More than anytime in its 30-year sojourn in North America, hip-hop culture is at a crossroads. The strongest evidence of this is the unparalleled nostalgia that pervades so many sectors of commercial hip-hop. No doubt part of this nostalgia is driven by corporate desires to provide the so called hip-hip generation (particularly the back-packers) with a canned history of the movement; ready for consumption. Particularly as those core consumers move toward adulthood and look to other forms of music and entertainment for stimulation.
Though the “keepin’ it real” dictums within commercial hip-hop have always been dicey & #151; as if Jigga is more authentic than Blackalicious or classic Fresh Prince(who?) the clear message coming from corporate these days is that “keepin’ it real” includes knowing your hip-hop’s history. Thus, a spate of projects like Yes, Yes, Y’all: The Experience Music Project Oral History of Hip-hop’s First Decade (De Capo), and Kevin Powell and Ernie Paniccioli’s Who Shot You: Three Decades of Hiphop Photography, offer such knowledge in accessible book form. MTV2’s daily schedule now regularly includes an old-school half-hour, and Time Warner’s cable music network, Music Choice, dedicates one of its 40-something channels to “Old School Rap”, allowing the younguns to have a fluidity in Nice & Smooth, Schooly D, and Monie Love.
But this nostalgia is also driven by the “graying” of the hip-hop generation. Over the last few months I’ve come across more than a few hip-hop generation artists and intellectuals who are beginning to show strains of gray in their locks, twists, beards, and fades. The reality is that when we talk about a “hip-hop generation”, we literally have to make a distinction between the cats all up in the videos and the close to 40-somethins who have been all present and accountable thru most of hip-hop’s first 30 years. These are folks who are now more concerned with mortgage rates, school vouchers, life insurance, and alternative health care than they are concerned about “keepin it real”. For example, there was that pause a few weeks ago on Ice Cube’s cameo on the Bernie Mac Show , where Cube and Bernie argued about whether or not Cube’s kids where in prep school or they have a nanny.
Who would have thought we’d ever see Cube in such a role? Remember the first time we heard “Gangsta’s Fairytale” (Amerikkka’s Most Wanted). And even Scarface, never one to give anybody the warm fuzzies, waxes nostalgic on his latest disc The Fix, particularly on the track “My Block”, which samples Donny Hathaway and Roberta Flack’s “Be Real Black”. Throughout the disc Scarface celebrates community and a time when the ghetto network of aunties, grannies and Ms. Fanny across the street meant that the dirt you did as a shortie would no doubt be waitin’ for you when you got back to the crib (“and when the word got back, they set your ass on fire”).
Like so many actors and actresses, now older hip-hop artists are concerned with creating music and making movies that their kids can dig. So Coolio (who just turned 39), De La Soul, and Phife contribute to a hip-hop soundtrack for the Cartoon Network’s Dexter’s Laboratory and Snoop, who is on record as saying that “chronic” kept folks in the hood off of crack (thus they performed a community service), films a cameo for The Muppets Christmas Movie. ([Though his footage is later cut, in large part, because of another tirade from Bill O’Reilly (so Bill, how exactly do you know that Snoop has a porno site?)]. Hip-hop influenced R&B acts like New Edition and Keith Sweat are now making the rounds on the Tom Joyner in the Morning show as “old school” acts and LL Cool J (who the ladies apparently still love) is now a doting family man, who just release his 10th recording (with no cuss words) something that was thought to be impossible when artists like LL first debuted in the early 1980s with a series of 12-inch singles that they hoped would one day comprise an album. In either scenario, hip-hop is clearly taking stock of its past and considering its future as it slowly moves forward towards middle-age. The release of the DVD edition of the classic Hip-hop film Wild Style and the new video for Erykah Badu’s “Love of My Life (An Ode to Hip-Hop)” book end this unprecedented moment of hip-hop nostalgia.
Badu’s “Love of My Life” is the lead single from the soundtrack of the film Brown Sugar, which was co-written and directed by USC film school graduate Rick Famuyiwa (both Famuyiwa and Barbershop‘s Tim Story are the progeny of my Detroit nigga Todd Boyd). The track is yet another foray into the full service metaphor that Common (then with Sense) created eight years ago when he recorded the track “I Use to Love H.E.R” on his second disc Resurrection (1994). On the track Common (dropping a little Andreas Hussyen in the process) posits “H.E.R” not simply as the “girlfriend” who’s left him but as “hip-hop” herself. The song, which was written when so-called “gangsta rap” was at its peak, essentially blames the West Coast for H.E.R. “talkin’ about poppin’ glocks, servin rocks and hittin’ switches”. Ice Cube and Mack 10 duly answered the charge with “Westside Slaughterhouse”, though the beef was later squashed by the Nation of Islam.
