What can below-mediocre Italian-American rappers tell us about race relations in 2011?
“The prospering overweight sons of leaner immigrant fathers drive from suburbia to Little Italy on weekends to replenish their ever-diminishing ethnic supplies.” Nicholas Pileggi, 1967.
If in 2004 you’d have told someone that seven years later David Mitchell and Charlie Brooker would be hosting Britain’s worst TV show while Paddy McGuinnes helmed its best, you’d have been bumrushed into a straightjacket asap. But that’s what’s happened, it’s the world we now live in, we’d better get used to it. Part of the joy of Take Me Out (#teamfatburlesquekate) is that it’s an ideal TV show for Twitter because you get fresh meat to fire your sub-David Baddiel “dude looks like x crossed with y” zingers at every 10 minutes.
So a few weeks ago there’s an Italian guy on there who just starts tossing pizza dough about his head like that’s something that all paisan do at the drop of the hat. There’s only one response to that so I tweet “Look at this fucking cooning guinea” to the wider world. Steppino Fechetto, if you will.
So now I’ve watched every single G. Fella video there is, and even what.cd’d some of the rest of his output. He isn’t very good. I mean, the most important thing to note here is that the man has The Sopranos’ logo tattooed on his arm like that’s just something to do. He has a really mediocre flow as well, like the kind of flabby rhyming that the guest MC on track 7 of a Mr Hyde album would have. If Everlast had never formed House of Pain and instead remained as a white Heavy D wannabe in the early 90s, this is what I’d imagine La Coka Nostra would sound like. As a gimmick rapper, he’s somewhere below PN News. As a Mafioso cultural adaptation, he’s somewhere below Goodfeathers from The Animaniacs.
I mean, we can admit it, Italian-American rappers are usually awful. When JoJo Pellegrino is your golden child and the rest of the field is Vinnie Paz, Princess Superstar and that one chick from Northern State, it’s probably time to go back to doo-wop. Perhaps the reason “Empire State of Mind” is fucking shit is because Alicia Keys’ mother is Italian? Yeah, that’ll be it.
The awkward revelation for me though is that I’m loosely captivated by G. Fella, and it’s not because he’s useless. It’s the videos, or more specifically the culture of the videos. When else in a rap video am I going to see one of those plastic multi-compartmented trays every Italian family puts out before a large meal, complete with sections for black olives, mushroom salad and salsicce? Like a lot of people, I like seeing things I’m comfortable with so I like seeing tomato plants and wine presses and cannoli and fat guys in shellsuits with goatees. And there’s an awkward truth here: most people are pretty comfortable with a certain level of cooning as long as they’re not been shown up in front of the other races.
Let me try and clarify. Every now and then British TV will run some kinda talking head show that’ll touch on racist 1970s TV show Mind Your Language. And every single time there’ll be an Asian comedian on it who says something to the effect of “For some reason, my parents loved it.” My father thinks that the Italian fascist played by Tiffany’s dad from Eastenders in Allo Allo is some kind of comic highpoint of mankind’s existence. I’m not as big a fan.
My guess here is that the original generations of immigrants, due to economic, labour and language conditions, tend to stick to their own kind. A headnodding Indian isn’t really that offensive if you don’t know any English people who are going to shout his catchphrases at you in the street. Similarly, my father was fine with “What’s-a tha matter-a with-a you-a” stereotypes on TV because he mainly socialised with Italians. It’s me that has to put up with the socio-political effects of Joe Dolce all these years later.
So while there’s nobody else around, I can flex with G. Fella, I can appreciate the gifted inanity that goes with trying to port Italian immigrant culture wholesale onto rap music (really, how many other rappers will ever mention “Dominic The Italian Christmas Donkey”?). After 15 years of rappers fitting “Gambino Gotti Gotti Gambino” into their lyrics it seems fair.
What does it mean in a wider context? Nothing really. Part of the reason I fuck with Das Racist is because as a concept they’re a troll post, 100%. Except whereas usually butthurt critics would respond to their output with “HEY WHITE PEOPLE STOP BEING WHITE”, instead they respond with… “STOP BEING ASIAN”? Is that possible? No. Any classic “PROTECT THIS AFRICAN-AMERICAN CULTURAL MOVEMENT I DON’T REALLY KNOW THAT MUCH ABOUT BUT I LIKED THAT ROOTS SONG ABOUT SEEDS” white critic defence mechanism, when employed on nationality grounds rather than race ones, starts to look like “you don’t belong here, go back to your own culture” rather than anything less invidious. Like that scene in Do The Right Thing where Spike Lee’s meant to make you think that Danny Aiello is a massive racist but instead it just looks like a case of “America, love it or leave it, stop putting pictures of foreigners on your pizza shop wall and put some proper American heroes on it”.
Yeah, fuck Spike Lee. Giancarlo Esposito said he had bigoted views about Italians, and who’s gonna argue with Giancarlo Esposito?