By Dylan Green | Shadow and Act June 11, 2014 at 2:35PM
1: Coast to Coast: The Building Blocks
The legitimacy of both film and hip-hop as art forms has been contested over the years. At the start of their respective life cycles, critics considered both fads of popular culture and never thought that they would transcend their origins and become the sturdy artistic medium and genre that they have today. The French New Wave, the film movement led by film critics turned filmmakers Jean-Luc Godard and Francois Truffaut from the late 50s to mid 60s, directly challenged conventional filmmaking techniques with improvisation, radical experimentation, and self-aware touches. Hip- hop was a cultural movement rooted in many different facets of life from music to dance to fashion. Hip-hop music has taken on many forms, from the fun and upbeat to the dark and political in its nearly 40 year history, but has morphed into something equally as experimental and revolutionary as a movement spearheaded by a panel of film geeks. Throughout the course of this senior project, I'll be exploring and attempting to connect two artistic movements, namely the French New Wave and contemporary hip-hop. While they seem to be separated by lingual/cultural boundaries and an entire ocean, the point of this project will be to connect the dots that both of these artistic movements share. This is a connection that no other scholar has attempted to make in the past, one as sprawling as the one between French films of the 1950s-60s and hip-hop of the 21st century, but I see a connection between the two not only in content but, surprisingly, in form and revolutionary function as well. Both New Waves are new takes on already established forms of media that simultaneously moved their respective mediums forward. Against the juggernauts that were the Hollywood filmmaking model in the 1940s and the music scene of the 1970s, both the French New Wave and hip-hop took established techniques and sounds from the older generation and defied convention by adding new flourishes and ideas, such as jump cuts and auteur theory for the filmmakers and music sampling and rapping for hip-hop, and created something new.
What Is The French New Wave?
In the post-World War II climate of France (1945 onward), filmmakers decided to pursue ideas of their own that not only expressed the love they had for all things cinematic, but also directly challenged the filmic traditions put forth by Hollywood, which was then currently setting the rules for cinema the world over. As founded by members of French film magazine Cahier du Cinema and under the tutelage of legendary film critic Andre Bazin, filmmakers of the French New Wave (Jean-Luc Godard, Francois Truffaut, Claude Chabrol, etc.) made films in bold defiance of conventional filmmaking techniques of the time. Whether it be in the technical aspect (editing, shot position) or in terms of overall content steeped in the plights of youth culture that range from misspent childhoods to socio-political commentary and even a doomed three-way romance, the nature of the films of Godard and Truffaut in particular were revolutionary for their time. Civil unrest had hit the country since the outbreak of the Algerian War for Independence in 1954, which much of the younger French population supported, and films such as "The 400 Blows," "Jules and Jim," and "Le Petit Soldat" reflect not only the changing climate in French culture, but the ultimate subversion of typical filmmaking conventions.
One technique utilized by many a FNW filmmaker was the long take, the act of showing a filmed sequence for an extended period of time without a cut. Conventional films of the time, usually borrowing the Hollywood motif that dominated the majority of global cinema, tended to not let individual sequences run longer than 7-9 seconds before cutting to a different angle. These particular cuts were used for a variety of reasons in what some scholars refer to as 'classical Hollywood,' one being the mechanics of shot-reverse-shot, which involves cutting back and forth between shots of two people's faces as they're having a conversation. Techniques like this were utilized in classical Hollywood so as to establish a conversational chronology, a linearity that most anyone could easily follow. In contrast, François Truffaut, a filmmaker many believed to be at the epicenter of the FNW, makes use of the long take in the closing moments of one of his earliest films "The 400 Blows," a semi- autobiographical story of a young boy surviving on the mean streets of Paris. In the closing moments, protagonist Antoine is running away from the troubled boys home to which his parents have sent him, and as he makes it under the gates, he begins to run through the forest. Truffaut holds the shot for an astonishing 80 seconds as Antoine runs through the forest, then comes to a bridge, and eventually ends his run at the ocean, a place he’d always wanted to visit since he was young, in one of the most iconic freeze-frame shots in cinematic history. The freeze-frame shows the audience that Antoine has completed this part of his journey, but lingers just long enough to force us to consider what comes next in the life of Antoine, and ultimately, what comes next in our lives.
