Alexandra Marshall

Word of Mouth

Originally published in The American Prospect, May 8, 2000

A decade after Abby Hoffman had first set the hairstyle for a generation, he showed up on a television talk show with a radically short haircut and the explanation that, once Tab Hunter was wearing his hair long, Hoffman knew it had come time to cut his own. By this logic, now that an off-Broadway comedy played entirely in hip-hop rhyme is being raved about in The Wall Street Journal, has hip-hop also come full circle?

But "Bomb-itty of Errors" is a winningly clever reinvention of Shakespeare's comedy of mistaken identity, with the text and music created and performed by five white kids who merge hip-hop and theatre for a mainstream audience of all ages. In other words, the black hip-hop subculture which began in the mid-70's in the vast train yards of the New York subway system—as spray-painted graffiti—has resurfaced downtown, via NYU's Tisch School of the Arts, in a show produced by Daryl Roth, three-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize. Just as from Abby Hoffman to Tab Hunter, this is hardly what you'd call a straight shot, and yet the connection is clear. As always, a generation expresses itself, and the culture contracts or expands to reject or accept it.

Still to be decided will be the reaction to the April release of the new James Toback film, "Black and White," which features real-life hip-hop stars—the impresario Oliver "Power" Grant and his group called the Wu-Tang Clan—with a mixed-bag cast that includes Brooke Shields in dreadlocks, Donald Trump's ex-wife Marla Maples as a wife and mother named Muffy, and Mike Tyson as himself. The subject of the movie is the attraction to hip-hop culture on the part of wealthy white Upper East Side-style adolescents, who are drawn less to the music than to the extracurricular sex and drugs of the hip-hop "lifestyle." Pre-release publicity has focused on a ratings controversy between the producers and the Motion Picture Association of America over a brief opening sex scene, as well as on the unpredictable dramatic interplay occurring when the actors are directed to improvise (and when, then, for example, Mike Tyson explodes). But "Black and White" is most notable for the questions it raises, if only indirectly and imperfectly. These are questions which you yourself may have been meaning to ask.

Hip-hop developed in three distinct stages. First were the graffiti artists, those adolescent trespassers into the subway yards, whose flamboyantly ubiquitous "tags" Norman Mailer glamorized in a high-profile photo book which also outraged those charged with the task of trying to constrain them. Meanwhile, as the graffiti artists came into prominence, and a form of dominance, Transit Authority security was increased and, in a dramatic turnaround, the subway cars were repainted as quickly as they could be tagged. But it was only when the new graffiti-proof trains replaced the earlier models that hip-hop style entered its next phase.

Hip-hop Part Two used movement—breakdancing—as its means of self-expression. Another public art form, like tagging, breakdancing could be performed out in the open, by soloists encircled by pick-up crowds, to the portable music of the boom box. There was the documentary film about breakdancing, called "Wild Style," but as with the graffiti, breakdancing was spontaneous art performed outdoors, free of charge, so it too was by definition non-commercial.

Next, however, according to the Chicago-based 1998 U. S. National Poetry Slam Champion, Reggie Gibson, hip-hop music became "commodified" when the rhymes were made into recordings and the clothing styles into merchandise. Welcome to Take Three: hip-hop today.

At a recent two-day Poetry Festival convened in Cambridge, MA to discuss "The Music Connection from Homer to Hip-Hop," a panel of national poetry slam winners that included Gibson argued that this "commodification" has transformed the substance of hip-hop. And, as Gibson put it most bluntly, "I don't believe in making millionaires out of sociopaths who can rhyme."

The "sociopaths" he didn't mention by name seemed to be a reference to the gunplay with which hip-hop has become increasingly synonymous. There is the current high-publicity example of the case against hip-hop mogul Sean "Puffy" Coombs (in relation to a nightclub shooting), but the panel was speaking more generally, lamenting the values—the "caste system" politics and the "gender dynamic"—of the aggressively male-dominant hip-hop culture. What began at home as "party music"—with DJs mixing up new variations and rappers rhyming their own stories—has evolved, says Gibson, into "a commodification of black anger," and the resulting violence associated with the world of hip-hop, including the music itself, is the function either of "art imitating life imitating art" or of "life imitating art imitating life."

So then what does it say about "Black and White" that, in presenting this world as alluring, the film could seem to honor those values; does it mean that, at least here, James Toback does believe in making millionaires out of sociopaths who can rhyme? The private school kids who affect the "commodified" styles of speech and dress—the gold tooth cap, the big jacket, the "why you always gotta fuck with me?"—can easily evade their ignorant families in favor of following after the hip-hop rich and famous. But, without even trying to penetrate the music, they instead go behind it and into the criminal behavior, both petty and grave, which drives hip-hop's, as well this movie's, rather unsavory subplots.

