America is more tolerant than it used to be. Case in point: Aesop Rock. These days, he packs clubs with his dense, cerebral rhymes—at least when he's not canceling shows because of broken ribs. Not long ago, that sentence would've read as a joke.
Hip-hop is one area of culture in this country where being white is a disadvantage. Things, however, are changing. Obviously, superstars like the Beastie Boys and Eminem helped break the saltine ceiling. To understand success, one must understand failure. Retroactive laughing stocks like Vanilla Ice and Snow don't count: However bad you may think they were, those guys made millions. On Wednesday, Jan. 23, Walidah Imarisha, adjunct professor at Portland State University, will discuss at the North Portland Library the evolution of hip-hop. Here are five moments she won't be talking about.
Sonic Youth's "Master-Dik" (1987)
Back in the primordial days of hip-hop, when the music was loud, minimalist and practically avant-garde, Caucasian coolsters wanted to get in on the action but were unsure how to approach the form. Sonic Youth, ever the visionary, dove in guitars-first in 1987 with "Master-Dik," a song from an EP of the same name (later appended to the CD release of Sister), featuring a thudding drum machine, a KISS sample and Thurston Moore "freestyling" like an awkward drunk dude who wandered into a house-party cipher.
Brian Austin Green's One Stop Carnival (1996)
White privilege jumped the shark the moment an exec at MCA said, "Let's make the kid who plays the second-least important character on Beverly Hills, 90210 a rap star!" Over rejected Pharcyde beats from Tre "Slimkid3" Hardson, the future Mr. Megan Fox spits with zero self-awareness on songs like "Da Drama," "Mind and da Body" and "Didn't Have a Clue," which he delivers with no discernible irony.
Eminem's Infinite (1996)
In 1996, Marshall Mathers was less Slim Shady than B-Rabbit, the fictionalized, pre-fame version of himself he played in 8 Mile. Lucky for him, he got more than one chance to blow, because on his first attempt—which he now dismisses as a glorified demo tape—he just kind of blew. Em had lyrics even back then—though he was more likely to rap about finding God than killing his baby mama—but little personality and certainly no beats by Dre.
MC Paul Barman (2000)
Single-handedly setting the plight of pigment-deprived MCs back to the pre-Beasties Stone Age, this scrawny, mop-topped Ivy Leaguer somehow conned Prince Paul into making beats for him, lending credibility to a shtick that otherwise wouldn't have left his Brown University dorm room. It's not that Barman couldn't string a rhyme together, it's that he dropped lines like "he backlashed my booty like Susan Faludi" in the voice every Comic View comedian uses to impersonate white guys, except that's how he actually sounded.
The (White) Rapper Show (2007)
Hosted by MC Serch of 3rd Bass, this single-season VH1 competition professed to be searching for rap's next great white hype, but what it actually did was satirize rap stereotypes. Its lasting legacy is briefly gifting the world John Brown, one of reality television's all-time greatest trolls, who crowned himself "King of da Burbz" and branded a catchphrase ("Hallelujah hollaback!") before losing in the finals to an ice-grilled, barely-on-beat Southerner named $hamrock.
SEE IT: Walidah Imarisha presents Break It Down: Exploring Hip Hop's Musical and Cultural Odyssey at the North Portland Library, 512 N Killingsworth St., on Wednesday, Jan. 23. 6 pm. Free.
WEDNESDAY JAN. 23
FRIDAY JAN. 25
SATURDAY JAN. 26
MONDAY JAN. 28