Home > Uncategorized > Hip Hop’s Cambrian Explosion: Part 3

Hip Hop’s Cambrian Explosion: Part 3

March 17, 2012


My last post left off on the topic of rap battles, element #16 in the Elements of Hip Hop. As one astute reader points out, Hip Hop is a culture as much as it is a musical genre. And as in any culture, the values are contested in public fora. The rap battle is only one arena in which the values of Hip Hop are contested and negotiated. Hip Hop also finds expression in dance and the visual arts.

Breakdancing was an early choreographic innovation that contributed to Hip Hop’s meteoric rise in popularity.


It later speciated into two new dance styles, popping and krumping. The documentary Rize showcases the talented pioneers of krumping, an athletic dance/fight form that calls to mind the Brazilian martial art of capoeira. The film situates krumping in its historical and social context, chronicling how it emerged in improverished neighborhoods in South Central LA as a community-building alternative to gangs and an outlet for artistic expression. Its founders, who see it as a faith-based practice, cite krumping’s capacity to “release anger, aggression, and frustration positively, in a non-violent way.” 

The film is a testament to the power of art to heal and transform suffering, but it’s also just good eye candy. It’s the best of Cirque de Soleil – the reticulated musculature, the contortionism, the elastic gesture, the disdain for gravity – but without the fancy sets and high ticket prices, performed on a street corner for free and for freedom.

Another forum for Hip Hop’s artistic expression is the graffiti battle. Or “aerosol art.”  The annual Estria Invitational Graffiti Battle draws together artists from around the country to compete in a day-long public visual arts contest. This video of the 2011 Estria battle illustrates the form: artists are given five hours and the challenge of incorporating the same word into their public art piece. Last year’s word was “Heal.”  As Nate One explains in the video, “Art is not a drug; it’s free, and when you do it, it makes you feel better. That’s magic!”

Sometimes art is the only way to transform a dire situation.  Street artist Banksy, featured in the riveting and somewhat surreal documentary Exit Through the Gift Shop, turned the wall separating Israel from Palestine into a canvas of possibility.


So why is the Academy of Art University in San Francisco not only participating in anti-graffiti campaigns, but using their anti-graffiti efforts to recruit new students in their promotional advertisements?  I would think they would be more interested in hiring Banksy as a professor than white-washing street art. But since tuition alone for an undergraduate degree at the Academy of Art costs approximately $80,000, my hunch is that it has something to do with classism. Fortunately, the top-notch Oakland Museum of California is more supportive of local artists, sponsoring the Living Concrete live graffiti mural painting festival.


Together, Hip Hop’s rap battles, dance battles, and graffiti battles are venues for positive artistic expression, bringing me to the next point in this protracted paean to Hip Hop.

7. Hip Hop is positive. Hip Hop receives a lot of negative attention in the media for its materialism, its machismo, and its militance.  Those are accurate descriptors of mainstream rap, perhaps, but Hip Hop is a large umbrella that shelters many subcultures. It’s such a large category, in fact, that describing it is like trying to describe Christianity, which encompasses myriad splinter groups with ideologies as distinct from each other as Lutheranism is from Mormonism. As distinct as gangsta rap is from underground Hip Hop.

Rapper Too Short, representative of the former subculture, was in the news this week for some ill-advised “advice” he gave to young boys in a youtube video. The organization We Are the 44% called him on the carpet for promoting sexual violence against young women. You can read about the town hall discussion that ensued here, on Davey D’s blog.

Given the range of subcultures within Hip Hop, with Too Short arguably on one end, it’s painting with perhaps too broad a stroke to describe all of Hip Hop as positive. The media, however, tend to focus on Hip Hop’s more negative aspects and overlook the positive ones, which abound. Consider Shad’s Keep Shining, which is a welcome antidote to Too Short’s views:

My mom taught me where to keep my heart,
My aunts taught me how to sing two parts,
My sis taught me how to parallel park,
Tried to teach me math but she’s way too smart.
My grandma in her 80′s is still sharp,
My girl cousin’s in activism and art.
They taught me there’s no curls too tight
No mind to bright,
No skin too dark to keep shining!

Or Talib Kweli’s For Women:

I got off the 2 train in Brooklyn on my way to a session

Said let me help this woman up the stairs before I get to steppin’

We got in a conversation, she said she was 107.

Just her presence was a blessing,

and her essence was a lesson.

She had her head wrapped

And long dreads that peeked out the back

Like antenna to help her get a sense of where she was at.

Imagine that:

Livin’ a century,

the strength of her memories.

Felt like an angel had been sent to me.

She lived from nigger to colored to negro to black

To afro then african-american and right back to nigger.

