Macklemore, the Peter Frampton of Hip-Hop

by Kenzo Shibata

Subversive Music Genres Have Been Sucked Dry of Substance – What Are We To Do About it?

Subversive Music Genres Have Been Sucked Dry of Substance – What Are We To Do About it?

In an alternate universe, Seattle Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman would have taken a video selfie of himself apologizing to 49ers receiver Michael Crabtree immediately after making a career-defining play that put the Seahawks in the Super Bowl and posted it to Instagram. After being stopped by sideline correspondent Erin Andrews, Sherman would have showed her the seflie, in which he tagged Crabtree above caption “It’s weird and it sucks that I intercepted you.”

Perhaps if Sherman acted a little more humbly, and showed the world what a mensch he was by sharing a private moment between himself and the person he beat, the Internet would not have exploded in flurry of coded and not-so-coded racist epithets at him.

I’m alluding to the post-Grammy Awards incident where Seattle rapper Macklemore took home 4 Grammys, including one for best rap album. To show the world what a great guy he was, Macklemore immediately texted well-established better rapper and noted African-American Kendrick Lamar with “It’s weird and it sucks that I robbed you,” and immediately posted the private text to Instagram because that’s what friends do. They exploit a moment of affected humility for “likes.”

Both incidents, within a very short time of each other, got me thinking about music and how the gatekeepers of entertainment will co-opt a culture, but then slowly whittle away any aspect of the culture that doesn’t test well in white, middle-to-upper-middle-class focus groups. The punishment for not falling into those parameters is that you are snubbed for awards, attacked on the internet, and eventually are pushed out of record deals.

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Interestingly, Lamar and Sherman have some similarities. Both young men grew up in Compton, grew up in modest homes, were honor students, and would be considered “thugs” by these theoretical focus groups. Both men don’t fit in with Macklemores or the Peyton Mannings that are easily palatable to middle Americans.

Macklemore has little in common with the hip-hop milieu of which he purports to be a dues-paid member. He really has more in common with 70′s arena-rock golden boy Peter Frampton than he does with Lamar.

Bear with me a moment.

I own seven copies of the Peter Frampton classic “Frampton Comes Alive” on vinyl. This isn’t because I like Peter Frampton. My record collection is a mishmash of things I bought, things I traded, and hand-me-downs. When folks find out that you collect records, they often will unload their unwanted LPs on you. The funny thing is, None of the folks who gave me the Frampton records were particularly big Frampton fans, either. However, “Frampton Comes Alive” was a mega-hit.

Released on 6 January 1976, it debuted on the charts at 191. The album reached number one on the Billboard 200 the week ending 10 April 1976, and was in the top spot for a total of 10 weeks. It was the best-selling album of 1976, selling over 6 million copies in the US and became one of the best-selling live albums to date. Frampton Comes Alive! was voted “Album of the year” in the 1976 Rolling Stone readers poll. It stayed on the chart for 97 weeks and was still No. 14 on Billboard’s 1977 year-end album chart.

To provide a little context, its number one status was preceded by the Eagles and succeeded by Wings. So why is Peter Frampton and specifically “Frampton Comes Alive” a punchline? This clip from Wayne’s World 2 breaks it down entirely.

“If you lived in the suburbs, you were issued it. It came in the mail with samples of Tide”

Frampton was safe rock. He was a golden boy with flowing locks. He wrote about love. Not complicated love, not knock-you-down-and-make-you-move love ala Zeppelin, but the kind of love that they make really boring movies about.

He was safe and he brought “respectability” to rock music less than a decade after the radical 60s, an era filled with protest music. Rock n’ roll was once about taking back the world from boring adults. Now it was about having the blessing of boring adults to go to a football stadium and watching a laser light show set to the guitar-rock equivalent of Dramamine.

Peter Frampton represented the revenge of the boring adults. There will be no tumult, no uprising in the 1970s.

