Now I’ma stop to see what you got
Get off the mic ‘fore it get too hot
I wanna see which posse can dance the best
It should be easy ‘cause the beat is fresh
Now if you’re from uptown, Brooklyn bound
The Bronx, Queens or Long Island Sound
Even other states come right and exact
It ain’t where you’re from it’s where you’re at
Back in 1987, when Rakim dispensed those lyrics atop an Eric B beat in the classic “I Know You Got Soul”, there were no national hip-hop acts of note that didn’t hail from the East Coast, New York City in particular. But the music had spread across the country, and there were b-boys and b-girls all over the map. Rakim’s lyric was a reminder to the region that it no longer had a monopoly on folks being down with the flow. Hip-hop, he was telling us, wasn’t defined by geography, but by state of mind.
Go-Go Live: The Musical Life and Death of a Chocolate City
(Duke University Press; US: Jun 2012)
Bounce: Rap Music and Local Identity in New Orleans
(University of Massachusetts Press; US: May 2012)
Indeed, one doesn’t have to be in any specific location to appreciate hip-hop, as Patrice Neate discovered in the early ‘00s; his 2004 travelogue of hip-hop gone global bears the title Where You’re At. But when it comes to the creation and production of hip-hop, locale has been a much more prominent driver.
Recall that not too long after “I Know You Got Soul”, N.W.A. announced to the world the existence of rappers on the West Coast; the resulting rivalry with the East Coast scene would soon take on a life, and deaths, of its own. In the ‘90s, rap outfits throughout the South recalibrated the game at the height of the coastal feud. It was even possible for a one-act city like Cleveland (Bone-Thugs-N-Harmony) to claim a spot on the hip-hop map.
In essence, hip-hop had begun to do what black music has often done: reflect the location of its creators. After WWII, at the dawn of R&B, the stuff coming out of Los Angeles sounded nothing like the stuff coming out of Memphis, which sounded nothing like the stuff coming out of Texas. It’s impossible to imagine techno coming from Chicago or house from Detroit. In these situations and others to boot, the form and style of music was a direct result of a particular confluence of people (artists, entrepreneurs and audiences), infrastructure (places to record and perform the music, and channels for promotion and distribution) and local culture and conditions.
So it was of note recently when Slate pronounced the death of all that.
Jonah Weiner looked around the state of rap, took note of how this generation’s talent collaborates with and borrows from other rappers and producers all over the globe, and then distributes the results, all via computer. His conclusion? The only spot that matters now is the Internet, as one might have deduced from the slyly Rakim-influenced title of his 20 June 2012 piece, “Where You’re From and Where You’re @”:
“If a younger generation of hip-hop artists and fans is less concerned with geographic identity than their predecessors, this attitude suits the way that music is born and proliferates nowadays: not only in specific clubs in specific neighborhoods, but across specific music-streaming Web pages that link back and forth between each another, connecting cities and countries. It’s become less important, as a matter of musical career-building, to plant oneself and one’s sound in a physical location.”
It’s hardly rocket science to deduce that new forms of communication and information distribution will affect how culture happens. That sort of thing has been going on for years in music, thanks to radio and records. That’s how jazz musicians on the West Coast learned about bebop in the mid-‘40s; on their first swing through California after launching the bop revolution in New York nightclubs and recording studios, Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie were surprised to discover a scene 3,000 miles away that had already caught on to their innovations and put their own spin on them. These days, of course, the Internet facilitates and multiplies that kind of artistic exchange.
But Weiner is hasty to suggest that music is no longer a function of location. It may not level a uniformity of sound on the output of a locale’s talent, but there is still great value in a physical community, as opposed to the cyber one his article celebrates. Artists, audiences, radio (if they’re lucky), performance venues and distribution channels from car trunks to barbershops can still form a network that sustains creative development.
