The Music of My Youth Influenced Generations
In light of recent events, it seems to be as important as ever to celebrate African-American culture. One of the many amazing contributions of this historically oppressed group is hip-hop, which not only gave birth to an immensely popular genre of music but inspired millions of people across the globe.
The movement continues to have influence in multiple arenas of life from fashion to politics. What follows is the first part (of a two-part blog series) of an extended version of an essay which is part of my forthcoming book Subterranean Mixtape.
A Brief Account of Hip-Hop’s Roots
Hip-hop is a culture composed of the DJ (disc jockey) and MC (Master of Ceremonies; sometimes referred to as “microphone controller”) combo, graffiti, and break dancing. Rap is a major type of music heard in the Hip-hop culture. It started out as an underground party culture in the Bronx in the mid-1970s. However, it can be argued that its roots can be traced back further than that.
Some music critics credit Bob Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues” with the origin of the music genre. James Brown once proclaimed himself “Rap Godfather.” Additionally, Porkpie Jones and Gil Scott-Heron (perhaps best known for “Whitey on the Moon”) were highly influential spoken-word pioneers who helped lay the foundation of hip-hop music. But that is a long and complicated discussion outside the scope of this piece.
Hip-Hop Blooms in the 1980s and Crossovers Make it Mainstream
In March of 1986, Dylan raps on the single “Rock the Streets” with Kurtis Blow making the first major crossover between rock and hip-hop. The second and more famous crossover was made in the same year when Aerosmith and Run-DMC did a collaborative version of “Walk This Way,” releasing the iconic music video in July. By the mid-1980s, hip-hop had arrived and now leaders in the rock community and popular culture were taking notice.
The reception had a similar air to how, a couple of generations before, rock and roll became the music of the youth. Similarly, the music was derided by the elders of society as profane noise rather than innovative.
Dylan was quick to realize that these guys were doing something revolutionary. As he said in his memoir on page 219 of Chronicles Volume I: “Kurtis Blow, a rapper from Brooklyn who had a hit out called ‘The Breaks,’ had asked me to be on one of his records and he familiarized me with that stuff, Ice-T, Public Enemy, N.W.A., Run-D.M.C. These guys definitely weren’t standing around bullshitting. They were beating drums, tearing it up, hurling horses over cliffs. They were all poets and they knew what was going on.”
Rap at its Best is Street Poetry
Since it was founded in impoverished conditions, the early MC/DJ combos only needed turntables, a microphone, and records. The catchy party music burned through the hoods and out into the suburbs. By way of music television, it found its way into the homes of country bumpkins like me. They developed different strings of hip-hop lyrics that were closer to Motown, blues roots, R&B, and a harder style which is loosely known as rap music, but the tides of both forms are constantly flowing together.
At its most elevated form, hip-hop is a novel form of spoken word poetry. But the original beats and samples and entire art of DJ-ing with the accompaniment of the MC brings it back to a whole other level of something unique that when it gets in your bones becomes something craveable.
When I first started to get heavy into hip-hop music, it was partially because I had always been drawn to poetry. Poetry often resonates most when read aloud by the poet. When any form of music with poetic lyrics has the rest of the ensemble, it makes it so interesting and satisfying whether it is Leonard Cohen, the Beatles, or the Wu-Tang Clan.
At its core, this music, sometimes referred to as rap, is both creative and a revolutionary cultural movement. People are dancing and participating in the culture, still having a good time in the face of poverty and oppression. The music is the voice of the oppressed and to a great degree, a lot of the great music in the history of the world has been the voice of the oppressed. What are the wealthy going to sit around and sing about, how unfair the tax system is?
How Hip-Hop Captivated Generations
Most rappers have a swagger about them. They are amazing because they understand that they have the power to move beyond their often difficult circumstances with creativity even though the game was weighed against them. Still, they had to play the game to a certain degree to release themselves from the grips of what was going on. In many ways, perseverance is the essence of hip-hop music.
