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The trouble with backpack rap

Yesterday one of my colleagues here at XXL suggested that I think backpack rap is boring because backpack rappers tend to complain a lot. In actuality, I don’t have a problem with backpack rap. The subgenre—like any other in hip-hop—contains a wide spectrum of material, from the hot, to the fairly decent, to the wackest garbage conceivable. I can’t stand flat-toned rappers spitting impossibly abstract rhymes over dark, predictable basement beats, for instance. But I’m certainly not mad at records with cutting-edge concepts, innovative soundscapes, and thought-provoking lyrics.

My problem is not with backpack rappers. My problem is with hardcore backpack rap fans.

Those dudes kill me. They have to be the most self-righteous Stans under the sun. Let me run down the profile.

You can find these hotheads in the record store copping a holier-than-thou attitude, spitting obscure hip-hop trivia with an almost religious fervor. They are the ones you see in the back of the club, glaring when the DJ drops a 50 joint.

These knuckle-shufflers harbor an obscene amount of nostalgia for a golden era that they were never a part of, and a baffling level of resentment for all that is gangsta and/or flashy and fly. They despise the music industry, without ever having had any contact with it. They romanticize poverty, worship political rappers (who, truth be told, often don’t want these guys as fans in the first place), and demonize any artist that doesn’t fit into their rigid definition of “real hip-hop.” They deliberately ignore anything that calls their limited conception of “real hip-hop” into question. (The Jay-Z/dead prez collabo “Hell Yeah,” for example.) They have little interest in dialogue. More often than not, they are very young, suburban white dudes.

Adam Mansbach nailed it in his novel Angry Black White Boy:

“How, Macon wondered as he cut a path toward the small stage at the back of the club, had the backpack rap set gotten so self-righteous so quickly? These kids were as dogmatic as the bitterest old-school has-beens, oozing with keep-it-realness and wistful reminiscences of a misimagined past in which hip-hop hadn’t been shackled to capitalism. The backpackers scorned commercial success and radio airplay—corrupting the culture, yo—but spent all their money on niche-marketed hip-hop accoutrements, from breakdance videos to old-school Pumas. They ordered water at the bar, not for fear of being carded or out of desire to stay sharp-witted for the freestyle ciphers to come, but because their giddily professed pennilessness nudged them closer to the underground rappers they admired—rappers who for the most part would have traded all the adolescent-male dick-riding for a major-label advance check and used the money to move out of the projects.”

I used to get a lot of letters from backpackers. No matter how many articles I did on Lyrics Born or Mos Def or Talib Kweli or J5, whenever I wrote on Jay-Z, the Backpack Brigade would inundate me with outraged mail. One dude fumed that Jay was the height of superficiality and that I was wasting media space on money-hoes-and-clothes rap. (Do you fools listen to music or do you just skim through it?) Another guy called Xzibit an “ass-kissing establishment man” after I reviewed one of his releases, characterizing X and radio rap in general as “vacuous self-aggrandizement, misogyny, and status-peddling.”

What’s unsettling about the backpack boys is that their critique of mainstream hip-hop doesn’t actually fall too far from hipster’s ironic interest in crunk. Both feel free to mock elements of black culture. Both are certain of their own aesthetic and/or intellectual superiority. Both can’t manage to see the humanity of those outside their own narrow worldview.

So yeah, give me Zion I’s Deep Water Slang any day of the week. But keep those Zion I fans far, far away from me.

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