Hip-hop cash crop

Ordinarily I’m pretty much immune to the dubious charms of advertising. I have a remote control and know how to use it. But ever so often, you hit upon an ad so dreadful that, as much as you want to look away, you can’t. Just like when "Band on the Run" comes on the radio. Your hand reaches for the dial yet can’t follow through.

Perhaps the demographics are in and they’re not good. Who knows, but it looks as if AT&T is prepared to jettison Paul Reiser in favor of a new pitchman. Who, you ask? A home-styling fool, as white as he is square. In his debut ad, he pulls up to the curb in a hooptie, stereo kicking, shocks a-bouncing. A bit too much bouncing, in fact. The ladies he’s trying to impress give him no play. So what’s his next move? Place a call to his homies, courtesy of the fly folk at AT&T. The ladies are still unimpressed, even when he gives his chest a good fisting.

Oy vey. First Vanilla Ice and now this. My heart goes out to performance artist Danny Hoch, purveyor of ironic commentary on white hip hop. His film, Whiteboys (1999), is about would-be players in rural Iowa. But while he tries to mock other whites grasping for street cred, he fronts himself as a thinking man’s Marky Mark, a bona fide fellow traveler with the brothers out of the hood. Self-righteousness will make you many things, but cool is not one of them.

And yet, despite the relentless parody of its laughable excesses, despite the commercialized embrace of white America, hip-hop culture endures. I feel like the Grinch, scratching his chin as he wonders how the Whos in Whoville can sing even after all their presents have been taken away.

For many moons, your scribe has inveighed against hip hop, be it music, books or movies. No more. I’ve just spent two weeks in the company of an abomination called "Shasta McNasty" on UPN and I’ve decided that I’m just too old and too square to deal with it. The very premise of the show had me reaching for the Geritol so that I would have the strength to get up at the commercial to change my Depends: Three mediocre rappers, one black, fighting tooth and nail to remain mediocre in the face of possible fame and fortune. On UPN, perennial cellar dweller in the ratings, this is biting satire. Surely someone is watching.

But actual product content is almost incidental to hip hop. It’s the style alone that counts. If you can cop the style, then you can sell the style and then you get the gold. Part of what makes hip hop attractive to perspective entertainers is much akin to what makes day trading attractive to suburbanites. It’s a get-rich swindle offering a quick ride up the ladder of social mobility.

In hip hop, one-hit wonders come and go. Money is made; money is spent. In 10 years, how many jukeboxes are going to be stocked with Snoop Doggy Dogg’s Greatest Hits? By the same token, how many kids will actually remember how and why Public Enemy or Ice-T once caused such a furor at the beginning of the decade among the good white folk of Middle America, not yet enamored of the hood, not yet willing to trundle down to the mall for a Fubu jacket?

A film such as Fear of a Black Hat (1994) can now be seen as a seminal hedge against the inevitable plundering of hip-hop culture. "If we mock it first," director Rusty Cundieff appears to be saying, "at least it’s still ours. We can keep it real." Unlike This is Spinal Tap (1984), which flogged a dead horse already at the glue factory, Black Hat used parody of hip-hop excesses as a tonic to get a nag back on its legs.

Ah yes, keeping it real, the Holy Grail of hip hop. Alas, what makes culture so fascinating is its impurities, marketing and all. And if nothing else, hip hop is gloriously impure. Not to mention volatile.

Watching Do the Right Thing (1989) again, I’m struck by the irascible and quixotic desire of every ethnic group in that block to keep to itself or, worse, put one over on some other group. Radio Raheem and his massive font of vexing sound knew that better than anyone. And he died because of that knowledge. Can’t we all get along? Frankly, no.

But at least we can try to move on up and out, where the racist pot simmers rather than boils. When you get past all the conspicuous consumption accoutrements of the much-loved, much-loathed "player" – the champagne, the ladies, the crib, the gold, the tricked-out Benz – hip hop makes an offer that so many kids (black, white or brown) can’t resist. Even if you don’t have talent or taste or education, hip hop says you can still make it. How exactly is a question that will haunt us for years to come, long after Kid Rock has retired from the line at Ford and Snoop has finished snickering.

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