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Flavor Flav (at left) and Chuck D of Public Enemy during a 2003 performance in New York City.
That's the question that kicks off a long, great conversation between Guardian writer Angus Batey and journalist Jeff Chang about issues that have kept hip-hop from being canonized the way other genres are. Batey wrote to Chang, the author of Can't Stop Won't Stop, to get a quote for a piece he published last week on the issues — bureaucratic, legal and cultural — that have prevented monumental hip-hop albums from being reissued with bonus tracks and live material.
(That's a question we've been thinking about in the last few days too, with regard to the Def Jam Rapstar game — a sort of genre-wide greatest hits compilation that raises questions about how artists get paid for reproductions of their work across different media platforms and also turns fans into performers rather than collectors.)
Chang and Batey come up with a number of answers, some simple (the copyright challenges of clearing the many samples on old hip-hop records make them risky financial bets) some far more intricate (the companies that own the recordings have been bought, sold and downsized so many times in the last 20 years that in some cases, they don't even know what they've got in the vaults).
Both writers are well-versed in the history of hip-hop and the challenges of getting artists, record labels and the public to see eye to eye on the importance of preserving the genre, so it's no surprise that their conversation (published in two parts on Chang's blog) contains layers of insight and some depressing realities.
The entire conversation is worth reading, as is Batey's article, but a couple of choice samples follow.
Chang, in part one, on a box set by hip-hop pioneers Public Enemy:
The Public Enemy Def Jam boxset is a perfect example. Their catalog remains influential, they still demonstrate proven commercial potential, and they did all the work of putting together their own boxset, only to have Universal nix the project presumably because they were worried about publishing and sample clearances.
What we are left with is not quite a racist conspiracy. But the accumulated devaluing of Black music works like institutional racism — all of the little things add up to a vast and widening hole in the American memory about the cultural legacy of Black artists.
Batey, in part two:
Over the years, talking with artists who are very aware of the wider historical context of their music such as Chuck D or ?uestlove or Shadow, it's become apparent to me that the job of curating hip-hop's on-record history seems to have fallen squarely on their shoulders. I don't get the feeling this is the case with other genres — we don't expect Ornette Coleman to be the driving force behind a retrospective box set of his Atlantic recordings, or rely on Paul McCartney to kick-start a Beatles reissue program. Whose job is it, ultimately, morally, actually, to maintain hip-hop's history?
Is there a classic hip-hop album you'd like to see reissued? For fans who can get albums, singles and unreleased material on the Internet, is there a point to reissues in any genre?