Tupac Shakur was sort of an extension of his mother who was a Black Panther. Her involvement had a big impact on him and his music. Growing up around Black Panthers, he brought that spirit of standing up in the face of oppression, but still having his own voice and speaking his mind. People love him for unapologetically being who he wanted to be. Such defiance spoke to me; he personified, in many ways, what is powerful about the art form.
It also was a politically subversive outlet, an extension of the Panther tradition, and the black power movement. The deterioration of the black community due to the crack epidemic was a soundtrack of Tupac’s youth.
A great deal of music, not about romantic love, is about being downtrodden and rising up in the face of power. Consider Woody Guthrie talking about the working man. Listen to great protest songs from Bob Dylan talking about how “Times Are A-Changin.” Hip-hop also embraced the legacy of Bob Marley in theme, lyrics, and with samples, and so his messages about love and protest had an influence on hip-hop. Those who don’t have much familiarity think it is one-dimensional, but a deeper exploration reveals nuance.
Rappers are giving voice to revolutionary ideas in their own way, creating art from what they knew and what they’re going up against. A lot of the stuff that they were growing up with was dark, which is reflected in the music.
Some people are intrigued, while others are repelled by the dark edge, and it is to a certain degree what’s alluring and why a lot of people, myself included, appreciate The Rolling Stones. There’s something impactful about making the connection of amazing rhythms and chords with dark imagery. In poetry, it would be called Duende. The concept as explained by the poet Fredrico Garcia Lorca was something that hip-hoppers were experiencing daily in the streets. Giving voice to these realities is an inexorable part of the art.
Commercialization and the Underground
In 2006, Nas released the album “Hip-Hop is Dead” with a title song by the same name. But in truth, the underground hip-hop is still alive. Being a major figure during hip-hop’s golden age, which I would say spanned roughly from 1990 to 2005, Nas saw commercialization and composed a requiem.
Nas reflected the perception, held by many, that the message was diluted by the pursuit of profit which continues to play into the hands of people who were at the top of the system in the music industry and who have been continuing to manipulate the market.
The situation existed in a large part due to the actions of the wealthy elite. However, Public Enemy, lead by Chuck D, and a lot of the conscious rappers, and also going forward listening to Immortal Technique who is one of the best ever and viscously independent. Talib Kwali and Mos Def created an interesting alliance in the group Black Star. These rebels were continuing a rich tradition of rappers who continued to speak their truth in the face of commercialization of their genre by the music industry.
One hears the angst, calls for change, and earnest criticism of society in their music. The thing is that there was always an edge to their music that was somewhat revolutionary, and I think that that inspired a lot of people. But also, other people would be threatened by the message. The pushback came from people like Bob Dole and Tipper Gore; wealthy white people on both sides of the aisle who saw something that threatened the order of society and ultimately terrified them.
Violence and the Music Industry
Political figures became outraged when they found their children and grandchildren growing up, listening to this music that depicts violence by the people at the top of the ladder. The combination of the pains of the ghetto and the concept that the nature of art is to imitate life led to expressing the violence in hip-hop as a reflection of a violent and unequal society.
Violence is encouraged and glorified in war, whereas in rap it is demonized because it might threaten the structure of society by exposing the truth about members who have been exploited and left behind.
Tellingly, violent lyrics are often not edited out of a song, while lyrics about marijuana or of a sexual nature may be expunged. I know that many believe that we don’t want these dirty words that may upset our children, but violence and greed are okay messages to allow over our airwaves? The fact of the matter is that these rappers are just reflecting the violence and greed that they had grown up within the slums of America which largely is the result of systemic racism.
To be clear, hip-hop is not dead, but the mainstream, propped up by the industry, has fundamentally changed the game. As writer Eric Hoffer once mused, “Every great cause begins as a movement, becomes a business, and eventually degenerates into a racket.” There was so much money to be made that music executives took something raw and alive and turned it into plastic, but they did not kill it. It continues to strive in the underground; it lives in the streets and still shapes popular culture around the world.