Close to the Edge

In Search of the Global Hip Hop Generation

by Sujatha Fernandes

1 September 2011

Magia Lopez and Alexey Rodriguez of Obsesion © Oriana Elicabe (p. 38) 

Beyond the African Diaspora

While black nationalist rap took hold in some parts of the African diaspora, in other parts gangsta rap gained momentum. Like the neighborhoods of Compton and South Central Los Angeles where gangsta originated, the barrios of Caracas, Cali, and Medellín and the townships outside Cape Town were marked by vicious cycles of poverty, incarceration, and violence. Rappers in the diaspora drew from vernacular models of masculine rebellion such as the malandro in Venezuela or the tsotsi in South Africa, in the same way that gangsta rappers in the US situated themselves within the badman tradition in African American folk culture.

Like its American counterpart, gangsta rap across the globe often consisted of first-person chronicles of ghetto life. Rappers recounted stories of being abandoned by their fathers, disappearing job prospects, and resorting to drug dealing as a means of survival. The music was also replete with references to the ghetto as a war zone, quite literally in the case of Colombia, which suffered from a long-term internal armed conflict. Gangsta rap gained immense popularity in prisons, on the streets, in the barrios. For gangsta rappers the music—like the drug trade—offered the promise of a way out of poverty.

Hip hop culture took off in Asia. This was not surprising, as the sweatshops of hip hop fashion were in Korea, Taiwan, and China, where labels such as Ecko, Fubu, Nike, and Adidas were produced.

One global icon of American gangsta rap was Tupac Shakur, whose appeal lay partly in his blending of a revolutionary ethos and “thug life.” Tupacistas could be found in the favelas of Rio. Tupac murals adorned the walls of barrios in Caracas. And youth in Cape Town donned his signature bandanna. Politically conscious gangsta rap was common outside the United States. The French group Suprême NTM featured a Colt .45 handgun on its album cover and used explicit language, but members of the group also denounced racial and economic exploitation. Instead of using the term gangsta, they referred to themselves as hard core, a label that captured their unique melding of different genres.

Hip hop had also gained momentum outside the African diaspora during the 1990s. Hip hop culture took off in Asia. This was not surprising, as the sweatshops of hip hop fashion were in Korea, Taiwan, and China, where labels such as Ecko, Fubu, Nike, and Adidas were produced. MTV Mandarin was launched in China in 1995 and helped popularize the lifestyles and brand names of hip hop culture. At the Europe-based b-boy competition known as B-Boy Summit, crews from Japan and Korea were frequent winners, adding greater dexterity and athleticism to the form.

The biggest hip hop scene in Asia was in Japan, which had a long engagement with hip hop culture and black music in general. As the anthropologist Ian Condry describes, the focus of hip hop culture in Tokyo was the club scene, and the first club devoted to hip hop appeared in 1986. A combination of company-sponsored DJ and rap competitions and tours by American artists in the late 1980s and early 1990s helped to spur the nascent rap scene. Although Japanese record labels were reluctant to release rap music at this time, it had a growing following among youth. Japanese hip hop fans have been criticized for consuming black culture as a fad with little knowledge of black history. While the picture is more complex than this—some Japanese artists and fans do make an attempt to learn about black culture and history—the debate does point to the uneasy place of Asians within the Global Hip Hop Nation.

Hip hop has been highly popular not just in Asia but also among Asian immigrant youth in Western nations such as Canada, Australia, Britain, and the United States. But Asians are not a homogeneous group. The forebears of long-standing communities of working-class Asians in the Caribbean, Pacific Islands, northeastern Australia, and East Africa arrived as indentured laborers during the colonial period. In Britain, working-class South Asians, along with Caribbean immigrants, have historically identified as black Britons because of a shared history of racist exclusion. This has led to the idea of an “Afro- Asian Atlantic” that recognizes the diasporic engagements between blacks, Asians, and Arabs. British South Asian rap groups such as Fundamental that identify as black are therefore locating themselves within this specific history.

In contrast, Asians emigrating to the United States since 1965 have tended to be upper middle class. The dominant image of Asian Americans as upwardly mobile or “model minorities” has placed them at odds with blacks and Latinos. One notable exception is Filipino Americans, who often share the circumstances of urban blacks and Latinos in places like the West Coast. They have been prominent as b-boys and DJs in West Coast hip hop. But the majority of middle-class Asian American consumers of rap tend to inhabit a position similar to affluent whites in the suburbs and have little contact with racialized poverty.

By the mid- to late 1990s the market for global hip hop was being recognized by the music industry, and many local acts had achieved commercial success. The first rap hit in Japan came in 1994, when Scha Dara Parr’s single “Boogie Back Tonight” went platinum. Following two more platinum singles in 1995, by the rap group East End X Yuri, the industry coined the term J-rap. The Cuban rap group Orishas sold 400,000 copies of its debut album in 1998 after signing to EMI and went on to win two Grammys. These successes, echoed in other contexts as well, created a greater visibility for global hip hop. But such popularity also led to a growing divide, between groups that called themselves underground—rejecting fusion with other genres and maintaining a political stance—and commercial groups that geared their music toward mass audiences to gain industry acceptance. The divide between underground and commercial was not always clearly drawn. But it did reflect real contests over access to resources as multinational corporations entered the field and sought to exploit the industry potential of local scenes.

