Photo collage by Adrian Roberts
Sasha Frere-Jones opens up the, erm, “race box” in this week’s New Yorker with an extended piece lamenting the racial “re-sorting” of popular music. It’s a dangerous topic, and he’s to be commended for bringing it up, but I’m not sure where it’s all going. Frere-Jones wrote an eye-opening (if slightly more specific) essay on the same theme a few years back; called “When Blackface Has No Face,” it seemed to lament the lack of, well, current white “minstrels” (his word), or white artists playing music from traditionally black sources. He gives the examples of DJ Shadow and Diplo, both of whom were known for DJ sets celebrating black (and brown) music but solo albums full of “white signifiers” like electric guitars, sluggish tempos and dramatic strings. The current NYer article brings up Arcade Fire and Wilco, but the message is the same: white people are making really, really white music these days. It’s an interesting question: why aren’t there more white people making hip-hop?
Whether DJ Shadow heard the question from Frere-Jones or somewhere else, it’s worth noting that he, for one, decided to face the challenge head-on. In 2006, he released The Outsider, and while it wasn’t stylistically monolithic, the biggest eyebrow-raisers were some mainstream “pop-rap” tracks, featuring (black) Bay Area hyphy up-and-comers like Keak Da Sneak and E-40. Unfortunately, none of it was very good, and it was so middle-of-the-road a single even made it onto Hot AC stations like SF’s “Alice.” Shadow’s previous work was majestic, mournful, and yes, soulful, but in a Marvin Gaye kind of way; The Outsider, oddly enough, made Shadow seem like an awkward white kid trying to be “down.”
Frere-Jones’ piece is, to be sure, observational, and although the sections about his own band are a little awkward, it’s illustrative to know he’s been engaged in the conundrum first-hand. I suppose as a maker of ridonkulous mashups of black and white artists, I’ve been, uh, “engaged” in it as well, but more as a court jester. Anyway, I can’t help but think, though, that what defines these black and white “signifiers” is more at the heart of the issue: a glance at the current Top Ten singles gives us the Daft Punk-sampling Kanye West, Timbaland featuring OneRepublic, and a single by J. Holiday that features, um, a sluggish tempo and dramatic strings. Even Arcade Fire may be referencing New Order or Talking Heads with their insistent rhythms, but conceptually they’ve always reminded me of a New Orleans Jazz funeral, with soaring, upbeat music used as catharsis for the grief-stricken. Ultimately, it seems to me that so much music in so many styles is so fantastic right now, I have a tough time arguing for things to be different. Also, perhaps tellingly, I find making mashups that really surprise people is getting harder and harder, partially because sound, genre, and racial signifiers are getting so mixed up. But, indeed, white rappers are still few and far between, although Frere-Jones did forget Shifty Shellshock, and I kind of love this song.