Friday, February 18, 2005

Don’t Call it Hip Hop, damnit.

Maybe I’m just “old skool” or whatever, but I feel as if one of my cherished forms of expression, art: Hip Hop, has been completely stolen by the Marketing Departments of every publishing house within the recording industry. Well, the big publishing houses anyhow.

I do not intend to show links to anything here, as this is all opinion, and I am pulling it from memory. Feel free to check minute facts on your own time.

Hip Hop, as a movement, is still around today. And even though it is still referred to as such, a large portion of what is commonly referred to as “Hip Hop”, is actually just Pop music. But calling a new artist a “Hip Hop” artist gives him/her some strange sort of street-credibility. As if “Hip Hop” were invented purely to promote half-assed rappers. Or worse yet, a black guy with a microphone should immediately be classified as “Hip Hop”. Just because he’s black. And probably “urbanesque”. Or whatever.

This is so, so, so not the case. So, if you are reading this, and previously considered Nelly to be a Hip Hop artist, please let me explain why you are completely and utterly wrong.

Hip Hop, as a movement, started sometime in the mid seventies, most likely in The Bronx, NYC. Kool Herc, Bambatta, Apache, Fab 5 Freddie, Funky 4 Plus One, Sugarhill Gang (the jury is still out on their authenticity, just so you know), Kurtis Blow, on up to BDP and on and on and on and on. There are several accounts of where it actually started (different parks and neighborhoods within The Bronx), when it actually began to gain steam (down to the actual month, which specific party, hour of a specific night, etc), and who coined the hyphenated phrase we use today (this is of little significance to me, as it was probably a journalist who was on the outside anyway). I want to stress that the origins of Hip Hop are highly contested, as all underground movements which turn out to be explosively lucrative always are. And any historian MUST keep in mind that EVERYONE involved with HIP HOP in its infancy was probably under the age of twenty. Very few bothered with school. And there are absolutely NO official records of ANYTHING surrounding the movement at that time (save for some party fliers, which hardly count as “official”). No contracts, no written agendas, no “mission statements”. These were kids, acting out of frustration and the overwhelming desire to express themselves and have fun in the process. It grew on itself, those involved grew older, the economy got worse, and the need for this art form increased as those who were producing it were finding themselves more and more isolated from mainstream America politically, socially, and certainly economically. So read what you want about the details, believe what you want, but I would take it all with a big ol’ heaping handful of salt. It’s all hearsay.

But this is about what it means to BE a Hip Hop artist.

In the early days, the culture was still building itself. But by the time it was developed enough to have a solid identity, Hip Hop had become the inner workings of a culture made up of four related groups: The DJ, The B-Boy, The Graffiti Artist, and The MC. There was significant bleed-over between these four groups, but all four were (and still are) considered distinct and necessary parts of the Hip Hop whole. They were dubbed “The Elements”. Which begs the question, which came first? Where did they come from?

It is safe to say that the beginnings all centered around the DJ. Now I am not just saying that because I spin records. It simply makes sense. The Bronx, early seventies = relatively poor community made up of mostly African Americans and Puerto Ricans. If you lived there, the majority of your social life revolved around your neighborhood park. That’s where the hoops were, that’s where the baseball diamond was, that’s where all the boys would be, so that’s where all the girls went too. DJ Kool Herc is the first noted DJ to just “show up” at a park with his mobile sound system, plug it into a street lamp, and start playing James Brown, Reggae Dub, and the like. When he and others like him would show up at a park, a neighborhood party would bust out. This went on for a couple of years, through dozens of local kids starting their own DJ collectives and whatnot.

Soon, the B-Boys started to show up. They were just groups of kids who had their own style of dancing, which they preferred to exhibit during a break-down, or “the break” in some regular song played by the park DJs. Soon, the DJs began to recognize that these kids were going crazy during “the breaks”, so they would buy two of the same record and play them on both turntables, “looping the breaks”. So the B-Boys and DJs started their relationship.

B-Boys were typically younger kids, middle-school age, who had big brothers who would paint subway cars and walls. Graffiti artists. At that time, many graffiti artists were indeed gang-related. It all started out as territory marking, or “tagging”, which is little more than just writing and/or spray-painting a printed name or moniker onto something easily seen by rival gangs. To mark territory. Textbook stuff. But as the “tags” grew more and more complex, they began to be recognized for their unique artistic bend, and split off from direct gang relation. The B-Boys learned to bomb (paint graf) from their brothers, and the older brothers took an equal interest in the B-Boy style. Graffiti had landed as the third element.

Now there had always been a microphone laying around for the DJ to use. “Uh, yeah, Jenny, your dad is here to pick you up.” Or, “Happy birthday shout-out to Mingo”. That kind of thing. It wasn’t until DJs started to book warehouse parties, where they would charge cover (and typically hire B-Boy crews as security for the event), that they needed some sort of true crowd control. Then the microphone started to get used by the DJs sidekick, who would “work the crowd” by instigating “call-backs” and such: “now when I say hip, you say hop” or “DJ Starsky is tearing up the tables tonight boys and girls! Y’all better DANCE!” and the like. But the DJ was still the main focus as the B-Boys danced, the Graffiti artists bombed, and the MC paid homage to everyone else.

