Hip-Hop and Beyond: Hip-Hop Comes to Berkeley

It was in the fall of last year when MTV ran a story about Hip-Hop 101, the entry level on Hip-Hop linguistics taught at Stanford University. Though Hip-Hop courses have been taught at major universities and colleges for close to a decade, the news privileging power of MTV allowed the story to circulate throughout other media outlets in a way that was not in-sync with the story’s real significance. In a word it was not significant. In the aftermath of this sudden attention the African-American Studies Department at UC-Berkeley mounted Hip-Hop and Beyond: An Academic Conference. Coordinated by noted novelist Cecil Brown (The Life and Loves of Mr. Jiveass Nigger, 1969 and the forthcoming Stagolee) and local Hip-Hop activist Eric K. Arnold (former managing editor of 4080), the conference was recently held from April 25-27. It was conceived as a wide ranging “scholarly” conversation about the roots and futures of this thing we call “Hip-Hop, ya don’t stop” bringing in a spectacular diversity of figures including griot Alhajj Papa Susso, Last Poet Umar Bin Hassan, Pam the Funktress (dj for The Coup), Bay area activist and intellectual Davey D, Yale University scholar Robert Ferris Thompson, trickster supreme Ishmael Reed, and old-school icons Grand Master Caz and Grand Wizzard Theodore.

Throughout the conference there was a visible tension between the old-guard of hip-hop (the academics and journalists who theorize and cover the music) and the young cats who are sustaining a rather amazing underground scene in the Bay Area. The Bay Area has a rich legacy with regards to hip-hop, though it’s a tradition that developed largely outside of the influence of New York hip-hop. ‘Pac is of course the best known among Bay Area artists, including Digital Underground, Paris, Too Short, The Coup, Michael Franti and E-40. But as Bay area scholar Ricky Vincent (author of the indispensable Funk: The Music, the People and the Rhythm of the One) explained, the Bay area was also the home of Sly and the Family Stone and most notably their bassist Larry Graham who is credited with being the first artist to “pop” the bass on a recording. According to Vincent, the prominence of undiluted Funk on the West (in clear opposition to the Disco scene that dominated East Coast radio), most West Coast artists are really extensions of 1970s funk as opposed to DJ/Club scene that East Coast Hip-Hop artists both embraced and disdained. Thus the deep bass (and constant sampling of Parliament/Funkadelic and Roger Troutman/Zapp) that marked the early sound NWA, Snoop, Quik and Digital Underground was connected the aesthetic innovation of Funk artists.

But the Bay Area is also the origins of a distinct political tradition that includes the Haight-Ashbury scene on the late 1960s, but more importantly was the place that incubated the Black Panther Movement, as both Bobby Seale and Huey Newton were Bay Area products. It is a progressive tradition that still thrives and was recently highlighted when Bay Area House Rep. Barbara Lee took a brave and brilliant stance against post-9/11 war mobilization. The tradition was also recognized when Davey D became one of the only black journalists in the country to allow Lee a forum, by publishing interviews with Lee and Boots Riley of the Coup, who were also being vilified for the cover art of their album Party Music, in his brilliant monthly newsletter www.daveyd.com. Hip-Hop and Beyond hoped to bring together all of these traditions over a three-day period.

The conference opened on Thursday, April 25th with a traditional West African libation that featured local area percussionist Marcel Diallo and the Black Dot Artists. University of Nebraska professor James L. Conyers gave the opening keynote address on Africana Cosmology and rap music. Alhajj Papa Susso and Diallo joined conference director Cecil Brown on a panel discussing the Griot tradition. In traditional West African culture the Griot (Gree-o) served the role as an oral historian, who in the great tradition of Eshu-elebara (The Signifying Monkey) was uniquely empowered to interpret the history of the people as the primary keeper of that history. The Griot was valued both for his capacity to remember and to deliver that history to the convening masses in a way that could hold them in rapture for hours. The tradition of the Griot is one of the critical links that Hip-hop artists have to West African culture. A later panel of Hip-Hop and feminism (which should have been more prominently featured on the second or third day) included scholar Dipa Basu (“the Hindu from the Hood” and editor of the forthcoming The Vinyl’s Never Final), Coup DJ Pam the Funktress and Bay Area artist Medusa.

