Nostalgia, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Hip-Hop

Nostalgia is a big industry and I’m a helpless consumer of it. It’s really not my fault. There’s something buried deep in our brains that sees history as a series of cultural bonfires on the cold plain of human experience and wants more than anything to warm up next to one. Go to a jazz club in Chicago, a poetry reading in San Francisco, a Paris cabaret, and you will find yourself in a sea of frozen pilgrims looking for a flame.

The urge is honest – a survival instinct almost – but all too often the flame is a cool one. It’s right there before you, but stuck in a glass case and won’t defrost your fingers. Sometimes it burns only when stoked aggressively or oxidized by bellows. Sometimes it feels like the flame isn’t even real. It’s behind the curtain in a theater of re-creation.

So – what’s up with that? When did the glow of these cultural bright spots dim, and why? Can people no longer play the sax like Charlie Parker? Draw like Toulouse-Lautrec? Mope like Kurt Cobain? Or do the hottest moments need a semblance of novelty? Is what attracts us to them more than just their quality, but a lack of self-consciousness as well? I think so.

I guess what we seek is the virginity of the moment. That little piece of time in which orange sparks start spraying but no one notices – not even those with the flint and tinder. But it’s not something you can bring back. Most attempts to do so only wind up highlighting the lack of it. Listening to Marvin Gaye on a record player doesn’t recreate the golden age of Motown so much as it makes all the more apparent the passing of it.

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This bring us to the interesting question: if the most nostalgia prone moments are unaware of their own importance, which are we in the midst of right now? Put differently, what will people in the future – 20 years, 75 years, 200 years out – spend good money trying to recreate? It’s actually a hard question. If hind-sight is 20/20, present-sight has cataracts and is in desperate need of some Lasik.

But you’ve read this far, so I’ll take a stab at it. Hip-hop.

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Now I’m far from a hip-hop aficionado. I’m one of those people who can yell “beast” pretty much on time at the end of the verses of “Fuckin’ Problems” and say with authority that Kanye West’s “Yeezus” was “pretty angry,” but that’s about it. I learned who Danny Brown was, like, three weeks ago, and I sometimes mix up A$AP Rocky and Aesop Rock. But I kind of think hip-hop is likely to be the hottest bonfire that we leave on the cold plain.

It’s new. And yes, I know that is not, like, new new. I’m not discounting Rakim or Afrika Bambaataa or the very cool legacy meandering through funk and soul and Jamaican dub. But unless people start going to Kendrick Lamar concerts hoping to relive the glory days of Grandmaster Flash before I finish writing this, I’m gonna call hip-hop new.

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It’s new enough that people don’t know what they are a part of, or perhaps more accurately, don’t care. The crowd at a Sex Pistol’s concert in 1976 probably wasn’t concerned too much with the legacy they were a part of, or the one they were creating. Hip-hop is in this stage too. It may be aware of the legacy, but it’s not what’s important right now. What’s important right now is the music. That is what fuels a fire.

I don’t write any of this to dismiss the cultural pillars of the past. I like Charlie Parker. I like Toulouse-Lautrec. I like Kurt Cobain. I’ll always be one of the shivering pilgrims going from fire to fire in search of warmth. Never quite finding it. As far as I’m concerned that’s totally cool. But sometimes I think it’s worth trying to take a deep lungful of the present.

Pessimism is easy, and I don’t claim that this day and age doesn’t lend itself to it readily. Pop hits are stamped out of plastic for three cents a unit. Movie screens are dominated by disappointing blockbusters. Is there a profound culture of carelessness right now? Yeah. But let’s not forget that the same year that saw the release of “Ben Hur,” “North by Northwest,” and “Some Like it Hot,” also gifted us with “Plan 9 From Outer Space,” considered by many to be the worst film ever made.

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In 100 years there might be clubs advertising “an authentic 2010’s hip-hop vibe.” Those annoying OFWGKTA t-shirts might be auctioned off in Sotheby’s as priceless memorabilia and open-air tour busses might take nostalgic tourists through the “fertile creative soil” of south central Los Angeles.

So while I wander through the bonfires of the past I’ll keep an eye out for the sparks of the present. I recommend you do the same. Who knows – you might be making them.

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