You figure she’d be bitter in the twilight,

But she alright, ’cause she done seen the circle of life.

Hers is a story of resilience, and what’s more positive than resilience?

As you may have inferred from the tracks I’ve referenced so far, I eschew the brand of rap that glorifies guns and denigrates women and listen to what’s referred to as “progressive,” “underground,” or “conscious” Hip Hop.  In contrast to the more commercially successful rap, the underground stuff is so positive and upbeat that I’ve dubbed it “Self Help Hip Hop,” or when I’m feeling really cheesy, Hip Hope.


I’m referring to groups like Atlanta-based Collective Efforts with tracks like  Doin’ Alright and Try Again. Here’s one blogger’s picks for the Top 10 Progressive Hip Hop Artists. Self Help Hip Hop is values-based music, and one of its core values is gratitude. One of my favorite songs is by Brother Ali, written to his young son, Faheem. Ours has been described as a fatherless generation, and in that context his words are refreshingly sentimental:

I fed you, changed you, read to you and bathed you.

I ain’t trying to hold that over your head; I’m saying ‘thank you.’

K’Naan’s 15 Minutes Away is an object lesson in the value of generosity. He opens the song recounting his pre-immigration experience of being “broke like an empty promise,” destitute to the point of hunger. I feel for him as he jokes about anxiously awaiting a Western Union money transfer. The song follows his arrival in Canada as a refugee and his subsequent rise in fame as a musician, and ultimately comes full circle as he describes rushing from the concert venue to the Western Union office to send money to his grandmother. “Generosity is the key!” he intones. And he repeats it twice, in case we weren’t paying attention: Generosity is the key.

While detailing explicitly the hardships of life, hip-hop music often concludes its narratives with the hopeful assertion that odds can be overcome – as evidenced, if nothing else, by the fact of the individual rapper’s rise to fame. And it’s not just the lyrics and the message that make Hip Hop positive. The music itself may be operating on a molecular level to lift your mood, according to  Oliver Sack’s characteristically charming Musicophilia.  Dr. Sacks provides insights into the neurology of listening to music, including how it raises serotonin levels and other biochemical agents of wellbeing.


I might be paraphrasing here, but I think what Dr. Sacks is saying is:

8. Hip Hop is funky. For all its incisive analysis, creative rhyme schemes, and positive poetry, I like Hip Hop mostly because it feels good.  It gets me reaquainted with my soul via my hips. I challenge you to NOT do the Humpty Dance. I defy you to NOT get down at Collective Efforts’ I Get Down. Or Shad’s I Get Down.

Rapper Lyrics Born, with a voice like Paul Robeson, joins James Brown in my personal Hall of Funk Fame for his ode to the Bay Area, The Bay.  Ozomatli’s Cut Chemist is a groovalicious blend of Chali 2Na’s deep bass vocals and a punctuated latin brass section reminiscent of the Buena Vista Social Club. In this video of Cut Chemist the funk is in effect.

As Chali 2Na, the Ghetto Diplomat, says: “I’m blessed with the gift of rap.”

I couldn’t agree more.


So, Mathbabe, my answer to your question is that Hip Hop is very much


Addendum:  My secret agenda in writing this blog was not only to celebrate Hip Hop, but to trawl for new music. If you have a favorite Hip Hop song to recommend, I want to hear it. Please post a link in the comments section below.

I’m particularly interested in what I haven’t heard so far, and what could be the next logical leap in its Cambrian explosion: Eco-rap. In fact, consider this a call for entries. I want to hear a rainforest redemption rap, one that samples an owl’s rhythmic hoot, remixes a cricket choir, and layers in a Wangari Matthai recording on reforestation. What would an Earth First! anthem by Busta Rhymes sound like?  I want to hear Shakira and Nas team up to write a rap requiem on soil erosion.  KRS One, if you’re reading this, there’s a lacuna in the curriculum.

Categories: Uncategorized
  1. Bindicap
    March 17, 2012 at 8:07 am

    Thanks for the walk through this music genre. Wish I got it more, but I guess music analyzed at this level isn’t my thing.

    Here’s a link to a nice cpop song by Jolin and Jay Chou that sounds kind of hip hoppy to me. Hope you enjoy it, even if it is the wrong category.


    • Becky Jaffe
      March 17, 2012 at 2:11 pm

      Thanks for the video link. I like the children’s choir and the hybrid of Hip Hop and Taiwanese pop. That polka part in the middle really took me by surprise. I never saw the accordion coming.


