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Midtown Keeps on Fakin' It

Most of the time, when the New Yorker ventures outside high culture and into the hinterlands, the result is an enthusiastic and illuminating portrait of some singular phenomenon that had probably been beyond the ken of the magazine's readership. Sometimes, though, author and subject never seem to come to an understanding, and the result is a mess of inappropriate terminology, minor and major factual errors, and a complete lack of insight on the nominal subject of the article but a glaring insight into the author's feelings about it.

We got the second one in "Selling the Beat," Jake Halpern's profile of St. Louis hip-hop producers the Trackboyz in the April 5 issue, and it just so happens that I am different enough from the New Yorker's normal demo that I can identify the problems with Halpern's article. And identify them I will! (Unfortunately, the New Yorker did not decide to make this article available on the Web, which severely limits the utility of this article. However, I'm annoyed enough by it that I don't care.)

Halpern palpably did not enjoy himself much on this assignment, and his article misses a lot as a result. His narration always puts him well outside whatever's going on: "[W]hen the singer said, 'Hands in the air if you cats as drunk as me,' nearly everyone complied," or "He offered me a complicated five- or six-part handshake, which I fumbled my way through." This puts the focus on his experience of his environment, rather than the environment itself. To some extent, this approach is necessitated by his obvious unease with the material; for example, he constantly describes how loud the bass is in clubs and studios, as if he's not aware that St. Louis hip-hop is club music and clubs have loud bass.

Sometimes Halpern identifies real and intriguing ironies, like rapper J-Kwon's decision to run away from his middle-class home so that he could live in St. Louis' rough Third District and learn to MC, but he skips past them as soon as they're mentioned. Our author could have made a whole fascinating article out of J-Kwon's somewhat strained relationship to hip-hop realness (later, it's noted that his tales of pimpin' exploits sound somewhat implausible coming from a teenager), but for Halpern that's a curiosity to be regarded with a raised eyebrow rather than a site for further inquiry.

Most damning, Halpern, who is writing an article about hip-hop producers, does not display any ability to describe hip-hop music. The central focus of this article is the song "Tipsy," which the Trackboyz produced for J-Kwon; I hadn't heard this song before reading the article, and when I first heard the song after reading Halpern I was convinced I was listening to a remix. Then I realized I had no idea how the song was supposed to sound. Halpern writes: "[T]he Trackboyz' beats for J-Kwon are filled with breathy gasps, visceral grunts, heel-pounding stomps, and wild clangs that sound like someone smashing two garbage-can lids together." "Tipsy" has the first and none of the rest. Other than that, no description of the music. If you're getting paid to write an article about hip-hop producers, you should probably make a good-faith attempt to tell your readers about the sound of their newest hit song.

Other problems, in list format to encourage me not to go on too much about them:

  • "Williams rapped, buying his background music, or 'beats'…"
    Just say "beats." I think even New Yorker readers will be able to follow you.
  • "Nelly also initiated the widespread use of a quirky St. Louis dialect whereby 'here' is pronounced 'hurr' — as in Nelly's 'Hot in Herre'…
    Jake my man, Nelly doesn't pronounce "here" as "hurr" anywhere in that song. And especially not in the hook. Chingy was the one to introduce the dialect to the rest of the nation with his annoyingly catchy "Right Thurr." It's getting ignorant in here!
  • "the hip-hop artist Trina…"
    You know how some characters in Greek mythology had epithets, like "clever Odysseus"? Some MCs have them too, like how Biz Markie is "The Diabolical Biz Markie," and Trina is "Da Baddest Bitch," based on one of her album titles. Referring to her as a hip-hop artist is like referring to Ron Jeremy as an adult entertainment artist.
  • "'I Can Act Like a Bitch,' a song that warns of the dangers of trifling with her…"
    What's up with the word "trifling" in this sentence? Did Halpern not know what it means, thus rendering him unable to come up with a lame synonym? It certainly violates the no-slang policy that he followed for almost the entire article before falling off in its last few sentences.

Halpern's article fails so badly at describing its subject that it casts a bad light on the New Yorker's editors. They may have read the article and decided this "stranger in a strange land" approach was appropriate to the subject (when they wouldn't stand it for a second in an article on, say, Bryn Terfel), or perhaps they simply threw up their hands at their evident inability to edit it properly or to engage someone who could. Nevertheless, this article shouldn't have been published, and in the future the New Yorker should be more careful when assigning writers to the hip-hop beat. Sasha Frere-Jones, for example, is doing yeoman's work attempting to hippen up the critics' section; why not draft him for these assignments? Or, more to the point, why not pay me the big buxxx to write these glossy magazine articles? I don't yet have a New Yorker-type resumé, but I can sling the prose a'right, and no one will ever accuse me of trifling with hip-hop.


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