MC Paul Barman
By David M.

In hip-hop, race has long been the toughest cape to sail around. The people who argue for hip-hop as an inherently, deeply black cultural form don’t seem to fathom that they’re helping paint black artists into a corner. White hip-hop artists, by their very presence presenting a counter-argument to racial essentialism, have as a rule turned such counterproductive tricks as stealing street slang, trying to play up their connections to black culture, or, most often, mocking themselves for being white men practicing a black art. None of this presented the possibility that hip-hop would ever open its doors to all comers.

MC Paul Barman continues this tradition, which is why he’s so fucking irksome to me, Sage Francis, your mom, and anyone else who is working to broaden hip-hop’s horizons. His record is entertaining [see accompanying review], but it’s a guilty pleasure, considering what a retrograde racialist he is. With his goofy inflections and self-mocking sex rhymes, he makes his whiteness the butt of his favorite joke, the center of his shtick. He’s 2 Live Jews. He’s Rappin’ Rodney Dangerfield. When he tells Princess Superstar, “Your talents are bite sized/ it’s no wonder you rhyme with white guys,” he’s saying that he sucks because he’s white, a sentiment El-P, Slug, Dose One, and Cage would take serious issue with if it were lobbed at them.

Those artists, and many others (including Eminem), clearly regard themselves as no less a part of hip-hop than their darker brethren - and they’ve been accepted, in some cases despite serious artistic deviance. Though this kind of integration is obviously subjectively gratifying for a leftist white boy like me, it also helps free artists of all colors from spirit-draining worries about whether they’re ‘too white’, or ‘not black enough’. In the new hip-hop underground, what color you are, and even what color you act, are not indicators of whether you’re keeping it real.

Barman seems to disagree. His persona and lyrics implicitly argue that anyone or anything ‘white’ can only represent the stiff, impotent (“I’m hung like a birthmark”), cerebral, un-hip negative against which hip-hop must define itself as funky, sexy, cool, impulsive, and exclusively black in order to be considered legit. Lest we forget, Bambaata repped Kraftwerk hard, and Rick Rubin was the fourth member of Run D.M.C. - but this isn’t about keeping score. No one can ever argue that hip-hop’s driving force was born out of anything but the black urban experience. The problem is when people think that’s where it has to stay.


Paulellujah! CD - Coup D’etat

When I interviewed Paul Barman recently, I asked him about his circa-2001 run-in with Sage Francis, a beef that, according to Francis, is not even remotely squashed. Barman’s careful “no comment” wasn’t exactly gully. Then, after the interview, he said he thought it was “unfair” of me to even ask about the beef. Paul, just for future reference, that shit isn’t just fair game - any good journalist writing for a hip-hop savvy audience is expected to ask about it. ¶ MC Paul Barman obviously knows next to nothing about hip-hop culture, but he’s self-aware about his outsider status, his ineptitude as a rapper, and his general gooberism, and that saves him. On Paulellujah!, his rhymes initially seem awkward, and his flow is labored and sloppy, but his manic energy and self-deprecation will win you over. He sounds equally proud and embarrassed of his constant references to high culture, and mocks his own sexual failings relentlessly. The excellent music is a goofy mix of elevator cheese and Seventies funk-lite that sounds lifted straight from “Schoolhouse Rocks,” and carries the underhanded self-castigation forward by being very, very white. ¶ You might think this would get old fast, but Barman is genuinely funny and has a knack for slapstick narratives that elevates Paulelujah! above novelty status. The hilarious “N.O.W.” has him scoring a quickie at an abortion rights rally, as hordes of hairy women chant, “What do we want? To get laid! When do we want it? NOW!” Also great is “Cock Mobster,” where Barman imagines a string of obscene encounters with female celebrities. MikeTheMusicGuy drops crazy hot horns and drum fills primed for the dance floor, and Barman smears his smarmy energy around like body chocolate. The album’s weakest points are, inevitably, when Barman forgets that he can’t really rap. His “serious moments,” mostly political rants, are labored and obvious. It’s hard to say how long Barman can run with his comedic concept, but it seems clear he’s got little else to work with. And here’s the article about MC Paul Barman. Do with it what you will, but if you have time, I’d like to know what you think.