Mike Watt from the legendary hardcore punk band The Minutemen explained in the film American Hardcore,

As a boy, I’m coming up through the 60s so I thought you know my late teens, early twenties were gonna by the most radical years of my life and I get there and it’s yeah, Pete Frampton in a kimono.

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In 2014, we have Katy Perry in a kimono – but a closer parallel to Frampton is Macklemore.

When Eminem broke big in the late nineties, folks drew comparisons between him and Elvis.

Although white kids were already into hip-hop, Marshall Mathers represented something bigger to white America. He was a kid who looked like your kid, dressed like the kids in the rap videos, and wasn’t trying to be cute about the fact he was rapping. He was talented, and his lyrics and persona caused folks to get the vapors. His immense popularity got him on mainstream media.

Elvis, who copped the style of Black musicians like Chuck Berry and Little Richard thrust himself into mainstream America and mainstream America learned to embrace him because if they chose to ignore him, there’d be no chance to contain him.

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The next 20 years saw much change in rock n’ roll. It became international. The kids who grew up on Elvis and the Beatles grew hungrier for something a little more scandalous than hip-shaking. America was dealt a youth revolution in the 60s that ushered in rock music that wasn’t just subversive because parents didn’t get it, the music was written and performed with the expressed purpose of changing the world by making adults uncomfortable.

This led to an era that just stopped just short of completely transforming America.

By the 70s, A&R executives found musicians that appealed to the lowest common denominator between music fans and sanitized it for radio and talk show appearances. Frampton had long hair, played guitar, and wore elaborate costumes. This made him not unlike any of the performers at Woodstock with one major exception – his music didn’t say a damn thing. It didn’t challenge any power structure. It was a soundtrack to a night out on the town.

In a way, folks like Peter Frampton, Journey, REO Speedwagon, were sent by the record industry to tone-police rock and roll. These were records that parents would feel comfortable buying their kids. These were the parents who listened to Hendrix, tuned in, turned on, and dropped out. They wanted their kids to be do as they said, not as they did.

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Macklemore — like Frampton –could not exist without groundbreaking musicians before him, but unlike the folks he purports to be his hip-hop heroes; he’s not challenging power. He’s tone policing kids and telling people to essentially pull up their thrift-store pants. Groups like Public Enemy and NWA targeted the police, the record industry, and the federal government; Macklemore slams YouTube commenters.

If Macklemore did challenge power structures, he would not be the darling of the Grammy committee or record label executives. Even in the song “Same Love,” which advocates for tolerance, Macklemore wastes an entire verse explaining that he himself is not gay to put at ease any parents who may have issues going to Wal-Mart and buying their kid a CD for Christmas by a gay rapper. If he really wanted to challenge people’s thinking about sexuality, he could have left that ambiguous and let the song speak for itself. This is why Macklemore gets Grammys and actual gay rappers like Le1f continue their careers largely in obscurity.

The late 80s and early 90s were a golden age for hip-hop. The style and the substance were about empowerment and self determination. Hip-hop culture brought the radical ideas of Malcolm X back into the discourse, and much to the chagrin of the NIMBY middle class – back to the dinner table. There was such an opportunity for a new movement. A&R executives swooped in and gave us Vanilla Ice and MC Hammer.

Mackelmore is the final stage of this hip-hop sanitization project. It took 20 years, but “edgy” is no longer a defining characteristic of hip-hop. It seems that the defining characteristic is that it involves someone rapping.

In 2014, would Blondie’s “Rapture” be considered hip-hop? Would Debbie Harry bring home Grammys for her dope MC skills?

Within the current standards, that’s a possibility.

What I can say confidently is that 25 years from now, Macklemore albums will be as forgettable as Frampton in a kimono.

I know I’m not breaking new ground explaining that the predatory music industry makes music boring. But I do propose a solution.

The quote from Mike Watt was used in introduction of American Hardcore to set up the idea that the milquetoast music scene of the 70s sparked pushback in the form of the hardcore punk scene. Hardcore’s impact sent ripples through music and brought subversion back to music. It brought back the protest song. It injected the metal scene with an urgency that lacked in the dungeons and dragons trajectory it was on. Hip-Hop arguably choked the last bit of breath out what remained of the disco scene. It got people dancing AND thinking.

