As the Giant said to Agent Cooper, "It is happening again."
I often wonder how long it'll be before hip hop becomes a genre listened to only by bookish white people, as has been the case with jazz and blues for some time now. It's certainly starting already. Fifteen years? Ten? And what will young Black people come up with next to be raided by the white people of the future?
A warning before I continue: this whole essay is a huge oversimplification, and probably dead wrong in many ways. I'm thinking this through as I write and am probably way off base, but it's an interesting enough topic that I'm just gonna plunge in. So:
The narrative of white people stealing Black music is well-established, and the fact that it's a bit more complicated than that (for example, "Hound Dog," famously stolen from Big Mama Thornton by Elvis Presley, was written by the white Jews Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller) makes it no less reprehensible, no less of a stain. And of course it isn't just limited to the theft of rock and roll rhythm and blues. Like how it happened again with disco, with everyone on a scale of quality from the genius Giorgio Moroder (who at least collaborated with not-just-fronts-but-actually-brilliant-themselves Black people, particularly Donna Summer) to the atrocious KC and the Sunshine Band snatching a piece. To name a specially egregious case, there is the act of musical colonialism that is Paul Simon's Graceland, so recently, and popularly, taken even further into the realm of the blandly unrighteous by Vampire Weekend. In their defense, they do it themselves, rather than having uncompensated Africans do it for them. Progress, perhaps (though not musical).
It happens in less well-recognized ways, as well. Minimalism, for example, owes as much to the blues as does rock and roll, a fact which I tend to think is only as overlooked as it is because La Monte Young (composer of such works as B♭ Dorian Blues) is as overlooked as he is.
And of course I don't exactly have a problem with white musicians being inspired by Black music they love and respect, as most white musicians working in Black idioms tend to. The Rolling Stones and The Beatles, say, certainly worshiped Black American rock and rollers. Indeed, white musicians have a history of adding new vitality and creativity to the Black genres they take up. Note that I'm not saying they revitalize the musics, or that they are more creative. But white musicians, from The Beatles to Giorgio Moroder to La Monte Young and beyond, have a history of being in dialogue with Black music in a mutually beneficial way. Just as it's hard to imagine what hip hop would have been like without James Brown coming first, it's equally hard to imagine its evolution without the influence of German electronic music, say.
After all, "stealing" forms of musical expression is not like stealing, say, food from a hungry person. When you steal music from someone, they still have it. The problem comes in when certain powerful white people--record station owners, say, or promoters, or whoever--decide to steal the legitimacy. Going back to the example of The Beatles, the instant they hit, through no (conscious) fault of their own, "rock and roll" became something white people do. Black people might make soul music or funk music or whatever (all perfectly legitimate labels, created by the Black musicians themselves, describing what they were doing very well indeed), but it was no longer considered "rock and roll" for no good reason other than the race of the artist. "Coincidentally," right around this time a pop music auteur cult grew up around the white bands and singers, shepherded by white corporate executives and magazine writers, all focused on establishing the legitimacy of rock and roll as art at the expense of things deemed not rock and roll--that is, white music at the expense of Black music.
Sometimes the legitimacy didn't stick. Even The Rolling Stones couldn't make disco respectable to people, even though the form itself was a logical extension of the rock and roll Black musicians had been making (and The Rolling Stones had been imitating) all along. If anyone can point to a specific dividing line between soul, funk, and disco, I'd be interested to know; I tend to think it can't be done. I'm not sure why disco has the stigma it does, since so much of the music is so utterly fantastic (and is also in many ways a return to the beautiful minimalism that Young saw in the blues, a link made most explicit by the astonishing, white, Arthur Russell, but present in all disco). Certainly today what most people remember is the tacky KC and the Sunshine band stuff, the kind of music that the Bee Gees started making at the same time they stopped being a great band and started being a terrible one. Perhaps it's because it doesn't lend itself to the kind of Romantic grandstanding that rock and roll does, or perhaps it's because the only decent music in the genre was made by Black americans and weird white Europeans. Perhaps it was because it was so unapologetically visceral. All I know is that anyone who can hear "I Feel Love" and then shout "Disco sucks!" is no one I want to associate with.
The partitioning of genre by skin color seemed like it was going to happen again in the late nineties, when Eminem's first album was otherwise inexplicably considered "modern rock." True, this was the heyday of "rap rock," but Eminem's Dre-produced (but oddly unlistenable, if you ask me) music bore no resemblance to the sludgy cock-rock nonsense of Limp Bizkit and all of them, aside from the similar skin tone. But then this brief flirtation ceased, and since then the races have mixed only on top 40 radio, as God (apparently) intended.
What's interesting with the current bleaching of hip hop is that both of the major trends I identified from previous events seem not to be happening this time. First, far from stealing the genre and not giving it back, white people are just kind of silently slipping into the genre, largely unremarked on by white and Black alike. So it is that Dre produces Eminem, Timbaland produces Justin Timberlake, Fergie joins the Black Eyed Peas, and not even Lil Wayne--let alone the listening public--seems to notice that Jay Sean is a skinny white British dweeb and that Fall Out Boy couldn't be whiter if they were on the board of the National Cotton Council of America (and yes, I realize I'm playing fast and loose with the genres now, but honestly it can't be avoided, and probably shouldn't). Second, white people don't seem to be contributing much of value to the genre anymore. Sure, there are exceptions (though honestly right now El-P is the only one I can think of who's worth mentioning), but where white superstars of the past played with an expanded Black genres just as much as did Black people, in segregated dialogue, the integrated dialogue of contemporary hip hop still seems to be creatively driven almost entirely by Black people. I have no idea what to make of this. All I know is, the audience for hip hop is getting whiter and whiter with every passing day.
I have a lot more to say on this topic (I had a whole paragraph on the unusual standing of Jimi Hendrix, allowed to be rock and roll even in the late sixties, but I realized that I was qualifying my statements and contradicting myself so much that I was essentially writing like Hugo Ball). But this is already such a lumbering behemoth of a post, and such a mess of assertions and nonsense, that I'm just going to leave it here. If anyone feels the desire to respond, I'll be back tomorrow to get into a dialogue.