Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Bust shots at Big Ben like we got time to kill

In these short essays, I reflect on how a lyric from the Wu-Tang Clan album "The W" speaks to my personal experience.

On writing, humor and race relations.

[Warning: this essay is too self-referential for my tastes and likely for yours. Bear with me.]

When I was young, my father often told me I was clever. According to my understanding of the word, my father thought my words and actions were cute and quaint, but not necessarily profound, innovative or insightful.

One day, upon observing that I was reading Steven Hawking's A Brief History of Time, my father commented, "Oh, yes. Hawking is quite the clever man." I then realized that the word clever has a different connotation in British English than in American English. All this time, my father's view of me was entirely different from what I had assumed.

In the American sense of the word, I would not call myself clever. Certainly, my storytelling abilities are lacking. I am by no means of Toastmaster caliber.* Given enough time and thought, however, I can piece together a mildly entertaining narrative, as I attempt to do in my essays.

I find it very difficult to write a reflective essay without some degree of humor. Perhaps I am mimicking the style of my favorite essay writers like Anne Lamott, Dave Sedaris and Jonathan Lethem. Upon deeper reflection, however, I simply do not believe my life experience is profound enough to offer serious insight into another's experience. Alternatively, anyone can relate to the idea that life is confusing, absurd and challenging, and shouldn't we all just have a good laugh about it?

Of course, this sentiment is shared by many writers. The New York Times' Deborah Solomon recently interviewed Ben Karlin, former producer of the Daily Show and editor of a new anthology of humorous essays, and struggled to elicit one answer from Karlin that was not sarcastic or self-deprecating. When she noted that her favorite essay in his book was the only unfunny one, he replied, "I worked a little bit with him to try to put some more jokes in."

There is underlying humor in my Wu-Tang Clan inspired essays, since, as a white woman, I am not the intended audience of the hip-hop ensemble. Further, I treat these songs with a certain level of sobriety, which is in sharp contrast to lyrics such as "in a room full of crackers, I might cut the cheese." This is similar to the sardonic style The New York Times often employs when writing about hip-hop.** By referring to the artists as "Mr. Cent" and "Mr. Game" The Times subtly judges hip-hop as beneath serious consideration. The formal writing style is intended to be ironic.

On the contrary, I write these essays with no intention of irony. I genuinely enjoy the Wu-Tang Clan and find much of their music thought-provoking. Thus, to avoid accusations of insincerity, at this point in the essay I'm going to loosen up my writing style. In fact, I'm going to use the word shit three times. Can't do that in The New York Times! Can't use contractions either, and I just used four!

Using hip-hop culture to humorously point out cultural differences is rarely done well. "Granny singing rap" has been beaten to death. "Chicks with gang signs" is blatantly ignorant. Dynamite Hack's cover of "Boys in the Hood" could be judged similarly. However, I argue that this folk version of the hip-hop classic aims to point out the absurdity of adult contemporary music and not hip-hop. "Boys in the Hood" shows that the only way to make lame, Jack Johnson style music tolerable is to add lyrics about guns and prostitutes. And when they sing "punk ass tripping in the dead of night" to the tune of "Blackbird"? That shit's just straight up funny parody.

Every good hipster loves Wu-Tang Clan. I recently observed some teenagers sitting outside their jeep blasting "M-E-T-H-O-D Man" and I self-righteously rolled my eyes. I then realized I had Wu-Tang's "8 Chambers" in my bag. But I'm not blasting that shit out of my jeep. I'm listening to it quietly with the windows rolled up, like Michael Bolton from "Office Space".

Unlike Michael Bolton, however, I hide my love of hip-hop, not out of fear, but out of a constant struggle to treat cultural differences and race relations in a way that's sensitive, honest and humble. And if I'm indeed being honest, I should throw guilty in there, too. In one of his "Ask a Black Dude" sketches from the Chappelle Show, Paul Mooney claims that if there's anything good about black culture, white people will steal it. "They don't let them have too much fun." Watching this sketch feels like a punch to the stomach.

This concept of stealing is present in any discussion of gentrification. Living in a fast changing neighborhood, I've seen a lot of what Mooney would call stealing. For example, my neighborhood is predominantly African-American and used to be full of jazz clubs. Currently, only three remain. Wally's has a long history of black ownership, but the patrons are predominantly white and come from outside the neighborhood. Bob the Chef's has been a pillar of the African-American community for years. A few years ago, the owner changed the name to Bob's Southern Bistro to appeal to a larger (read: wealthier) crowd. And now the owner sold it to someone outside the community who will reopen it as a martini bar named "Night Town" (which I will inevitably call "White Town"), targeting the growing population of students and young professionals (read: me). Slades is the only club whose patrons are predominantly African-American. I love Slades' food; I'm friends with the owners; and I'll occasionally drop by. But I can't help feel like I'm stealing when I do.

In the Chappelle Show episode with the Mooney sketch, two men walk onto the stage and tell Chappelle, "we're the white people coming to steal your show." In acting out Mooney's claim, Chappelle acknowledges the complexity associated with a show that focuses its humor on racial differences and appeals to both black and white audiences. As many have assumed, wrestling with this complexity surely contributed to Chappelle's decision to bow out of the show, despite being offered huge sums of money to continue.

* * *

Method Man often peppers his lyrics with humor. In "Protect Ya Neck (The Jump Off)", he offers one of his most clever lines: "Bust shots at Big Ben like we got time to kill." However, this brilliant lyric is weakened by the lyric that precedes it: "Now what clan you know with lines this ill?"

Here Method Man uses the same style I use when I try to tell a funny story. Usually, I precede and end the story in hyperbole, saying "the funniest thing happened to me today" and then afterward "I couldn't stop laughing" as though these qualifiers somehow increase the comic value of the tale.

By pointing out the illness of his line before he says it, Method Man may as well say, "Want to hear something funny?"

*This claim is ironic on many levels, as I believe this is one of the funniest sentences I have ever written.

**Searching The NY Times' archives for "Mr. Cent" and "sardonic" led me to this article. It's the perfect example of The Times' attitude towards hip-hop. Of course, this type of grammatical analysis is exactly what I did in this post, so I can't point the finger at The Times without pointing at myself. I love that the article's last line includes the phrase "the words were spelled right" and not "the words were spelled correctly." I wonder if this was intentional.

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