The Roots picked up on Common’s theme recording of five years later, a love song for hip-hop with “Act Too (the Love of My Life)”. Around chorus of “It’s like that, and it sounds so nice/hip-hop, you the love of my life”, Black Thought (Tariq Trotter) and guest Common trade loves stories. Whereas Black Thought is nostalgic (“I remember I’se a little snot nosed/Rockin’ Gazelle, goggles and Izod clothes/Learnin’ the ropes of ghetto survival . . . Sometimes I wouldn’ta made it if it wasn’t for you”), Common again hits at the commercialization of hip-hop (“Caught in the Hype Williams, and lost her direction . . . Her Daddy’ll beat H.E.R., eyes all Puff-ed) and the subtle changes in hip-hop’s core audiences (“when we perform, it’s just coffee shop chicks and white dudes), but ultimately accepts that “this is her fate or destiny that brings the best of me/It’s like God is testin’ me”. Common like so many hard-core hip-hop fans, was responding to the stylized glitz of the “shiny suit man” and the video production of (Viacom’s nigga) Hype Williams. (Ain’t sayin’ that they ain’t talented or genius in the case of Hype, but that wasn’t the shit I had come to love.)
Common’s reservations are later registered on the brilliant, “A Film Called (Pimp)” from Like Water for Chocolate (2000), where “H.E.R.” is finally given a voice, courtesy of veteran MC Lyte. In this guise, Common is less the lover and now the pimp (hence his line on De La’s “The Bizness” (1996) that “I used to love H.E.R., but now I bone H.E.R.”) as he suggests that he could “expose her to some paper, freedom and culture/The way a righteous pimp is supposed to”. But it turns out that it is hip-hop that is all about pimpin’ as Lyte hits back “Nigga you must no know of me/I’m the mack here/Ought to have you ho for me/Pimp yo punk ass/Have you write poetry/I’m from a land called cash/You too slow for me”. The song broadly acknowledges that hip-hop was not just somethin’ to be appropriated by the mainstream entertainment industry, but it was an industry in and of itself that, like the entertainment industry, regularly exploits the cats that have been with “H.E.R.” from the beginning. When Lyte again reminds Common that she “pimps ho’s, pimps pens, pimp rhythms, pimp flows, pimp systems”, he can only respond, “Well fuck you then, I’m about to be preacher” (more a bitch-slap to the close proximity of some black ministers and the big pimpin’ that takes place in hip-hop videos).
Badu’s “Love of My Life” (an ode to hip-hop) is fully cognizant of this rich strain of critique of hip-hop. The song and music serves as a lover’s whispered response, both to the old-school hip-hop heads (most of whom are 30-somethins) and her real-time lover, Common. The film and soundtrack that the song appears on is itself an ode to the love of hip-hop (As Sanaa utters softly at the film’s beginning, “when was the first time you fell in love with hip-hop?”) and an acknowledgement of the alternative strain of hip-hop and neo-soul artists that began to emerge in the aftermath of D’Angelo’s Brown Sugar (1995), who have professed their love of hip-hop. (The soundtrack features songs from Mos Def, Talib Kweli, Angie Stone, Jill Scott, Blackalicious, Rahsaan Patterson and The Roots and three different version of “Brown Sugar”.)
But it is the video, co-directed by Badu with Chris Robinson (who as always is on some next level shit), that really brings the current hip-hop nostalgia into focus. The video opens with the epigraph “Once upon a time on a planet somewhere, a bombastic beat was born . . . Let’s call her hip-hop.” Badu, or rather “hip-hop”, is first pictured sitting in a project window, all funkadelic-ed out, but quickly retreats into the house to change her gear and grab her “boombox” (back when they were boom boxes) on which Bambaatta and Soul Sonic Force’s “Planet Rock” can be heard faintly. With her warm-up suit, Kangol and shell-top Adidas in tow, “hip-hop” heads to the roof, where she meets Crazy Legs and the rest of the Rock Steady Crew and proceeds to exchange break-dance moves with Legs, who is still in peak form after being in the game for more than 20 years. Crazy Legs’ cameo is the first of many throughout the video (most wear t-shirts with their names on them in 1980s-styled, iron-on black letters classic crew wear for the folks who don’t know who they are).