While cynical stories of youth weren’t new to cinema, the use of the long take, especially in this context, was uncommon to say the least. Editing in a film, regardless of the length of the shot, at least subconsciously serves to remind you that you're watching a film because it adds to the overall style and mood that it creates. The long takes used throughout "400 Blows" reflect the film's overall tone: melancholic and even dour. Shots linger for 3-4 times the average length as Antoine meanders around the streets of France. The dissonance that filmmakers feared would call attention to the fact that the viewer is indeed watching a film is no where to be found in the ending of "400 Blows." In fact, it helps to give us insight into exactly what Antoine wants, possibly for the first time in the film: freedom. With the 80 second sprint that Antoine takes, Truffaut manages to condense all of the challenges that he has faced throughout the film, namely the opposition of authority figures and his own aimless existence on the streets of Paris, and show him symbolically overcoming them in his run to freedom; there are two signs (i.e. roadblocks) that Antoine encounters, one of which he sidesteps before ducking under the other, after which he jogs his way to the shoreline. Truffaut refreshingly conveyed his character’s longing and perseverance in one long sequence that may have come across as hackneyed in a traditional Hollywood context. The choice to not use rapid cuts emphasizes the visceral nature of Antoine's run for freedom, as we're allowed to experience it in real time. This rebellious commitment to the newly established FNW form was part of the foundation from which other FNW filmmakers would come to rely on for almost a decade. Directors like Truffaut weren't known solely for their use of long takes within the FNW. The movement was also one of the earliest to employ the jump cut, an editing technique used to indicate the passing of time, as well as auteur theory, the theory of the director as the author of the film, and stories of young love and existential crises.
What Is Contemporary Hip-Hop?
At its core, since its initial birth in 1973, hip-hop music has been pre-occupied with taking disparate elements of other genres of music, ranging from R&B and Jazz to punk and even electronic, and mixing them together with spoken word lyrics. As the genre progressed, added elements like sampling, the process of combining parts of older songs to create new sounds, and more socially conscious lyricism, pushed hip-hop even further throughout the 1980s. Artists as diverse as Chance The Rapper, Kendrick Lamar, Tyler, The Creator, and Childish Gambino have advanced their particular sub-sects even further in a way that's convinced me that they belong in their own collective.
It can certainly be argued that as a genre of music, mainstream hip-hop had been aesthetically and artistically stagnant for much of the early 2000s; the gangsta rap aesthetic started in the mid 1980s and gained significant traction in the 1990s and featured songs characterized by stories of gang-affiliated activities like drug-dealing, hyper-sexuality, and murder, a by-product of the hard-nosed drug-riddled streets of many Black communities, especially on the West Coast of the United States, Many artists, such as N.W.A. and Ice-T, took this opportunity to make music that called attention to the poor conditions that many African-Americans were living in and surrounded by on a daily basis. The lyrical importance of this variant of hip-hop was captured by author Tricia Rose in the fourth chapter of her book “Black Noise: Rap Music and Rap Culture in Contemporary America:” “Rap music is, in many ways, a hidden transcript. Among other things, it uses cloaked speech and disguised cultural codes to comment on and challenge aspects of current power inequalities...a large and significant element in rap's discursive territory is engaged in symbolic and ideological warfare with institutions and groups that symbolically, ideologically, and materially oppress African Americans.” (Rose 101-102) The symbolic and ideological warfare that Rose mentions was prevalent in much of the genre at the time, and would remain so up until the tough macho aspect of the music began to dominate and become commercially viable.
This is evidenced in scholar Jesse Smith's article "Real To Reel: Filmic Constructions of Hip Hop Culture and Hip Hop Identities." Smith calls attention to the work of S. Craig Watkins, who notes that the release of "Boyz n The Hood" in 1991 not only coincided with the rise of West Coast gangsta rap and popular culture's overall awareness of the “postindustrial ghetto in the American popular and political imagination,”, but emphasized “the commercial vitality of hip-hop in general and popularization of gangsta rap specifically.” (52) Films like "Juice" (1992) and "Menace II Society" (1993) all revolved around the violence and crime that became indicative of so-called 'ghetto life' in the 1990s, and the American music and film industry took full advantage of it.
