Combat Jack over at DallasPenn has got the Internet going nuts with his recent beatdown of Village Voice hip-hop blogger Tom Breihan. In his post, CJ labels Breihan “hip-hop’s most dangerous blog critic” and articulates several complaints about Breihan that have been brewing for months now—the chief of which is that Breihan doesn’t have sufficient knowledge of and/or respect for hip-hop culture. To illustrate this, CJ links to a number of shock posts in which Breihan makes some fairly outlandish claims, including that Jim Jones trumps Jay-Z, and that Pitbull is a better rapper than Nas. CJ also takes issue with Breihan’s use of the word ninja as a substitute for the N-bomb, criticizes the Voice’s comment delivery system (which involves a substantial lag time and tends to shield the writer), and laments the fact that a privileged indie rock critic has been given such an influential position in the hip-hop media.
Tempers exploded on all sides. The consensus in the rap blogosphere seems to be that Breihan’s writing doesn’t contribute much and is out of proportion with his profile. Breihan supporters, on the other hand, have accused CJ of “reverse racism” and have argued that DallasPenn is trying to claim rap writing as the sole domain of black people. The Breihan defenders believe that CJ is pulling the “race card” in order to cover up weaknesses in his argument.
To begin with, if I never hear the term “race card” again, it will be too soon. In my experience, that term is only ever trotted out to silence discussions of race. It’s lame and unimaginative and disrespectful, and I wish people would stop using it.
Secondly, I have to say that CJ’s criticism is merited. Breihan is a good writer and I—like kris ex and CJ himself—have at times found his earnestness and his exuberance refreshing. However, it must be said that a lot of his recent work has amounted to knee-jerk hipsterism. There’s a flippant, almost superior tone to some of his posts that, for obvious reasons, doesn’t work particularly well for white people in hip-hop. Breihan is not writing in a vacuum here. His work is part of a larger context, a broader pattern of white hipsters feeling justified in mocking and/or fetishizing black culture. The comments on the Idolator board make that dynamic very clear.
Thirdly, I don’t get the sense that anyone is attacking Breihan because he’s white. Noz is just as high profile a blogger and nobody seems to care that he’s white. Why? Because he knows his shit inside out, adores hip-hop, and has something valuable to contribute to the conversation. Same goes for Oh Word. The folks that are trying to oversimplify this debate need to ask themselves why they feel the need to do so.
I don’t think anyone is confusing whiteness with economic privilege either. There’s lots of broke white folks that don’t have access to opportunity. But I’m guessing that Briehan is not one of them. If he’s going to write about music that means everything to broke folks of all races all over the world, in such a high-profile venue like the Voice, he needs to examine his motives, his position, and his approach.
Lastly, I think it’s worth noting here that there comes a point in any white rap writer’s career when you cope with critics who call your perspective into question. Most white rap writers, regardless of our intentions, bring some level of baggage with us. Sooner or later, somebody is going to call us on it. No doubt it’s painful (no white boy crying on Making The Band). But it’s also an opportunity to become a better writer and a better human being. You either face it and grow, or you run. And if you’re not up for it, I think you have to ask yourself why you wanted to get involved with hip-hop in the first place.
The key question for me in all of this is: how will Breihan respond?