The scene on the roof-top is a reminder not only of the role that dance has always played in hip-hop, but also the presence of New York Latinos during hip-hop’s gestation well before folks like Fat Joe, the late Big Pun and a bunch other folks had to remind the neophytes that they had been there from the beginning. In his essay, “Puerto Rocks: New York Ricans State Their Claim”, Juan Flores asserts that “to speak of Puerto Ricans in rap means to defy the sense of instant amnesia that engulfs popular cultural expression once it’s caught up in the logic of commercial representation. It involves sketching in historical contexts and sequences, tracing traditions and antecedents, and recognizing hip-hop as more than the simulated images, poses, and formulas to which media entertainment tends to reduce it”. (Droppin’ Science: Critical Essay on Rap Music and Hip Hop Culture, ed. William Eric Perkins) The sequence on the roof ends when Freddie Braithwaite appears, calling it a wrap. Braithwaite is more well known to folks as Fab-Five Freddy the purported graffiti artist-turned first host of YO MTV Raps. Though Fab Five’s credibility within hip-hop, even while host of YO, was at best suspect, he had crafted a bit of a reputation via his presence in Blondie’s “Rapture” video and in his role in Charles Ahearn’s film Wild Style (1982).
Wild Style (just issued on DVD by Rhino Home Video) is generally recognized as one of the most “authentic” hip-hop films. As Murray Forman explains in his new book The Hood Comes First: Race, Space, and Place in Rap and Hip-Hop (Wesleyan), “One of the enduring influences of [Wild Style] is its fidelity to the geographic sites and scenarios from which hip-hop emerged, with the Bronx remaining the spatial focal point throughout the film . . . Wild Style‘s lasting reputation for authenticity is also based in the inclusion of key personalities who claimed the Bronx and uptown boroughs as their own” (255-256). While the film celebrates hip-hop’s four elements (graffiti, rapping, DJing and break dancing), the primary focus is on the love affair between Zoro and Ladybug, who are portrayed by legendary graffiti artists Lee Quinones and Sandra “Lady Pink” Fabara, who along with Lady Heart, was one the most significant women on the early hip-hop scene. The film features legendary performances by the Chief Rocker Busy Bee (who had to be an influence on Mos Def), The Cold Crush (including Grandmaster Caz and Charlie Chase, who was the most prominent Puerto Rican on the “rap” side of early hip-hop culture), the Fantastic Five (with the brilliant DJ innovator Grand Wizard Theodore, who “invented” the scratch technique), and a special cameo by the then “famous” Grandmaster Flash (on the mix in his kitchen). Wild Style is also notable, because it gives evidence that as early as 20 years ago, folks in the game had concerns about the authenticity of hip-hop culture as the folks from “downtown” art galleries and periodicals (like The Village Voice) began to pay more attention to what was happening up in the Boogie-down (Bronx) and elsewhere. In a critical moment in the film, Zoro responds to a planned exhibition of graffiti art on canvas (the thing that would get them into the downtown galleries): “Graffiti ain’t canvas, graffiti is the trains and the walls. Being a graffiti writer is taking chances and shit, taking the risk, taking all the arguments from the transit, the police, from your mother even . . . You got to go out and paint and be called an outlaw at the same time.” Zoro’s view of his art as inherently oppositional (thus outlawed) is striking. In his mind, any other mode of expression attacked the integrity of his art, a point that is reinforced during several points in the film. But the film is also prophetic; despite the prominence of break dancing and graffiti at the beginning of hip-hop culture, Lady Bug is clearly reading the future late in the film when she tells Zoro that the rappers “gonna be the stars of this thing, not you.” Arguably, when hip-hop music (rapping) was separated from its organic elements (first the art and dancing, and then the DJing) and the multi-ethnic forces that shaped those elements, hip-hop culture as a whole lost some of its artistic integrity. Like R. Kelly is so fond of telling folks (via his departed mama), “what does it mean to gain the world, if you lose your soul?” And there is little doubt that hip-hop lost some of its soul (and politics and spirituality and authenticity), when it began making the rotations of the MTVs of the world.
