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Words by Magnus Gillberg

Don’t let the title give you the wrong impression; I’m afraid this article won’t be weighing into the debate over whether or not hip-hop was better in the early ‘90s. This common argument has nauseatingly beenrepeated on numerous comment sections across the internet. The discussion is clouded with nostalgia for a time of apparent quality and depth of lyrics, when all that has really changed is that people don’t rap about pagers anymore. No, I am much more interested in who in fact is suffering from “realness” and who is faking the condition to get workers compo.

Creating a character on stage is common to many musical genres, not just hip-hop. But an inherent part of rapping has commonly been bravado and self-aggrandisement. Some rappers just let their rhymes prove their abilities while some write reams of rhymes, not only about how talented they are, but also how mean, violent, and ‘real’ they are. This personal element of hip-hop, the self-advertisement, produces an interesting meeting of fiction and reality, producing what is often called ‘studio Gangsters’. However the rapper rarely—if ever—comments on this reality out of character, allowing themselves to be perceived as their chosen caricature. A recent release from Rick Ross, mastermind, is typical of the rapper style, featuring songs mainly focused on being a gangster in the not-worn-out-at-all style of Tony Montana. While this assessment might seem a little succinct, it is not meant to be a jibe at its quality. And just like every 16 year old’s favourite Al Pacino movie, the entire album is a work of fiction. Rick Ross took his name from a well-known American drug dealer known as “Freeway Rick Ross”, and had to fight a court case over the right to use the name. With this pseudonym, the rapper has created a persona of a dangerous and glamorous gangster and has consistently released content to reinforce the idea. While this makes many of his songs seemingly hollow, the fact is that all his albums are works of fiction that present not a real reflection of his life, but rather tell entertaining stories. Rick Ross is an entertainer and his lack of realism is not a weakness to his work.

This is in juxtaposition to another recent release coming from Freddie Gibbs and Madlib, Piñata. The album is arguably the best release this year with Madlib producing a fantastic album. However it is the lyrical content of Freddie Gibbs’ raps which deal with many elements of his life from his time growing up and living in Gary, Indiana, an industrial town in a worse state than Detroit which was considered the murder capital of the US during the ‘90s. Freddie is widely regarded as one of the last real gangsters in modern hip-hop with a criminal record and a background of hustling on the bleak streets of Gary. His music deals not with a fictional story but more often the harsh realities of his life and of those around him. The crime and violence is presented neither positively or negatively, but only realistically. As such, Freddie continues a long line of documentation through music of the under classes of America. Undoubtedly, there is some exaggeration and invention, but never to the scale of outright fiction. Freddie only employs creative licence when attempting to compress multiple occurrences and people into a manageable song.

So what is the issue of having two rappers, both purporting to be presenting reality, with one doing so through a persona while the other doing so truthfully? This happens in other genres, where fans listen to larger-than-life characters for their storytelling and entertainment value, not for their representation of reality. However in those genres you don’t have fiction presented with reality at the same time. It was pretty obvious during the 1960s that much of the blues that the English were “repurposing” was not meant to be their stories; no one tried to pass themselves as being Mississippi Delta locals. When it comes to hip-hop there is no distinction between who is rapping fiction and and who is rapping fact. You will have those who have adopted a character and those who are presenting themselves accurately both rapping on the same track, creating a bizarre dichotomy of fiction and reality. Rick Ross appears on tracks with Pusha T—a rapper who probably raps a little too much about his career dealing cocaine—and Gucci Mane, a violent convicted felon who is thought to fit into this criminal gangster reality when he really doesn’t.