Unfortunately, the music had begun to lose the socio-political edge that artists like Ice- T and N.W.A originally brought to the proceedings. Much of the music was lively, but caught in a materialistic grind focusing less on pure musical and lyrical prowess and more on how much wealth, celebrity, or just general attention you could grab with a few bars and a beat machine. Not to say that the music wasn't any good, but mainstream hip-hop/rap had found its niche and wasn't moving anywhere, few boundaries were being pushed, few ideals being innovated. As early as 2009, a younger generation of emcees began shepherding the genre in a very new and more substantial direction, melding elements of the more socially conscious and independent-based underground hip-hop scene with the hard-hitting sounds and marketability of the contemporary mainstream to create a head-thumping and uncharacteristically affective hybrid. Artists the likes of Childish Gambino, Tyler The Creator, Kendrick Lamar, and Chance The Rapper have stepped up to fill this lofty position and respectively bring more emotional and intellectual heft back to the world of hip-hop. Because of the similarities that artists like these and their ilk share with French New Wave filmmakers and their innovative approach to hip-hop, these four men are at the center of a decidedly Western parallel to the sensibilities of those filmmakers.
These four contemporary artists have all done very similar things with their genre of choice, even going outside of the confines of hip-hop to do it.
Chancellor Bennett, also known as Chance The Rapper, occupies the same microcosm of space that Tyler does, though on a much smaller (focused?) scale. Chance's innovation comes solely from his music, which combines elements of various other genres. The aptly named “Acid Rap,” Chance's 2013 mix tape that brought him to public attention, is an alluring mixture of funky jazz-inspired beats and the man's distinctive raspy high-pitched voice that channels the life of a young adult in the urban Chicago of 2013, much the same way Truffaut did with Antoine in "400 Blows." Bennet's album features songs that reach across the vast emotional spectrum of the teenage experience, from feelings of camaraderie ("Everything's Good") to existential introspection ("Pusha Man,"" Everybody's Something"), love ("Lost," "Smoke Again") or just plain old celebration ("Favorite Song").
Just as Truffaut communicates the satisfying but ultimately fleeting ecstasy of freedom through long take and freeze-frame, Bennet does the same with his double song "Pusha Man"/"Paranoia". The first portion of the song has Chance playing the role of a dealer, though instead of dealing drugs, he's dealing “dope” music as evidenced by lyrics such as “I'll take you to the land, where the lakes made of sand/and the milk don't pour and the honey don't dance/and the money ain't yours.” Bennet is using the craft of music as a young man to deal with the big, scary world that surrounds him. This dealing of music helps to give him and his customers (listeners) the freedom and peace of mind that they so desperately crave from their environment, much like Antoine seeks from the ocean in "400 Blows." Chance comes from Chicago, IL, a city in the Midwestern United States that is riddled with violence, drugs, and other compromising situations, and through his music, Chance can make music, keep himself out of trouble, create a zone of escapism, have something to be proud of, and even make a little money in the process, and even inspire his listeners to go down the same path. This can be seen in the chorus of the song: “I got that mm-mm/I got that god damn/I'm your pusha man/I'm your-I'm your pusha man/Pimp slappin', toe-taggin', I'm just tryna fight the man/I'm your pusha man/I'm your-I'm your pusha man.” Similar to the reason for Antoine's wanderlust due to his poor home conditions and Truffaut's own cinema-inspired drive, Chance is making music to fight the system and keep his head above water (“I'm just tryna fight the man”).
But as in the world of "400 Blows," the gravity of Chance's situation becomes clearer as the story continues. After this first section of the song, relative to a scene in a film, comes to a close, there is an abrupt silence that lasts for about 30 seconds before entering into the second song, "Paranoia." It's here where we leave the comparatively light-hearted escapism of "Pusha Man" behind and enter the reality that consumes Bennet in his hometown of Chicago. He talks of his Midwestern home and the things he has to live with: “Trapped in the middle of the map with a little-bitty rock and a little bit of rap,” the 'rock' being a reference to both crack cocaine, a drug common to the streets of Chicago, and the rock music that Bennet grew up listening to, showing the varied well of influence that Chance draws from, similar to FNW filmmakers and the influence of Andre Bazin.
Chance earns his place in contemporary hip-hop not only because like his other three contemporaries, his music speaks to youth struggles of self-acceptance, love, and the constant perils and tribulations of growing up in a dangerous part of the country with death and addiction lurking around every corner and yearning for simpler days. At the tender age of 20, Chance's songs have a very worldly feel to them that was earned through a ten- day suspension from school that led to the release of his first mix tape 10 Day, and he explicitly uses many of these experiences to sound off about it in an experienced yet appealing way.
Another progenitor of this style of hip-hop is Childish Gambino, whose music occupies the indie corner of hip-hop and the sobering stories of the struggles of youth that many films of the French New Wave share. Gambino, whose real name is Donald Glover, corrals these two aspects into a hugely ambitious project titled “Because The Internet” at the end of 2013, an album that pulls doubly duty as a semi-coming of age story and an abstract criticism of contemporary internet culture through the lens of the HHNW.
