I’m almost embarrassed that I have so many thoughts on this subject, but here goes. In a few posts responding to Ta-Nehisi Coates’ piece on Bill Cosby, Ross Douthat discusses the differences between the evolution of jazz and rap. Coates’ came close to deligitimizing all of Cosby’s critique of hip-hop culture when he writes:

At times, Cosby seems willfully blind to the parallels between his arguments and those made in the presumably glorious past. Consider his problems with rap. How could an avowed jazz fanatic be oblivious to the similar plaints once sparked by the music of his youth? “The tired longshoreman, the porter, the housemaid and the poor elevator boy in search of recreation, seeking in jazz the tonic for weary nerves and muscles,” wrote the lay historian J. A. Rogers, “are only too apt to find the bootlegger, the gambler and the demi-monde who have come there for victims and to escape the eyes of the police.”

Ross responds:

The fact that prior generations of intellectuals fretted, Cosby-style, about African-American crime rates, family structure, and so on doesn’t change the fact that those problems have grown much, much worse in the interim. … The anti-jazz crusaders confused the music with the venues where it played, but that doesn’t mean that they were wrong to inveigh against alcoholism and gambling, and the fact that fifty years later jazz has become easy-listening music for the haute-bourgeoisie doesn’t mean the same thing will happen – or should happen, more importantly – to this kind of thing.

“This kind of thing” being gangsta rap.

Obviously, It is much easier to listen to Miles Davis’ “Kind of Blue” today without reference to heroin because there is no lyrical content referring to heroin. Also, the ability of bebop artists to improvise songs so beautifully with just a chord progression in front of them remains stunning.

On the other side, the moral content of Dr. Dre’s albums is hotly debated in the black community. Figures like Chuck D of Public Enemy and Spike Lee have compared gangsta rap to minstrel shows. Academics publish books with provocative titles like, “The Nigger as Commodity” on the same theme.

Chuck D and Public Enemy are an interesting example because their politically charged rap is now cherished more by middle-class whites, than by the the audience it was meant to empower, blacks. “It Takes a Nation of Millions” and “Fear of a Black Planet” are routinely on the top of critics’ lists but are rarely played on black radio. Public Enemey’s albums are now artifacts of historical black radicalism. In other words, a hobby of white college students.

Can rap go through the “highbrowification” that jazz underwent? Maybe. While it remains a popular and lucrative art-form it will be characterized by popular expression. But you can see the attempt to be more creative everywhere. Typically more adventurous artists are embraced by an upscale white audience. Just a few examples: There’s Kanye West, an art-school drop-out who samples from French electronic music; OutKast, the southern super-duo who’ve managed to charm almost all audiences; and Jurassic 5, a group that appeared at both the Warped Tour and Lollapalooza before breaking up in 2007. It gets more complicated from there. Black students introduced me to Sage Francis, a white-vegan rapper who won the 2000 Scribble Jam freestyle contest while wearing a Metallica shirt. Francis not only produced an album of musically and lyrically adventurous songs (“Personal Journalist”), but his website describes his other projects in terms of recovering “the idioms” of late 80s-early 90s hip-hop.

I would suggest that once the artists start talking about their genre’s previous “idioms,” that the genre itself is capable of what Ross calls “highbrowification.” I don’t think rap will ever be considered high-art. Rock’n’roll won’t either. But there will certainly be hip-hop snobs in the future. What’s under debate is whether or not gangsta rap will be considered a modern minstrel show or an “authentic expression of black disenfranchisement.” The status of certain forms of rap will depend on the direction of black politics. Dr. Dre’s legacy will be judged collectively by blacks, not by Ross’ feared “fortysomething intellectuals of 2030” who “end up dragging their griping kids to hear the N.W.A. in the Park concert series”.