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Why Musical Miscegenation Still Causes Indie Rock Shock

By Julianne Escobedo Shepherd
Wednesday, January 12th, 2011
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On January 6, Just Blaze tweeted the slang spelling of “that’s racist” to an apparent shut-in who was bewildered by the fact that his crates include a band of riotous electro-punks (Crystal Castles) and Italy’s finest big-room rave production duo (Crookers). The underlying premise, as Blaze apparently interpreted it, was that @Mickeus thinks it’s a curio when a hip-hop DJ/black man enjoys “stuff white people like.” In actuality, it would be more absurd if he didn’t — it’s Just’s job to have crates that shame the most thorough, OCD record-collecting nerd, not to mention the fact that he’s made a ridiculous number of songs that seep out the same nuclear energy of Crystal Castles and Crookers.

But that tweet highlighted the fact that a lot of people apparently still have a hard time with “musical miscegenation,” the strange and enduring notion that it is remarkable, odd, or shocking when certain types of music, or musicians, intertwine. The dynamic doubles when rap and anything resembling indie rock mix up; a collabo can induce the blogosphere to collective palpitations/lockjaw/hypothermic shock.

Dom and Gucci Mane

Case in point: Last week, the blissfully lethargic pop band DOM, from Worcester, Massachusetts, released a remix of their terrific song “Living in America,” featuring the eccentric Atlanta rapper Gucci Mane. At the beginning of the song, which is submerged in psychedelic effects, Gucci’s signature ad-lib “‘sGucci!” is screwed down, so that it sounds like he’s singing it in the same key as DOM’s eponymous lead singer. After Dom gets in a cheeky chorus about how living in America is “so sexy,” Gucci somberly shouts out various cities and ladies across the nation. Locked together in tandem trippiness, it’s obvious why a mushmouthed trap rapper was drawn to a mushroomed-out, rust belt redhead.

And yet, across the wilds of the internet, some people typically reacted as though they’d just downloaded the offspring of a three-legged unicorn and an actual pegasus. To be fair, some of the shock stemmed from the fact that Gucci Mane is a quite famous rapper whose first hit, “Icey,” dropped in 2005, and DOM is a scrappy indie band whose debut album will be reissued on Astralwerks next month. But there was also an underlying current of otherness in the mix — those stuck on the impossibility of two weirdos from different genres and, presumably, incongruous lifestyles working together.  They shouldn’t be together, or so the thinking goes, whether because of a perceived difference in values or archaic perceptions of race-mixing and/or the total shock that, you know, rappers have the internet, too.

What’s even stranger about this reaction is that indie rock and rap collaborations are increasingly commonplace. Think back to August of 2009, when Jay-Z astonished the Pitchfork set by showing up at a Grizzly Bear show in Brooklyn (Beyonce’s sister Solange is a friend and fan of the band). His attendance (and subdued swaying) generated enough waves that MTV called him up for a quote: “I hope that [indie rockers] have a run where they push hip-hop back a little bit,” he said, “so it will force hip-hop to fight to make better music, because it can happen, because that’s what rap did to rock.”

Not sure if it’s made better music, per se (ugh), but Jay’s Williamsburg Waterfront wish has come true — Kid Cudi worked with with Ratatat and MGMT; Lil B hopped on a beat made by Salem; Kanye West borrowed a Bon Iver song for My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. Almost one full year after Jay hit up the Grizzly Bear jam, I saw Harlem’s Jim Jones perform a full set backed by the band Snakes Say Hisss at Death By Audio, one of Williamsburg’s scummier punk venues. He did “Ballin’” and “Salute,” his diamond-crusted earlobes glinted at a crowd of 150 kids slipping in beer, and Dame Dash stood stoic in the back. That moment was, admittedly, quite absurd, although it had more to do with the fact that Jim Jones himself is quite absurd, and presumably rich, and Death By Audio is, again, somewhat grody in the way that it’s imperative for all DIY venues to be. But why did it seem like such a big deal that he was even there?

Certainly part of it stems from the trenchant whiteness of indie rock during its ‘90s heyday mixed in with the era’s false dichotomy between “real” and “commercial” rap in some kind of essentialist megabrew. Lines were drawn, genres congealed, radios adhered to formats. But one of the defining facets of the ‘90s was the trend of rock bands like Sonic Youth collaborating with rap groups like Public Enemy (to all the under-25s, that’s Chuck D doing the ad-libs on “Kool Thing”). In a relatively progressive era compared, the Alternative Nation was open and genre mixing was super-cool, at least until the proto-Juggalos came along. (Don’t get me wrong, though: Biohazard collaborating with Onyx was an awesome idea.) Are people still so scarred by the crappier cuts from the Judgment Night soundtrack that rappers and rockers rolling out together seems like something to gawk at? Has anyone ever heard of Aerosmith collaborating with Run-DMC?

Ultimately, it boils down to the fact that indie rock, at this late stage in the game,  retains shreds of its origins as an inherently defeatist culture, shoegazing and self-deprecating at any opportunity.  Even as many of the biggest indie rock bands take paychecks for soundtracking commercials — and Pitchfork’s been seriously reviewing rap records for at least a half-decade — the idea persists that the genre’s still about slack underachievement: the privileged antithesis of materialism. Clearly, some internet babies are still living by tenets set by Gen X. Pavement reunited, after all. But rap’s whole foundation, the Homeric brag, is diametrically opposed to that, so the biggest culprit in indierock shock is that the perceived winners  (or perceived materialists) in the music game are actually deigning to get down with them. This feeds into the whole issue of wealth and celebrity — just gonna go out on a limb here and guess that Gucci Mane’s got a fancier paycheck than DOM does, and certainly more people know his name. But the internet at its greatest as a democratizer, however imperfect. As more rappers and label wonks and managers and friends and cousins are exposed to an increasingly broad pool of music, seemingly off-the-wall collabos will stay pouring in.  Not all will be as perfectly paired as DOM and Gucci. Never a fan of the blasé, but in this case, people need to chill.