I finally made a pilgrimage to Our Nation’s Capital this past week, and yes, the air was thick with the ambitious scent of the ruling class. D.C. is an interesting place. Its architecture comes in three major flavors: Neoclassical imperial monumentality, reserved Cold War realpolitik constructions, and crumbling tract housing. With all this WASPy workaholism in the air, it’s no surprise that there isn’t much local music going on. An exception, which oddly enough came to my attention through MTV Jams, is local hip hop artist Tabi Bonney, son of an afro-funk musician from Togo. Here’s what MTV (and myself) discovered about two years too late:It sounds like mid-90s headnodding, with scratching and everything, certainly something different from the current rap climate. Bonney holds TWO master’s degrees (Biology and Education), so this could be an example of the gentrification of hip hop, which, depending on how you count, started as early as 1979 with the first hip hop recordings. I’m thinking in these terms because I just plowed through Nik Cohn’s Tricksta, which I picked up at a shop in DC. Inside, the aging diseased Irishman bemoans middle class blacks taking over his beloved New Orleans bounce sound while he participates in that very process of appropriation.
Cohn works as an quasi-A&R, scorning the suburban background and sloppy manners of Choppa (his first project), as well as attempting to jumpstart the careers of several other middle-aged work-a-day artists. Some of the most hilarious scenes consist of Cohn brandishing Algerian rai and Cambodian pop and Durrutti Column riffs in the faces of nonplussed N.O. producers happy to, you know, make the music they make. The savages never even recognize the gifts the white father brings to them, and Cohn’s book sounds not a little like old racist anthropological travelogues in these moments. Cohn fails to find success with Choppa (and his other prospects), although Choppa would eventually release a minor hit on No Limit:The book is strongest when Cohn describes the life and times of the late Soulja Slim while putting forth an analysis of New Orleans’ gangsta culture, but becomes exponentially less compelling as we follow Cohn on his abortive career as a rap impresario. And he never talks to anyone at Cash Money! I was reminded of my thesis work, in which I followed around long-aspiring local Detroit artists while the successful Databass label kept me at bay. Perhaps I should have written it as memoir instead of academic work. One useful tidbit was Cohn’s description of the rap industry mechanics in N.O., which no doubt plays out on rap labels across the country. Aspiring artists are wined and dined by wealthy label heads, sign with the label, record and perform, and never get paid. They get some spending cash and gifts of cars and jewelry, but never any royalties. If they quit and sue, the label settles out of court for a fraction of what they owe the artist. No wonder Lil Wayne just gives his music away these days — he can get paid cash up front for a mixtape, but he’ll never see the royalties from an actual album. His newest official single can’t quite match up to his refixes of “Top Down” or “Black Republicans,” though I like it — genuinely weird and garish. He’s supposedly working on an R&B album? Consider me excited.