Hip Hop’s Cambrian Explosion: Part 1
On her January 28th post entitled Does Hip Hop Still Exist? Mathbabe wrote:
“My oldest friend sent me some mixed CDs for Christmas. I listened to them at work one recent morning, and although I like a few songs, many of them were downright jarring. I mean, so syncopated! So raw and violent! What the hell is this?! It was hip-hop, I think, although that was a word from some far-away time and place. Does hip-hop still exist?”
Fortunately for me, I am that oldest friend, mixer of said CD, and guest blogger this week, here to answer Mathbabe’s question with the first of a three-part post entitled Hip Hop’s Cambrian Explosion.
I discovered Hip Hop around the same time I discovered Mathbabe. In 1987, Hip Hop was a toddler living in Brooklyn while Cathy and I were teenagers living in suburban Massachusetts. As I walked home from school one afternoon, I popped Boogie Down Production’s debut cassette into my walkman and snapped to attention as KRS One delivered a high-energy critique of public schooling’s systematic omission of Black history from the curriculum. As I listened I found myself considering for the first time the ways in which I had been raised on a steady academic diet of European and American histories and literatures, with no mention of those of Africa, Latin America, or Asia. These were entire continents and peoples whose histories were tacitly deemed peripheral to the central drama of whiteness. I listened closely as KRS One, aptly known as “The Teacher,” educated me about the people studiously ignored in my history textbooks. Here is a delightfully dated video of that first song, You Must Learn: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RDd7UbJmdmw.
I am now nearly 40 and recently had the opportunity to meet KRS One at a concert in Berkeley, where I was able to thank him in person for supplementing my education. He is as dynamic as I remember, still using the mic as a vehicle to teach critical thinking, still building community by inviting up-and-coming rappers onto the stage to improvise with him, still innovating by rapping over electric violins spilling amplified Mozart over the surging audience. In this photo I took from stageside he reaches out to connect with the crowd:
And here I am, looking up at him.
Photo by Hugo Garcia, aka Steelo
As you can see in the photo, I plainly admire him, as I do any iconoclast who has the audacity and clarity to say so when the Emperor has no clothes. So as an avid fan of Hip Hop, I’d like to appeal its case for those of you who are new to the genre or are considering giving it a second listen. Why should you bother listening to Hip Hop? And what exactly is Hip Hop anyway? I offer this primer as a paean.
1. Hip Hop is political. Hip Hop gained national attention in 1989 when Public Enemy’s Fight the Power piqued the paranoia of white America. The now-classic ghetto anthem opens with Martin Luther King’s lilting oratory, not the more tepid, politically-milktoast MLK Jr. of the official public holiday, but the radical MLK Jr, who exhorts Americans not only to refuse to serve in the U.S. Army, but to switch allegiance to fight alongside the Viet Cong.
Chuck D and Flavor Flav at Yoshi’s in San Francisco. “Most of my heroes don’t appear on no stamps.” – Chuck D. Photo by Cherie Chavez
True to its origins, Hip Hop remains today the artistic genre of choice and the voicebox for people pushed to the margins of power by historical and social forces. And it’s not afraid to name those forces. Paramount among the themes tackled in Hip Hop is that of white supremacy, a topic — a phrase even — that tends to make white people uncomfortable. When rapper Brother Ali released Uncle Sam Goddamn, an overview of American racism — past and present — cell phone company Verizon responded by revoking its sponsorship of his tour. Corporations typically don’t profit by talking about racism, unless it’s in that “Rainbow Nation” manner of Benetton, which carefully eschews analysis of power relations. The video for Uncle Sam Goddamn includes some powerful historical footage.
Another of Hip Hop’s recurring themes is poverty. As Somalian-born rapper (and personal favorite) K’Naan explains:
…I remember when I was 7
When rap came mysteriously and made me feel 11
It understood me, and made my ghetto heaven
I understood it as the new poor people’s weapon.