Day two of the conference, which was titled “Trial by Fire,” featured two presentations on global hip-hop. Bowling Green dance scholar Halifu Osumare gave a presentation “Hip-Hop’s Globalization: New Dimensions in Appropriation” drawing on her forthcoming book. Osumare’s presentation brought into focus the way in which globalization has allowed for the massive appropriation of Hip-Hop culture but how global hip-hop is often localized to speak to the specific politics of those spaces. Columbia University scholar Veronique Helenon followed Osumare with an informative talk on Francophone Hip-hop. Conversation got a little heated on the panel “Culture as Business: Hip-Hop, New Media, and Technology which was moderated by Davey D and featured Source Magazine editor P. Frank Williams, film director Kevin Epps, whose documentary-style film Straight Outta Hunter’s Point is making the film festival round, and legendary trickster and writer Ishmael Reed.

Reed and Davey D were at the center of a bunch of exchanges that highlighted the generational divide within the black community that is examined in more detail in Bakari Kitwana’s The Hip-Hop Generation: Young Blacks and the Crisis in African-American Culture and Mark Anthony Neal’s Soul Babies: Black Popular Culture and the Post-Soul Aesthetic. In the context of the panel discussion Reed could make outrageous statements about Hip-Hop (specifically targeting Snoop) and black youth culture, because he has not followed the culture as diligently as he should, while many of the folks in the audience are unaware that Reed has been nominated for Pulitzer and National Book Awards in both poetry and fiction and that his Mumbo Jumbo, which remains relevant even today, is one of the great achievements in American literature of the 20th century. At the core of the debate was a question about how much the old-school (Civil Rights generation) mentored the Hip-Hop Generation to prepare them for the pitfalls of being artists and producers of commercial responsibility. While Reed arrogantly announced that he had done his part (and shortly thereafter stepped off the stage), Last Poet Umar Bin Hassan, who was sitting in the audience, took responsibility (on behalf of the old-school) for not helping to create and maintain the kinds of social and cultural institutions that may have allowed for a more linear transition from the Black Arts Movement to the Hip-Hop era.

It is this very generational divide that Bay area artists Idris Ackamoor and Kamau presented in their moving play “The OG and the B-Boy.” The mini-play captured the transformation of public space in black communities over the past three decades as Ackamoor, who plays the saxophone while tap-dancing, personified previous generations of black male artists who claim the “street” as the site of their creative expression. The music of the Be-Bop, where black, Latino, and whites congregated on urban street corners to harmonize and later Hip-hop, where artists constructed lyrical ciphers on those same streets, decades later, are prime examples. As Ackamoor portrayed, such men — think of those “old southern men filled with northern pain” to quote Umar Bin Hassan, who still stand on street corners playing standards on their 30-year-old saxes — are seen as little more than artistic has-beens that have no relevance to contemporary black life. Ackamoor’s character is juxtaposed to that of Kamau, who embodies the kind of terror, what Michael Eric Dyson calls a “juvenocracy,” that has taken over public spaces in black communities. (One of the more poignant moments in the earlier exchange between Reed and Davey D, was Reed’s acknowledgement that he had brought about a truce with the drug dealers in his Oakland neighborhood. While they promised not to sell anymore on Reed’s block, they were careful to remind Reed that they got into the drug game because of the closing of a local pet food factory, which forced them out of work.) Kamau literally steps on the stage with boom box blaring and cell phone ringing, encapsulating the way that even the sound of hip-hop and the technologies that the form has been privy to have created a soundscape of terror for some urban dwellers. It is in the context of this “noise” (Tricia Rose’s Black Noise and the Tony Mitchell edited Global Noise are good reads in this regard.) that Ackamoor confronts Kamau, beginning an exchange of perceptions that ultimately have to do with the ability of each to make money off of their “art.” While Ackamoor’s character still believed he could make meaningful art and stake out a living tap dancing and playing the sax for small coins, Kamau, who is exposed as a brilliant spoken word artist, has chosen to give up on the possibility that his art could provide, and instead has chosen a career in street pharmaceuticals. For Kamau’s character, the choice was clear: performing art on the street or a low-level 9 to 5, was not going to help him take care of his kids.

