When Did Hot Rodding Become Hip Hop?
A little piece I threw down for Tubbed Magazine. Stop by and enjoy the second coming of Pro-Street.
Think back to your first memorable experience that set your fate as a “car guy.” Don’t let nostalgia sway you, just blurt it out. Just roll with the first one that comes to mind.
I’d be willing to bet that it had nothing at all to do with what anyone else thought of you. Taking that a yep further, I’d sweeten that bet by adding that it had nothing to do with fame or money. While one or two of you may have though about the guy with the bitchin’ ride in your hometown that got all of the girls or that every other guy wanted to be, that seems pretty normal, and had nothing to do with defining just who you were. It started with the car, right?
Along that patch of blacktop we all travel on our way to becoming full-fledged car guys, we all get a taste of the pride that comes with a thumbs-up at a stoplight, or the strangers wanting to discuss our cars and the one they had “just like it” back in the day. Ego always grows a bit to fill those freshly upholstered bucket seats, and it’s all fine if you know how to keep it in check. And if you had any car guy friends worth anything, they knew how to help you keep that in check. It’s what good friends do.
It’s a family.
Compare your memories to what any kid coming into what remains of the hobby today will know it as:
A bunch of posturing and ego-driven, money-hungry wannabe celebrities driving catalog-sourced vehicles destined to provide big returns at auction. In an entitlement-driven, fame-is-everything era, we’re losing the real car guys and builders to a steady stream of TV stars and project managers. It’s an awful lot like Hip Hop and reality TV: Just a load of “look at me” bullshit with no redeeming value. And having already conquered reality TV, it’s not a far stretch to see the whole thing sink to a level of commerce-driven stereotypes telling you what’s cool this week, and making everything so base and trend-driven that they’ll be left with little choice but to either cannibalize the damned thing, or just leave it to die and move to the next.
Let’s roll with the whole Hip Hop analogy. Let’s create a fictional car guy who maybe came into the scene in the late-1970’s. He’s stoked about these “Pro-Street” cars, and can’t get enough of the look. It becomes in his mind the right look: Big, fat tires out back, a rake, skinny tires up front, and perhaps some form of induction poking though the hood. The essentials are in place. Our budding car guy is exposed to cars like Joe Ruggirello’s Mustang II or Lisk’s Challenger or Kollofsky’s ’55 Chevy (side note: Anyone else find it coincidental that all of these guys have names befitting a cool character or bad-ass cop in a movie?) or any other of a series of killer, pro-style bruisers. And much as any fan of what would come to be called “Hip-Hop” would have heard Grandmaster Flash or the Cold Crush Brothers early on and been drawn to it for the unique approach and the imagery it inspired in anyone outside of the Bronx, what would come to named “Pro-Street” did likewise to anyone who never cruised Woodward.
While Hip Hop evolved by taking outside influences from funk and soul to new wave and even punk, Pro-Street did likewise, borrowing from Street Freaks and Street Rods and other places, always looking to raise the bar just a touch. And, like anything gaining popularity, each had a stand-out that came to be the face of the movement: Hop Hop had acts like Run DMC, and we scored with names like Sullivan, Dobbertin and Hay (they could play the law firm in that film idea mention earlier). And in that popularity of a select few, we can trace the evolution of each, mans see the ongoing influences applied to shape just where each might head.
Like anything that goes popular, there exists the danger of haven it buckle under its own weight. While Pro-Street suffered from a number of ills, we could blame the decline on magazine saturation and constant competition to be the next big thing, with cars adding more extreme power plants and detailing and so-on, that it just became a caricature of itself, and begged for something to step in and rebel against it. We wound up with Pro-Touring, which didn’t seem to heed its own warnings, and is finding itself on a similar path. As for Hip Hop, it changed from a creative ocean of experimentation and arrangement to a soul-less money farm in the 1990’s (oh, the similarities between Hip Hop and Pro-Street are many, kids), and eventually a sad joke with all of the “gangsta” posturing and crunk-style bragging. (Side note 2: Consider that Dr. Seuss coined the phrase “crunk car” back in the 1970’s, and you start to feel all lightheaded, right? Scary how that works.) Where Hip Hop and its offspring found their way into the mainstream via MTV and radio play, hot rodding was doing likewise via major events, magazines and videos. TV wouldn’t be far behind.
