How Hip-Hop Music Is Slowly Transcending Its Circular Culture
If it is to stand any chance of representing a people, then hip-hop must be allowed that most fundamental of human compulsions: to grow, to transcend its own limitations, to change.
Mos Def and Talib Kweli
If you want to know how hiphop is doing, then ask yourself: How am I doing? Where am I going?
-- Mos Def
We're not into that pigeonhole thing. Hiphop is such an anal [...] community, and people try to be so real about it all, and it's got certain criteria that make it that way. Everyone's got their own definition of what hip-hop is really [but] we know what we like and we make music based on that. If people think we're not hip-hop then... great.
Hip-hop started out as a counter-culture expression of pain-laced, defiant joy by New York's penniless and angry. You make studio time and instrumental tuition too expensive for me, place me in ghettos I lack any means to escape or improve, cut off the power to my housing block, keep me locked down in a miserable job for pathetic pay and generally treat me as a politically powerless and racially inferior minority? I will mix records together with no respect for their discrete heritage or creators; set your anthems as backing vocals for the rhymes I've spent my fruitless hours of drudgery whetting with pent-up bitterness; paint your greyly hideous constructions wildly, vibrantly beautiful; and funnel the electricity from your streetlights into my decks and speakers, to dance with my peers in new and explosive ways that pay homage to our frantic, cooped-up energy. And I will tell my people that they are beautiful, and that you cannot hold us forever, for this raucous, rhythmic, illegitimate music will bring us together, and in its crude but irresistible power we will find and share our impoverished strength and soul once more.
When exactly hip-hop emerged as a musical movement is still the subject of some dispute -- depending on who you listen to, the genre ranges from somewhere in its early 20s to a good decade more than that. What is certain is that, since the days when Kool DJ Herc created breakbeats by spinning two copies of The Incredible Bongo Band's cover of "Apache" into each other, turntablism, graf and breaking have all evolved radically and continue to slowly accumulate and elevate in their own directions, gradually becoming accepted by mainstream culture whilst still retaining a certain underground cachet, doubtless due to the huge amounts of time and effort becoming proficient at them requires.
Meanwhilst, hip-hop and "its illegitimate child, hip-pop" (as Sarah Jones would have it) have become the music that ate the planet. It is all-pervasive in the charts and fills the clubs and homes of people of all colours, professions, and creeds. Its sales are such that the music business has had to go beyond platinum status to reward its superstars, who are global icons. Welcome to the diamond age of hip-hop, where R&B and (nu-)soul have become softened hip-hop beats with either the diva du jour or R. Kelly singing romantic or sexual vapidity over them, where hip-hop benefits from the finest production studios money can buy but lacks joy or spontaneity, where rap has risen (like OutKast) from being the gimmick of a couple of amusing novelty records to being the universally accepted medium on an ocean of CDs, where "hip-hop" has become double-barrelled. The pressure of competition and intensity of black pain have produced something of immense value, attraction and clarity, yet which is increasingly uninvolving, cold and sterile.
Hip-hop has travelled so far from its roots in so little time that the girl living downstairs from me has a wallfull of hiphop cds, yet does not know who Big Daddy Kane is (for the uninformed, this is a little like a modern rock fan not knowing who Jimi Hendrix was. Except that Kane is still alive, performing and peerless). Even more depressingly, I read a review of Jay-Z's "99 Problems" single in a "black music" magazine a few months ago in which the reviewer (and this remember is someone who supposedly loves the music so much he's dedicated his life to writing about it) criticised the rapper's "new rock direction". He's referring to the track's production, courtesy of the (white) Rick Rubin, who with very similar compositions changed the whole sound of the genre with people like the LL Cool J and the Beastie Boys, and whose significance has now also apparently been forgotten.
Ironically, the man who obscured him, arguably both the most critically acclaimed and publicly adored MC on the planet, has just withdrawn from the scene, if only temporarily. Shawn Carter's importance was and is far greater than this however, for in his persona he combined remarkable oral skills with lightweight subject matter in a fashion that demanded (and got) respect for his technical abilities whilst winning him tremendous financial and dance floor success. Equally he united those who gloried in the rising tide of conspicuous excess that was to overwhelm hip-hop style with those who scorned anything they considered un-"real" (i.e. not based in contemporary [ghetto] life) by boasting of his millionaire lifestyle whilst stressing his roots in, and adherence to, the violent and misogynist mind-state of the crack dealing thug. Whilst he lacked 2Pac's warmth and electrifying passion, or Biggy's relentless lyricism, in the void left by their murders he embodied gangster rap with nary a rival, bar Nas brooding on the outskirts of the scene, and Dr. Dre, who returned to prominence (mainly as a producer) with a verse ghost-written by Jay-Z himself. Perhaps most shameless though, as Jay-Z sought to become the culture's avatar (and commercial god) by encompassing within his multiple monikers all hip-hop, is the way he has liberally endorsed what was originally considered (and still is to most MCs and producers) the greatest crime against hip-hop culture and your fellow artists: biting, of both beats and rhymes. What better way to simultaneously obliterate and subsume the glory of past MCs than by shamelessly presenting their words as yours, to an audience mostly too ignorant of the music's roots to do anything other than love you for it? "I've got 99 problems but a bitch ain't one"? Ice-T? Who's that? And who the heck is going to replace Jay-Z if he doesn't return fairly shortly? Sadly, the odds are overwhelmingly against it being anyone who will unite hip-hop in order to lead it to pastures new.