In modern music, reputation and artistic integrity counts for a lot, regardless of the genre at hand. A character adopted for artistic purposes is often used as a device to investigate the ‘other’, or what can’t be properly talked about from an existing point of view. Other times it is to shock and entertain. In both circumstances it is at least clear that it is part of an act. If an artist adopts a style and story that is completely alien to them, usually the fans and other musicians in that genre will shun them as being fake. Both situations occur in hip-hop. For instance, Tyler, the Creator’s alter ego Wolf Hayley is used to explore incredibly dark and troubling themes (a storytelling device seemingly unknown in New Zealand), while rappers such as Soulja Boy are derided for jumping on whatever the current popular trend is. But then certain rappers will be given a pass, with critics willing to ignore their unapologetic metamorphosis into a person they are not and have never been. With the fake and real mixed, it creates a credibility issue for modern hip-hop and for those using the art to recount legitimate struggles. For instance, a lot of Mafioso Rap is made by people who have never experienced crime, poverty and violence, who only glamourise these things for their own financial gain. In turn, such performers trivialise the experiences and music of those for whom such horrible things are a reality.

So does anybody make real shit anymore? Well, yes; some do. You’ve just got to do a decent background search first.

Words by Candy Zoccoli
Illustration by Anasha Flintoff

At the Golden Globes this year, one of the highlights (or lowlights, depending on how you look at it) was the presentation of the Cecil B. De Mille award—given for  “outstanding contributions to the world of entertainment”—to Woody Allen. As the tribute video played out, viewers shifted in their seats at what seemed like a little too much focus on his 1979 film Manhattan, in which Allen’s character has an illicit relationship with an underage lover. The applause from his peers could hardly be touted as enthusiastic.

Deciding whether or not to support creative types who are A-grade douchebags in real life is a serious dilemma. In buying into their art, are we ultimately endorsing their personal moral standards (or lack thereof)?

Consider this question: should we continue to listen to Chris Brown after his abhorrent beating of Rihanna? While it’s hard to believe that many people saw Chris’s damaged status in the music industry as any great loss, I know that his song ‘Yeah 3x’ covered quite a lot of ground in my Most Played list for a while. That’s a lot of moral guilt right there.

The list goes on. If you’re not still reeling from Mel Gibson’s rampant anti-Semitism or Alec Baldwin’s homophobia, perhaps rapper Tyler, the Creator’s blatant misogyny is more your style. And don’t think that lying in the foetal position surrounded by your Old Hollywood DVD collection will save you, either, because you’ll soon uncover the circulating controversies of glamorously censored yesteryear. When I learned that gentle Bing Crosby was most likely as cold-hearted a father as his equally PR-primped contemporaries, I didn’t know who else to turn to. Walt Disney, a lover of children as long as they weren’t black? Paul and John, able to put the most romantic contemplations to music by day while maintaining a busy extramarital schedule by night?

In negotiating the celebrity minefield, the obvious question to ask yourself is where exactly you think a line should be drawn. Should you go so far as to completely boycott an artist based on morality, or is it okay to express appreciation so long as there isn’t any monetary support involved? When entire groups of people could be affected negatively by the ideas perpetuated by an individual (Miley Cyrus and black appropriation, anyone?) you can start to feel like any level of support should be avoided.

The next question to ask yourself is how much the artist’s actions have affected you. If the thought of paying to watch a Polanski film makes you sick, then you clearly feel strongly enough to eliminate that slice of art from your life. However, if you’re at the point where you’re boycotting the films of every person who booed Marlon Brando’s 1973 refusal of his Oscar in protest of Native American civil rights issues, then maybe you’ve gone a bit too far.

In the end, I think that it comes down to our worldwide celebrity worship culture. We need to part with this unhealthy celebrity obsession, and simply scale everything back to our own experience of whatever product we’re consuming. While contextualising a creative work may be fascinating and sometimes downright fun for the trivia nerd within, it is important to experience the art itself first and foremost.

Of course, it is hard to enjoy a film, book or album in the same way after learning it may have been conceived out of hatred or perversion. Ultimately though, even if you admire their work, you are not forced to agree with everything an artist stands for. Artists are human beings, and human beings can always be counted on to disappoint us at some point.

So, even if the recent Woody Allen tribute at the Golden Globes left a bitter taste in your mouth, it’s okay to appreciate the fact that, as far as filmmaking goes, the guy is a creative genius. Personally, I may even learn to separate Polanski’s sordid past from his status as one of the greatest directors. In due time.

But Tyler, the Creator? Come on guys, you gotta be kidding me.