Jim Carroll

Music, Life and everything else

500 Words Of January – Olan O’Brien

Back in late November, I bumped into All City’s Olan O’Brien at the Shabazz Palaces/THEEsatisfaction show in Dublin and he went off on a superb, brilliant, colourful rant about the state of hip hop right now. On the way home …

Tue, Jan 8, 2013, 10:00


Back in late November, I bumped into All City’s Olan O’Brien at the Shabazz Palaces/THEEsatisfaction show in Dublin and he went off on a superb, brilliant, colourful rant about the state of hip hop right now. On the way home later that night, I realised that it sounded like a perfect 500 Words Of January post…

Whither hip hop or am I just auld? Without getting too polemical or even existential about it, it has been another abysmal year for what was, though it seems a long time ago now, one of the most progressive and constantly revolving musical genres.

Hip hop has always been grounded in the US version of capitalism and fairly responsive to economic conditions so its hardly surprising that as the music industry which bred and sustained it over the last 30 years doesn’t really exist anymore, the artform itself no longer centres around the music but, as with the prevailing individual culture, more around promotion of the self. There aren’t even any groups or gangs any more. The idea of a new Wu Tang in 2012? It would seem like such an anachronism. Yes I know Odd Future, but they are a collection of individuals, centred around one lead figure and marketed as such, not a faceless interchangeable mask wearing gang/commune of equals.

Not to go down the path of whether people will pay for records or MP3s ever again – as I really don’t care whether they do or not – it’s a fact the traditional label model presently no longer exists. It could come back. I’m no futurist so I don’t know.

By the same token that I never really understood r’n'b in the pop Nineties and beyond until I got to the US, there’s no point in someone who lives on the other side of the pond querying whether New York rap is in a healthy state or not. It exists within its own microcosm and pays little attention to anyone outside it, rightfully so. An example might be French Montana who’s only on my radar a few weeks. This cat has released six mixtapes – all for free, of course – in the last two years! I’m not going to pretend I’ve listened to them or that one needs to, that somehow your life will be enriched by it. That at the heart of it is some great art, some clues to modern US life, though I guess you’d get more out of an hour of The Wire (or would you? That’s doubtless as fictional as any rap cocaine tale)

It is just more a reflection of music’s continuing push into mere background noise, just chatter. Music as pure fast food consumption, in – and out – of your system in a matter of minutes. I heard that once so into the recycle bin it goes. As nourishing as a €1.99 chicken fillet roll from the Centra on Dame Street. It can’t really be counted as art – low- or high-brow – and I dread to say things-were-better-in-my-day, maybe they weren’t but they were. They were certainly different.

Not that that matters of course because, in modern Irish parlance, we-are-where-we-are and it’s an old debate, but it seems to me that while I’ve little interest in the musical nature of modern hip hop. Please don’t hip me to new artists; Kendrick Lamaar, Joey Badass and Danny Brown are just rehashes, as completely and utterly unoriginal as any modern guitar band, which is not to say they dont have some good tunes – I own some and like more – just to say there’s nowt particularly fresh about it.

I’m no luddite and I’m listening to Cybotron’s Clear on YouTube while I’m scribbling this, 1983 and still mindblowingly futuristic, idealistic and – yes, its a dirty word – intelligent in a way that Detroit and America are rarely given credit for. And still insanely banging. Almost 30 years later, hip hop is still signposting its way to the future in its own unique way showing us all there’s a new consumption model and that the music is one part of a new whole. Or, to go back to where I came in, am I just auld?

The credits: Olan O’Brien runs All City, a record shop and label located in Dublin.

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