Now, any musical genre that becomes so successful that it becomes the mainstream inevitably becomes homogenised, its own swollen girth obscuring beneath it many of its most talented originators. Indeed, many are those who have been loudly proclaimed rock's death for the last few decades. Yet hip-hop has not become commercially marginalised, nor has it run out of fresh, hungry artists with something to say and an interesting, original way of saying it. It's quite the opposite in fact. It is just that hip-hop bears within its body of listeners not just the usual commercial/obscurist rift, but also a Mobius strip-like cultural one, and the two intersect. Whilst non-black non-Americans may feel a deep understanding and kinship with hip-hop (I know I do), we are not bound to its cultural significance in the same way; although I feel some hip-hop is an expression of myself, this could be said of any music I love, and I will always be an outsider looking in because I was not there when it started, I did not grow with it, and I am able to take or leave whole areas of it because, whilst I may feel that I am part of hiphop culture now, I do not feel it defines me. When Mos Def sang "all my people to be free/to be free/to be free/all black people to be free" on "Umi Says" I felt (and feel) in perfect emotional accord with him, but I will never really know his pain and for me the song is an expression of universal human need, tenderness and fear.
For many black Americans (and indeed for many black people I have spoken to, from all over the world), however, hip-hop is a shared racial background as much as cultural and historical property. They may not agree with it, in fact they may be sickened by the materialist, misogynist, homophobic and morally bankrupt brand name lifestyle that Rap Music (TM) has become, but in its omnipresence it still supplies a unifying weave and a message of hope: for all that was taken from us in the past, we have stolen back the music of the world and given it our shape, and now no-one can deny our influence or success -- we will be accepted as we are, or not at all. MCs and producers are idolised in an attempt to populate a present horribly bare of cultural heroes and heroines who aren't sporting figures and athletes -- where else but in hip-hop would 2Pac's textbook Madonna/whore complex and conviction for anally raping a female fan be swept under the rug in the face of nigh-universal female adulation?
With hip-hop as personal definition comes exclusion; the need to excise the "unreal", the "non-street", and inevitably, whether consciously or not, the non-black, whatever that is felt to be. It is no accident that the 5 Percenters, with their emphasis on linguistic supremacy and beliefs that blacks are the divine master race (and that woman is inferior to man), and are so well entrenched in the violent priapism of "real" MCs, where being "gangsta" is a compliment and indeed a necessity. What really struck me about the recent Source magazine spat with Eminem was not that the white MC had, when younger, drunk and enraged at the black girlfriend he'd just broken up with, recorded a mindless vent at "black bitches". For me that was moronic but understandable, and indeed compared to the ways some of hip-hop's most beloved (black) MCs have refered to (black) women it was practically an endearment. Nor was the fact that the Source wilfully misrepresented an interview in an attempt to take further (racial) pot shots at the rapper that surprising, as sadly their credibility as an unbiased journalistic venture has been on the rocks for ages now. Rather, what shocked me was something said by Bumpy Knuckles, an MC whose dedication to keeping rap raw and direct I respect, in the Source's celebrity feedback section on the issue: "What else do you expect from a white man?"
Eminem himself remains the Great White Mystery of hip-hop, undeniably vastly skilled (whilst I do not think there is any one best MC, I don't think people who elect him to this position in contemporary hip-hop are being totally unreasonable), hugely successful, inimitably, evilly poppy, amusing and perceptive, laceratingly acerbic and personal, totally unique. He takes his own flaws and those of the white America whose hypocrisy he loathes and uses them to spark a self-immolating rage, his ascension as an MC leaving burning footprints in the cultural stratosphere. Eminem embodies the similarities between punk and hip-hop; the need to find your own voice and speak out against the smothering uniformity that angers you. Yet his duality cannot be mimicked by black MCs because punk is, fundamentally, white anger at the pointlessness, excesses and blindness of mainstream white culture, whereas hip-hop is rooted in the pain and paucity of the ghetto existence, a contemporary focus for the long history of racial abuse.