The footwork scene Weiner cites as an example of hip-hop’s devolving relationship to geography is actually a case in point. Footwork is a high-tempo style of music and dance that grew out of Chicago in the ‘00s. A few performers started making it happen, a few more joined them once it caught on, and pretty soon there was a local footwork community, whose output eventually made its way to the Internet (through both posted tracks of the music itself, and mentions of it by bloggers and online music writers). The fact that, thanks to such expansion, a producer in England or Zaire or wherever can now try his/her hand at footwork doesn’t lessen the importance of where it came from. If anything, given how hip-hop and dance music have always honored the ancestral homes of their genres (why else, for example, would there be such concern about the fate of the NYC housing project where Kool Herc first started stitching pieces of records together to create brand new beats in the ‘70s?), it elevates it.
Further, some of the most vital new energy in rap of late has come from two specific cities, both home to tight-knit circles of rappers and producers who freely collaborate with each other. In Detroit, love and respect for the work of late producer/auteur and hometown hero J. Dilla unites seemingly every hip-hopper there, from Danny Brown, whose XXX collection lit up the Internet last year, to old-school-at-heart rapper Black Milk, to House Shoes, who just released his first solo album after a decade-plus of championing and producing beats for just about every Detroit rapper of note. And in Chicago, the bevy of rappers on the rise, including the likes of Chief Keef and King Louie, didn’t need a co-sign from fellow Chicagoan Kanye West to blow up (although West’s guest-heavy remix of Keef’s “I Don’t Like” didn’t hurt).
Weiner might want to log off and read up on how location still matters in the world of black pop music. Two new books make it plain that, contrary to Rakim’s legendary dictum, sometimes it is where you’re from.
Complete this equation: Chuck Brown was to Washington, DC what (name of artist) is to (name of American city).
That’s a function of two special factors. One, Washington’s musical culture is a lot less multi-faceted than cities better known for their music scenes. Detroit’s reputation for great music was always bigger than Motown Records; Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, while going worldwide with “The Sound of Philadelphia”, couldn’t lay exclusive claim to how all of Philly sounded. But, with the exception of ‘80s hardcore (Fugazi, Minor Threat, Bad Brains, etc.), there’s only one music commonly associated with D.C.: go-go, a rolling, percussion-driven brand of funk, where performers neither sing nor rap in the conventional sense, but lead the audience in call-and-response exchanges while the live band churns out a long, elastic groove that segues from song to song without stopping.
Go-go has come to occupy a central place in the District’s cultural heart, and D.C is pretty much the only place on the planet to hear go-go. In the mid-‘80s, there were efforts to cross go-go over into the broader pop landscape (most notably, the disastrous 1986 movie Good to Go), but they fell short of the mark. Go-go shrugged off the lack of blow-up and kept right on go-going where it was born, rest of the world be damned. And there’s also this: go-go is unabashedly black music, and once you leave Capitol Hill, D.C. is an unabashedly black city (or, at least, was when go-go took off).
The other piece of that equation is that Brown single-handedly hit upon the go-go formula, and was venerated for it by generations of musicians and fans. Brown, a local guitarist and bandleader, took to adding Afro-Cuban percussion to his band’s mélange of R&B and jazz in the ‘70s, and lit up the local clubs. He had a good-sized national hit with the new sound, “Bustin’ Loose”, in 1979. From that one song and his band’s local rep, a mini-genre was born.
Brown didn’t have any more national hits, but didn’t much need any. He kept his band performing for decades, and would come to be known as the “Godfather of Go-Go”. Brown was so respected and beloved by go-go fans, the city held a public ceremony in his honor after he joined he ancestors this spring at age 75; it had already named a street in the entertainment district after him.
So it’s a shame that Brown wasn’t around to read the love, knowledge and understanding go-go, and black D.C. by extension, receive in Natalie Hopkinson’s Go-Go Live: The Musical Life and Death of a Chocolate City, which was published just after he passed. Hopkinson, who fell under the sway as a student at Howard University, writes well enough about the music itself, but her true concern is its relationship with its ancestral home, and the call-and-response between the genre, its audience, and the changes to urban America in general and D.C. in particular over the last 30 years.