Smart 7-year-old. The excerpt is from The African Way, a funky fusion of American-style rap vocals and East African drum rhythms. As K’Naan recounts in several of his autobiographical songs, he learned English by listening to rap music (it’s no coincidence he sounds so much like Eminem) in order to have a forum for speaking about the violence he experienced as a child growing up in his native Mogadishu. His beautiful Blues for the Horn is both lament and homage to the Horn of Africa. He narrates the story of Somalia himself so that no one can “make a mockery of our struggle like Hollywood plans to.” And despite the seriousness of his purpose, he carries on another of Hip Hop’s traditions: its sense of humor. Describing Mogadishu, he quips:
If you bring the world hoods to a seminar
We’re from the only place worse than Kandahar —
And that’s kinda hard!
In the song Somalia, he reminisces about his childhood:
We used to take barbed wire
Mold it around discarded bike tires,
Roll em down the hill in foot blazin’ –
Now that was our version of mountain bike racing!
Do you see why it’s amazing
When someone comes out of such a dire situation
And learns the English language,
Just to share his observations?
Probably get a Grammy without a grammar education.
The racism and classism that inhere in our justice system are the targets of Lauryn Hill’s epic rant in The Mystery of Iniquity. She seems to enter a poetic trance as she excoriates the American judicial system in a style that calls to mind the dogged dirge of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl. This is but a tiny excerpt of Hill’s stream-of-consciousness dressing down:
Do we expect the system made for the elect
To possibly judge correct?
Properly serve and protect?
Mafia with diplomas keeping us in a coma trying to own a piece
of the American Corona.
The revolving door:
Insanity every floor
Skyscraping, paper chasing,
What are we working for?
Reaching social positions
Teaching ambition to support the family superstition?
With a bass voice like Barry White, rapper Lyrics Born questions our funding priorities in Stop Complaining:
I pay my taxes when I’m asked to.
I’m not enthusiastic about it, but shit, I make it happen.
Yeah, it’s last minute, but goddammit they cash it.
(“This is fiscal harassment, they keep touchin my assets!”)
Now I imagine I might be feeling different about it
If it was given outright, witness it helping somebody
But it just so happens in life, the school district’s too crowded
It ain’t no teachers in sight, that’s why the kids are so rowdy.
I just imagine some asshole with glasses on up at the Capitol
One of a thousand pawns packed in an office cramped up like animals,
Pictures of his sister, his mixture Lapso Apso-poodle
His 2.6 kids, and the missus thumbtacked to his cubicle
So damn detached from the average man’s planet, he cain’t fathom
That we could ever be anything other than stats, fat and taxable
He’s gettin his usual ritual 2 o’clock Cup of Noodles on
While he’s fuckin you on your W2, his John Denver music on.
The ongoing disparities in K-12 schooling and access to higher education are a common theme in Hip Hop. Shad K, who pursued his career in Hip Hop while simultaneously earning a Masters degree in Business, writes in Exile:
We’re taught not to question the status quo cuz the masses never get heard
unless you’re established
with expert professors in dress-shirts
and glasses that lecture to classes
where next term the best third will pass and
earn cash working as
desk clerks for the best firms in Manhattan.
Shad was born in Kenya, the son of Rwandan refugee Bernadette Kabango, whose autobiographical poetry he incorporates in the chilling song I’ll Never Understand. Shad’s mother reads in her own voice, telling the story of her family’s murder in the 1994 genocide, addressing those who committed violence against her, and raising questions about the possibility of forgiveness. Shad’s rap vocals interlace with his mother’s voice, interjecting questions about whose genocides matter and whose don’t. The video of I’ll Never Understand includes footage that defies commentary from the Rwandan massacres. How could one begin to talk about such atrocities but through art? As writer Victor Hugo observed, “Music expresses that which cannot be said and on which it is impossible to be silent.”
The musical conversation between mother and son brings me to Hip Hop’s next defining characteristic.