The play was a striking indictment of the art-less commodities that get exchanged in the culture industry — a world where Ja Rule could sell 10 million copies of dribble and forefathers of Hip-Hop like Umar Bin Hassan, Grand Wizard Theodore and Grand Master Caz remain virtually unknown to those who plunk down $15-20 for rap recordings that are an embarrassment to the tradition. In this regard, the appearance of Kevin Epps during the day powerfully highlighted ways that the hip-hop generation have taken the production and distribution of their art into their own hands.

In his film Straight Outta Hunters Point (www.mastamind.com), Epps literally took a video camera into the neighborhood and let the residents tell their stories in way that celebrated “‘hood” movies such as Boyz N tha Hood and Menace II Society never allowed. The film serves as a social history of the Hunters Point neighborhood, while also documenting the pipe dreams of so many in that neighborhood that thought that the hip-hop game was going to get them out, the same way ‘Pac and Too Short got out. An official selection at the Santa Fe Film Festival, the judges at the festival describe the film as a “gritty, uncompromising film about the preservation of a black culture in the shadow of poverty, race riots, and gang-related rap wars.” Kevin Epps and his film are reminders that there are still crevices within black urban life where folks are still committed to trenchant artistic visions. Another example is the Sergio Goes film Black Picket Fence (www.blackpicketfence.net) which deals with many of the same issues from a Brooklyn, NY perspective. Black Picket Fence, which features the legendary Kool G Rap, premieres at the Brooklyn International Film Festival (www.wbff.org/2002/overview) on May 2nd.

Day Three of Hip-Hop and Beyond was easily the most well attended day of the conference. A panel on Hip-Hop Journalism was the day’s jump-off, as Bay Area music critic and scholar Oliver Wang, critic Adisa Banjoko, Murder Dog publisher Black Dog Bone and Frank Williams got into an extremely informative conversation about commercial magazines like The Source and Vibe and a more “authentic” hip-hop magazine like Murder Dog, which has covered regional hip-hop scenes in places like Memphis and Jackson, MS in ways that the more commercial magazines would never think of. Banjoko was particularly affecting as he discussed the difficulties in writing about hip-hop from a political perspective. On the one hand many of the magazines are uninterested in a political perspective, while the artists themselves are not necessarily as political as their music suggest. Williams discussed the struggles of being the first Source. magazine editor to hail from the West Coast (he’s from Oakland) and trying to get the magazine to take West Coast rap seriously in the early 1990s. In a humorous exchanged, Black Dog Bone, who has a thick East Indian accent, asked why so much journalistic focus had the be on the “white boy” (meaning Marshall Mathers). Both Wang and Banjoko discussed how the prominence of Eminem and Bubba Sparks has obscured white rappers who actually have major skills such as Haystack and Non-Fiction.

