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Ice Cube was the first Jon Stewart….For a minute…

{Author’s note: More than other posts so far, I encourage you to click the links provided in this piece}

Ice Cube has now spanned two and a half generations. I have no idea what he represents to kids today. Coors Light commercials? Family Movies? Bad music? I don’t know.

Cube has become disconnected with his own myth. There was the young Cube, and now there is a guy named Ice Cube, and they are different people. Bob Dylan once said something about the person who wrote those great songs being someone he no longer knows, or something like that. He said he would not be able to write those lyrics today, and wonders if he ever wrote them, or simply channeled them.

Ice Cube probably remembers writing all of his lyrics, but he is now a wealthy member of the Hollywood establishment now (ironic that he got his start as Doughboy in John Singleton’s not so Hollywood film Boyz In The Hood), and so, like Dylan in his own way, it’s doubtful that he would now be able to write  When Will They Shoot. Of course hip hop has long been commodified and I’m not sure it ever didn’t want to be. It’s a worthy but tired conversation, and not the one that has brought Ice Cube to my mind. Neither am I here to chart the Ice Cube story or the story of West Coast Hip Hop. For me this is what did it. A chance encounter with this oldie.  

After well over a decade of Pimp raps, and not the painful divulgences of Iceberg  Slim or Malcolm X, we have come to think of Hip-Hop and misogyny as synonyms. So upon my chance re-visitng of “Who’s The Mack” (With DJ Pooh playing the role of Mack) I was reminded of how different Cube was. He’s such an institution that it’s weird to think of him as different, but he was. Cube positioned himself in the hood, but not as a participant in the typical hood narrative. The hoods throughout the USA in the late 80’s in early 90’s were violent and drug ridden. News to no one. A whole neo-Southern Strategy was employed to bring the worst images of contra-era inner city USA to white living rooms every night. Ice Cube was far more savvy and contained little to no agenda. His raps weren’t really biographical, at least not in the beginning. He was the narrator, but not in the Morgan Freeman sense. He was the Crypt Keeper, or Holden Caulfield, or Vincent Price, or Jon Stewart. Yes, he was Jon Stewart. Every night viewers watch Jon Stewart open the barrel of fish that is the mainstream media and the US political binary and in between views of the absurd, we return to Stewart at his desk, who knows that the joke has told it’s self. The subject IS the joke, and if he wasn’t wary of redundancy, he would simply look at us in between each bit. Cube observed it all play out. He neither fetishized the tragedy nor did he exploit it (many would argue this point). Rather he watched and rapped. He talked about the pimp and the dope dealer and poverty hookups and the banger. He talked about greed and self hate. He talked about racism and police brutality. He talked about mass incarceration, the War On Drugs, But he talked FOR none of it. He just told the truth, and told it with a humor that was unforced, a humor that was an organic product of the tragedy, and he did it brilliantly. He made many a problematic song, and was often simply politically wrong. But he also let folks know that the ghetto was a prison by pointing out via one of my favorite lyrics ever, that in the prison of ‘hood “there ain’t no warden, just broken glass fucking up my Jordans”.

Cube is probably best remembered for Today Was a Good Day, and it reminded me of another LA voice, who we just lost. Ray Bradbury would have been proud of ‘Good Day. As it was Hip Hop’s answer to many of his best short stories. We follow Cube throughout his “odd” day, free of violence, racial profiling, smog, or pork. He gets laid, shoots hellafied hoop, and in general has the perfect LA day. Until, in Bradbury fashion, reality rears its head in that inevitable and unstoppable force kind of way. In the video it’s a raid from PoPo, on the album version Cube shakes from his {day?}dream and tells DJ Pooh to hold the beat and asks what the fuck was he thinking about!?

Cube knew that all he had to do was let the tragic speaks for itself, the unconscious then does the rest. To be that prolific of a truth teller is a dangerous proposition, and one that he decided to abandon at some point. That or he just stopped being able. Like Bob Dylan said of himself.

One other quick tangent; Much of the mainstream civil rights organizations distanced themselves from Gangsta Rap, or were outright hostile to it. Cube presented them, along with the far right moralists a figure far too complex to pigeonhole and it drove them crazy. When the Clinton era tough on crime laws swept through the country and tore family after family apart, Cube spoke to it, or rather THROUGH it, while again, most of the aforementioned “leaders” toed the DNC line and left the community hanging. Cube didn’t stop telling the truth.

His music from the Jheri Curled teenager of NWA to the pelón of Lethal Injection deserves a serious and reflective look now that we are two decades removed from it all.

