by carl wilson

Notes on Hip (I)

bugsax.jpg

What's up, docs and dockettes? Today's column, hot off the grill. I know this one's kinda loony tunes (Mrs. Zoilus tells me it helps to read it twice, but who reads an article twice?). Clarifying footnotes to follow.

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HIP AND SUAVE AND BADDER THAN BAD

The men of the Handsome Boy Modeling School seldom make whiteness an explicit subject. You have to read between the tracks

OVERTONES
By CARL WILSON
Saturday, Nov 27, 2004
The Globe & Mail

Bugs Bunny zooms over to the Handsome Boy Modeling School in his stretch SUV, Elmer Fudd's limo zigzagging behind in hot pursuit. (Old habits, like old rabbits, die hard.) Soon Bugs is reclining on a salon chair in a silk robe, waggling a carrot like Groucho's cigar and yammering orders for a proper "ear grooming."

"I know I said 'asymmetrical,' doc, but watch dem clippers! And d'you mugs have any fleur de sel for dis here cancer stick, or do I have to burrow all da way back to Cannes?"

Bugs was having his carotene-saturated blood changed in Switzerland before Keith Richards was a glimmer in Muddy Waters's eye, but lately he's been taking it easy. He does cameos, but mostly concentrates on charity work -- research to cure cliff plummet, rifle-knot backfire, anvil-related indentation and other ills inflicted in his wild days. He's giving some back.

"My apologies, sir," his stylist pipes up. "But to tint the highlights, I need to know, um: Are you black or are you white?"

"Well, back in the day . . ." Bugs begins, then shrugs. "Eh! You know. Not as white as the Mouse, not yet. Mebbe as white as you are."

"Pardon, sir, but I'm not -- "

"You hoid me, doc. Now make wit' dat hare dye."

Bugs won't be fenced in, not since he read New York Times reporter John Leland's new book Hip: The History, in which Bugs features as America's Most Animated. Leland's survey ranges from Walt Whitman to DJ Spooky, but for one chapter (called "Hip Has Three Fingers"), he lingers over the streetwise ways of jazz-age cartoons. Bugs, he writes, "navigated the gulfs between high culture and low, male and female, power and sass." Not to mention straight and gay and, of course, black and white.

The book's sustaining insight is that hip is a pure gone-crazy product of America -- Euro-America and Afro-America forever stalking and outfoxing each other, the nation's sick compulsion, and mother of all its invention.

The term goes back further than Bugs guessed: Hip dates to the 1700s, imported by slaves as hepi, "to see," and hipi, "to open one's eyes," in the Wolof tongue of coastal Gambia. Similar passages brought in cool, dig, jive and honky: From slave lore on to blues, jazz, rock and beat poetry, hip has been the inside language of outsiders, the lexicon of camouflage and parody, a concealment that reveals.

What Bugs digs most is his depiction as a modernist trickster, in the line of jesters and "wascals" going back to the African hare deity who quick-changed into America's Br'er Rabbit. A society invents tricksters to undermine its own rules, so it can move on, says Leland, bringing up Bob Dylan, Miles Davis and Richard Pryor.

And now there's hip-hop, with its roots in the rhyming-insult showdowns known as "signifying," after a trickster type called the Signifying Monkey. No wonder Eminem's 8 Mile character was named Rabbit, Bugs thinks. ("Note to self: Could I mebbe make a buck off that?")

But Eminem also marks the spot where Leland's engine runs off its rails: the present. He suggests multiculturalism has demoted whiteness to just another self-aware ethnic performance, a kind of "whiteface." (Besides Slim Shady, trucker hats come up a lot.) But if white hipsters are post-white, does that make hip blacks post-black? Bugs freestyles his critique: "That tar baby's stickier than taffy/ So this guy ducks the issue like Daffy." It's as if Leland just gave up and went for the happy, rainbow-coloured ending.

For 21st-century Hip Studies, ambi-racial Bugs much prefers the approach here at Handsome Boy Modeling School. The proprietors are hip-hop trickster-producers Prince Paul and Dan the Automator -- albeit, in false moustaches, as Chest Rockwell and Nathaniel Merriweather.

Their hallmarks were set in 1999 with the cult album, So . . . How's Your Girl? -- goofy sketches, scrunchy sound collages and guest stars galore. They impersonate suave clotheshorses, but "handsome" here is code for a rereading of hip. As the booklet in their new disc says, "It's a handsome thing, you wouldn't understand" -- a zinger even more pungent when paired with the album's title: White People.

It's full of pink-complexioned guests such as Mike Patton (Mr. Bungle), Cat Power, Mike Shinoda (Linkin Park), Jack Johnson and even John Oates (as in "Hall and"), plus a few Saturday Night Live has-been comics. Whiteness is seldom an explicit subject (save in the sly Julee Cruise-Pharrell Williams duet, Class System), but the question hangs flapping on the line between the tracks.

In the video for the album's classic-sounding lead single, World Gone Mad, rapper Del tha Funkee Homosapien's brown face breaks up through the surface in a box full of white Styrofoam packing peanuts. Jamaican singer Barrington Levy croons a heavenly hook, and Del drawls, "The situation's bad, not meanin' good," reversing Run-DMC's milestone 1986 hip-hop chant, "Not bad meaning bad but bad meaning good."

"Heeeyyy," Bugs breaks in. "Leland says 'Bad meaning good' goes back to slave plantations, too: Say you said a runaway slave was good, that was trouble. But if you said he was bad, who could prove you meant good?"

So what's up with Del? "Ehh, maybe he had enough doubletalk."

Consider last week's demise of a classic hipster, Ol' Dirty Bastard of the Wu-Tang Clan. He lived the off-kilter addict's life, transfigured it into his wild performances, and what does he get? Just an inadvertent audio obit in the illicit, Queen-meets-hip-hop mash-up that's all over the Web these days, A Night at the Hip-Hopera: It has ODB rhyming over the riff to Another One Bites the Dust.

By giving gorgeous, funky makeovers to cheese-rockers, yet playing their own shtick for anything but cool, it's as if Handsome Boy shuffles hip's racial deck: "This century, how about you come up with raw material and we do the appropriating?"

"Yep, that's the ticket, doc," says Bugs, shaking out his coiffed head and chomping down on his carrot. "I figgered that out a loooooong time ago."

cwilson@globeandmail.ca

Read More | The Writ | Posted by zoilus on Saturday, November 27 at 2:13 AM | Linking Posts

 

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Zoilus by Carl Wilson