No black artist has become truly successful without a "ghetto pass", and whilst established, popular MCs and producers may bank good will to take hip-hop as a contemporary music scene to new places, they never stray too far from what is currently successful, or from the accepted norms that consensus elected back in the "golden age" of hip-hop. They would not dare; their reputation and acceptance as a representative of hip-hop and therefore their own blackness is literally everything to them as artists. This need to "take it back", this nostalgic focus on the musical past means that the now unbreakable cycle of self-affirmation between the people and the music has become increasingly solid, dooming much in the way of experimentation to the outer margins whilst consigning an art form whose greatest strength is its ability to embrace music of any shape and form to cannibalistic repetition.
Yet hip-hop the musical approach has escaped from its creators and any cultural shackles anyone tries to put on it. Just as the music America's cultural imperialism has forced on the rest of the world over the past few decades became ever more dominated by black "urban" music feeding off hip-hop's blueprint, so inevitably as this music became increasingly popular, people worldwide became interested in its musical roots and sources. Thus we have the recent resurgence of electro(clash) and synth-pop, based as much on the attitude of the 80s (the aforementioned "golden age") as the electro that partly spawned hip-hop. Of course, white producers and musicians were became interested earlier and dug more deeply, leading to a resurgence of the funk and jazz similar to that ransacked by hip-hop's initial unrestrained sampling, born into completely different times and cultural contexts.
Instrumental hip-hop was freed from its partying and dance floor connotations in the minds of many by DJ Shadow's seminal Endtroducing..., its sparse rhythmic framework now frequently put to dour and brooding effect, or slipped and twisted into different skins by electronica, world music and, ironically, jazz. Whilst punk mentality has been mostly put off by hip-hop's glam cultural connotations and studio perfection, the progressive rock noodling it was partially created as rebellion against has also embraced aspects of hiphop, and is itself being used to create prog hip-hop -- as Sixtoo's recent "Chewing On Glass And Other Miracle Cures", starring a member of Can, displays to strange effect. Artists like Interloper, Four Tet, Caural, and Prefuse 73 create an electronic fusion that highlights the enjoyable immediacy of hip-hop beats whilst paring them to the subtle musicality and unpredictability of sampling in the hands of jazz musicians. Xela, Christian Kleine and a host of others wed warm, soothing beats to guitar strumming and atmospherics to create blissfully intimate, soothing concoctions, whilst people like Deadly Avenger and Fingathing really take it back, creating hip-hop hybrids with the raw sound of electro yet a modern approach.
If all of this is too electronic-sounding for you, DJ Dangermouse's now notorious take on the Beatles' White Album proves that hip-hop can truly be applied to anything and yield interesting, satisfying results. On the other hand, RJD2's latest release, a one-man-crusade, channels '80s soft rock through a sampler and the hip-hop mind frame to create music of both startling energy and affecting sentimentality. And on, and on... yet whilst these myriad vibrant veins of experimentation and union infuse the rest of the musical world with vitality, frustratingly little is bleeding back into mainstream hip-hop culture, radio, recognition or record sales. Perhaps the record industry and American cultural isolationism are to blame for this to a certain extent (not to mention the horrifying failure, in both financial and social/educational terms, of the "projects"), perhaps the recent gradual acceptance of such underground veterans as Jay Dee, Madlib and MF DOOM into the public hip-hop consciousness will have a snowballing effect on the scene, perhaps my hopes for a racially unattached hip-hop, where only the music and the MC's ability and personality matter, is both naive and potentially a setback for the black community. Yet in their need to keep their music, and themselves, united, they are holding on to both the past and the populist present too tightly, stymying themselves and their art, limiting what could be a liberating outlet for all the facets of their souls to superficial party music presided over by ineloquent, aggressive stereotypes. Recent supernova 50 Cent may have the physique, the past and the production, but there is more intelligent life in the average dairy product than in one of his verses. Kanye West may finally have skewed the emphasis of mainstream hip-hop back towards the everyday individual rather than some outlaw male ego trip, but his wit and ego hide vapidity and moral hypocrisy, and his production, whilst bringing some much needed musicality and suppleness back to populist hip-hop, is so smoothly arranged that it becomes a kind of easy listening take on hip-hop's energising, raw soul.
In the universally resonant words of Talib Kweli, "All my people, where y'all at? 'Cos y'all ain't here/and your heroes are using your minds as canvases/to paint fear." Hip-hop has embraced the world and millions like myself embrace it back, irrespective of boundaries, upbringings and prejudices; united by the heartbeat of the drum and the fundamental message: One love forever, one love for all. If it is to stand any chance of representing a people, then hip-hop must be allowed that most fundamental of human compulsions: to grow, to transcend its own limitations, to change. As it was in the beginning, so let it be in 2004 and beyond; this is hip-hop, and it don't stop. Not for anyone.