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Death of Autotune or Death of Hip Hop?

July 5, 2009

Alright, I’ve been thinking about this for the last few weeks as I’ve been rewinding the hell out of Jay Z’s latest and I want to get a couple things out of the way from the jump. 1) Autotune is hella overused and kind of annoying after the 50th listen. 2) In a sea of catchy hooks and brain dead verses, Jay Z’s DOA is like a Super Lyrical life preserver. Granted, Jay’s call for an end to all things Autotuned isn’t on par with that original Big Pun joint but still, as my man DKing says- “That dude there, he raps. That’s what you call RAPPING.”

So for the first 15 or so spins of Death of Autotune I had to geek out on the head nod. Of course there are mad underground heads making dope songs but I’ve still got a soft spot for old school terrestrial radio, so to hear a mainstream cat going in like this touched off some back in the days nostalgia. It almost felt like the mid 90’s again.

But with all that being said, once I took off the hip hop cheerleader’s helmet and picked up my critic’s notebook my opinions shifted a bit. Where once DOA sounded like a breath of fresh air and a rallying cry for “Real Hip Hop” (does anyone even seriously have this debate anymore?) it was now beginning to sound like the last swan song of a style past it’s prime. A damned fine swan song, but still one that signals the beginnings of a march out the Exit door.

The folks over at weigh in on this skinny business

The folks over at weigh in on this skinny business

The more I listen to the track I think Jigga is confusing a couple of only loosely related issues. On the surface DOA appears to point it’s barrel squarely at the autotune abusers, intent on killing all processed vocals and getting back to the “real MC’ing” (again, does anyone take this term seriously?). But in reality it’s more like he picked up a sawed off and the wide buckshot spray landed firmly in the ass of urban music’s next evolution.

1st off, with the exception of the chorus, Jay doesn’t really mention Autotune until the last verse, where admittedly he gets some good jabs in. The majority of the song is spent criticizing various changes that have bubbled up in the last few-cat’s getting money from ringtones, wearing skinny jeans, singing verses, the rise of “hipster rap” etc.

“Your boy’s jeans too tight, your color’s too bright, your voice too light…”
“…ya’ll rappers singing too much,
Get back to rap you’re ‘T-Pain’ing too much”

Now I’ll cop to being just as much of a hipster hater as anyone who came of age in the 90’s as well as being a card carrying, dues paying member of the Anti-Nut Hugging Jeans Coalition. But I’m not ready to condemn the scene just cause I think dudes are making a serious fashion faux pas. Face it: the look, sound, and style of urban music (as opposed to just hip hop) is changing and while it’s one thing to want to preserve a culture’s tradition and purity, it’s quite another to hate on the new cats doing their own thing.

“This is anti autotune, death of the ringtone,
This ain’t for iTunes, this ain’t for sing alongs.”

And the backlash on this song and others against so called “Ringtone Rappers” is another head scratcher. I mean, to use Jay Z’s phrase-Let’s keep it 100: heads are making money, off cell phone rings. Fuckin’ Cell Phones! Honest, no DA, no central bookin’, no burger flippin, check’s in the mail money! And while it might not be private jet, caviar, Arab Money, I’m down for anything that get my folks off the block and out of the DA’s cross hairs. And just you can get DOA as a ringtone here. In fact, increasing income by combining several smaller scale revenue streams, from ringtones to video game licensing is one of the main tenets of the DIY indy music hustle and was has been discussed extensively at conferences like this year’s SFTech Music Summit (and in case you’re wondering-yes, Death of Autotune is available as a ringtone).

In my opinion this song is part valid critique and part old guard not making way for the new. In a lot of ways it reminds me of a Greg Tate essay from a few years back-“Hiphop Turns 30 Whatcha celebratin’ for??” In the piece, Tate laments the fall of the music he loves, grew up on and championed from the get. He pays homage to the groups of the past and provides a somewhat grim outlook for the future.

Now Greg Tate is the dude. He’s been putting his critical thing down since the early 80’s and provided a road map for all us newbie critics who wanted to attack the cannon from a hood perspective. But like Jay, I think he missed the mark by not taking a broad enough view of the current state of the industry. And just like quite a few heads thought that Tate’s essay was just more than a bit overblown, I think that DOA doesn’t really take into account the dope as fuck musical advances of the last few. (Or on the other hand, maybe Jay’s still pissed that his girl Lady Sov never really blew up in the states).