It’s not such a far reach then, to compare Hip Hop and Hot Rodding. Each became a pale version of its former self once television became a part of the marketing. Hell, we could take this little notion on a whole other ride, but let’s settle on the marketing of each as being hand-in-hand harbinger of destruction forthe movement. Don’t get me wrong, I get the money thing… We all need to eat. But when the problems come banging down the doors, they usually look like the fresh-from-College guys from Marketing. And when they come visiting, even the goldfish stop swimming, if you get my drift. The dollar signs flash, and it’s off to the races. On the music side, it becomes about selling the image of what Marketing thinks that it should be, with reference to moving product (as Yogurt the Wise taught us so many moons ago, the real money is in merchandising). You craft an image, and get the kids to buy into that. On the car side, it’s eerily similar: Craft an image of what someone outside of the whole thing thinks it should be (based upon what the data shows will sell), and run with it, facts be damned if need be. Understanding that, it’s not so difficult to see why we had shows like Orange County Choppers or, keeping with the theme, Pimp My Ride. On one hand, you had screaming and yelling and time crunch drama because, by golly, that has to be how it is in a real shop, right? The natural outgrowth was American Hot Rod, Wrecks to Riches and their ilk. They appealed to the “behind the scenes” exclusivity gene which TV inserted into the genetic code, and never mind how skewed from reality it might be… Just cash that check and find more shit to fight about. Take that a step further in the appeal to “you can sell these cars and make money!” idea, and by golly, the shows practically write themselves. I am convinced that there are but two formulas for any reality-based show:
1. The Shop as setting for drama (family, client/shop, contest, money or otherwise) formula,
2. The find it/buy it/fix it up/sell for profit/repeat formula
…each of which may be seasoned to taste by adding celebrity appearances, surprises, some form of competition, pranks or canned “tech tips” wherever holes appear in the story line. Take a long, hard look at Monster Garage and tell me it isn’t so. Shit, get a hold of a script from Lords of the Car Hoards, Unique Whips, Leepu and Pitbull or Fast N Loud, mix them all up, and I’d bet that a seven year old could put a season’s worth of shows together at random, and you’d never be able to tell the difference. You could do likewise with any current Hip Hop video premise. It’s not about telling a story or building a cool car; it’s about who can brag the loudest. And that opens the door to really scary things, and can usher outcomes like not unlike the Lucifer Effect, as postulated by Philip Zimbardo (aka the Stanford Prison Experiment), wherein the wheels can be put into motion that make a good person do some really twisted evil things. I mean, what would the dollar amount be for you to sell out and bastardize the car hobby you love? Roll with your first instinct. That’s a lot of fucking zeros, isn’t it? And that’s chump change when the Advertising Department bros get involved (and you thought that little fishie was holding still earlier? You ain’t seen nothin’ yet). And when the image consultants and writers come to play, you’ll hardly recognize yourself. It doesn’t take a lot to go from singing about your sneakers over a sampled loop to bragging about the women you slept with in the penthouse last week and how big the rims on your SUV are when the residuals roll in.
And that’s where we stand today: It’s not about some guy with a cool 1970’s action movie cop name building a kick-ass machine that will set your synapses afire, blazing a whole new path for thought across your brain or even mashing two things together that have never been mashed before. It’s about having some money guy or project manager (at best) playing the douche (OK, sometimes it’s not a stretch for the guy. As a wise man once told me, “Only two kinds of people wear sunglasses indoors: Rock stars and assholes. Be on the lookout for a guitar.”) and creating some filler to top with ad sales. It’s loosely connected product placement opportunities designed to make the numbers so that Trent and Blaine in the front office can keep that tee time. You don;t have the imagination or thrill of discovery involved with your entry to the hobby anymore. Instead, you have an image to play up to, and try to out-douche so that you can make your own mark and score that show.
After all, it isn’t about the cars anymore, unless they’re a prop for your bitches to lean against while you pose with jewelry and assorted gold-plated handguns. While I can appreciate how anyone uninitiated into the family that is hot rodding can fall for this, you can bet your ass that I’ll be stepping into frame and doing my best to drop knowledge on Quick Mix Theory and Bill Jenkins’ Pro Stock Vega.