XXL ranks Jewish street cred; some Jews not happy about it

As you may have heard, hip hop magazine XXL put up a blog post ranking members of the hip hop community with numbers of stars of David per their Jewish street cred.  Some regrettable stereotypes find their way into the article (pickles, money, business skills), but I interpreted it as a tongue-in-cheek rundown of the visibility of Judaism in the hip hop world lately (what with Drake, Russell Simmons’ PSA, and all that jazz).

Others didn’t find it quite so funny.  Carly Silver over at New Voices, a magazine for young Jews, got pretty upset about this (h/t Emma Morgenstern), worrying over XXL‘s use of stars of David as rankings, saying that they’re holy symbols (huh?) and believing that this ranking implies that the magazine is worrying about the role of Jews in hip hop.

I’m not trying to downplay tensions between African-Americans and Jews, and the fact that hip hop has historically been a site of tension and negotiation between black people and white people at times.  And I’m not trying to downplay the fact that many Jews are sensitive to their historical status as an endangered minority.  But let’s take a step back.

First, despite the fact that Silver interprets XXL‘s ascription of Jewishness to certain hip-hip figures as a sign that the magazine doesn’t think they have street cred, Jewishness has long been a way for white people to be more accepted in African-American musical communities.  While Ashkenazi Jews are firmly in the “white” column of America’s racial binary today, this only became true 50-60 years ago–much later than other ethnic groups that we would commonly consider white.  Before that, Jews were for the most part considered nonwhite or “not-quite-white.”  Because of this, Jews generally had an easier time negotiating African-American musical styles, primarily jazz at that point (or musical styles that played on the most pernicious stereotypes of African-Americans, such as blackface).

While Ashkenazi Jews are no longer considered nonwhite in the same way, this engagement with African-American music hasn’t stopped, and many of the social interactions are similar.  Rick Rubin and the Beastie Boys, for example, were given a degree of credibility within the early hip hop community in NYC partly because they were Jewish–not the same degree of credibility that black artists had, but more than non-Jewish white artists (or producers, in Rubin’s case).

In a musical culture that’s widely discussed as “black,” Jewish people–and white people more generally–stick out and are considered novelties (despite the fact that “white” people, especially Jews, have been involved with “black” music since the age of minstrel shows, generally on the business end, sometimes respectfully and fairly and oftentimes not).

While I can’t say that XXL‘s commentary was the most tastefully-done article I’ve ever seen, it doesn’t surprise me that the recent high visibility of Jews in hip hop was considered interesting to write about.  And I wouldn’t worry too much about the stereotypes.  While they’re slightly tacky, they’re pretty consistent with the way a lot of publications do rankings and lists.  A lil’ bit racist/(hetero)sexist/classist across the board?  Yeah, probably.  Specifically anti-Semitic?  Probably not.

Quick hit: Jay-Z teaches Oprah how to rap

Click through to see this amusing interaction on Jezebel.

I find Oprah’s awkwardness extremely interesting–here is a woman who has the self-confidence to appear on national TV almost daily and is the face of a multibillion-dollar media empire; who speaks publicly about weight and health issues; and in general seems pretty okay with herself.  But here she is, quietly freaking out about rapping.

It’s fairly well-established within hip hop studies that many baby boomer middle-class or wealthy African Americans tend to have negative opinions of hip hop, viewing it as trashy and aesthetically unappealing in comparison to R&B, jazz, Motown, etc.

So, I can’t help but wonder if Oprah, who is probably America’s most famous member of that demographic group, was so uncomfortable because of some age/class baggage vis-à-vis hip hop going on.

Miles Davis: the Schoenberg of jazz?

Sorry I haven’t posted in a while–I’ve been incredibly busy with work, etc.  Now that things have calmed down a bit, eartotheground will be back up to speed.  Anyway:

As you may or may not know (I certainly didn’t know the specifics until I read this article), yesterday was the 50th birthday of Miles Davis’ landmark album Kind of Blue. That’s cool enough in itself, but what’s even cooler is how Slate‘s Fred Kaplan breaks down the nitty gritty of Davis’ innovative music theory.

Most music in what music scholars call the “common practice” period of European classical music is based on the notion of triadic chords: you’ve heard of a “C major chord” or an “a minor chord,” etc.  Triads in what we call “root position” have their main, or tonic, note on the bottom (i.e. as the lowest note) and then build two more harmonizing notes on top to create the familiar sound.  Plenty of other musical systems rely on this foundational principle of harmony, such as blues, many kinds of folk music and much of the pop we listen to today.  (One of the key harmonic differences among these musics is how the chords are patterned: Muddy Waters’ blues progressions are, for example, different from the progressions you’ll hear in a Mozart sonata, though many of the same kinds of chords may be used.)

Conventional harmony also relies on the notion of a key or tonic: a primary pitch and associated harmony (in D major, for example, this pitch would be D; in e minor, it’s e, and so forth, generally speaking) around which every other pitch and harmony is organized hierarchically.

Jazz was based on this general theory for a long, long time, until Davis came and blew (I’m resisting making a pun) the whole system out of the water on Kind of Blue.  In fact, chord progressions were (and often still are) perhaps more fundamental to jazz than to many other kinds of music due to jazz’s improvisational nature.  Musicians knew what chords were coming next and improvised on them; without mutual agreement on chords, it was impossible for the complex interplay of voices that is jazz to occur.

But in the 1950s, Davis was looking for the next new thing and lighted on his friend George Russell’s theory of modes, an entirely new way of thinking about the relationships and hierarchies among the 12 pitches available within the Western musical system:

Russell threw the compass out the window.  You could play all the notes of a scale, which is to say any and all notes.  “It is for the musician to sing his own song really,” Russell wrote, “without having to meet the deadline of a particular chord.”  In other words, he continued, “you are free to do anything” (the italics were his), “as long as you know where home is”–as long as you know where you’re going to wind up.

One night in 1958, Russell sat down with Davis at a piano and laid out his theory’s possibilities–how to link chords, scales, and melodies in almost unlimited combinations.  Miles realized this was a way out of bebop’s cul-de-sac.  “Man,” he told Russell, “if Bird [Charlie Parker] was alive, this would kill him.”

Out of this new freedom was born Kind of Blue and an entirely new jazz landscape.  There are a few links in the article which are worth listening to, but better yet, pick up the album for yourself if you don’t already own it.

Also, read this quote.  I hope I’m not the only one who sees (infinitely more exciting and enjoyable-to-listen-to) echoes of Schoenberg and the Second Viennese School in this approach:

“When you go this way,” [Davis] said, “you can go on forever.  You don’t have to worry about changes, and you can do more with time.  It becomes a challenge to see how melodically inventive you are….I think a movement in jazz is beginning, away from the conventional string of chords and a return to emphasis on melodic rather than harmonic variations.  There will be fewer chords but infinite possibilities as to what to do with them.”

Quick hits: Motown, Barack and media theory

  • The women of Motown had fabulous style.  Too bad when 2009-era white women try to pull it off the result looks like this.  (Please note, I love Amy, but you have to admit the look could use some tweaking.)  At some point, I want to write a post exploring the impact of eyeliner on pop music.  I bet there is something to be analyzed there.
  • I haven’t heard either album in full yet, but both the jazz-hip hop fusions discussed here look amazing.  Here’s one of the tracks:
  • Finally, for a touch of meta, here are two recent NYT articles on the blogosphere (doesn’t that word sound like a relic of some now-discredited ancient Greek astronomical system?) and how researchers are trying to track the internet zeitgeist and who contributes to its formation.  Pretty cool.

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