This Is My Rifle: Robin Williams’ Death & What It Means To Be An Artist
“Yo. Check out my new artist. Peace.”
I get about 20 emails every day with that exact sentence somewhere in the body of some random message sent to me by somebody who obviously has no experience in artist management, and really no solid communicative skills whatsoever (not to mention the fact that I have absolutely no say in what gets featured on DJBooth). Despite my esteemed tenure as a writer for this very website, I still have to send my music to Z and Nathan and go through the same approval process that all of you “artists” out there are subjected to. Long story short, you’re literally sending your music to me to listen to and share with my friends...if it’s really good or, even better, really bad.
Regardless of my lack of a chair at the head table of DJBooth’s inner Legion of Doom, I do still appreciate the terribly written emails I receive every day. I can always count on getting a good laugh when I click the play button on your Soundcloud page and listen to you dickweeds stumbling through Drake’s “0 to 100” instrumental. You’re getting money, you’re in the VIP, you’re stunting in the Lambo, bitches be on your dick like *insert often repeated simile or metaphor here*. BLACKA BLACKA WACKA CLACKA BLACKA BLACKA BOOM. Swag like *insert second awful simile or metaphor here*.
What I do take issue with, however, is the word “artist” being attached to or being in the same general vicinity of you idiots. To even infer that you could possibly resemble any of the traits attributed to an artist drastically decreases the value of all actual artists walking planet Earth.
I don’t know if it’s just me, and please bear with me if I sound like a broken record here, but it seems like the artist pool has had a thick film of waste floating on top of it for the past decade - particularly in Hip Hop. The community at large seems to have diverted their focus away from the music and directed their attention towards publicity stunts and marketing gimmicks, so much so that the music is the last element that matters now. New singles and albums take a back seat to scandalous Tweets sent out by publicists to set the wheels of the hype machine in motion. Blogs explode, YouTube, Instagram and Twitter go into a meltdown and the debate over who’s talking about who and who’s bank account is largest becomes all anybody can think about.
Then, like a sudden burst of uncontrollable diarrhea, the single hits the internet. Most of the population swallows it up because hey, even though it tastes like the wretched, greasy walls of Universal’s colon, you’ve been told you like it and you always do what you’re told. You don’t mind being fucked by big business, because big business is what you’re all about. You’re a motherfuckin hustler baby, but only as long as everybody else is too. If the trend switches up and tomorrow everybody is a mime, then a mime is what you shall be.
And far off in the distance are the twinkling lights. Just bright enough that you can see them, but so dim they’re barely visible. These are the artists. This is where art is life and where perfection is pursued but never achieved. These people are not connected to any trends, they are not following any set path or directly duplicating anything that came before them. They are fires that came from a spark and produce embers that will spark the next fires a few generations away.
Then without warning one of the biggest and brightest of these lights goes black.
Robin Williams was a true artist. He was a comedic genius who improvised most of his roles on television and in movies. His high energy stand-up routines were spastic, random and at times hilariously incoherent. He was a unique individual who was not afraid to push the boundaries of his art form and he took risks that were far outside of the comedic comfort zone. There are no words to explain how important his presence was to the artistic community and the level of influence he had within it. As an actor he took roles in big budget films as well as small independent movies. There were no limits for him, if he was passionate about a project he took it on - regardless of what the financial outcome may be.
To me, Robin Williams embodied what it meant to be an artist. I admired him for his devotion to his art and what seemed like a real life comedic bit that was never ending and constantly under construction. He was forthcoming about his struggles with drugs and alcohol and knowing this, the news of his recent suicide makes a little more sense. Addiction and depression can often be the unfortunate by-products of the creative mind. Artists cannot live in the grey area even for a moment. Instead, they live between extremes - highs so high that they push beyond the edges of the known universe and lows so low that rock bottom means skidding along the deepest crevices of hell and hitting every boulder along the way. In a lot of cases, artists use drugs and alcohol to cope with this, which ironically pulls them even deeper into the lower ends of existence and drives them towards self-destruction.
What is important about the life and work of Robin Williams is the legacy he’s left behind and how it can be applied to art of all mediums. In Hip Hop, we should use his commitment and passion as a standard on which to grade the influx of supposed artists. We have become too liberal with the title of artist, allowing anybody with a computer and $50 microphone to refer to themselves as such and devalue the community of creators who work tirelessly to give a piece of their soul to the world. To be called an artist should be a privilege, not a description handed out at the point of entry. Commercial success is not a measure or indicator of artistic validity. We have to break this mindset and inject creativity back into this art form. We have to reverse the path we’re on and make music the priority again or run the risk of losing thousands of potential Robin Williams’ under the multiple layers of hype and shit stacked on top of the art itself. We are at a dangerous point in Hip Hop music and culture, and I myself, as an artist, am running out of patience.
I don’t really know how to end this since there is no proper way to close a discussion regarding an artist of Robin Williams’ magnitude. But maybe that’s just it. Maybe that’s the purpose of it all. To become so embedded in the fabric of human consciousness that the chapter never closes and the book just keeps on being written even after the physical presence has left this plane of existence.
[Jason James is an artist, freelance columnist and writer for DJBooth.net. You can read/download his free eBook, "This Is My Rifle" and listen/download his most recent album, "Pyramids in Stereo". You can also contact him here and here.]