2. Hip Hop is intergenerational. One of the stylistic and structural conventions of the genre is sampling. The contemporary artist layers his/her vocal track over a repeated excerpt of a melodic track — the sample — by an older artist, alive or dead. The tradition of sampling older artists from a generation prior (e.g., Nina Simone, Ray Charles, etc.) began perhaps for practical reasons, as access to older songs was not limited by royalties and copyright. Regardless of the motivation, sampling has the effect of creating intergenerational dialogue, a musical conversation across time.
Hip Hop has its roots in the oral traditions of West Africa, where people still live in active relationship with their ancestors and respect for elders is a core cultural value. Hip Hop carries on this tradition of talking with the dead and honoring those who have paved the way. Erick Sermon’s Just Like Music is an ode to music’s healing power (“I wish music could adopt me!”), sampling musical legend Marvin Gaye. Sermon cleverly interweaves his contemporary vocals over Marvin Gaye’s melodies so that at one point they appear to be in direct conversation:
Sermon: Is that true, Marvin?
It’s no surprise that songs from the Civil Rights movement provide a rich pool of sampling material. Movin’ Forward by Collective Efforts samples Civil Rights song Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around, and references Eyes on the Prize, the comprehensive and inspiring documentary on the history of the Civil Rights movement.
Fort Minor’s Kenji tells the story of the United States internment of Japanese Americans during World War II and honors elder survivors by incorporating original audio interviews of former internees.
I’ve talked a lot about politics here, but if Hip Hop were all politics, it would be two-dimensional, flat like a Soviet-era agitprop poster (you know the ones of the workers with the disproportionately huge fists). It is the next characteristic which gives Hip Hop its complexity, dynamism, and multi-dimensionality.
3. Hip Hop is poetry. On steroids. A bit like aural caffeine. While I first got hooked on rap for its incisive outsider critiques, I equally enjoy the verbal acrobatics and linguistic playfulness of the form. I’m a word nerd, a sesquipedalian, easily wooed by an orator who can wield an adjective, so the highly verbal genre holds a natural appeal for me.
Others have told me that they find the language of Hip Hop itself a barrier to listening, the lyrics so rapid-fire and abstruse as to be unintelligible to the uninitiated. Perhaps so, but many of us found Shakespeare difficult to parse at the beginning but ultimately worth the effort. As in any specialized field, rap has created a unique language, its own grid of intelligibility, with webs of cross-references and insider lingo that can be opaque to newcomers to the genre. Just as you would read Shakespeare with a dictionary at your side as a reference to make meaning of the text, rap music lyrics must be studied with the right reference materials at hand. The rate of word evolution in rap music is rapid, which can make it difficult to keep up with the neologisms. Fortunately, there’s Urban Dictionary, with user-entered definitions being added continuously.
Approaching Hip Hop with the same spirit of literary criticism used to analyze Shakespeare or T.S. Eliot reveals that its poets employ all of the literary devices standard in the craft: alliteration, assonance, consonance, onomatopoeia, irony, and variation. They amplify the metrical effects of diction and syntax with the percussion and syncopation provided by the music itself. It is the interplay of the two (or more often, multiple) meters – the rhythm inherent in language, and the nonvocal rhythms of layered drums, piano, trumpet, or kora – that so stimulates the linguistically-inclined mind.
What rap adds to the traditional toolbox available to written poetry is a tool only available to the spoken word artist: something called flow. Flow is a bit difficult to describe, but you know it when you hear it. Flow is that state a rapper gets into when the syllables are tumbling off the tongue in a waterfall of words, the cadences rising and falling, surprising and mesmerizing. Flow is that trance artists crave, that moment when the rational mind steps aside, time telescopes, and the artist becomes hypnotized by the presence of the muse. Flow is when the music comes through the musician rather than from the musician. Cee-Lo has it. I couldn’t agree more with his self-review in One for the Road: “Oh, his way with words! I want seconds and thirds!”
I’ll let Cee Lo have the last word for now, and will continue tomorrow with Part 2 of Hip Hop’s Cambrian Explosion.