We need a new music revolution now. Punk is no longer Punk. Hip-Hop is no longer Hip-Hop. There’s very little in music that is pushing boundaries. There may be a few acts, but there’s not movement. With pushback to the status quo happening everywhere through the newly invigorated labor movement and Occupy Wall Street, no one has taken up the mettle to make a soundtrack to these uprisings.

Kenzo Shibata is a Chicago-based digital strategist, activist, and teacher. His writing can be seen in Gapers Block, Beachwood Reporter, AREA-Chicago, Alter-Net, In These Times, Substance News, Salon, and Jacobin Magazine. His work has been highlighted in WBEZ’s blog, The Daily Dot, and DNA-Info. He’s been a guest on Take Action News and the Matthew Filipowicz Show.

Comments

  1. Brilliant piece and call to action. Title should have been “It’s weird and it sucks that I Framptoned you!”

  2. I agree with this comparison, with one minor caveat….where Macklemore doesn’t really seem to have any depth in his talent, at least Frampton could provide some serious guitar in his music. The lyrics and remainder of the music was vanilla as hell, but his guitar licks were the thing budding musicians far and wide tried to replicate.

    On another note and comparison. I see Justin Bieber as the current generation’s Vanilla Ice. White boy trying to play it street but falling short because his idiocy overrides everything he says or sings.

  3. I have a couple issues with your argument.

    #1. While Macklemore was embraced by the record industry when they realized he could make them money, he’s an independent artist. He and Ryan Lewis put that album out by themselves. He’s not part of the system trying to water rap down, man.

    #2. Le1f, while gay and a rapper, doesn’t make amazing music, and certainly doesn’t make the kind of music that could be expected to resonate with tens of millions of people. I love Big Freedia but she’s not about to go mainstream either. It’s also not a zero sum game -just because a straight guy had the first pro-gay rap hit doesn’t mean that there can’t be a gay rapper with a hit as well. If any thing Brother Ali should be mad because he was white and pro-gay before it was cool.

    #3. I love PE and NWA, but they haven’t been relevant for twenty years. The kind of hyper political rap that PE made was basically only made by PE. Most “golden era” hip-hop was about being a good MC. Even the Native Tongue groups like De La Soul and Tribe Called Quest weren’t that political. The idea of rap music as the African-American answer to punk rock is largely projection by people outside of hip-hop who want it to be something it never really was.

    4. If Macklemore is Framptom, than mainstream hip-hop is Warrant and Poison. it’s become a self-parody where every other song is about strippers or getting drunk in the club or having sex with strippers while getting drunk in the club. There are outliers in the underground and indie scenes, but most rappers are heavily invested in rapping about partying. Even rappers criticizing rapping about partying, like Kanye, rap about partying. Which isn’t to knock Migos or Juicy J or whoever, but shit isn’t exactly deep. kind of like early rock n’ roll, which were mostly thinly veiled songs about sex. Or early punk, which was mostly songs about getting high and trying to get laid.

    5. Maybe Macklemore and Ryan Lewis are popular because they are “safe,” but it doesn’t hurt that they every other word out of their mouth isn’t the n word or bitch. I love Kendrick Lamar and I think his album is amazing, but my wife will not let me play it in the house because she can’t deal with the language. And not because she is safe and middlebrow, but because she doesn’t like the fact that so much of rap is full of really offensive language. And not offensive because it’s challenging the system, unless using racial and sexual slurs is somehow anti-establishment now.

    What hip-hop needs is more artists operating outside of the major label system, more artists challenging the bullshit that mainstream rap is delivering, and more artists who are able to take the genre in new directions and to new audiences. I don’t love Macklemore, but he is not hip-hop’s problem. Hip-hop is hip-hop’s problem. To paraphrase d. boon, hip hop is whatever we want it to be, and that can include white hipsters rapping about gay marriage and thrift stores.

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