzu.

Sole's most recent effort, mansbestfriend Volume 5, seems to me like it has already taken these tactical questions to heart, and made the most of them. Perhaps the best example of this, and the most striking thing about the record for me, personally, is, paradoxically, how all over the place the record comes across, politically. He seems to argue, over the space of half an hour, for the redistribution of wealth, for the dictatorship of the proletariat, and for the grand good of the entrepreneurial hustle; his ode to rugged (American) individualism, I Walk Alone, which has lines like "No man is an island, but most of us should be," and which seems at one point to subscribe to the logic of the Return to the Gold Standard, opens with "3rd world America, in a hipster ghetto," and is savagely anti-racist and even at one point suggests the rejection of the logic that this individualism necessarily relies on, with the line "I don't wanna be the best cuz then everybody gonna wanna kill me." The beats often take up quasi-totemic signifiers from the underground rap tradition (in Rep-Resent, this becomes so aggressive a subtext that Sole has to comment "This beat sounds dated"). They are constantly forcing him to make minor, but evident, adjustments to his natural flow (again in Rep-Resent, "This is mansbestfriend / So I don't gotta put a chorus in / but the shoe fits..."), giving the impression that they have a life of their own. They are more monster than machine, each with the weight to destroy cities and a compelling geo-political backstory to match, with the raps serving as, at best, translations, or radicalizations.

If the premise of my earlier post, Work, was that artistic production mirrors and interrogates the hegemonic mode of production through the medium of its reactions to its own assumed tradition, and its theory was that close analysis of artistic products can therefore call into sharp relief the existence and operation of these hegemonies (especially points at which they might be productively resisted, and the embedded potential political economies that might be drawn out of them), then the point of this post is to narrow the scope. To draw a bead on one particular aspect of this approach – in this case, the tradition that the art in question interrogates – and from there to attack that frame in the particularity of the historical moment as I see it.

I’m in this to win this
And when there’s
Nothing left to win
I’ll share the winnings
With whoever’s still standing with me

*all block quotes are Sole lyrics. Respectively, they are from the songs: Longshots [Plastique], Da Baddest Poet [Selling Live Water], This Bad Reputation [Battlefields EP], Can't Kill A Ghost [mansbestfriend vol. 5 [mbf5]], Proletarian Dreams [mbf5], Proletarian Dreams [mbf5], Can't Kill A Ghost [mbf5], Rep-Resent [mbf5], I Walk Alone [mbf5], Terra Dome [mbf5], I Walk Alone [mbf5], Rep-Resent [mbf5].

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