Radio: An apocalypse I couldn't switch off

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The Independent Culture
Radio 1 and sustained cultural analysis are not traditionally thought of together but that is changing, thanks to the slots that appear on Monday nights in the Lamacq Live programme. I caught one a few weeks ago, which if I remember correctly was about how the internet was changing the music industry; a subject full to bursting with the promise of tedium, but which was in fact treated excellently, being both insightful and highly listenable, the audio equivalent of a page-turner.

Last Monday's documentary (for want of a better word), Extinction Level Event, dealt with rap and hip-hop's fascination with millennial angst, the year 2000, and all those other words that I suspect have just made your eyes glaze over. As indeed they do mine, but, once again, whoever put the programme together did a fine job. Rap gets treated shoddily by the main pop-music stations, and as for hip-hop, I remember when hip-hop was an exciting musical form, and not the bland no-brain and all-slush music that seems to go under that name these days. (The same kind of thing has happened with the term "rhythm and blues", which, correct me if I'm wrong, used to be 12-bar guitar-based gut-bucket stuff with pace and power, and not, as it is now, toothless music to dance round your handbag to. The Society for the Preservation of Resonant and Meaningful Musical Terminology starts here, particularly if someone can come up with a snappier name for it.)

Anyway, Extinction Level Event reminded us that not only are rap and hip-hop still thriving and inspiring, they are also sending out distinctly unsettling pre-millennial signals. The You'd-Better-Watch-Out apocalyptic frenzy with which some of the artists anticipate the end of this particular year is not to be dismissed as the opportunistic rantings of the feeble- minded, but a cry of mingled despair and hope from the underclass.

Remember the underclass? It is still out there, frequently abutting the overclass with audacious proximity. It's easy for us to blank them, of course, but not so much the other way round, when not only the ambient dominant culture but the very view out of your window reminds you of how far apart the two ends of society have drifted. We were invited to contemplate Queen's Bridge, a housing project in New York which contains 3,000 dwelling units in 96 buildings, and has the skyscrapers of Manhattan in constant view but not, it would appear, vice-versa.

"One way of guaranteeing that hip-hop will be creative in a place," said one artist, "is to create desolation or despair. For Queen's Bridge to face the riches that the New York skyline represents is to create a need in the housing projects that is going to create a music that is urgent, that demands change." This delivered over a song that, in its poignant mixture of drumbeats, a sampled classical soprano vocal line, heavy bass and the deadpan litany of deprivation and harassment that the narrator grew up with, seemed to be not so much a musical statement as the fragments shored against the ruins of society.

"Hip-hop artists get it first not because they are hip-hop artists," said another voice, "but because they are poor. If you are looking for the prophets of old, the seers of old, they're in the ghetto." A third voice: "We are the stone that the builder refused." This as another track played, for our inspection, a recording of George Bush's speech about a new world order, about creating something bigger than America; which, as another rap artist pointed out, meant that the 200-year-old Constitution would no longer be serviceable or needed.

"Our fear is to be the cattle, the ones they put in the concentration camp, you know, slavery back, in effect ... we see ourselves as the first thing they're going to pluck off the planet." So would you argue, if you had been ground down to the point where you had become an almost unmentionable embarrassment to the ruling political class. A feeling which, if you look at the voter turn-out figures, appears to be mutual; and which can be expressed as the wish for a collapse of government, as the only hope left for a society of "righteousness".

If that is too scary for you, think of rap as a new kind of urban blues ("hip-hop's constant need for change and newness was there from the very beginning," someone else pointed out, "and it has much to do with the need of the audience for a new reality"), an art form which is sending out clear and unambiguous messages to those have ears to hear.

"If we can generate an awareness in people who think they're not rap fans, or are in fact against rap, if we can get them to listen to how millennially informed rap is speaking about issues of responsibility, life choice, they might be more willing to work on political interventions that can help the inner city; a concerted critique of certain social systems."

A critique, it became obvious, cavernously absent anywhere else.

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