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Hip-Hop Nation: Mixtape Revolution?

Xan West
Date Published: 
February 6, 2012

by Jared Ball

AK Press, 2011

“The ability to determine which forms of cultural expression are widely disseminated and which are not is purely ideological and serves a colonizing purpose”- Jared Ball, I Mix What I Like!: A Mixtape Manifesto

I have a confession.  I’ve most likely seen every episode, reunion and thrown down of Love & Hip-Hop.  Critical consciousness intact, I sit guilty and mesmerized by one solid hour of television dedicated to black women man chasing, trash talking and fist fighting.  For months I’ve tried to analyze what it could be about me, my homies, and apparently a large segment of the nation that, though we know it is wrong, can’t seem to look away.  Many of us use a train wreck analogy to justify our attraction to such a rachet show: I can’t look away because I want to see how bad it gets. 

However we justify it to ourselves, most of us rely on personal responsibility and question ourselves: why do I have this sick obsession?  But, I began to notice Love & Hip-Hop and the weave-pulling drama that goes with it, is always on the air—morning, after school, nighttime, and that’s not even the marathons. If one is to turn on VH1, Love& Hip-Hop is what’s on.  The other music channels are not much better.

Jared Ball’s I Mix What I Like!: A Mixtape Manifesto properly places Black America as a colonized people within a nation, and therefore recognizes a colonized hip-hop nation within this colony.  Ball identifies the process of cooptation of culture as well as saturation of a fabricated culture as key to the continued process of colonization.  Ball argues that hip-hop culture and shows like Love & Hip-Hop serve as little more than propaganda—vaguely reminiscent of the culture of the oppressed, yet processed and repackaged with a colonial agenda. 

Once a libratory art form created by disenfranchised kids, hip-hop had to be destroyed or, better yet, co-opted by empire.  In reaction to KRS-One’s U Must Learn, Public Enemy’s Fear of a Black Planet and more than a decade of hip-hop consciousness, empire struck back with Puffy’s Its All About the Benjamins and Rick Ross’ Aston Martin Music and a decade of promoting violence and drugs.  Yet Ball argues, while we easily blame the 50 cents for violence, the Jay-Zs for greed and Love &Hip-Hop ladies for ignorance, blame is rarely placed rightfully in the hands of those corporate execs who have carefully selected to invest in a culture that maintains colonial power.  On Love & Hip-Hop, bass beats weaving through the entire show, we learn that to be successful, Black men need to be thug rappers and Black women need to be slutty video vixens and none of them need ever get along.

This corporate investment in a particular kind of hip-hop (gangsta rap), the media’s complicity in promoting (and focusing on it), and the lack of a true alternative media that represents oppressed people (Ball especially calls out NPR), combine to serve a crushing blow to Black America and the hip-hop nation.  I Mix What I Like! is not content with simply critiquing the state of hip hop. It offers the hip-hop mixtape as a tool for emancipatory journalism. 

Hip-hop mixtape

While Ball pinpoints the problem with quarterback accuracy, his proposed mixtape solution comes up a little suspect.  Primarily because, as with many nationalist texts, Ball over assumes a monolithic identity within this hip-hop nation, as if because we dance to the same beat we want the same living standards.  Little, if any, attention was given to political differences between artists most hip-hop heads would label ‘conscious’, and therefore by Ball’s standard, mixtape worthy.  One cannot underestimate the differences between vegan Common Sense, black nationalist Dead Prez, and Marxist Boots Riley from the Coup, yet all of them fall under the label ‘conscious hip-hop’. 

Most distressing was the exemption of misogyny and homophobia in even what most people call conscious rap.  Dead Prez is one of the most political rap groups still making music, yet they have been notoriously critiqued for their misogyny.  Many of us recall the now infamous scene in Byron Hurt’s Hip-Hop: Beyond Beats and Rhymes documentary when Hurt asks a room full of rappers about homosexuality. All but one leaves, including artists many of us may have previously thought a little more conscious.

Yet I find some of the people rarely named as conscious artists tend to be some of the most emancipatory, such as Outkast or Cee-Lo Green.  Also, what is to be made of corporate artists who make revolutionary songs such as Lil Wayne’s Tie My Hands or How to Love, yet the rest of their discography is less than inspirational.  While there is something to be said for allowing the readers and producers to create their own vision, we are left with little to understand the barometer for what Ball sees as mixtape worthy.  If mixtapes already exist within hip-hop, how is one to decipher emancipatory journalism from the CDs that are already present?  It seems someone can burn a 50 cent album, throw some of his interviews over it, and call it liberation.

Moreover, the crux of Ball’s argument seems to fall back on the premise: if colonized people could create ways to communicate freely amongst themselves they would be free.  Well yeah. While Ball argues that the mixtape offers more cultural relevance inside the hip-hop community than many other forms of media, his argument that it will be able to stand up to the forces of oppression he accurately catalogues is not convincing. 

What happens when mixtapes are criminalized as contraband?  What happens when people start getting 5 year bids for possession of a mixtape? What happens when Lil Wayne puts out Fuck a Mixtape?   As Ball argues during the beginning of the book, there is a culture of escapism among colonized people.  Therefore, without political education, how many people would even consume such a mixtape? 

Ball’s book also seems to exist in a time warp.  Published less than a year ago, the book makes little mention of new media.  The book is absent of conversations around mobile apps, radio streaming and the mixtape leak phenomenon that has taken distribution to the Internet.  How will emancipatory mixtape journalism factor into these developments?  Will this make it easier to distribute CDs, or harder because the internet is more saturated?

It is also important to note, this book is more pedagogy and political theory, and not a history of hip-hop.  People who open this book with little knowledge of hip-hop will pick up trace amounts of hip-hop history, culture and artists.  For those looking to find the role The Universal Zulu Nation, Tribe Called Quest, Death Row Records, Russell Simmons, and Puff Daddy played in the robbery of hip-hop cultural heritage, they will not find it here.  However, for those interested in the role hip-hop culture, such as Love & Hip-Hop, has played in creating a colonizing mindset in youth culture over the last several decades, I Mix What I Like! is a critical text.

Xan West has over a decade of experience as a multimedia journalist. She is thrilled to have interviewed people as wide ranging as Mumia Abu-Jamal, Peter Bratt, Eminem and Nas. She is currently the WestOakland blog reporter for KQED’s ouRXperience, as well as a frequent contributor to Oakland Local and VoxUnion. A proud Oakland native, Xan has lived in the Foster-Hoover area (more familiarly referredto as “Ghost Town”) of West Oakland for the past 8 years. She has worked in community organizing with organizations such as Critical Resistance, People’s Grocery and Anarchist People of Color.