Postmodernism and Hip-Hop

By Randy Wagstaff

The first time I watched Action Bronson perform was at the Hoxton in Toronto. As the crowd suffered through utterly unremarkable opening acts, they started getting impatient, and, to the consternation of the already tremulous MC, began chanting “Bronson! Bronson! Bronson!” Bronson hadn’t exactly had his big break yet, but he had become something of an underground cultural sensation. A mythical chef-turned-rapper who was white, sounded like Ghostface, and rapped about low culture (hookers, drugs), popular culture (athletes, actors), and high culture (haute cuisine) with the same unstinting devotion; he used references loosely, like hashtags on an Instagram post of a prostitute eating a plate of bucatini razor clams. I had become infatuated with his latest project, Blue Chips, with which he was touring at the time. I wrote a review of the mixtape on the blog I kept at the time, but quoting lines from the songs proved difficult, as no website seemed to be able to put more than 60 percent of the lyrics together on any given song: the content was fragmented, demimonde, obscure.

My favourite song on Blue Chips was “9-24-11,” which was unapologetically messy, featuring Bronson fumbling over line after line, waiting for the beat to loop, then correcting his mistake and moving on with the humour of what had happened behind him, pushing him towards the inevitability of the next screw-up. Bronson was high when he recorded this song, as he often is, “smoking fucking Thanksgiving turkey bags;” he was also making no sense, as he almost never does, stumbling through the song with a Charlie Chaplin-like ease. Most of Bronson’s songs, including “9-24-11,” have no concrete narrative, only a collage of images, each of which blends into the next, the only thread being the nearly incomprehensible nature of Bronson’s references. The beat, produced by Party Supplies, features a sample from Dean Martin, and is unbelievably beautiful; two seconds into the song, it is abruptly interrupted by Bronson’s irrepressible coughing fits, which season the sample like flakes of dandruff falling onto a plate of foie gras. The song is fragmented, features a fundamental lack of narrative, mixes high and low culture, and is referentially intertextual: it is downright postmodern.

Several postmodernist thinkers, while arguing for, or against, the legitimacy of the postmodern aesthetic, have pointed to the fact that hip-hop may have originated as a postmodern art form. Russell A. Potter goes as far as to argue that hip-hop actually conceived of postmodernism before the writings of philosophers such as Derrida had time to permeate the contemporary literary landscape; hip-hop, in this sense, is inherently postmodern in its resistance “against the economic and philosophical bulwarks of slavery and colonialism.” (Potter, 6) As postmodernism is a reaction against modernism, and, as Cornel West argued in “Black Culture and Postmodernism,” a reaction against its Eurocentric nature, so is hip-hop a reaction to the displacement, fragmentation, and reintegration of African-Americans (the terminology here being revealing enough). “Hip-hop music is black American music,” (Perry, 10) says Imani Perry, and despite it being able to trace its roots back to Africa, through the Caribbean, and into the boroughs of New York City, hip-hop’s language (see/hear: “Ebonics”), politics, and culture are fundamentally black American: From Southern hip-hop, informed by a deep history of vicious oppression and continued poor race relations, to West Coast hip-hop, profoundly affected by funk and the Black Power movement, to hip-hop’s infancy in New York, where its once nascent voice was forged by an Afrocentric reaction to inner-city violence, which later became a representation of that very culture. In this sense, hip-hop and postmodernism have always been inextricably linked, negotiating their differences as they evolved from reactions against a white-dominant system of oppression and inequality to full-fledged artistic and philosophical movements. Their voices, at first rejected by contemporary thinkers, relentlessly pushed forward, eventually infiltrating the classist structure, managing to both make use of, and at the same time fundamentally change the overall landscape. (For better or worse, rappers like Jay-Z and 50 Cent have made great use of the machinery of capitalism which hip-hop once raged against.) Kanye West touches on this potentially troubling dichotomy in “New Slaves”: “You see it’s broke nigga racism, that’s that ‘Don’t touch anything in the store!’/And it’s rich nigga racism, that’s that ‘Come in, please buy more!’” Having become a large part of majority culture, hip-hop now struggles to manage the fact that, at its core, there is a fundamental rejection of that very culture, fueling the confused self-flagellation that pops up all over Kanye’s Yeezus.

