Jul/Aug 2003  •   Salon

Being Hip-Hop When Hip-Hop Isn't Hip

by Tom Dooley

I took a lot of kiddin',
'Cause I never did fit in.
Now look at everybody tryin' to be what I was then.
I was Country when Country wasn't cool.

Wow. Rap is sure hot right now. That 50 Cent is one baaaad mother. To think Michael Jackson used to be pop's badass—a man known for wearing one silk glove, hosting sleep-overs with pre-adolescent boys, and striving to look like Diana Ross. Contrast that with a guy who possesses nine bullet holes, a criminal record, and tattooed biceps big enough to give L.L. Cool a run for his money. We've come a long way, baby.

The question is, though, by virtue of possessing such widespread "coolness," is it possible rap has lost its cool? Or, to use an antiquated term, its "hip?" The hip it possessed when it was truly, inherently, actually "underground?" Because being hip means being, like Barbara Mandrell was, something when something isn't cool.

I don't doubt these guys are/were the hard-core gangsters they say they are/were. But hardcore-ness has become a glossy, slickly-packaged, wildly successful marketing ploy. 50 Cent may have the scars and the criminal record to prove he's "real," but when he and his bullet holes get fed into the pop-music machine, what ultimately comes out is a lethal, KEVLARŪ-wearing, trash-talking version of Britney Spears. Maybe he isn't pretending, but he's pretentious nonetheless.

50's producer, Eminem, in spite of (and because of) his efforts to the contrary, is just as much an MTV darling, but as my lovely wife Julie pointed out the other day, at least with Slim Shady you get a sense he appreciates the irony of his situation—that with his open, no-holds-barred exploitation of... everything and everyone... he's somehow more sincere, less pretentious, and therefore cooler than his contemporaries and disciples.

For myself, I can lay no claim to being into rap before it was cool to be into rap. In fact, until recently, I missed the whole phenomenon altogether. But now, maybe inexplicably, I've been listening to CDs like Tupac's All Eyes on Me and Snoop's Doggystyle, and I'm starting to understand what all the fuss was about. I suppose if you can't be ahead of the game, the next best thing is to be into something so long after it was considered cool that at least you can have some kind of retro thing going.

On a related note, in his article "No Matter? Never Mind!" in this issue of Eclectica, Rajgopal Nidamboor defines a major determinant of intelligence as being verbal in nature and "all about improvising, creating a wide repertoire of behaviors and good moves for a plethora of situations." One has to stand in awe, then, of the intelligence displayed by freestyle rappers.

Fast forward a few weeks...

Has anybody seen the news lately? What the heck is going on? Kobe Bryant has been charged with rape? An octogenarian killed ten people and injured dozens more by speeding through a crowded street fair... for three blocks?! The Republicans are calling the PO-PO to the Capital Building... on their fellow congressmen?! Californians are all up in arms about what to do about 174 feral chihuahuas... did I just say feral chihuahuas?! Speaking of Californians, their next governor might very well be Arnold Schwarzenegger?! Seriously, what is the deal here? This might just be the weirdest summer, ever.

Well, another highly unusual event is about to take place. The reason I was interrupted for a few weeks with this entry of the Salon is I've been hard at work on several projects, one of which is the long-awaited (at least, I've been waiting a long time for it!) Eclectica Best Fiction Anthology. It is pretty close to being sent to the printers, and it should be ready for ordering in time for Christmas (hint, hint). If you are a diehard Eclectica fan, a fan of any of the authors who were included, or a fan of great fiction in general, I hope you'll send me an email and let me know that you'd like to order advance copies. They'll be considerably cheaper, those advance copies, and they'll help defray the printing costs, so you can think of it as your contribution to the promotion of web-born fiction.

Speaking of the anthology and the stories contained within it, you might wonder why you should buy the book if the stories are right here on the site. Well, I thought of that, so I had the authors completely rewrite their stories in the form of rap lyrics. And there's a foreword by Arnold Schwarzenegger. And it comes with a CD copy of Michael Jackson's comeback effort—his foray into gansta rap, complete with duets with Nelly, a dubbed-in Biggy Smalls doing a rap version of "Unforgettable," and Barbara Mandrell, who raps, "Who says I ain't cool, who's dissin' Michael Jackson? I joined the NRA for you fools—come on down to Branson!"

Nah. I guess you know I'm just playin'.