by carl wilson

Taking 'Slap Dee Barnes'
to (Ninja High) School

Gosh, how could these people possibly claim not to be hip-hop?

Someone pointed out Dave Morris's review of the Ninja High School disc in this week's Eye record guide, which I initially missed, and it has me peeved. Dave quotes Matt Collins out of context saying, "We're not really hip-hop," and proceeds to accuse him of saying so only to evade being judged by hip-hop's lofty standards: "Not wanting to be that white dude who thinks he's black is no excuse for being lazy." I normally think Dave's a very solid critic, but feels to me like he went into this one grinding the wrong axe. As I recall it, Matt specifically says that NHS is "positive-hardcore dance-rap" (hardcore as in punk), which borrows techno and hip-hop stylings - in a very very lo-fi way - to freshen up a style that's otherwise pretty played out. If Dave'd ever been to an NHS show he'd certainly find it's way more like a punk show than a hip-hop one in its energies, that its subject (or, more often, object of attack) is punk/indie cultural values (notice which section of the record guide Eye placed it in), and that rather than "leaving out rap's more culturally loaded signifiers," NHS is using the signifiers that represent who they actually are, a bunch of middle-class artsy white and Asian kids in Toronto - the rapping partly is a signal that they have a sense of humour and awareness of that status that many guitar bands don't. Whereas if they actually used those "more culturally loaded signifiers," I'd call them full of shit, and I bet Dave would too. If Dave wants to say the production could be better, I'm with him. If he wants to say the rapping could be improved (although I do like it), I'm with him. But to say anybody who uses "breakbeats and rhyming spoken-word vocals" is fooling themselves if they say they're not doing hip-hop is, first, to use a terribly reductive definition of hip-hop (is any hip-hop artist who uses instruments and sings then fooling themselves that they're not doing rock? or is genre actually a more complicated thing?), and second, to overlook a lot - is Beck actually hip-hop then? How about William S. Burroughs when he read over a beat? Anyone who goes to Ninja High School looking for a Dipset record is going to be disappointed, but as Owen P. told me the other day, it's like the best Crass record ever.

As long as we're catching up with our reading, and speaking of white guys soaking hip-hop up into other genres, I found Keith Harris's second thoughts on Big & Rich in Seattle Weekly the other day really refreshing. It's the first takedown of B&R; that I've read that wasn't anti-country, anti-hiphop or anti-cornball but still pointed out that B&R; have a tendency to make songs that are little trinkets packaged in a big gaudy box with another big gaudy box around it and so on. Too often, there's no bull to be found amid the bullshit, as colourful as that BS might be. Big and Rich are always evoking a band I'd really love, but it's not the band they are.

Also congrats to Douglas (from oh-so-fashionable Portland!) on Friday's NPR feature on his National Solo Album Month project (aka NaSoAlMo), and to John "Utopian Turtletop" Shaw for getting his Scooter Libby song featured there. John says: "I would have sent word beforehand but I didn't find out until afterwards. Flo said, 'You had your five minutes of fame and they didn't even tell you.' " This idea of whether you can be "famous" if you don't know you're famous tickles my imagination - I guess it's possible if you're in prison, or in the wrong country, or, ah yes, if you're Harry Potter. But it does seem to challenge the category.

Douglas also has a post up reflecting on the comics element of this video-game/"post-expressive" question. (I think he just might top my list of bloggers I'd like to meet in person and never have. I've already met John.)

Also, note that there's a feature, not by me, on Portland-is-the-new-Montreal in today's Globe, which is pretty good aside from its uncritical stance on the unbearable unbearability of "It"-ness. Alex Gill makes nice use of the Decemberists' have-the-audience-play-possum stunt as metaphor for Portland's longstanding reluctance to become the new Seattle. (An acknowledgment that Sleater-Kinney ain't exactly new also would have been nice.) Also note the pretty good sidebar at the end listing It Cities of the past. The sequel, apparently on how being briefly It in this continental game of pin-the-hype-on-the-city affected Montreal's emotions, is promised for Monday. Perhaps we'll talk about it then.

