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"69: The Saga of Daniel Hernandez" Review

I don't know when exactly I lost touch with current popular music, but as a musician and music fan who was alive when hip-hop was invented - I first heard turntable scratching on Malcolm McClaren's Duck Rock album in January 1983 when Herbie Hancock's Future Shock album with "Rockit" came out 7 months later and turntablists who cite seeing the performance on the February 1985 Grammys ceremony as their "Beatles on Ed Sullivan" moment; I first heard the Beastie Boys "Rock Hard" in 1984 when Licensed To Ill dropped in November 1986; I heard "Bring the Noise" before Anthrax covered it; and when Rodney King got clobbered in 1991, it illustrated what N.W.A. was rapping about on "F*ck tha Police" in 1989 - I suddenly realized I had no idea who most of the rap/hip-hop artists were. (Or even the other genres as well.)

Before I stopped watching Saturday Night Live recently there were more and more weeks the musical act was "Who? What's a Migos?" I'd long wondered when rap stopped being "ghetto CNN" (as Public Enemy's Chuck D described rap discussing social issues) to "ghetto Robb Report" recounting the bottles and rims and grillz and hoes and stacks and bling, but little substance. (Of course this is when Donald Trump was name-checked as an icon of aspirational wealth by dozens of rappers before June 2015 when he mysteriously ceased being the guy who mentored Def Jam co-founder Russell Simmons and everyone suddenly noticed for the first time that this 69-year-old man who had been in the public eye since the late-1970s was a virulent white supremacist and Nazi simply by changing his party affiliation. Weird how that worked.)

Part of it was that that frankly pop music sucks these days. No, I'm not one of those grumpy old men who isn't hip to what the whippersnappers get their twerk on to and shares the memes on FaceSpace comparing "Bohemian Rhapsody" being written by one person, Freddie Mercury, to "Anonymous Club Banga" written by a committee of six or more people with names like Q-Trawn and lyrics which are just a few words chanted repeatedly because stripper pole anthems don't exactly require Bob Dylan's touch. Every generation feels the younger generation's music sucks, but we've hit a canyon in popular culture where it's not an opinion, but scientifically confirmed objective fact that pop music today is garbage.

I've always been a fan of well-done pop music; there is no harder achievement than writing a memorable tune that earworms people forever. When the Spice Girls came out in 1996, I said they were better than Pearl Jam and I wasn't being ironic as that band had disappeared up Eddie Vedder's ass halfway through their Vitalogy album. (They peaked with "Go" on Vs. I will fight anyone who doesn't think that song blazes.) Music snobs felt the early-Aughts garage band boom of definitive article-named bands (i.e. THE White Stripes/Strokes/Hives/Libertines/Vines/Von Bondies/Black Keys/Walkmen/Blah/Woof) "saved rock & roll" from late-Millennium boy bands and Mousekabimbos, but the reality is that Britney Spears and N*Sync saved music from the miserable wasteland that Nirvana created which fundamentally killed rock & roll. 

But something has gone haywire since the mid-Aughts as the pop magic has bled out of pop music. I adored Katy Perry's 2008 album One of the Boys and while I didn't care as much for her 2010 follow-up, Teenage Dream, I can understand why it was popular. But each subsequent album, which have taken 3-4 years to make has been less and less tuneful and more and more generic monotonous "club bangaz" dreck that sounds like the background music for movie scenes set in strip clubs. Somewhere the fundamentals of verse-chorus-verse-bridge-chorus-chorus got replaced with monotonous "16-bar MPC loop repeated ad infinitum." It's good we've got computers to play these endless loops because humans would fall asleep from boredom if they didn't lose track of where they were with the same progression first.

So with those 600+ words of grousing preamble out of the way to set the stage, we come to 69: The Saga of Daniel Hernandez, the documentary on Hulu - not to be confused with a concurrent Showtime docu-series which appears to cover the same ground - about megastar Soundcloud rapper Tekashi 6ix9ine, a tattooed kid who somehow rode controversial YouTube videos and social media clout-mongering to become a massive star for a few years before it all crashed down and he flipped on his gang member posse to avoid a 47-year stint in the Crowbar Hotel for numerous felonies. Due to his asthma and Hot Fad Plague 2020, he was sprung from jail and finished his sentence at home (while desperate business owners who defied shutdowns were tossed into the pokey). After his release, his snitching has made him a pariah. 

Using interviews with his girlfriend/baby mama (whom he frequently cheated and beat on), his musical associates (whom he betrayed when he outgrew them), and gang pals (whom he snitched on), and quick clips of his videos which have racked up hundreds of millions of views, we learn about Hernandez's hard knock life, growing up without his birth father who left the family, having his stepfather murdered, but hustling first as a fashion designer, then a rapper at the encouragement of a neighborhood rapper who thought the rainbow-haired, tattooed kid behind the bodega counter looked like a rapper. 

Riding the popularity of his videos, he really blew up when he went to Slovakia(!) and got signed to the charmingly-named FCK THEM label and really started making waves. However his propensity for shock value uber alles got him in repeated legal scrapes like when an underage girl was shown performing sex acts in a video, eventually escalating to his robbery and murder conspiracy beefs which made him a singer for the state against his Nine Trey Bloods friends. 

The problem with 69: The Saga of Daniel Hernandez isn't solely that 69's music is.....let's go with not my cup of tea (Narrator: "Dirk thinks it's garbage and his using the N-word every 3-5 words will lose him his Food Network show or New York Times gig."), but that we never really get to HEAR much of his musical output. Most of the time, director Vikram Gandhi shows clips while interviewees talk over them. While writing this review, I went to YouTube to watch "Gummo", his breakout hit (which completely sucks), and it was really the first time I was able to tell that it completely sucked. I'm currently watching the Netflix documentary on The Notorious B.I.G. Biggie: I Got A Story To Tell and it features a lot of videotape recorded by his best friend of Biggie participating in street battles and on stage as he was coming up and you get to appreciate his skills, which 69 doesn't even come close to and I'm saying this as someone who never really got into Big. 

There's also no discussion of how the money works in this Soundcloud age. I know I'm old and out of touch with the new style and that no one buys pieces of plastic with music stamped into it, but some accounting for the economics of hundreds of millions of streams to put phat chedda stacks of Benjis - I know the lingo, fellow kids! - would've been useful.

Since Hernadez's fame may already be past, leaving him washed-up at 24 and with face tattoos that preclude gainful employment in most fields - ya hear that, Post Malone? - I'm unclear why this kid merited two tellings of his story? His music is insanely popular, but not good. He seems dumber than a rock band drummer. I simply don't get it and 69: The Saga of Daniel Hernandez does little to help this cranky old man get hippenwiddet with the jive those new cats are meowing, man. It's somewhat worth watching if only as a window on how debased and pathetic our culture has become. Perhaps that's why I don't know what's going on: There's nothing to know about.

Score: 6/10. Catch it on Hulu.


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