I am a loser. I know nothing. I am inadequate. These are all feelings I had after I stumbled into a conversation over music that I had over the break. That is, if you could even call it a conversation. It was more a one-sided lecture on underground hip-hop than anything else.
I couldn’t even hold my own. “Have you heard of this guy?” he’d ask and I’d answer, “I’ve heard of him, but I haven’t heard him.” At least this way it looked like I had some sort of musical knowledge. I wasn’t a fish out of water, but only a small fish in a very huge pond.
As he spouted off more MC’s, bands, collectives, this, that and the other, my lack of an in-depth knowledge about hip-hop became more and more apparent. I was lost. In my head I began trying to make excuses for myself. “I just drove seven hours; I’m tired; I’ve had a few beers; I listen to other music besides hip-hop.”
My ego was bruised and battered. I write about music for a college newspaper, and here I am getting taught a lesson in music from a drunk. I have never claimed to have a comprehensive knowledge concerning much of the music that is out there, but this conversation really put me in my place. I actually had less knowledge than I previously thought. How do I expect to write about music when I can’t even hold my own in a conversation?
But, my feelings of inadequacy and my musical manhood are not really the point. I do write about music and I have a deadline. I can’t wallow in my own depression and give my editor nothing to print. What would I say? “Ummm, I’m a loser and I know nothing about music. I’m going to cry myself to sleep now.” I wish that were an option, but it’s not.
The fact of the matter is that I must work with the knowledge I have and hand something into my editor. It’s what I do on a weekly basis and it’s what I did in this conversation. So, while combating the effects of a long drive and alcohol, I mentioned a few of my favorite hip-hop groups hoping to salvage what was left of my ego.
The results were what I expected from a well-informed musical fan. “Oh, Jurassic 5, yeah, they’re good, but…” Ahhh, the dreaded but. I knew where this was going; there is always a but. And while it’s not usually meant to deride the other’s knowledge or to show off, it always comes across that way. “But, they’re commercial.”
And there it was, the decisive blow to any sort of credibility I had. I listened to commercial hip-hop and he listened to underground. He was listening to the future of music; the music that will revolutionize hip-hop as we know it, whereas I listened to the hip-hop that everyone listens to.
Ouch! The ultimate attack had been launched against me. It’s a familiar tactic employed by many ardent music fans. If a certain band is listened to by a large amount of people it’s commercial. And if it’s commercial it can still be good, but not nearly as good as something only a few people listen to. The logical conclusion to this line of argument is that if I wanted to listen to something truly good, I wouldn’t waste my time on so-called commercial music.
Huh? I found myself wondering. Why did this guy make that qualification? That is, why did he add the but and say it’s commercial as if to point out some flaw in the music? It boggled my mind. He didn’t say the bands I mentioned weren’t good, just that they were commercial.
But, I don’t think he meant to say commercial. What I think he meant was that a lot of people listened to the bands I mentioned, i.e., Jurassic 5, Blackalicious, Talib Kweli. Commercial seems to mean out to make money, and while these bands certainly make money that doesn’t mean that it is their purpose. They may have a cleaner, more accessible sound than say Anticon, the underground collective which started this conversation, but that doesn’t mean they are commercial. It means people get into them easier. More people listen to them because they can find their CDs easier, since record companies aren’t scared to put out their music as they would deep underground music.
A band with a large amount of fans does not automatically mean that the band is shit. Conversely, a band with a small amount of loyal followers does not automatically mean that the band is awesome. Music fans, including myself, often lose sight of these important points. Popular does not necessarily equal bad and underground does not necessarily equal good.