The year 1996 was a watershed for rap. On February 8, 1996, President Bill Clinton signed the Telecommunications Act, which relaxed media ownership rules. The legislation accompanied broader neoliberal policies of privatization and deregulation. Before passage of the measure a company could not own more than two radio stations in a single market. But as a result of the removal of ownership caps, companies were allowed to own up to seven or eight stations.

The Future of Music Coalition estimated that by 2001 ten companies controlled about two-thirds of the airwaves as a result of the Telecommunications Act. The biggest media conglomerate to emerge from this process was Clear Channel Communications. It owned twelve hundred commercial stations in 2002. By the start of the new millennium, 80 percent of the music industry was controlled by five companies—Vivendi Universal, Sony, AOL Time Warner, Bertelsmann, and EMI.27 The post-1996 period after the Telecommunications Act was passed came to be seen as the era of corporate rap. The airwaves were dominated by a catchy pop formula coming from a handful of producers.

This trend toward big radio has been followed across the globe. While local scenes had matured and developed, many radio stations were playing mostly American rap. In Kenya the radio stations Capital FM and KISS FM program American artists like 50 Cent because, they argue, it helps corporations sell their products. It is clear that corporate rap on the radio is designed to exploit a lucrative youth market. This American-dominated radio programming contrasts somewhat with television’s practices—about half the programming on MTV Base Africa is African, and about 70 percent of MTV Mandarin’s videos are Chinese. At the same time television has been an important medium for promoting hip hop lifestyles and commodities. In Beijing, McDonald’s has produced a commercial using Mandarin rap. Likewise, Pepsi, Sprite, and China Mobile have all used rap in their China ads. But rap does not just advertise products. The content of rap songs is so heavily brand identified—from cars to clothing and alcohol—that the music becomes fused with the product. Hip hop has raised the sales of Hennessy cognac by so much that the French company sponsored a contest and offered as the prize a visit to its plant with a famous rapper. It is clear that the innovation and creativity that gave rise to hip hop culture were not to be found in the realm of corporate rap.

The global spread of corporate rap, combined with its popularity among white suburban consumers in the United States, produced troubling racial contradictions for the genre. S. Craig Watkins suggests that corporate rap was designed with young white consumers in mind and that the fascination of white and suburban youth with rap music was just a more complex expression of racism. This was particularly notable in the global arena. American rap acts on tour frequently encountered all-white audiences. The Aboriginal rapper Wire MC recounts the chilling experience of being at a 50 Cent concert in Sydney and seeing the packed white male audience chanting, “Put another cap in a nigga.” In some cases local rap artists misappropriated rap’s oppositional language to openly reassert racial hierarchies. The commercially popular Israeli rappers Subliminal and The Shadow used their music to advance a right-wing Zionist agenda. The rappers identified with the Israeli army, justifying the occupation of Palestine and presenting themselves as the underdogs.

One response to the dominance of corporate rap on the airwaves was the development of an underground rap movement in the United States between 1995 and 1999. As independent and underground emcees found themselves with less access to major labels, radio airtime, and venues, they began to find alternative means to build a fan base. The Internet became an important resource as a digital distribution network in challenging the power of the traditional record labels. College and community radio stations offered more varied playlists than the corporate radio stations. And the DIY (do-it-yourself) model—selling tapes out of the trunk as a way to move to a regional label and then a major label—began to be used by underground artists.

The genre of underground rap allowed for a greater variety of narratives than the highly commodified and one-dimensional corporate rap. But, with American underground rap, the locus of hip hop moved away from urban, black, and working-class sectors as artists and audiences became increasingly middle class, white, and multiracial. Underground rap in the US paralleled the rise of underground rap abroad, and underground artists in diverse contexts often shared a suspicion of fusing rap and other musical forms, although the artists didn’t always have a common political stance.

Local place-based hip hop genres also began to emerge in cities across the US, from the San Francisco Bay Area’s “hyphy” culture to southern “crunk” and New Orleans “bounce” music, the latter influenced by brass band sound and Mardi Gras Indian chants. Greater regionalization of rap began to take place in other countries, too. In France, for instance, unique rap movements emerged in Marseilles and Strasbourg. Regionalization was matched by the growing diversity of sounds and styles in global hip hop. These included the rap-reggae-traditional blend of kwaito in South Africa, the popular highlife rap mix of hip life music in Ghana, and the drum ’n’ bass,  garage-influenced Brit-hop in Britain. Local scenes also diversified, incorporating reggae rap, gangsta rap, spoken-word rap, hard-core rap, rock rap, and R&B-influenced rap under the broader umbrella of hip hop culture. By 2000 hip hop had become a global tour de force, marking out terrain in both mass culture—where its dominant appeal lay—and on the level of the subcultures—where its real dynamism resided.

Alamar - copyright Jason Florio (p. 53)

Alamar © Jason Florio (p. 53)

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