I’ve been struggling with MC Paul Barman for months now, listening to his new album, interviewing him, then writing and rewriting in pursuit of a few paragraphs that might sum up my very profound and important thoughts about him. He’s a rapper, by the way, not very well known, but no longer unknown, either. He’s white, and his music defies many previous hip-hop standards. But these days, with underground hip-hop at a vibrant peak of integration and innovation, this doesn’t make him particularly unique. ¶ What is unique, and what has left me trapped in a contemplative cul-de-sac for so long, is that, very soon after his emergence on the independent music scene, this particular white, non-traditional MC became a sudden locus of controversy, and even a target of scorn, for other independent hip-hop artists and for the fans of the music. Anti-Barman manifestoes were issued, and from record stores to message boards, a debate raged over whether Barman deserved any artistic respect, whether he was a joke, whether he was corrupting and destroying hip-hop. Now, with the recent release of his debut full-length, Paulelujah!, the shit may again be on its way to the fan. ¶ At first glance, Barman’s music bears a lot of resemblance to such novelties as “Rappin’ Rodney” (Dangerfield, that is) and 2 Live Jews (whose “Kosher As They Wanna Be” I recommend without hesitation). Starting with his name, moving to his clothes and demeanor, all the way through to his stiff lyrics and clumsy delivery, Barman mines the old “white people are so lame” shtick: he’s playing the Jim Carrey roles on In Living Color, and willingly providing material for a decade’s worth of Def Comedy Jams (“You see, white people be rappin’ like this...”). ¶ Barman reveals more complexity on closer examination, but it’s his overall image that has fueled so much controversy. The leader of the contrarian pack is Sage Francis, a Rhode Island rapper who, shortly after the release of Barman’s first EP, posted a passive-aggressive “open letter” on various message boards and websites, in a supposed attempt to open dialogue with Barman. The letter backhandedly implied or stated outright that Barman was guilty of various types of stylistic theft, egregious egotism, cultural ignorance, general mistreatment of his fellow artists, and disrespect for hip-hop as a whole. (This had the exciting potential to spark a great battle between two talented MCs; the battle never happened, thanks mostly to Barman’s reticence, on which more later.) ¶ But the part of the letter that struck me most was when Francis claimed that “The fact that you [Barman] represent a huge population of white people in this country is being exploited... and they could care less if you have paid your dues or not.” This is an old sentiment, which has been lobbed at The Beastie Boys, House of Pain, Eminem, and many, many, many other white rap artists over the years. The thing that floored me, and the thing that was new and different, is that Sage Francis is himself white. A white MC, with a largely white fan base, accusing another MC, also white, of exploiting his whiteness to get ahead. You may find yourself asking, as I did, how this makes any fucking sense at all. ¶ It does, but only when you look at the current racial politics of the hip-hop underground. You see, most white rappers (of which, in case you didn’t know, there are many) reside in a relatively small segment of the hip-hop spectrum. Those of any artistic merit (i.e. those not named White Dawg, Milk Bone, or some such - these artists, and many more like them, exist; enjoy laughing at their names, and perhaps look up pictures of their album covers on Amazon or CDNow; but I implore you, go no further, do not listen, do not buy, not even as a gag gift, not even if you’re really, really bored) tend to gravitate towards rap’s avant-garde edge. Such artists include Aesop Rock, the Anticon collective, Atmosphere, Sage Francis himself, and many others. I’d estimate that more than half the artists in this particular corner of hip-hop are white. ¶ Back in the day, white rappers caught unending flack for not being from the streets, for apparently “stealing” black culture (most of what I’m saying about “white” rappers may also have been said about Asian or even Latino rappers, but I for one have never heard about it). But the experimental hip-hop scene has successfully thrown off this yoke, premising legitimacy on dedication to hip-hop itself rather than on skin color or background (the best example of this I can think of is when Akrobatik (black) dissed Sage as a “suburbanite” in a freestyle battle, and they both came away laughing; ten years ago, Sage would’ve had to go out and rob a liquor store to come back from that one). Gaps are bridged daily. Amazing artists have sprung out