-Lex Steppling


Finding young Brando as a Female Cop….”The Killing” and it’s Bossery.

The Killing is in most ways a classic who done it, presented in a way that invokes a Thomas Harris novel with a lot less gore. It’s based on a Danish series of the same name (when presented to English Speakers) and is now into it’s second season on AMC. The story of a yet to be solved murder of a beautiful teen girl in Seattle. To talk about a cop show is to first talk about the cop show as a genre. The cop show usually exists to remind us why the state is there to capture and punish bad bad people. Cathy J. Cohen talks about the deep empathy we feel the moment we have the kids, and that for her it’s now to the point that she no longer is able to watch Law and Order. It’s a part of Post War life in the United States. The Cop Show is an agreed upon collective ritual of engaging fear demons, often compounded by A Current Affair true crime serials about Richard Ramirez or whomever. Long ago identified and exploited by the man who turns the crank on the T.V machine.

Five (oh)

It’s a template that pre dates us here (as in right now) obviously. The detective yarn goes back a long way and it’s history could easily consume this post. Mystery and crime are at the heart of all narrative, and the detective story and cop show genre are very accessible and punitive versions.

Interesting that I’m talking about the Cop Show around the 20th anniversary of the L.A Riots/Uprising. The aethsetic formed out of Helicopter news coverage of L.A happenings throughout the 90’s has informed much of the (post?) modern cop show, including the Copumentary.  

When I think of Cop Shows today I think of Law and Order and CSI. To put it as simply as possible I see each show as the following:

CSI- Perfect technology. Perfect police state.

Law and Order- Heinous (especially heinous if we are talking SVU) crimes. Deeply sensitive cops. Deeply insensitive defense attorneys. Red tape protecting criminals.

I’ll add that there are also the shows/films about the tough guy cop who breaks the rules to bring justice and usually wears things like jeans, sneakers, black t shirts, hawaiian shirts, leather jackets, shades, and has a drinking problem. It’s a misogynist ideal of course. The women present is usually a source of nothing but conflict, though of course the misogyny runs deeper and makes the audience wish for the hero to exist in a world without women.

He was a cop in this one right?

There have been been shows about cops that were different. The early bird special joints. The shows about those who bring in special talents from the periphery, and are more or less cop shows. BBC’s Cracker comes to mind (a superb show). Shows like Monk that are riffing on the Sherlock Holmes allegory. All of these are deviations presented in either ironic, humerous, or challenging lights, but all revolving around the magnetic center of police drama.

The Killing is not a deviation. It is an out and out cop show as mentioned above. So why is it able to be something more? something deeper, and most interestingly a show not donning shiny black boots. It makes me think of how Goodfellas was a gangster film but not there to seduce you. A film of Gangsters doing gangster things, but so different from The Godfather films, or even De Palma’s Scarface. What made Goodfellas different? I would argue that it’s the same thing, or really things that separate The Killing from Law and Order.  While the Godfather I and II offer us a beautiful epic, and Law and Order a righteous (and reactionary) crusade,  Both Goodfellas and The Killing operate through characters full of guilt, doubt, shame, and a shared and mutually acknowledged existential crisis. That crisis, along with it’s manifestations of sadism, myopia and corruption are not withheld from the systemic forces they carry out, be it organized crime or the criminal justice system. There is a rotten quality to it all. A fallibility that forces us into a swamp of uncomfortable questions. Goodfellas adorns this space with the garish suits and artificial surfaces of modernist New York, it’s rigor flaming out appropriately in the coked out 80’s. The Killing immerses itself in current day Seattle (except no one seems to have smart phones, which made me think it was supposed to be older, except that Linden drives an up to date Ford). The Killing’s setting and it’s story cooperate with film noir harmony, much the way Ivan Passer’s Cutters Way weaves a sun splashed noir into post Vietnam Santa Barbara.

