"Thrift Shop" and "Inauthentic Rap"
by Jason Gubbels | March 21, 2013
It's been hard to avoid Macklemore & Ryan Lewis' monster hit "Thrift Shop," a four-minute raspberry to the fashion industry that has topped Billboard's Hot 100, dominated YouTube, and scored the duo an appearance on Saturday Night Live. And as one might expect, feathers have been ruffled along the way. Detractors have grown more vocal after the underground hit spread, fretting over Macklemore's novelty status: another phony, the beneficiary of both class and white privilege, emblematic of the ways our shallow pop marketplace prefers fake drivel to authentic art. In a word, he's inauthentic.
Howling about authenticity is nothing new in hip-hop. When The Sugarhill Gang dropped "Rapper's Delight" in 1979, the Bronx community was aghast: How could a lightweight record-label assemblage beat hard-working club pioneers to the studio? Grandmaster Flash and Afrika Bambaataa quickly followed, but they were trailed by non-rap performers cashing in, from Blondie's chart-topping "Rapture" (the first rap video broadcast on MTV) to Sex Pistols impresario Malcolm McClaren's "Buffalo Gals" to the production team Double Dee and Steinski, older white professionals who won a Tommy Boy Records contest with their collage "Lesson 1 - The Payoff Mix."
Turf battles raged across the five boroughs, the Bronx maintaining supremacy over upstarts Brooklyn and Queens. Despite eventual market domination, West Coast rap was seen as featherweight electro, Apache Indian and The Egyptian Lover racking up local hits that never made waves beyond L.A. South Florida was dismissed as a gimmicky backwater, peddling booty anthems from raunch merchants 2 Live Crew, Gucci Crew II and Maggotron. All new regional scenes had to fight for legitimacy, from once-overlooked hotbeds Atlanta (Outkast, Goodie Mob, Lil Jon), New Orleans (Master P, Hot Boys) and Houston (Geto Boys, DJ Screw) to still-overlooked regions like Chicago (Common, Kanye West) and Cleveland (Bone Thugs-N-Harmony), and uncool non-urban centers like Bowling Green, Ky. (Nappy Roots).
And at least those artists were American. Non-Yankee hip-hop has long served as a punch line, whether it be the dance pop of Definition of Sound and Stereo MC's; the South London-via-Jamaica rhymes of Roots Manuva; hip-hop/garage acts The Streets and Dizzee Rascal; or newcomer Scroobius Pip. Despite clear links between rap and Jamaican toasting, reggae crossover acts like Sean Paul and Beenie Man were viewed with suspicion by the gatekeepers. And beyond such narrow confines, the world beckons: Brazil, the Philippines, Israel, Morocco, Senegal and South Africa all cultivate vibrant hip-hop scenes despite the American market's general indifference.
Few stateside issues proved as knotty as race, after The Beastie Boys' meteoric 1986 rise saw three Jewish kids take rap to Billboard's No. 1 spot. Vanilla Ice set back by years the cause of white rappers, despite 3rd Bass, House of Pain and Maroon. Even the post-Eminem landscape takes a wait-and-see approach to white rappers, from Bubba Sparxxx and YelaWolf to El-P. Under equal suspicion are jokers/weirdos, whether they be human beatbox pioneers Fat Boys, "Clown Prince of Hip-Hop" Biz Markie, oddball Del the Funky Homosapien, or "joke-rap" contemporaries Das Racist. And woe betide any youngster fighting for respect among elders, including Kid 'N Play, Kriss Kross and the despised Soulja Boy.
Then there's women. Despite Lisa Lee's presence on "Zulu Nation Throwdown," female emcees have historically faced suspicion if not hostility: Hip-hop was well into its teens before the first solo female rapper went platinum (Da Brat, "Funkdafied," 1994). Whether regional acts (Miami's L'Trimm) or hit machines (Salt-N-Pepa), all-girl crews tended to be viewed as novelties. One can trace a clear line from international meddler Neneh Cherry (her worldwide hit "Buffalo Stance" mixed dance pop with rap) to the envelope-pushing mashups of Nicki Minaj. And no hip-hop act in recent memory faced as much invective as witty Long Island trio Northern State.
Which brings up the biggest no-no of all: the crossover move. Be it rap artists flirting with R&B (LL Cool J's 1987 unforgivable sellout "I Need Love"), R&B singers featuring rappers (Blackstreet and Ashanti), celebrities (basketball superstar Shaquille O'Neal's peerless "Biological Didn't Bother"), samples from unlikely sources (P.M. Dawn's Spandau Ballet-derived hook on "Set Adrift on Memory Bliss"), or shameless pursuit of chart success (DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince, The Black-Eyed Peas), moving too many units outside specifically defined audiences has been frowned upon. And long before Rage Against the Machine or Kid Rock incorporated rap verses into hard rock anthems, alternative groups Cibo Matto and Cake found brief chart success with rap/rock amalgams.
In recent years, the steady infusion of interlopers has only increased, from underground rappers pejoratively labeled "backpackers" (Buck 65, Haiku D'Etat, mcenroe, Childish Gambino, Aesop Rock) to uncategorizables Fannypack and Peaches. If you want to see hip-hop purists froth at the mouth, play B.o.B's duet with Taylor Swift ("Both of Us"), or country star Jason Aldean welcoming aboard Ludacris on "Dirt Road Anthem Remix," or Ke$ha's Diddy fantasia "Tik Tok." Then queue up "Thrift Shop" on your sound system of choice. What's that about authenticity again? Wait, now there's "Harlem Shake"? Gotta wait until next time.