Even more thought-provoking than that is the fact that “Because The Internet” is formatted like a screenplay and that each verse/scene is also its own long take. Most song titles have roman numerals in front of them, indicating different acts or suites, and each verse in these songs can be seen as a particular scene. Given that Glover released a companion screenplay about a character named The Boy’s extended young adult existential crisis to accompany the album (maybe even the other way around?), this comes as no surprise. For example, near the end of the album, a track entitled “II. Zealots of Stockholm [Free Information],” deals with Glover’s own relationship with his Jehovah’s Witness parents in one verse before jumping to an interaction between The Boy and a Swedish girl named Alyssa and then jumping back into existentialist mode with Glover realizing that he is the master of his own destiny. The stark separation of each verse as its own separate scene is evidenced in the abrupt changes to the music, with the more psychedelic and melodic sounds of the first and third verses sandwiching the hard-hitting electro-synth sounds of the second verse. The song's sonic shifts act as a jump cut of sorts, indicating a passing of time that helps the story not only shift points of view, but change the tone of the song from introspective to dismissive. Each verse/scene is also its own long take, each of which lasts between 1-2 minutes, giving the listener ample time to experience the visceral nature of every part of Glover's story, similar to how the long take at the end of 400 Blows allowed us to experience Antoine's yearning for freedom. With this kind of innovative mixing of different kinds of music in with the traditional hip-hop as bookends for particular scenes, Glover manages to convey two stories at once while maintaining the focus of his cultural deconstruction of the space that we know as the internet; its permanence and randomness baffles Glover, and he addresses it in a revolutionary, if abstract, way here.
Tyler Okonma, better known as Tyler, The Creator, in contrast, operates on a more aggressive and pastel-colored plane as the leader of Los Angeles-based collective Odd Future. Okonma's music is punctuated by a tough-guy persona that hides a more introspective and layered person underneath, seen on his debut album "Bastard" and latest album "Wolf," which is reflected in his experimental musical production across both works. He has also become known for creating absurdist and highly stylized music videos to accompany most of his songs, regardless of tone. Okonma's music may be experimental in nature, but that isn't what draws him closer to the FNW. Much of the content of his songs. especially on his latest release "Wolf," deal with young love and the extreme awkwardness that ensues during the courting process, much like Francois Truffaut's 1962 film "Jules et Jim," which also deals with a love triangle between three Bohemian European adults.
On the far more technical and serious side of the collective we have Kendrick Lamar, an artist whose musical sensibilities are much more mainstream than those of his compatriots, yet no less ambitious or stylistically bold. With the release of his major label debut “good kid, m.A.A.d. City,” Lamar created a somber, yet uplifting tale of youth on the streets of Compton, California, which is considered to be the focal point of gangsta rap by many. Even though this subject is seen very often in hip-hop, Lamar utilizes this to his advantage; because everyone is so familiar with the conventions of the so-called hood story, his choice to tell the story out of order, subtitle the album “a short film by Kendrick Lamar,” and truly inspired lyrical storytelling techniques offer up a new perspective make for a tenuous dichotomy compared to the stories told by his predecessors which were more preoccupied with in-the-moment directness. While that's certainly visible in Lamar's work as well, "good kid, m.A.A.d. city" is just as much about transcending the 'ghetto' lifestyle as it is about the overall experience. Lamar's unique yet immediately familiar cadence coupled with songs that serve equally as well as head-banging hype tracks as they do as individual segments of a story (“Bitch Don't Kill My Vibe,” “Poetic Justice,” “Backstreet Freestyle,” and “good kid” being standout examples) managed to bridge the divide between mainstream stories of defamation and grandeur and underground socio-political mindedness when the album was released last year.
All in all, these four artists attack these themes and more in their music with very different strategies that challenge basic focuses of hip-hop like the ghetto lifestyle and frivolous flaunting of wealth that many never even thought to question. This innovative spirit and great inkwell of music to draw from on any occasion are what place them in the pantheon of what I will now be calling the Hip-Hop New Wave. Unlike Tricia Rose, whose work had a tendency to focus on hip-hop in a purely American context in terms of output and inspiration, I'll be focusing on the Hip-Hop New Wave's seeming inspiration from the world of film, in particular, that of the French New Wave.