The other reason The Killing stands apart and becomes hard to reduce is the performance of Mirielle Enos as Sarah Linden, the homicide detective and protagonist. Surrounded by some excellent supporting performances, notably Joel Kinnaman as Detective Stephen Holder, a tweeker cop who worked as a Narc too long and has yet to de-coopt his slanguage, and the bearish and graceful Brent Sexton as Stanley Larson, the former mob goon turned grieving father. It is Enos however that makes this a special show. The dark corners lurking in her every communication, and the history, never to be understood, contained within her silence is poetic. It all reminds me of how rare this quality is in any actor, let alone one playing a detective in a who done it. An actor of this caliber brings something to every scene, including a critical sensibility that makes one question. There is a scene in which Linden and Holder sit down to some fast food. On the surface it feels that there is to be a wry irony here, in part because of Holder’s dope fiend dietary patterns that are a a running gag, but Enos does something in that scene and suddenly the fast food experience makes perfect sense. One now see’s it in lockstep with every other obscene detail of her life as an tentacle tip of the criminal justice system. There is no irony there. She suffers too deeply. A lesser actor would have smirked their way through the scene, and maybe would have mixed in a brooding brow to convey darkness or something. Enos’ Linden is at once deeply sensitive and in tune, while simultaneously failing at a consistent clip as both a cop and a mother. It is in her ability to swim with tragedy that those failures inevitably because failures of state and of patriarchy. To connect such dots in this profound fashion is something that helps me as I engage in the process of defining art and it’s ability to pull me under the surface.

-Lex Steppling

They Chose to Call it “Girls” and not “White Girls”.

This is my first real post, and it makes sense that many of the reasons I’ve decided to start writing here are distilled into HBO’s new series Girls.

The entertainment industry has achieved a level of nepotism that would make the Habsburg house look like the N train on a busy Friday. With such a concentration of privileged white folks, it is a surprise to no one that the product of said industry represents the experiences of privileged white folks.

Like many myths of American upward mobility, the dream of making it in the film and television industry burns bright in the minds of people of every corner of America’s socio economic mosaic. 25 year old Lena Dunham the creator of Girls has received praise for her achievement in that context. Nailing down an HBO show as a woman of her age is no small feat right? Well I don’t know, but I am as sure as grime on a dime that I will be offered every opportunity to find out. Girls, like Sex and the City, or Kony 2012 offers us one world view while not realizing that there are others. The disconnect and alienation created by privilege goes unexamined. The one world, white world narrative flows and flows. Whatever conflicts and struggles our protagonist encounters are engaged at face value. A show like Breaking Bad for example, starts with and never let’s go of the base truth that Walter’s cancer is at the very least a metaphor for the Pathology of white suburban malaise. Each season taking us on a new mad death rush through the blockades of safety, access, and consumption. It’s made even more implicit in the way Walter’s “1st world problems” drape over each story line like a translucent piece of cheaply patterned rayon.

Dopeman Dopeman

Identifying and examining one’s own privilege is akin to a dung beetle Identifying his own bullshit. Skilled people creating and facilitating spaces where critical dialogue and reflection is encouraged and supported is one way to do it. Another way to jerk that process into effect is through Art. A film like Jaques Audiard’s A Prophet (Un Prophete) makes it impossible to look away from dynamics of class, immigration, patriarchy, mass incarceration, and sexuality through the experience of a 1st generation North African petty criminal in post EU France. It is VERY important to note here that Audiard’s film is not ASKING us to explore those dynamics. It is not “Art as moral instruction” (a crumbly liberal notion of the value of Art as pointed out by playwright John Steppling). It MAKES us examine it by virtue of the quality of the work itself.

Malik and the Patriarch

Girls is incurring a swift cultural backlash, and one that collectively seems to be very ready to talk about race. Everyone is tired of talking about hipsters, which 5 years ago might have been the core of a coded criticism of Lena Dunham’s product. For many reasons of which only a few will get credit (think Sheriff Bart and the Candy Gram) we are in a time that race is being talked about and examined in very direct and intelligent terms. Where we go from here is going to be really really interesting. Teju Cole’s response to Kony 2012 was an inspiring example of what can happen when rigor is applied and racism and colonial spectacle are de-robed. VICE Magazine ex Capo Gavin McInnes comes through with the inevitable defensive moan of the white racist via the platform of high culture even if it is an expression of lightweight polemics that would make Glenn Beck facepalm. McInnes’ colleague Lesley Arfin offered her own version via tweet. Which, if failing to be funny, succeeded in indicating that the entitlement to (at the very best) treat one’s own racial disconnect the way a 6 year old treats the word Fuck. It was a Hipster (almost made it through the post! alas) version of Roger Sterling whooping it up at a Hamptons bash. Arfin is of course a staff writer for Girls.

Racism is not there to be fixed, or removed. It is not and never will be something as simple as a wart. Hollywood can throw as many tokens against the wall as it wants, and it will remain meaningless. Growth and healing are happening and will continue to happen with or without Hollywood, but one hopes that these Girls and the experience they represent, for the sake of their own health and sanity might one day come across a clue.

-Lex Steppling

Pointto begins

Let’s talk. I’m down.