Contemporary hip-hop has roots in a revolutionary philosophy, but is no longer a revolutionary art form. Its postmodernism comes not from fighting against a broken system, but from its fragmented, referential, rhythm-focused aesthetic. Although some may condemn most hip-hop for being morally relativistic, it is precisely that type of music that aims to confront the moral relativism already existing in North American society. How can hip-hop, being a reflection of black North American culture, accept its ever-growing role in pop culture, while maintaining its connection to the young, black, middle-class American? The answer here is that those cultures are more intricately connected than ever before, and it’s the reason why Action Bronson can rap about both hookers and the New Yorker in the same verse of “Double Breasted.” Up-and-coming acts like Chance The Rapper, Vic Mensa, Earl Sweatshirt, A$AP Ferg and many others, have the freedom to engage with all types of cultural forms, from drug dealing to high fashion, allowing them to continue the long-standing connection between hip-hop and postmodernism. Chance The Rapper is often fragmented, delivering choppy lines and skewing vernacular to fit his rhyme schemes (on “Juice,” he rhymes “Oscar” with “husky”). In the same song, he finds himself shouting out several of his contemporaries (Chief Keef, Fat Trel, Joey Bada$$); his references stretch from Street Fighter to Kobe Bryant. What rappers like Action Bronson and Chance The Rapper do best is exhibit a certain stream of consciousness in their lyrics, surfing through topics as if they were slipping down a Wikipedia rabbit-hole. Vic Mensa’s last album is appropriately titled INNANETAPE, suggesting a relationship between the music and the medium that’s allowed these completely different young rappers to develop an unbelievably wide cultural lexicon. In contemporary hip-hop, “hood culture” is only part of the menu, an outdated aperitif, or as Bronson would put it, “a little amuse bouche.”

By the time Bronson stepped onto the Hoxton stage, the audience was ravenous (mostly for the music, but after the first few verses of “Shiraz,” for a gourmet seven course meal). He wore dark navy everything and sported his usual bushy red beard. “Shiraz” was not a song from Blue Chips, but its short verses and lively beat fit the rest of the setlist, where no song was given more than a minute, and where beats melted into one another, transitioning over the screams of the effusive crowd. To emphasize particularly poignant verses, Bronson would saunter over to the edge of the stage, put one hand up in the air, and stay in that spot until he felt he could finally allow the audience to relax. When the angelic voices of Dean Martin’s “Return To Me” kicked in, Bronson shuffled to the front, and I was excited; I thought I’d finally get to hear “9-24-11” in its perfection, clean from the mistakes made by Bronson on the album. I heard Dean Martin’s voice take off: this time, no coughing; then, just one minute later: “Just dick is placed in the slit, no conversation/blah blah blah blah blah, ah, fuck, I fucked my last word up/I meant to say, ‘prime rib at the carving station.’” It was foolish to have thought otherwise: The song’s aesthetic revolved around its imperfections, and Bronson’s performance reflected that. Before hearing “9-24-11” live, I never thought of Bronson as a postmodern artist, only as an organic force of nature that seemed untameable, even by its own accord. It is difficult for many to imagine him as an artist altogether, but it is this denial of artistic gravitas that brings hip-hop and postmodernism closer together.

For years, modernist thinkers have denied the legitimacy of postmodernism as a philosophical or aesthetical movement, claiming, as a critic of Bronson, Chance, Ferg, or Danny Brown might, that nothing is at stake. To Russell A. Potter, to hold that position is to fail at understanding the very purpose of postmodernism, and to deny “the sense that a great deal is at stake, and that what is perceived as relativism is really an attempt to confront some of the most troubling contradictions in contemporary culture.” (Poter, 2) Danny Brown’s latest album, Old, is split into two parts: the first reflecting a grittier, classical version of hip-hop, which influenced Brown as he grew up in Detroit; the second reflecting the contemporary version of Danny Brown, who must now deal with the dark themes of violence and poverty through his brilliant creation of catchy, drug induced club-bangers. At first, these songs may sound insensitive, repetitive, even nonsensical, but this is only the way in which today’s hip-hop can relate to, and continue to draw upon its postmodernist beginnings.

Works Cited:
Perry, Imani. Prophets of the Hood: Politics and Poetics in Hip Hop. Durham: Duke UP, 2004. Print.
Potter, Russell A. Spectacular Vernaculars: Hip-hop and the Politics of Postmodernism. Albany: State University of New York, 1995. Print.


  • Jess Sternberg says:

    Yo.. I know this guy… DRAGOS.

  • waxnfax says:

    I don’t know. It sounds like all it takes in this instance to qualify as post-modern is an absence of form. Would it be better described as abstract? Also, I’ve noticed that across a wide range of genres musicians are increasingly weaving disparate sounds in the imitation of sophistication rather than executing well planned ideas. Imagine if I used the same concept before writing this passage or if you did the same Dragos before turning in that essay. Is a complete idea revealed? The deconstruction of popular culture is reducing the narrative form to simple, disconnected observations. I’m not sure it that qualifies as art any more than the weird shit that comes out of my granny’s mouth during her monthly phone call.

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