  2. mariposarhythms
    March 18, 2012 at 4:01 pm

    An article on Hip Hop for the Environment: http://www.pri.org/stories/arts-entertainment/music/hip-hop-for-the-environment2083.html

    There are a few fun tracks mentioned in it, one of my favorites is Dr. Octagon’s Trees: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XtsdtNdk5ao&feature=player_embedded (He is more famous for another great track, Blue Flowers: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V9VYzNUXGDA)

    But one of my favorite nature-referencing hip hop tracks is still Saul Williams’ Twice the First Time: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m48M6mijPH8

    Here’s an excerpt of the lyrics:

    and as heart beats bring percussions
    fallen trees bring repercussions
    cities play upon our souls like broken drums
    redrum the essence of creation from city slums
    but city slums mute our drums and our drums become humdrum
    cuz city slums have never been where our drums are from
    just the place where our daughters and sons become
    offbeat heartbeats
    slaves to city streets
    and hearts get broken and heartbeats stop
    broken heartbeats become breakbeats for niggas to rhyme on top, but..

    i won’t rhyme on top no tracks
    niggas on a chain gang used to do that (Huh) way back

    don’t drop the beat no

    not untill you’ve listen to Rakim on a rocky mountain top
    have you heard hip hop
    extract the urban element that created it
    and let a open wide country side illustrate it
    riding in a freight train
    in the freezing rain
    listening to Coltrane
    my reality went insane
    and i think i saw Jesus
    he was playing hopscotch with Betty Carter
    who was cursing him out
    in a scat-like gibberish for not saying ‘butterfingers’
    and my fingers run through grains of sand
    like seeds of time
    the pains of man
    the frames of mind
    which built these frames
    which is the structure of my urban superstructure
    the trains and planes can corrupt and obstruct your planes of thought
    so you that forget how to walk through the woods
    which ain’t good cuz you ain’t never walked through the trees
    listenin’ to nobody beats the biz then you ain’t never heard hip hop
    and you must stop that damn track from goin’

    (And a bonus old skool track for you, just because he references Rakim, and it is such a classic: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uPfIIn5V_LQ)


  3. mariposarhythms
    March 18, 2012 at 4:06 pm

    and while i’m linking to references, here’s nobody beats the biz: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sdl5aiYr-RU


  4. JM919
    April 21, 2012 at 1:30 am

    in 1992 rapper Ice Cube depicted himself literally kidnapping the feel-good, mainstream rapper MC Hammer and forcing him into a Kahlid “Kill the White Babies” Muhammad re-education camp. Via such proud celebration of a violent stereotype, rap music surged from 4.2% of music sales in 1988 to 10.1% in 1997. Though the tumult surrounding the crack epidemic might have helped inspire gangsta rap, thug posturing remained frozen in time long after the decline of crack and materialized in a succession of martyrs, the most recent being the troubled, young Trayvon Martin. While I might suffer accusations of selecting a facile scapegoat, historians should acknowledge the lasting impact of what seems too obvious to contemporaries.


  5. JM919
    April 21, 2012 at 3:49 am

    A pitch-perfect account of how hip-hop culture drew in the author and how his father drew him out again-with love, perseverance, and fifteen thousand books.

    Into Williams’s childhood home-a one-story ranch house-his father crammed more books than the local library could hold. “Pappy” used some of these volumes to run an academic prep service; the rest he used in his unending pursuit of wisdom. His son’s pursuits were quite different-“money, hoes, and clothes.” The teenage Williams wore Medusa- faced Versace sunglasses and a hefty gold medallion, dumbed down and thugged up his speech, and did whatever else he could to fit into the intoxicating hip-hop culture that surrounded him. Like all his friends, he knew exactly where he was the day Biggie Smalls died, he could recite the lyrics to any Nas or Tupac song, and he kept his woman in line, with force if necessary.

    But Pappy, who grew up in the segregated South and hid in closets so he could read Aesop and Plato, had a different destiny in mind for his son. For years, Williams managed to juggle two disparate lifestyles- “keeping it real” in his friends’ eyes and studying for the SATs under his father’s strict tutelage. As college approached and the stakes of the thug lifestyle escalated, the revolving door between Williams’s street life and home life threatened to spin out of control. Ultimately, Williams would have to decide between hip-hop and his future. Would he choose “street dreams” or a radically different dream- the one Martin Luther King spoke of or the one Pappy held out to him now?

    Williams is the first of his generation to measure the seductive power of hip-hop against its restrictive worldview, which ultimately leaves those who live it powerless. Losing My Cool portrays the allure and the danger of hip-hop culture like no book has before. Even more remarkably, Williams evokes the subtle salvation that literature offers and recounts with breathtaking clarity a burgeoning bond between father and son.



  1. August 31, 2012 at 7:13 am
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