Why I Don't Listen to Yung Lean and Similar Distraction Music
Keep doing what you're doing Yung Lean Doer. I'm not here to tell anyone to stop making art, and I'm not here to try and change anyone's ideas about the relative values of art. All art has value, and I will never deny that. If you tell me you like Yung Lean's music I won't tell you you're wrong. But, I am here to talk about the way we value art as a society. I am definitely here for that, and my track record as an artist, a journalist, an A&R, and a label owner all proven that. I'm not a journalist pushing an opinion in order to shepherd your attention. I've been making rap music and various kinds of art for the last 15 years, so my thoughts aren't born of voyeuristic observation, they're a product of the rare insights I've gained through practicing and refining my craft, and keeping company with great artists. I'm practiced beyond measure, I'm a deep thinker, and I know how to write. So if you can vibe with the idea of a wise man sharing his thoughts then take a brief ride with me through the mechanics of the rap game.
If you were to go back in time ten years and take a comprehensive look at rap music you'd find something radically different. Within the popular mainstream there would be a great deal of artists making music with an oppressively narrow artistic scope. Was this music valuable culturally, and great music? Yeah, a lot of it was. Was this music the practice that people took up as a populous art form? No. Was this music the form that people took up when they wanted to make art how they wanted to make it? No, this music was art for people who wanted to follow a formula. However, if at the same time, you were to look at undergound rap you would have found a vastly different scenario. In the underground you would have found people breaking the rules, defying convention, and a slowly mounting stream of DIY practitioners who were converging on an art form that was slowly becoming the singular most apt populus art form of our times.
In 2004 you couldn't just decide you wanted to make a rap song and then make a rap song. In 2004 you were only making rap songs if a confluence of life events had led you to a place where rap music was something that came out of you. You had to be from a particular neighborhood, go to a particular school, know particular people, learn particular esoteric skills, acquire rarified equipment (let alone acquire the knowledge to know what that equipment was), and on and on. Basically if you were making rap music in the underground back then it was because you had access to rarified substances, which is contrasted against an underground now where people make music because so many people have computers. The old access came by way of working for, or natural circumstances, but currently access is a status quo product of our life circumstances. One of the defining characteristics of the old underground hip hop scene was the fact that it stood in stark contrast to mainstream popular music. Most popular music was meant to serve as a distraction, shift people's attention from being aware of themselves to being aware of the status quo, and assist people's capacity to ignore their emotions and thoughts. Meanwhile, the underground was making art for people who wanted to think, and feel, and be changed by rap music. Today the underground is overrun with music meant to do nothing more than distract.
There used to be a difference between the underground--which is basically a catch all term that describes the folks making music on their own, or making music with small record labels that can't afford the industrial conventions of major record labels--and the popular mainstream. But now? In 2014 the underground has been overrun by shortsighted, short-practiced artists who follow the same conventions as popular mainstream artists. This is mostly on account of the fact that many people making rap music today have serious ambitions to get signed/get famous, while they have incredibly meager ambitions to contribute to a sacred and revered cultural practice that has defined multiple generations. Many of the nouveau internet famous rappers are doing their best to emulate popular music that serves to do nothing more than distract people from their lives, their feelings, and everything around them. These artists are then championed by many in the underground. Ironically, many of them are shallow emulations of Lil B, and without co-opting his sound--which was a product of his singular life--they would not exist. Defend it if you want, but I'm here to tell you it's a poor way to treat art and people, and further it has fucked up the game for anyone who is actually vested in this art form. For those of us who wound up rapping because of rarified circumstances and experiences in life it is close to hopeless right now. I know people who laid the foundation for the underground and made it so that all of us can make this music so easy today, and their careers have dwindled to a pittance of the glory that their art created. But I'm not here to argue that folks are being slighted out of what they deserve.
For instance, let's look at Tree, the singular and amazing artist from Chicago's South Side. By all accounts he is a national treasure, an artist creating work that builds on the work of generations of great artists before him. He makes his own beats, raps, sings, and records himself. The result is work that sounds like nobody else's, and reveals the myriad beautiful gradations of life in these times through the observations of a wise person with vast life experiences. His work will undoubtedly stand the test of time because it encapsulates what it means to be alive in these times. His music does not touch incessantly on the most stimulated parts of being alive in these times. Instead he weaves a subdued pastiche of emotions, thoughts, attitudes, viewpoints, experiences, wisdom, and insights that invite the listener to take a refreshingly poignant and clarified look at the world around them. When you compare an artist like Tree to someone like Yung Lean it becomes evident that these are two radically different artistic practices. Where Tree's music engages you as a whole person of these intricately complicated times Yung Lean's music treats you like a person composed of a singular anemic capacity to be incessantly activated: be distracted from yourself and the world around you, just focus on Lean. Judging from what I've heard of Lean, all he knows about your life is that you like Arizona tea, and the escape of drugs. Instead of presenting you with something variegated to engage and become familiar with, Yung Lean engorges your most easily engaged inclinations and gives you a way to forget who you are. It's like the difference between smoking weed (Tree), and getting drunk (Lean).
Now, that's still an art, and Lean excels at it, and that is undeniable. And not everyone can do it, but not everyone can eat 56 hot dogs in a single sitting either. Again, I'm not here to talk about the relative value of art. I don't think Lean should stop or change, nor do I think that his fans should stop or change. I'm just here to talk about he we value art currently. These things are not the same. The same values that drive the mainstream popular major label record industry have snuffed out the light of the underground. As Ascendant Hopefuls Of The Major Label Lie flood out the underground and use it as the means to rise to low-level short-lived prominence they effectively eliminate the underground's ability to thrive in the very realm it built as an alternative to the mainstream. The alternative isn't an alternative anymore, it's been entirely co-opted. So, it's probably time to figure out the next wave, because this one is shark jump city. People don't want to be distracted by art, only sheep want that. I have no desire to create entertainment for sheep, and I don't want to be placed in a category with people who do. What comes next? I don't know, but I know exactly where it's coming from. Hold on now people...