But the real highlight of the conference was the “Masters of the Old-School: Hip-Hop Pioneers” panel, which featured Grand Master Caz, Grand Wizard Theodore, Umar Bin Hassan, and Ricky Vincent. Theodore, who is generally credited with creating the “scratch” explained how he accidentally did his first scratch while trying to slow down the turntables as his mom yelled at him to turn down his music. It was 1977 and he was 14-years-old. He also talked about the prominence of the DJ in the early days, as it was the DJ who set the tone for the MC and how in its essence, the job of DJing was about “moving the crowd.” Grand Master Caz is generally thought to be among the top-three of all of the early hip-hop MCs, alongside Melle Mel of the Furious Five and Kool Moe Dee, who got his start as a member of the Treacherous Three. Caz was a member of the legendary Cold Crush crew, which in the late 1970s and early 1980s featured Charlie Chase, the most prominent Puerto Rican figure in early Hip-Hop. Caz is generally unknown to most audiences, because unlike Moe Dee and Melle Mel, he didn’t make the transition to mainstream recordings, though one of his lyrics is one of the most legendary in all of recorded hip-hop. Caz explained, how “Big Bad Hank” of The Sugar Hill gang, essentially jacked his lyrics for Hank’s now famous line “Hotel, Motel, Holiday Inn…”. Apparently Hank, who managed the Cold Crush for a short time, was performing Caz’s verse while working in a Pizza shop when he was approached by Joe Robinson and Sylvia (she of the ’70s come on single “Pillow Talk” about recording the lyrics for their Sugarhill label. That song was of course “Rapper’s Delight” which essentially began Hip-Hop’s commercial era.

Later in the session, Caz talked poignantly about being named dropped on Jay Z’s “Izzo” (“Label owners hate me I’m raising the status quo up / I’m overcharging niggas for what they did to the Cold Crush”). In this context, Jay can make certain demands on the industry in the name of their previous exploitation of groups like the Cold Crush, but not actually provide any financial support to previous generations of Hip-hop artists, some of whom are without things like health insurance or a retirement fund. Caz even reminded folks that Jay’s “Girls, Girls, Girls” was drawn from the Crash Crew’s “High Powered Chicks” and how powerful it would have been if members of the Crash Crew, who still live in NYC, would have been featured in the video instead of Biz Markie, who may be old-school, but as an artist that was signed the WB’s Cold Chillin’ label, had a much easier time than those who didn’t have major label deals. Later on the panel both Caz and Umar Bin Hassan (who has just released Life is Good), gave freestyle performances. Audience members were given the chance to win a signed copy of Caz’s “Back to the Scene of the Rhyme” by answering a trivia question: who was the first female rapper? When one student responded with Blondie (Deborah Harry), Caz jokingly asked for security, though he added that Blondie’s “Rapture” did help make the form more visible in the mainstream. (The answer btw, is Sha-Rock of the Funky Four + One)

On the last panel of the day, “Rap and Revolution: the Politics of Hip-Hop,” Baltimore area activist and rapper Jahi was joined by Paris, who came to prominence a little more than a decade ago with his recording “Bushkilla” which took Bush, Sr. to task for the Gulf War. The cover-art for the Paris recording featured a lone gunman attempting to assassinate the president, garnering unwanted attention for the Bay Area artist by the Secret Service and FBI. Out of the game for a few years, Paris has reemerged with the powerful single “What Would You Do?” which seriously critiques Bush Jr. and John Ashcroft for their attempts to erode civil and human rights in the United States. The song is taken from his forthcoming recording Sonic Jihad. Jahi (jahiphop.com) personified some of the cats in the game today, who do for the love of the art and for the love of black folks, as he balances his artistic career with his ability to remain rooted in the lives of Baltimore youth. As he explained, the Jay Zs and Ja Rules of the world would no longer be role models to black youth, if we all had a more prominent role in their lives.

Cecil Brown, Eric K. Arnold and Charles Henry, chair of UC-Berkeley’s African-American Studies Department, should be commended to their vision and commitment to bring about such wide ranging foray into this thing we call “Hip-Hop, Ya Don’t Stop.”


A quick shout-out to prolific writer and music critic Charlie Braxton and his family, who unfortunately lost their home to a recent fire. For more information on Charlie and what anyone can do to help, check out DaveyD.com (http://www.Daveyd.com/FullArticlesarticleN1066.asp). Charlie gave me a very favorable review of my first joint What the Music Said in the Washington Post back in January of 1999, and this is the least I can do to help him and his family recover from their tragedy.