Stream: Danja Mowf “Question”
Stream: Danja Mowf “Question” (remix)
De La Soul’s “Me, Myself & I” video sells a notion of oppositional individuality, represented visually by the group’s garish clothing and sonically by their liberal sampling of everything that isn’t James Brown. The song intends to firstly disabuse the group’s audience of the notion that their penchant for peace signs and paisley shirts aligns them with the hippies of the 1960s, and secondly to distinguish the group from popular but obnoxiously unoriginal kangol and medallion-sporting rap acts. On both levels, the song initially failed. By 1989, the the ’60s and ’70s was a distant epoch, represented by symbols and styles that had lost most of their notoriety and specificity; the group’s attempt to distance themselves from the modern notion of the hippie only reinforced the association while deflating their claims of going against the grain.
De La Soul wanted the freedom to choose their own ancestors —in the form of flamboyant eccentrics like Funkadelic— while claiming to be free spirits operating within a recognized tradition, against the tide of prevailing rap trends. That’s a tricky balancing act, and their ode to individuality was too catchy to dodge the neat if inaccurate categorization and misinterpretation that can result from widespread acceptance. In spite of their protests to the contrary, to many fans they were in fact “hip hop hippies,” or at the very least, purveyors of a hippie-like bohemian sensibility that inspired fans to emulate their clothing and hair styles. The group came to loathe the fact that their advertised claims of non-conformity were quickly distorted and commodified, but their paradoxical predicament was considered perfectly palatable and marketable for a while.
Nearly a decade later Virginia rapper Danja Mowf wrestled with similar concerns regarding authenticity, integrity, individuality, and commerce on his song “Questions.”
Danja Mowf begins the song by imagining a “universal role reversal” where “a cipher is too commercial,” Hammer is respected by the undeground, Ras Kass sells out, and your rap-hating mother plays Organized Konfusion while dusting the living room. The production is simple and bright, giving the song an optimistic feel, so at first it seems that this imaginary world is something of an artistic utopia, or at least an alternate world separate from our corrupted, mundane reality. The image of one’s mother taking a liking to Stress: The Extinction Agenda is especially arresting and telling. Organized Konfusion is a group normally associated with positive messages, but the hard beats and gloomy mood of their second album makes them an unlikely object of adoration for the whole family.1
In this instance, Danja Mowf might be lamenting the inability of his genre live up its stated ideals, which sometimes include bridging gaps and fostering communication. “Questions” presumes that this condition is contrived by an industry that labels and compartmentalizes music, stifling creativity and limiting the reach of music that does not readily conform to the most popular trends or cater to key demographics. Danja Mowf is most concerned with the slippery concept of “reality,” which in the 90s was slapped on to so many different forms of expression that it was rendered essentially meaningless. In describing the alternate world in which “reality and commerciality both fuse” he clings stubbornly to his binary — the “real” underground of righteous formalists and purists versus the commercial world of posturing pseudo-gangsters — in spite of his own observations that suggests that the situation is not so simple.
The second verse and third verses predictably champion the former group while lamenting the ground recently gained by the latter. Danja Mowf is an instantly appealing rapper and tackles the topic with precision and humor; he delivers two verses of unveiled anti-gangster rhetoric with such clarity and focus that it is difficult to disagree with his stance. Yet these two verses are somehow less compelling than the first, which sheds light on the more complicated truths of the matter by posing questions that are not easily answered. The rap genre has always had a strange, perpetually shifting relationship with the mainstream audience and music industry. Rappers of every creed and form have wrestled with the desire to gain fame for their music while remaining true to both their artistic ideals and their perceived responsibility to their communities, ethnic and otherwise.
They have also vacillated between acting as the uncensored mouthpiece for the voiceless and as poor righteous teachers. The former role is burdened by a requirement for a type authenticity that often exceeds the boundaries of good taste and credibility; the latter role runs the risk of paralleling reactionary political views. Danja Mowf’s claim of being simply an “emcee being me” sounds great as a campaign slogan but casually ignores the reality of the rapper as a public, social figure whose inner thoughts are scrutinized by different groups of listeners with expectations that typically do not align with the individual artist’s romantic notions of unencumbered expression. One almost feels sorry for the artists that Danja Mowf criticizes in the second and third verses, as they are trapped in the same liminal space brilliantly described by Danja Mowf in the first verse of the song, simply by virtue of making their music available out for public consumption and interpretation. — Thun
- Theoretically, the whole family could get together and discuss the album’s relative merits, but mom, dad, and sister aren’t likely to share the rebellious son’s tastes when they are radio formats and promotional schemes aimed directly at their pre-fabricated R&B/easy listening/ teeny-bop sensibilities. At least I think that’s the logic at work here. [↩]