Graffito of the day (somewhat related): I'm not sure I feel the same way, but it was amusing to see sprayed on the stone of the new Starbucks going up on the corner of Queen and Dovercourt: "This is all your fault, Drake, you ho!" "Drake, you ho, this is all your fault"

Uh, there was no hotlink in the graffito, though.

| Posted by zoilus on Saturday, November 26 at 11:48 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (22)



That's hilarious. You corrected it. But you know what? There weren't any commas!

Posted by Dixon on December 2, 2005 3:41 PM



I first heard NHS on that "Toronto Is Great" CD way back around, Winter '04. Their song "It's Gonna Be Us" reminded me of what I really enjoyed about hip-hop when I first started listening to it in the late 80's. Namely, interesting beats and unique samples. It kinda reminded me of the Fat Boys. The "We Win" ep further proved to me that they get hip-hop but also that they weren't trying to play the game. NHS is making music, unapologetically, their way. Sure, they're not great rappers, but they're better than most rap from the 80s in terms of flow (when you compare lyrical styles of today to rap from the 1980's it's like comparing special effects from the Matrix to those of The Last Starfighter). NHS are like that transitionary stage of the Beastie Boys in that time between License To Ill and Paul's Boutique...

If there's a tongue-in-cheekyness to their music it's there as part of the lyrics, but it's not the music themselves. They've created something, that really is kind of innovative in its own right. It isn't rap, and it isn't indie, and it isn't punk, and when you do something that contradicts the genres a lot of people just don't know what to do with it.

Plus, some people are still hung up on white-rap vs. black rap, as if those delineations still matter. I'd much rather listen to Ugly Duckling or than 50 Cent. Conversely I'd much rather listen to Blackalicious than Beck, or MF Doom than Eminem. But the colour of skin doesn't matter to me, it's how the music sounds. And NHS makes music that appeals to me, but it's not the kind of music I can treat cerebrally. I just get into it and enjoy it for the hyped up party music it wants to be.

Posted by graig on November 30, 2005 5:00 PM



for a while, i had heard that portland was the new seattle. now that it's the new montreal, perhaps toronto is the new seattle what with its new starbucks :)

Posted by kevin Bracken on November 30, 2005 4:11 AM



I've never heard NHS, and judging from some of the descriptions here and in the post, and from the picture, I'm pretty sure I'd personally hate it. More "in your face" hijinks from the high school drama club.

However, I have to say that "Big and Rich are always evoking a band I'd really love, but it's not the band they are" is a handy little phrase. Perfectly sums up my feelings about a lot of overhyped indie bands, from Godspeed to Arcade Fire. There's more to it, and a lot that's more specific to each case, but that sort of sums it up - evoking, but not embodying. Like but never love. Said phrase would have come in useful ten years ago when a friend was trying to get me into the Lips' Clouds Taste Metallic - I was puzzled myself as to why I wasn't liking it. It seemed to contain elements of everything I did like at the time, and in the end I realized that's exactly why I never took to Coyne and company.

On the other hand, despite all my better instincts, I keep getting suckered by Kanye West's no-bull bullshit gaudy-boxes-within-gaudy-boxes. Damn, I hate that man for making me such a sucker.

Posted by Canadian Bystander on November 29, 2005 11:18 PM



Huh, Steve, I didn't know about that phase of NHS - I first saw them at the Blocks "Toronto Is Great" all-day release show, and there was no hint of it at that point. So it's not as straightforward as it seems. ... TP's post was on point, I think - I don't share his reaction but I think it's a valid one.

Posted by zoilus on November 29, 2005 8:48 PM



I remember the first time I saw NHS, back in summer of '03 opening for Grand Buffet. At the time, they could have been labelled guilty of hip-hop parody. They brought a crew of people on stage wearing fake gold chains and sideways hats who simply stood in place and bobbed their heads to the beat. But when I met Matt Collins a year or so later, he said to me, "Oh, that was when Ninja High School sucked. Please ignore that memory." So while it might have began that way, it has certainly evolved into something more mindful, whether or not you like it or consider it hip-hop or punk or Hasidic reggae or whatever the new thing is nowadays.

