It seems simple, in retrospect, to surmise that hip-hop set the tone for a future no one anticipated. Try to imagine in 2019 not only music but language, dance, fashion, literature, technology, visual art, bootstrap entrepreneurship, and even politics without the tones set by the hip-hop community (and one could include house, techno and the rest of EDM in there too if one felt inclined). Hip-hop’s global cultural impact goes without saying, at least to anyone who’s been paying any attention at these last 40-plus years.
But what if all that only scratches the surface? What if the actual cultural impact of hip-hop wasn’t about just pop or high-brow culture, but had more to do with the way we think, hear, and process information? What if the ways hip-hop has been constructed over the years echoed throughout film, literature and other forms of expression? What if the Last Poets’ 1971 admonition in “Mean Machine” actually came to life, in ways (both good and bad) no one at the time could possibly have guessed?
Automatic, push-button, remote control
Synthetic, genetics commands your soul
That conjuring gets to the heart of Roy Christopher’s provocative Dead Precedents: How Hip-Hop Defines the Future, a book-length essay dense with ideas and parallels between hip-hop and concurrent cultural movements. In Christopher’s construction, hip-hop is is not merely party music for black and brown Gen Xers and millennials, but the first salvo in a radical, transformative way of understanding and making culture in the technolgical era — the beginning, in essence, of the world we’re living in now.
To make his point, Christopher draws upon close readings beyond the music world — specifically, media theory and cyberpunk, the science-fiction movement that broke away from aliens and spaceships to imagine a post-technological universe, at a time (the ’80s and early ’90s) when that universe was just beginning to form. The missing link is computer culture — specifically, the concept of hacking, or getting systems and machines to do things they weren’t designed to do.
Hip-hop DJs, argues Christopher, were the first hackers of the modern era. Grandmaster Flash came up with a toggle switch to seamlessly bounce back and forth between two turntables cued to the specific breaks in records, and Grand Wizard Theodore made scratching (rubbing a record on a turnable against a needle in motion) into a musical art form. “Hackers are explorers, trespassers, provocateurs. They push their chosen technology to its limits,” Christopher writes. “Hackers are creators, artists, activists. They take what’s available and make it into more.” Dead Precedents goes on to show how hip-hop hacked not only technology, but also recorded culture, language, and communication across eras.
Dead Precedents takes much of what is now axiomatic about hip-hop and reminds us how revolutionary its innovations and practices really were. In his chapter on hip-hop lyricism (“Spoken Windows” — he clearly has a thing for puns, as evidenced by the book’s title), Christopher uses examples by Jay Z and Rakim to illustrate how rap uses, rhythm, rhyme, allusion, and other tricks of the trade to create new realities, which are often embedded within coded messages. It’s a point many have made throughout hip-hop’s existence, but his crucial difference is supporting that conclusion with parallels from sociologist Judith Butler and UK trip-hopper Tricky.
Christopher sees hip-hop and cyberpunk as kindred spirits, creating and chronicling in their own ways and methods a universe increasingly dictated by technology. “If you think of technology as the media and devices invented during your lifetime, then the generation here now doesn’t think of hip-hop as new media or the contrivances of cyberpunk as new anything. This is just their world now,” he writes. That makes sense when you think about it, but most people are too busy living the culture to step back and consider how it got here and what that means going forward, so Christopher’s approach will surely open some eyes and minds.
But if his thesis doesn’t spark deeper exploration, his recommended listening list will. It’s a roll call of avant-garde hip-hop artists: sonic manipulators from Public Enemy to JPEGMAFIA; language reinventors from Dr. Octagon to Danny Brown; otherwordly visionaries from Rammellzee to Moor Mother; and many other artists mainstream rap fans might never have heard of. Given the connections he draws between hip-hop and cyberpunk, it’s not surprising that many of the artists he lists trade in sounds of and about a futuristic, sci-fi reality (including Sun Ra, whose travels of the spaceways loom large over both hip-hop and cyberpunk as an avatar of imagining other worlds).
So don’t come to Dead Precedents expecting a treatise on the poppier wing of hip-hop. But if you’re already familiar with the work of cyberpunk writers like William Gibson and/or hip-hop boundary pushers like Antipop Consortium, you’ll whip through this smart, tight consideration in a hurry, and end up nodding your head to its breakdown of how the future happened.