The importance of being earnest

Apparently, this blog has generated enough traffic that today, the first bit of spam showed up in the comments. Thank you for your support! In honor of the milestone, here’s a special weekend episode.

Last week, Phil over at “Dial M” had a great post about the tricky business of trying to bend one’s critical mind around the whole idea of sampling, and he expressed proper skepticism about the tenuous theory that hip-hop artists choose their beats and samples with a sense of “ironic distance.” I always assumed that it was pretty much the same thing we all do when we find a really wicked piece of music and immediately begin pestering everyone we know to listen to it. You have to hear this. And the more I thought about it, the more I decided that the whole concept of “ironic distance” was dissing hip-hop musicianship. Because real musicians are hardly ever ironic.

Phil illustrated his his post with a neat video of the Beastie Boys’ Mixmaster Mike doing his thing. (If this is all new to you, watch this video of Mixmaster Mike and Q-Bert tossing off a string of object lessons in old-school scratching.) The Beastie Boys have always been my favorite hip-hop group. Why? Because they’re nerds like me, essentially.

Actually, no. I doubt they’re anywhere near as nerdy as I have been and still am. But there’s still nerdiness there, in the best sense of the word. Take my favorite album of theirs, Paul’s Boutique. Throughout the album, there’s a recurrent riff on the common trope of rappers’ boasts, a series of variations on the formula:

I’m as/more [attribute] as/than [cultural reference]

Now a couple of these are hip-hop references, like:

I seen him get stabbed I watched the blood spill out
He had more cuts than my man Chuck Chillout

But for the most part, they seem to have taken particular delight in making the cultural references as esoteric and off-the-wall as possible. For example:

Bum cheese on rye with ham and prosciutto
Got more Louie than Philip Rizzuto

Or then there’s this string:

Got more stories than J.D.’s got Salinger
I hold the title and you are the challenger
I’ve got money like Charles Dickens
Got the girlies in the Coupe like the Colonel’s got the chickens
Always go out dapper like the Harry S Truman
And I’m madder than Mad’s Alfred E. Neuman

And my favorite:

There’s more to me than you’ll ever know
And I’ve got more hits than Sadaharu Oh

This is transcendent nerdiness. In order to get the joke, you have to be enough of a baseball trivia junkie as I am. But the reference is so far out that, if you don’t get it, you’re not even aware of what you’re missing. If they were trying to be smarter or more hip than their audience, the Boys would have had to drop a name that the listener wouldn’t have thought of, but nevertheless could recognize once presented with it. But Sadaharu Oh? That’s just a nice piece of candy tossed out to fellow baseball nerds.

The great thing about being a nerd is, you’re guilelessly generous and enthusiastic about whatever it is you’re a nerd about. Irony doesn’t even enter into it. In his post, Phil includes this quote, from Prince Paul, asked whether he was being ironic in his sampling of a Hall and Oates song:

PP: Wow. That’s pretty deep. But I think the bottom line is just: that was a good song! . . . We didn’t consciously think of “Hall and Oates,” “Resurrecting,” you know, “Postmodern.” We was just like, “Wow. Remember that song? That’s hot!”

Non-musicians may see irony in music, but musicians? We’re all music nerds. We keep pestering you to listen to whatever piece we happen to have just discovered, and we don’t give two hoots about whether other people think it’s cool or corny or what. I’m forever grateful to the fellow musicians who got me hooked on Viennese operetta, Myron Floren, Whitney Houston, western swing, and Sammy Davis, Jr.’s cover of the theme from “Shaft.” (Especially that last one. Thanks, Jim.) Let’s call it Guerrieri’s Law of True Musicianship: real musicians can be identified by their temperamental inability to keep their guilty pleasures to themselves. In fact, they’re not even all that guilty about it. Their eyes light up, and they get this big smile on their face, because they know that they’re about to play you something that’ll make your life just a little more dazzling. You have to hear this.


  1. Yeah, I think you’ve got that right. There may be irony buried deep down there but it’s not the primary motive. Actually, music nerds know that there’s nothing better than discovering something supposedly deeply uncool and re-presenting it as something very cool – De la Soul are in the same bracket as breakcore versions of ’99 Red Balloons’, Enya vs Prodidgy mash-ups, Sonic Youth’s love of the Carpenters, etc, etc. Phil’s right – the assumption of ironic distance is one we make at our peril.

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