Indie Rock is the white man’s music. This fact is well established. All one needs to do to prove this point is to conduct a quick thought experiment. I say indie rock and you note the first five bands or artists that come to mind. White dudes with guitars, right? Or, one could read recent articles at Pitchfork, The New Republic and Slate.
I’ll save you the clicks. Basically, all three articles get deep into semantics, like the difference between labeling evil-doers terrorists and people who commit acts of terror, but in terms of music. You see, people like Kanye and FKA Twigs aren’t indie rock, even though they are constantly featured on websites like Spin, Stereogum, and Pitchfork because the writers never explicitly call them indie rock. Sufjan Stevens and The Decemberists are definitely indie rock, even though they share fans with the aforementioned Kanye and FKA, because neither of those bands would know swagger if swagger was the only word in their thesaurus and it was highlighted in pink and you rubbed their noses in bright pink swagger.
FKA Twigs was plastered all over websites for white people who like music for her star performance at Coachella (here, here, here, for a sample). Pitchfork, the ultimate white person’s guide to music rated her debut album the second best release of 2014, behind the black and white rap duo, Run the Jewels. But, FKA Twigs is not indie rock and her career suffers(?) because of this fact. This is where I’d like to see some of our modern number junkies churn some numbers and prove whether an artist outside of traditional indie rock who gets covered by traditional indie rock publications sees negative career implications because they are not labeled indie rock, proper. Yo, Nate Silver, get on this!
This isn’t to ignore the uncomfortable truth that we, as Americans, have a long, proud history of segregating music. Rock and country are white. Rap, hip-hop, soul, and R’N’B are black. Go further back, and jazz music was off limits to those of fair skin with and over-protective parents. Removing one word, “indie rock,” from the history of music segregation will do little to change the musical landscape. No “indie rock” simply means people will need another phrase to describe music outside of the top 40, ideally, something less wordy than, “Underground rock music, and some electronic music, and a metal band or two, and every once in a while something popular like Kanye.”
Yet, what grates me the most about the whiteness of indie rock think piece in 2015 is that these writers are missing the big picture. On this very day, in the year 2015 of our lord, the two most exciting bands in indie rock/underground rock/punk rock/not top 40 rock, are led by black men: MC Ride of Death Grips and Lamont “Bim” Thomas of Obnox.
Wait, what? Yes, you read that right. Indie rock has a white problem and two black dudes are behind the baddest punk rock music in 2015.
How the fuck did this happen in a culture of unbearable whiteness? The same way all of the other great indie rock acts got started, in the basement, the garage, and the apartment, basically any place music could be made without the neighbors calling the cops.
For Death Grips, notoriety came quickly with the band signing to a major label mere months after the release of their 2011 debut release, Ex Military. Between then and 2015’s double album, The Powers That B, the duo of MC Ride and Zach Hill have struggled with their new found fame while maintaining their desire to rip the system. When focused, however, there’s nothing quite like a Death Grips rip.
On tracks like “I Break Mirrors With My Face in the United States,” from the Jenny Death half of The Powers That B, one hears the boastful spit of hip-hop and the tweaker electronics of the EDM movement paired with forceful and rhythmically diverse beats. It may not have the old 1-2-3-4, let’s go, feel of ’77, but its spirit is unquestionably punk. Add guitars gleamed from decades of outsider rock, as on “Centuries of Damn,” and you practically have a blueprint on how to bring punk and indie into the 21st Century.
Clevelander Lamont “Bim” Thomas takes a similar big tent approach to indie rock. His trunk punk, as he’s fond to call it, contains elements of punk, hip-hop, soul, and psychedelic rock. Then, it’s mixed to oblivion. The bass beats rattle windows on older cars. The guitars, pitched to squelch and scream, pose their own danger. Members of the local hip-hop community lend a hand with the beats. Designated shredders from the punk rock and noise rock underground add guitar screech.
Dude does thrash.
Dude does boogie.
Dude gets high and rolls old skool.
Dude’s got an encyclopedic knowledge of music.
The only thing dude can’t do is get attention. Bim doesn’t have the gift of self-promotion/antagonization of Death Grips. Hence, his band is more of an in-the-know kind of band, an indie rock band, if you will.
If we, as a music community are ever going to get out of this indie rock is too white rut, and if rock music in general, is to ever get out of its everything old still sounds kinda old today, rut, then it’s going to be because of people like MC Ride and Death Grips and Bim and Obnox, not writers who want to ban words and phrases.
Nothing is off limits to these musicians. They mix rock and hip-hop like Limp Bizkit and Linkin Park never happened. They ignore the traditional wisdom of giving fans what they want, and instead give them what they need. In 2015, people need a reality check.