I found Dave's review incredibly hilarious, even though I don't totally agree, and if that's how he feels about the record, that's cool with me. Dave's passion makes him a great writer. He thinks and writes without resorting to the same-old-same-old, and that's what I dig about him.

Posted by Steve Birek on November 29, 2005 6:58 PM



i've heard three or four NHS songs and have seen a few snippets of live performances that various people have posted on blogs, and i have to agree that all this debate on their relation to hip hop's cultural signifiers is sorta misplaced. if anything, they're highlighting the DIY ethic that animated the early days of both rap and punk in an effort to argue (i would guess) that anybody who doesn't like pop kulchur can get up and make their own (whether they can sing or rap or play instruments or use a sampler or not, or whether "borrowing" forms - which hop hip has done just as freely as any other genre - will get critical approval or not). AND that doing so is fun and empowering to boot.

having said that, i think their lyrics show them to be smug, pretentious, and nauseatingly obnoxious "middle class artsy kids" flaunting their positions of privilege (both economically as well as socially - within toronto's indie circles, inarguably) without much of a real grasp on the semioticians and post-structuralists they adore. i think it's all a little too precious, self-serving, and gratingly snobby (and not half as smart as it makes itself out to be). but i'm sure they all grew up loving rap music.

Posted by tp on November 29, 2005 5:06 PM



I just meant it would be tedious if I continued going on about it, not that you were being tedious, DW. It's just that I feel like Graham's insistence that NHS be received as a parody of rap or as deliberately bad hip-hop leads us in a circle where I'm compelled to reiterate that the whole point of the post was to say that NHS is neither attempting nor commenting on hip-hop, and certainly not making fun of it, as anything more than a one-minute listen should make pretty clear. I appreciate that you were trying to expand out to a broader question, but it was on the wrong premises.

Posted by zoilus on November 29, 2005 4:28 PM



>> There's no relationship between that Spirit of the West goofing and what NHS does. But at this point a lot of the comments seem to be from people who haven't heard NHS imagining what they think the band might be doing, which is just silly. I could explain it further but it would just get too tedious, really.

Yeah, I thought I made my agnosticism on that pretty clear, and still thought it might point to a larger subject worth considering. Guess not. Sorry for the silly tedium.

Posted by DW on November 29, 2005 4:05 PM



The only reason this post remains at the top of the page is that I'm too busy with other stuff to post a new one - not that I think this is a burning issue of our time.

But when I say "the joke," I'm not saying NHS is any kind of parody of hip-hop, because it isn't. There's no relationship between that Spirit of the West goofing and what NHS does. But at this point a lot of the comments seem to be from people who haven't heard NHS imagining what they think the band might be doing, which is just silly. I could explain it further but it would just get too tedious, really.

Posted by zoilus on November 29, 2005 2:54 PM



In (theoretical) support of Graham:

Back in the 1980s sometime I was at a Spirit of the West show where the band did this comedy bit: they announced that they had decided to expand their musical horizons and were now going to perform an original piece called "Jazz Odyssey." Whereupon a couple of them splatted into trumpets for 30 seconds and everyone had a good laugh, ha ha ha.

The message was clearly, "This is what free jazz is: wankers blowing tunelessly into trumpets and being pretentious about it. Isn't it hilarious?" I don't think you have to be an Ornette Coleman fan to find that irritating.

I think (though I could be wrong) that Graham is arguing that the NHS approach is similarly parodic and reductive, and puts out the message, "This is what rapping is: careless shouting. Isn't it hilarious?" And I could see how that might be irritating.

One big caveat, though, is that I haven't paid enough attention to NHS to have any kind of opinion on that myself. So really I'm just playing devil's advocate here.

And I must admit, too, that my feeling is, if NMH's approach to hip-hop really was genuinely condescending, I doubt that that would escape Carl.

