Photo Credit: Steve Morley/Redferns
Revisiting how Elvis became shorthand for square white taste by rappers in the 80s and 90s amid the release of the Elvis biopic.
In his new two-hour biopic/edit Elvis, Baz Luhrmann selected (and grossly misunderstood) another American urtext. This is painfully obvious when you consider Elvis Presley’s relationship with race, which has always been tense and complicated – an issue the film tackled almost completely ignoring.
Any conversation centered around Elvis and race needs to braid multiple strands. The man and his personal politics, the art he made in appropriating black culture in a way that made it acceptable to his predominantly white (and racist) audience, and the legacy that white Americans and blacks had with his music after his death in 1977.
Elvis presents the late singer and actor (played by Austin Butler) as a compassionate, politically aware individual who was forced to treat selling music the way Michael Jordan treated selling shoes, bullied into neutrality by his overbearing and parasitic manager, the Col. Tom Parker (Tom Hanks) . As the film depicts, the violent upheavals of the late 1960s and threats to Presley’s life transformed the already conservative Southerner into a paranoid crime-and-punishment Republican who allied himself with Nixon. But it’s pretty obvious that Presley had a real respect for the black artists he grew up modeling his music with and borrowing from. (He was, for example, effusive in his praise of Fats Domino and BB King.)
Yet the film does little to critique Presley’s appropriation, with his racial upbringing framed as a superhero origin story – literally turning vulturism into a superpower as he bounces between juke joints and Pentecostal churches imbibing black art. Having gotten his start with Sun Records (a label that largely worked with black musicians), one trend Presley would build on throughout his career was to cover – as well as collaborate with – artists and songwriters- black composers. It is well known that one of the most beloved hits in his catalogue, “You Ain’t Nothin But a Hound Dog”, was a cover originally performed by Big Momma Thornton. There is also Presley’s rendition of “Trouble” – played in the 1958 film creole king – which is built on Bo Diddley’s signature blues riff from “I am a manreleased three years earlier on his self-titled album. (Ironically enough, “I’m a Man” was a riff on Muddy Waters’ “Hoochie Coochie Man” from 1954, a symbolic example of the charge and symbiosis of ownership of melody and rhythm in blues and R&B at the time, and why the importance of Elvis’s music in relation to the mostly lies beyond the traditional attribution of musical intellectual property).
In terms of Elvis’ position in modern hip-hop and dark imagination, the details of the biography matter far less than the hagiographic, monolithic legend that has survived him. A decade after his death in the mid-’80s, when his name began to be occasionally invoked in rap, Elvis has become shorthand for the square white taste and establishment soundtrack.
While Chuck D’s critique of “Fight the Power” is the most famous utterance, it is perhaps best articulated by Masta Ace on “born to ride”:
I wonder if I blew a little Elvis Presley
Would they stop me and try to stop me
I really doubt it, they probably start dancing
Jump on my tip and piss in they pants and
Wriggling and jiggling and grabbing their pelvis
But you know my name so you never hear no Elvis
Ace literally considers it music for the cops; it’s a sentiment echoed by 8Ball on “Anotha Day in the hoodcontrasting black-and-white taste, pointing to Presley as the latter’s representative: “But rappin don’t mean shit for Elvis Presley-lovin crackers.”
Chuck D would later clarify his own words, explaining that Elvis was more representative of a broad systemic erasure of his black influences than a delinquent himself, and this is perhaps the best way to get historical understanding. of him through rap. The irony is on the nose: Elvis became the face of black music for the white populace of the ’50s, before becoming an artifact behind glass at the Met and the face of uncool institutional whiteness for black artists of the ’90s.
In Stereo Williams brilliant and curious reconsideration of Elvis from 2012, he revealed the layers the artist held and how flat and reductive modern readings of his legacy as a Rock God/Culture Vulture — none of which are entirely accurate — are. One of the most telling aspects of the article though – aside from Williams addressing an unconfirmed racist quote allegedly said by Presley – is how black artists and celebrities of the time (from James Brown to Muhammad Ali) spoke favorably of him, with Ali even saying of Presley, “Elvis was my close personal friend. I don’t admire anyone, but Elvis Presley was the sweetest, humblest, kindest man you would ever want to know. But at the end of the day, what was in Elvis’ heart, whether or not he participated in the racism of his time, is borderline intangible. Elvis reaped the benefits of institutional racism, a system that supported him on the backs of artists who couldn’t eat as good of the art as they made. Thus, its fossilization as a product of whiteness is poetic.
Like the movie, the Elvis the soundtrack fails to explore this dynamic in any interesting way, given that it features a handful of rapper appearances. It’s a general mess that can be described simply as a game of Madlibs or spinning the wheel: Denzel Curry? Nardo Wick? Swae Lee? Why not? Elvis being tapped as a rap source might have been a conversation starter (like how Three 6 Mafia sampled Presley’s “In The Ghetto” for their own song of the same name), but it’s more of a forgettable pop on simplistic Presley sampled riffs.
Even features that you think would provide a little provocation, don’t – as is the case with Eminem’s appearance on the soundtrack. Eminem first invoked Presley in “Without Me” in 2002, a time when he was a more confrontational entertainer, nimble thinker and critic: “No, I’m not the first king of controversy/I’m the worst thing since Elvis Presley/made black music so selfishly and used it to get rich.
But on his contribution to the Elvis soundtrack, “The King and I”, he leaves any meaningful extension of this conversation or criticism to a few hollow bars:
Now I’m about to explain to you all the parallels
Between Elvis and me, myself
It seems obvious: one, he’s pale like me
Second, we were both greeted like royalty
He used to rock the prison, and I used to rock the shelter
You could probably think of a few more conclusions based on Eminem’s decline as a celebrity and artist that mirror Presley’s, and might have led to something a little deeper, but Em moves on, probably because he couldn’t find a way. to work these findings into his ship model in a bottle rhyme scheme.
Ultimately, the film and its soundtrack grope for an opportunity to reignite a conversation around one of pop music’s most interesting historic bridges in American history, which saw artists like the Beatles and Bob Dylan – and their record labels – the power to graft a white mask onto black art. Elvis means the fight against commercialism and celebrity against individuality and authenticity. He usually fails at that too, because he never stops to question what fueled that stardom and where that “authenticity” came from. Elvis thinks the enemy is not white supremacy but Colonel Tom, who pimps Elvis as a racial carnival attraction. The end result is a movie that doesn’t dispel some of the misconceptions about Presley or clarify why he was such a controversial figure in the black community, so much so that he became hip-hop’s embodiment of racism. throughout the 80s. and 90s.
Abe Beame: Flatbush resident, cultural writer, former mayor of New York. You can follow him on Twitter @TheFakeAbeBeame