of the suburbs of the Midwest and Minnesota, and gone on to make great music with artists from Oakland and New York City, brought together by common artistic sensibilities. The art and style of this scene are a seamlessly wild hybrid of its white and black cultural sources, similar in spirit to the early-Eighties art disco/No Wave circuit in New York City. In this newer incarnation, thrift store chic once again rubs up against streetwear - hoodies and gimme caps; Atari t-shirts and Ecko shoes; Fro-hawks and aviator glasses. The music is just as much of a crazy experiment, with artists inspired by Front 242, Pavement, Stockhausen, Wu-Tang, Erik B., and Parliament in equal measure. ¶ With his imperfect delivery, goofy persona, and self-conscious references to high-brow culture, MC Paul Barman is counter to everything this scene stands for. Rather than a harmonious union of inspirations, his music is a violent graft of white sensibility onto black music, a passion play of shameless appropriation whose greatest charms - errant diction in particular - arise from Barman’s lack of exposure to in-the-flesh hip-hop culture. When I spoke to him recently, he took great pains to assure me that where he was growing up in New Jersey, he was very into hip-hop - watching Video Music Box, “getting all of the radio waves,” and being turned on to new stuff by friends. “Friends at camp, especially” (cheap shot - acknowledged; ut he did say it). This is, frankly, pretty similar to the way that some of the best MCs now working gained their first exposure to hip-hop. But the difference between them and Barman is that they found collaborators, joined the culture and worked within it. Instead of entering the hip-hop subculture, Barman made music on his own, and then, when Prince Paul decided to produce his first EP, he was suddenly thrust into a hip-hop community he had little working knowledge of. ¶ When Sage Francis accuses Barman of appealing to “a huge nation of white people” who “couldn’t give a shit whether you’ve paid your dues or not,” he’s referring less to white people per se than to people (of whatever race) who are not down with the hip-hop scene (the inverse implication that white people in the hip-hop scene are not truly white is - well, you know). Despite the recent acclaim accorded to Anticon, Def Jux, and others, indie hip-hop is still fighting, still hungry, still not where it wants to be, and I think Sage is expressing a well-grounded fear that what was amazing and new two years ago could be watered down by an influx of clueless gawkers like Barman, fans and artists with no sense of history or integrity, and then sink under its own weight. Sage cites Barman’s disrespect for his fellow artist’s achievement, as when he claimed “Noone has done this before!” in reference to his use of complex writing techniques. That kind of ignorance must be fought. ¶ The other impulse that lies behind Sage Francis’ letter is about race. A lot of people, artists in particular, are worried that MC Paul Barman is making white people look bad, that he is undermining the work that Sage and others have done to create a scene where art can be made, relatively unencumbered by racial politics. Barman, with his aggressively intellectual, dandyish, neurotic, twitchy persona, and with his appeal so premised on a well-played ignorance of hip-hop, is, at least in part, performing whiteface minstrelsy. He invites listeners to equate his race and his ineptitude. For a subculture so premised on integration, so dedicated to the concept that your love of hip-hop is all it takes to belong, the fallout of these ideas taking root could be disastrous. ¶ It’s not easy to get a bead on Barman’s fan base. At a recent show, I noticed a lot of people who didn’t look like rap fans - but also many who obviously were. Barman’s records are sold on websites that specialize in Anticon and Def Jux-style music, and also on sites that encompass more traditional underground hip-hop. It makes sense, of course - people well versed in hip-hop are most likely to get Barman’s joke. They’re also more likely to be immune to the more insidious aspects of his persona. But those with no knowledge of hip-hop beyond MTV garbage could very easily be led to believe that Paul Barman is representative of white people in rap. Maybe cool, confident Eminem is an anomaly. Maybe the only way the melanin-deprived can express themselves in rhyme is by making fun of their own ridiculousness. Maybe only white people can rap about, you know, smart stuff. ¶ His motivations are doubtless innocent, and he’s almost certainly harmless. But the slenderest possibility that he could spread this sort of thinking should have us all taking a long, hard look at MC Paul Barman.



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