But it does raise the general question of when pastiche or parody works and when it becomes dismissive and insulting. As in rock bands (indie and otherwise) who do smirking covers of pop songs: some of them clearly genuinely appreciate the songs in question, while others are just saying, "Isn't it hilarious that a REAL band like us is playing a crappy song like this one?"

Posted by DW on November 29, 2005 11:23 AM



Uncritical stance? It's worse than that. The Portland piece, to me, is every bit as guilty of the over-simplified self-serving nature of "It-hype" journalism.

Posted by Andrew Rose on November 29, 2005 11:16 AM



that grafitti was there today, but it's gone tonight. looks like they tried to wash it off as it's all smudged... bit of a mess really.

Posted by Andy on November 28, 2005 8:56 PM



oops, excuse the copious typos fail english, etc. etc. etc.

Posted by Graham on November 28, 2005 8:13 PM



OK, so the flipside of the argument then is this: what if you get a band that can't really play their instruments or sing or write a song but they can really bang their shit loudly without any knack for anything talented because it's all a joke; does that make them an acceptable (indie) rock band?

If people want to listen to people who can't rap but are doing so because it's a joke, then more power to them, they're lost causes. But, the art of emceeing is no joke - "I ain't no joke" as Rakim said. Hip-hop is not bubblegum music. The argument that it's all a joke, that it's good yelling but bad rapping doesn't really convince me because why can't one have good rapping and good yelling? Why settle for a joke?

But, I guess I'm just a admittedly pendantic rap fan...

Posted by Graham on November 28, 2005 8:05 PM



Re: Hip Hop labels etc...
I think a holier-than-thou approach to criticism is why people get turned off the often misunderstood communication genre. That's why I like this blog and Carl's writing, it walks a steady line between being critical and entertaining at the same time. Though I haven't read the EYE reference and probably won't, I find the whole question of whether it's legitimate to rap without calling yourself a hip-hop artist is like wondering if Ian MacKaye can really call himself straight edge now that he's singing over reggae basslines. Who cares? The question is whether it warrants the attention of music consumers and why? Not whether it fits into some construct devised by a handful of people in collusion with a record store owner. I agree with Carl's assessment, but wonder why we are having the discussion. It seems to miss the point. Bad criticism is just that. Perhaps instead of looking for a soapbox it might be better to ignore it and hope it goes away. Leave the rest for the street to sort out.

Posted by Phil on November 28, 2005 3:25 PM



Re "insult to hip-hop": Again, I don't think you're giving the band enough credit for being in on the joke. It's not bad rapping - it's good *yelling*. They're not insulting the audience's intelligence by pretending to be rappers - they're assuming the audience is smart enough to know that's not what it's about.

Posted by zoilus on November 27, 2005 5:31 PM



re: Portland piece in the Globe. A good read, although the sidebar's reference to Television as "accelerated, deafening, power-chord rock" is rather, uh, suspect...I think a listen to Marquee Moon would suggest they'd fit better in the 'poetic rock' category reserved for Ms. Smith. And for the record label that best mirrored the halcyon days of Halifax's New Seattle-ness, I'd have opted for the late, great Cinammon Toast, who released very cool 45s from Jale, Eric's Trip, Sloan and Thursh Hermit back in the day...or Sloan's own Murderecords. Still, a good read, and interesting to read a piece about Portland with absolutely no mention of the Dandy Warhols.

Posted by bw on November 27, 2005 1:38 PM



best crass record ever indeed

Posted by mike on November 27, 2005 12:35 PM



Re: graffitti- I saw it on the way to work yesterday morning and had to much supress my laughter. I don't now how I feel about the situation either...

Posted by C on November 27, 2005 9:45 AM



the thing is, the rapping in NHS is atrocious and an insult to hip-hop.

Posted by Graham on November 27, 2005 8:42 AM



Sorry to be pedantic Carl, but I just wrote it down in my notebook as I was walking home. It was actually, um, 'Drake you ho, this is all your fault.'

Posted by Dixon on November 27, 2005 12:59 AM




Zoilus by Carl Wilson