This debate reminds me of a similar discussion in the mid 90’s, when “metrosexual” was the dominant buzzword, complete with it’s own counter movement calling for a return to “true masculinity”. The idea was that men were getting too sensitive, too in touch in touch with their emotions and too familiar with the growing world of men’s personal grooming products. The solution? Fight Club.

Chuck Palahniuk’s 1995 tome to all things manly, violent and oedipal considered the rise of the “sensitive man” as the end of the truly alpha male and sought to remedy this cultural shift in the most logical way. By getting a bunch of men together and letting them beat the shit out of each other.

Jay Z’s self described “violent” anthem fall into that same “extreme solution” boat. While Durden rallied his troops around a bloody squared circle in hopes of knocking some sense back into the collective male, Jay Z calls for the return of the hip hop as thug music, name checking everything from chain snatching and crip walkin to Versace shades and black hoodies as vehicles to transport us back to the days of “real hip hop.” It’s pretty easy to imagine a video comprised of the chaos and violence scenes from Fight Club while Jay’s verses float over the images.

“My raps don’t contain melodies,
this shit make jackas wanna go and commit felonies.”

“..all your lack of aggression,
pull your skirt back down, grow a set men”

“Yeah, this shit’s violent,
This is Death Of Autotune moment of silence”

See, I already feel like snappin’ a neck to some MOP.

And again, I need to emphasize again that I actually like DOA-I think it’s one of the hottest singles of the year. And while I’m against originality fails in any medium that doesn’t mean hate on everything skinny jeaned and techie sounding. For every T-Pain wannabee, there’s a Wale original, for every stale vocoder “in the club” track, there’s a Kid Cudi Day ‘n Night remix. And while you won’t ever catch me in a pair of those nut hugging Levi’s, if that’s what these dudes gotta wear to then well then hug on, just think twice about adding those processed lyrics.

Ultimately, while the classic notion of hip hop as all original boom baps and hot 16’s probably isn’t going away anything soon, there’s definitely a new musical monster afoot. For better or worse hip hop just ain’t the same beast as it used to be and while accepting change isn’t always the easiest thing, it’s probably not a good thing to not throw out the musically innovative babies along with the stale autotuned bathwater. Even if the kids are wearing some unfortunately skinned tight trousers. Hell, maybe Jay Z and the rest of us old heads just need to go shopping…

4 Comments leave one →
  1. July 6, 2009 3:54 am

    I wasn’t sure what autotune was, so I went and looked it up. The article on Wikipedia is somewhat sparse, but the discussion is amazing. So many opinions about auto-tune as a tool, if it is the same as any vocoder, and who uses it when:

    I had no idea. ^_^

    • Boothism permalink*
      July 10, 2009 6:16 pm

      We should do an album of auto tuned country and western songs over Miami booty beats. We can be like the Detroit Grand Pubahs, but different. and from California.

  2. subject-verb agreement permalink
    July 6, 2009 9:19 pm

    when i first heard about DOA, i was stoked, because the disgusting and shameless abuse of autotune in current rap has turned me into a raging psychotic. and more of a hip hop snob than ever. so, like i said, i was stoked.

    i’m still stoked, but only a little. i’ve always dug Jay Z’s innovative instrumental incorporations, and this song is no different. but that ain’t enough for me. here are my complaints:

    1. lyrically speaking, this has to be the most rudimentary rhyme Jay has ever produced. if he’s talking about getting back to “the way things was”, then, um, do it. i expect worlds more from such a talented lyricist. how’s anyone supposed to cross the line he’s drawing in the sand if they can’t even see it?

    2. the video for this song is terrible. it’s like a parody within a parody. corny as fuck. and thematically retarded. as someone studying film, maybe i’m being hyper critical about this, but the video in no way supports the message of this song. it detracts. it’s trying assert rawness while being stupidly overproduced. and poorly lit. and blowing up gold chains and bottles of Cristal? um, you’re joking, right? that’s supposed to be funny, yes? no. it’s stupid.

    3. this whole thing feels like brilliant marketing, not real hip hop. and while i appreciate Jay’s public “call-out” to all the douche bags jacking off to auto tune and/or making songs like “gucci bandana”, i can’t help but feel this effort lacks heart. which kinda brings us back to square one. well, as far as the mainstream anyway. there are still plenty of real musicians doing their thing, hearts intact. and as people get tired of hearing the same electronically enhanced song released by 20 different idiots, they’ll start to seek out these talented, mostly unknown hip hop artists. If Jay Z hasn’t fucked it all up.

    • Boothism permalink*
      July 10, 2009 6:25 pm

      Talented, mostly unknown hip hop artists:

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