Badu’s “Love of My Life” also addresses hip-hop’s transition into “soulnessness”. Following her roof-top excursion, “hip-hop” travels down the project stairs (walking past Common, who is dressed as the lost member of Soul Sonic Force), the site of more than a many hip-hop ciphers, and rolls up on such a cipher as Badu joins Lyte in a freestyle-acknowledging on the “lo”, the subtle differences in Brooklyn and Texas-styled hip-hop cadences. Later “hip-hop” is seen rocking the red, black, and green Africa medallion that was in vogue in the late 1980s and early 1990s alongside “conscious” rap artists such as PE, the Poor Righteous Teachers, Paris, Cube, X-Clan, Lakim Shabazz, Brand Nubian, KRS-One (Boogie Down Production), and for a hot minute Big Daddy Kane (the template for pimp-daddy race men in the hip-hop era). This generation later spawned current hip-hop gramscians (most on the Brown Sugar soundtrack) like Mos, Common, Talib Kweli, Mystic, Bahamadia, and Dead Prez. The video attempts to bridge the two generations, as hip-hop’ rolls into a room where Chuck D and Dead Prez, among others, are standing over blueprints, plotting the “revolution”. The popularity of “conscious” hip-hop, which was never as popular as some of us would like to think (the kids in my ‘hood where more into Special Ed than they ever were into PE), began to recede with the emergence of Eazy E (“we want Eazy!”) and NWA. While NWA was all about gratuitous rage (“Fuck the Police” as a party anthem as opposed to a legitimate challenge to racial profiling by law enforcement officers) at first, it was with the success of former NWA member Dr. Dre’s The Chronic (1992) that the West Coast sound was solidified.
The video for “Love of My Life” references both of these influences. An Eazy-like figure gives the audience the finger as the words “Fuck the police” appear on screen, but it is “hip-hop” that is arrested, conceding the fact that it was not via the strident black nationalist tomes of the “conscious” rappers that hip-hop experienced increased scrutiny from law enforcement, but rather because of the unrequited rage found in the music of so-called gangsta rappers like Cube, Paris, Ice T and NWA. Even this aspect of hip-hop receded after the success of the The Chronic, as witnessed in “hip-hop’s” appearance in one segment of the video on a blunt-high as the video images are cleverly brought to slow motion and blurred, having a rather dramatic affect on viewers. While the “gin and juice” influence seems like the most obvious subtext at this point of the video, the scene is more an obscure reference to Houston-based “screw music”. The style of music, which was largely created by DJ Screw, featured dramatic tempo shifts, which are of course reflected in the soundtrack for the video. DJ Screw and company (the video features a cameo by “Screw” veteran Lil Flip) were the most visible proponents in the late 1990s of “sippin on some syrup” (codeine mixed in alcohol) thing that was recently poppin’ off in southern hip-hop. DJ Screw, in fact, died of a “syrup” overdose in 2000.
When “hip-hop” emerges from her funk (no pun intended) she’s getting “paid” and suddenly garnering attention and being handled. “Hip-hop” is uncomfortably put on display (spinning on two-turn tables, but minus “her friend mic”) and realizes that she is performing for a crowd of white kids (a nod to Common’s “coffee shop chicks and white dudes” reference). Finally accepting that this is the only way she can stay paid and survive, “hip-hop” gets with the flow and jumps into the crowd (i.e., the Limp Bizkit-ization of hip-hop). It is during this sequence that Common “returns”, reminding folks of his history with “H.E.R”: “Ya’ll know how I met her, we broke up and got back together . . . thought she rolled with bad boys forever, in many ways them boys made her better to grow I had to let her/she need chedda and I understood that, looking for cheese don’t make her a hood-rat/in fact she a queen to me, her light beams on me, I love it when she sings to me.” Common’s tone is conciliatory, no doubt in response to the fact the very “pimpin’” of hip-hop that he despised on “I Used to Love H.E.R.” created a commercial context for his most successful release Like Water for Hip-Hop, which made him a leading light among hip-hop’s “celebrity gramscians”.
The video for “Love of My Life” ends with “hip-hop” and Common reuniting and hopping on a school bus full of kids. The bus is driven by Kool Herc. The closing sequence is a reminder that the future of hip-hop can only be guaranteed by reaching the minds and passions of “the kids” (like old dirty said a few years ago, “it’s about the kids” the very thing that Herc, Caz, Theodore, Flash and others did in the first place when they helped create this thing called “hip-hop ya don’t stop” nearly 30 years ago. It remains to be seen whether this moment of hip-hop nostalgia will translate into the increased integrity of the art form (I hold out little hope for the integrity of the industry of hip-hop) and the development of institutional forces to address of the myriad of issues that hip-hop’s graying public is beginning to acknowledge (in this I have little faith in the Hip-Hop Summit organization). But the work of Erykah Badu and Rick Famuyiwa show that there are still folks in the industry who are very passionate about the “hip-hop” that we’ve all come to love.
(By the way, I fell in love with hip-hop the first time I heard a scratch mix T-Connection’s “Groove to Get Down”. This would have been in 1978 and I would have been 12 years old.)