So superficial is the engagement with hip-hop on the part of the white kids, one girl named Charlie, played by Bijou Phillips, tells Sam, the documentary filmmaker played by Brooke Sheilds, "We're not imitating. We're into it." But it rings truer when she then admits, "It's a phase," and says tartly, "I'll get over it soon. I'm a kid. In A-meric-a." As then her point seems proved when the credits roll at the end of the film and, in addition to the soundtrack credits, there is a very long list of product trademark credits that illustrates the movie's reliance—the Wu-Tang Clan has its own clothing line, for instance—on hip-hop style over substance.

Ironically, because as a filmmaker James Toback is himself famous for his reliance upon improvisation, it could have been a great match-up for him to focus on and better explore the powerful attraction of those white kids to the music made—rather than the "lifestyle" adopted—by these hip-hop artists who represent, after all, the main thing all adolescents want. What they want, as an act of creative rebellion, is a distinct way to tell their own stories and make their lives rhyme, by some means of expression which differentiates them from the previous generation.

And in hip-hop music, where there exists both the energy of spontaneity and the assurance of form, improvisation (called "freestyling") occurs within the fixed structure of versification. This is what makes it an art form—think of jazz—and this is presumably what Norman Mailer saw to celebrate, way back when, in hip-hop's graphic incarnation. If only James Toback, who is likewise notorious for going against the grain, had more thoroughly entered into the creative spirit of hip-hop in his attempt to bring it to the attention of the more mainstream culture, the film wouldn't impress, as I think it does, as a missed opportunity.

Another failure in addition to what is missing in "Black and White" is Toback's all too concrete imposition of subplot after trite subplot, which only bog down the action with such predictability as cop corruption as an outlet for the revenge motive of a rejected lover, when instead a winning performance by the New York Knicks' Allan Houston might have been left to its own, promising devices. And as for Mike Tyson's appearance in the brief out-of-nowhere scene that has earned a lot of off-screen publicity (where an improvising Robert Downey Jr. plays Brooke Shields' husband, a gay guy who provokes Tyson until he explodes into a homophobic rage, which sexually stimulates the Brooke Shields character), the word that comes to mind is random.

But various kinds of randomness could seem to be James Toback's signature as a filmmaker, because even his Oscar-nominated script for "Bugsy," the sultry 1991 Warren Beatty-Annette Bening mafia romance, is undermined by its meanderingly indulgent duration of three-plus hours. Twice as compact as "Bugsy," but only half as believable, is his 1998 movie about sexual infidelity, "Two Girls and a Guy," which uses as its theme song "You Don't Know Me," as if to acknowledge with a shrug the movie's own lack of focused self-understanding. More charming is Toback's first film starring Robert Downey Jr., "The Pick-Up Artist" (1987), which has the definite advantage of being about an improvisator, so as to create a light-touch fusion between form and content.

In other words, as Toback might argue in his own defense, just sit back and relax. And if it seems like you're only getting part of the conversation, then maybe that's the point. Think "Saturday Night, Live" in all its trademark unevenness. Think big risk with no apparent insurance against failure. A James Toback film retrospective is scheduled for the Screening Room in Manhattan and timed to coincide with the release of "Black and White," to honor Toback's status as a Hollywood outsider-insider who is known for pushing limits as well as the consequent effect that, for one reason or another, a James Toback film's reputation often manages to preceed it.

And in the case of his "Black and White," what in my view most distinguishes both the film and its filmmaker (notwithstanding the broad reservations of the slam poets about celebrating hip-hop "commodification"), is that Toback's comfort with improvisation permits Power and the Wu-Tang Clan to literally speak for themselves, often ad-libbing, which is what then allows the film's viewers to appreciate their linguistic gymnastics.

There is a telling line near the end of what is by contrast to "Black and White" the tightly scripted "Bomb-itty of Errors," which sums up that experience of the thrilling elasticity of language. "I don't remember what happened, I was too busy elabbing it," goes the refrain, which is also the bottom line here, because hip-hop is all about elaborating, with syncopated stacks of rhymes being connected by rapping performers who, in this case, as storytellers—and re-tellers, of Shakespeare—are absolute magicians.

And if you remember the Beatles song "Hey, Jude," you too know the power of the impulse to "Take a sad song and make it better," and so you understand why hip-hop matters, and why both "Bomb-itty" and James Toback's flawed attempt to portray it deserve attention. These days, when as a culture we are at last beginning to turn our sympathetic attention toward an educated understanding of the pressures and expectations we place on our male children—black and white, white and black—we could benefit from learning why hip-hop offers so much to so many of our kids, who are like every generation, after all, in their fierce yearning to take a life and make it rhyme. And make it better.