Jun 8, 2009
The Downside of Digital
How does one define "old school"? I suspect that the true meaning of such a phrase is best understood as one starts to get older. Of course, what constitutes "old" is always relative to your own age.
I have always been old school. Growing up with a father, who always kept at least one foot in the street, meant that I was watching Super Fly when I was a mere 8 years old. Most kids my age were watching cartoons then. Me, I was memorizing lines from The Mack. While those in my age group were listening to The Jackson Five, I was all caught up with Curtis Mayfield's lyrics like those on his underrated track Kung Fu, "My momma born me in the ghetto/there was no mattress for my head/but though she couldn't name me Jesus (Jesus)/I wasn't white enough she said."
Having recently reached what I call the "half 90 mark," old school has come to take on an entirely different meaning these days. Not only I am old school, I'm now officially old, or at least older. I ain't trippin' tho. It's all good. Classic, vintage, distinguished, retro, seasoned, OG, it all applies. As RZA once said, "it takes years for this." My game simply gets better with age.
Which brings me to the feeling of confirmation that I experienced when recently hearing Jay-Z's new joint D.O.A. (Death of Auto-Tune) for the first time. Confirmation in the sense of "Yeah!" "Damn right!" "4 sho!" It's about time someone spoke up about the mass proliferation of the dreaded auto correction software that seemingly every other fool in the game has been od'ing on for the last two or so years. But not just anyone is saying this though, it is Jay-Z in particular after all, the man whose voice still rings like a bell throughout circles hip hop and otherwise. Jay has the credibility, the record sales, and the cultural significance to say what others can only mumble. Hopefully his words will have the same impact that they had some six years ago when Jigga put a stop to all that jersey-wearing nonsense with one line, "and I don't wear jerseys/I'm 30 plus." Maybe this time around the next rap fool chasing a hit might decide to be a little more original and not rely on the annoying crutch that auto-tune has become. Maybe? Just maybe?
Which brings me back to the old school. A lot of these lil' young hip hop heads regard Jay-Z as an old man now. Like the late Frank Ward said in The Mack, "you know how these lil' young macks are, don't have their shit in order." These are the ones who keep trying to say that Lil' Wayne is the best ever. Yes, these are the ones who have no knowledge of hip hop history or any history beyond what happened last week it seems. Because only a limited knowledge of history would cause one to say something so baseless as to prematurely elevate Lil' Wayne or anyone else for that matter, before their time.
Unlike a lot of my old school friends, I ain't mad at Wayne. Dude is cool, the same way that Chris Paul is cool. But as cool as CP3 might be right now, he ain't Isiah, ya dig. Don't get it twisted. We live in an era now when people simply proclaim their greatness without necessarily having the evidence to back up their claim. I come from the era of "show and prove," where you needed concrete proof or else you would get clowned for talkin' loud, but sayin' nothing. In these times we live in now, where iPods, iTunes, iPhones, blogs, Facebook, Twitter, MySpace and ring tones rule, if you say something enough times people start to believe it.
Weezy told everyone he was the best rapper alive so many times in so many different formats that eventually other people began saying it for him. It's like group think in the information age or better yet digital brainwashing. But again, even though I like Tha Carter II much better than I do Tha Carter III, this is not about hatin' on Wayne. Weezy F. Baby is the first rapper to really figure out how to connect with an audience young enough that they perhaps have never purchased music in any format besides an iTunes download. In an era when people aren't even buying records--see how old school I am, I still call 'em records--Wayne figured out a way to sell ice in the winter. Yet, to go from that to the claim of the best rapper alive is to take a leap wider than the expanse of the Grand Canyon.
This celebration of contemporary figures at the expense of history is also taking place in the game of basketball as we speak. A lot of these youngsters are trying to claim that Kobe Bryant, aka Wack Mamba, is better than the best to ever do it, Michael Jordan. Again, you can't just claim that someone is the best of all time without evidence. When it was all said and done, MJ had 6 rings, 5 MVP awards, and 10 scoring titles among countless other accomplishments. Kobe is the beneficiary of the culture that Michael helped to create. But because people have such a limited historical range they often accept whatever is right in front of their face as authentic. Not to mention that people tend to quickly forget about you once you are not in their face every 5 minutes anymore.
To say that Kobe is better than Jordan or that Wayne is better than Jay-Z is as ridiculous as saying that Nick Cannon is better than Sidney Poitier. I mean, be serious, people shouldn't even be having such a silly conversation in the first place.
I guess at the core of all this for me is the metaphorical and cultural shift that we as a society have experienced in moving from analog to digital. I am one of those people who has never really enjoyed watching Kobe play. Why, because to me, his game is digital. It is computerized. Dude learned to play ball by studying video of the game, not by living it. He didn't grow up perfecting his craft on the rugged blacktop, which is where the game is created and nurtured. There is nothing remotely organic or soulful about his steez.
Now in the age of digital reproduction, Kobe's game is stealth, it is precise and it is efficient. But for me, it lacks and has always lacked flava. I like my basketball a bit grimy, with the smell and feel of the streets all over it. I like it edgy and 'hood. When you can take all this and make it work in the formal confines of an NBA game, then you are really doin' something. This is why watching the Finals last year was so cool, because Boston, in spite of its own history, had KG, P2, and Brotha Ray, reppin' that old school b-ball flair for modern times. It was the energy of street ball perfected on the professional hardwood. It was like Jay-Z bringing the suburbs to the 'hood. All in all, it looked and felt real.
Watching Kobe's game is like listening to one of those digital creations where a musical artist from one era magically sings on the same track with a contemporary figure. His game and his steez is karaoke. It is auto-tuned. If you don't believe me, notice how Kobe's and Pau Gasol's finger point, followed by hand slap, after a made basket late in Game 2 of the Finals is straight off of the oft played NBA highlight reel where Magic Johnson does the exact same thing with former Lakers bench warmer Mike McGee. It is only recently that Kobe stopped sounding like Jordan when doing media interviews. Now for the people who don't know or have never experienced any of this history then the contemporary version probably looks real good, but if you're an OG, it is as transparent as the draws that the Lil' Kim character was wearing in that performance scene from Notorious.
Auto-tune is not real and ring tones are wack. While I would be the first to trumpet the merits of the digital age--this is a blog after all--I never lose sight of the fact that though the digital has made our lives a lot easier in many cases, the flava still resides in the analog. And that's never gonna change.