Last night, after I published this piece, a friend of mine — also living in Los Angeles — expressed disappointment that, on the day a rap legend died, she could not find a single nightlife establishment in the City of Angels celebrating his life and work.
She remarked that had she been living in New York, this would not be the case. That she’d have any number of places to go; perhaps, as you suggested, she could just turn on Hot 97 and hear a DJ “going in.”
I suppose that would have been cool, would have made her feel less like an alien, less like an artifact herself. She would, in a sense, find some sort of home in the music, for that’s what older music does — makes us remember who we once were and what our lives, and the lives of the musicians themselves, used to be.
At the same time though, it could have been a territorial issue. It could be that people in New York, on the east coast, are still kind of biased. We have these favorites, these rap heroes, artists we assume have an importance, because at one time New York had the power to bestow that importance. But ultimately, maybe, they are just not that important.
That isn’t to suggest that Tribe isn’t important to a lot of people, just that here — on this side, the east coast — we inflate that importance, make it seem significantly more pronounced than it is. In truth, perhaps Tribe was never as big to the rest of the country as we thought they were, a point I’m willing to certainly debate, even be swayed on.
In the 90’s, we were all a lot less connected than we are now, and many of us as fans, critics and even participants in the culture, didn’t really have this sort of nationwide — arguably global — view. The culture was still very regional, and because the labels and media companies, the power structure that could make something seem influential, were located in New York and Los Angeles, we all, I think, tended to kind of rally around that stuff.
What the last twenty years has shown us is that, well, the rest of the country was kind of just doing its own thing during that whole time. Supporting local artists — artists who were the veritable ATCQ’s of their own cities and states — some of whom went on to become legends themselves.
So, when I hear that in other cities the radio or the clubs are not celebrating Phife, I don’t really get annoyed or anything, because I know that perhaps the group was always of niche importance to everywhere else except New York and the pockets of real hip-hop fans in this city or that one.
But I also do think, as I said, we just don’t even have a system set up for preserving this stuff, for adding weight to it, after it’s gone. Folk music, for example, is studied in schools — heck, it’s the foundation of almost all westernized popular music.
What is early hip-hop, if not folk music? It is music of the ghetto, music of the people. Listening to it is akin to an oral history, a reflection of this time or that. I always tell people, if you want to know what a certain year was like, listen to hip-hop from that year. Because there are many clues, references, feelings.
Heck, even a lot of what our national conversation is these days — police brutality, poverty, crime, the black experience in America — this is all stuff that was well covered by hip-hop at one time or another, often in a lot more nuanced, educated and detailed ways than even our best writers and social critics today.
So, yeah, it is a disappointment that people aren’t playing Tribe music everywhere, but fuck it, at a certain point you just have to feel like, well, people who know know. And those will be the ones who pass it on, kind of in that way I spoke about in my piece — unknowingly, by just merely playing it for their kids or whatever.