Then, at some wildly contested point in time, one of those MCs started to rhyme over the instrumental breaks. My guess is that there was a really charismatic guy who was familiar with The Last Poets (look them up, that shit is amazing), and hating being upstaged by some quiet dude who just happened to have the cash to buy equipment and records. So this charismatic fellow grabbed the mic and started to be funny and witty to the crowd, throwing rhymes in there as part of his shtick. And so, from the meager job of MC, the “Rapper” is born. And here is where Hip Hop found its most lucrative method to getting paid. DJs made some money at parties, but nothing big, as it was someone else’s music they were playing. B-Boys had no venue beyond the subway platforms to ply that art form, as it was really difficult to sell “action art” on a large-scale. And Graffiti artists were considered outlaws, so there was no money in that. And most of the elements of being an MC were completely unnecessary without a DJ behind it all.

But Rapping. Yes, rapping… that could be done on its own. And it could be completely original. It could be the most pure and easy to understand of all the Elements within Hip Hop. It could be the torch-bearer for all the feelings of disenchantment, frustration, and utter lack of hope which fueled the movement as a whole. This “Rap Thing”, could be the meal ticket out.

It took a couple more years to really catch on, but it is safe to say that in 1979, “Rap” was first laid to wax (King Tim Iii), AND made a hit (Sugarhill Gang). From there, it took off.

Now that’s just the early portion, and how Hip Hop got its foot in the door. Rap is NOT Hip Hop, although it is an piece of one Element: MCing.

Side note: Today, most cannot imagine “Hip Hop” as existing outside of SOMEONE rapping something over studio produced beats. Well, there was a time. The beginning, in fact, had nothing to do with rapping at all.

So Rap continued on, making headway as it pushed into popular culture, in the hopes of making money. Blondie gave it shout-outs. Slick Rick and Doug E Fresh got all kinds of air play. Run DMC, LL Cool J, and Def Jam up and running. And then the Beastie Boys hit. If no one had figured out just how lucrative rap could be before then, they were pretty square on it soon after.

But it STILL wasn’t Hip Hop, as a total movement. It remained what is called “braggin’ rap”. “Rap” being the operative word. The title is pretty self-explanatory. No purpose beyond self-promotion to make more money and/or get laid. Just like every other rock star out there. Being poor and black did not automatically guarantee substance in the product. But it would, very quickly. The ideas of social justice, speaking out against institutional racism, historical recognition of black efforts, intelligent public assistance programs, remembrance of cultural (mainly African) roots, and general harmony between all members of the population (US and beyond) were to become more prominent subjects used by Rap artists.

I would say that it wasn’t until Public Enemy and BDP hit the scene that Hip Hop was being honestly represented. Rap is fine, but it isn’t Hip Hop without the other elements. And it certainly isn’t Hip Hop without the message of the movement itself: self awareness and social consciousness. They had DJs, MCs, B-Boys, and Graf artists (along with other things, particular to the groups).

Public Enemy and the BDP family had their share of braggin’ rap too. As did their other contemporaries (Tribe, Jungle Brothers, KMD, etc…), but the main message was consistent with that of the overall Hip Hop movement.

I want to take a second to point out that these groups were from the East Coast. West Coast groups were starting to gain in popularity as well. Too $hort, Sir Mix-a-Lot, and the Fila Fresh Crew had been making some waves out west. But they were essentially mimicking the style of their East Coast contemporaries. It wasn’t until the explosion of Gangsta Rap out of LA/Oakland that the West Coast had a style that was truly their own. I would also like to point out that while the West Coast groups claimed to be Hip Hop, their style was self-dubbed Gangsta Rap. Emphasis on Rap. Again, there’s nothing specifically wrong with that, but it isn’t Hip Hop by default, damnit.

So. How does this all boil back down to Nelly? Well, he has no DJ. He has no B-Boys. He has no Graffiti artists. He has no socially conscious message.

But he does have a group of fellas that back him everywhere he goes, he sings ballads with other popular music stars (of all popular genres), and has his own clothing line. That, my friends, is NOT Hip Hop. It does however, sound like a description for the lead singer of a Pop Music Boy Band.

For the record, I wrote this little rant in the span of about 45 minutes, so pardon the editing mess. After writing this, I went out on the interweb to check some of my references, and it turns out that there's a billion other people saying the EXACT same thing as me. Some are much better. But fuck it. I already typed this out, and it's still important to me, regardless of how many other ass-monkeys have written about it. Word.

Hmmm…. Hip Pop. For the first time, I agree with that silly-ass "urban dictionary" thing. Yes.

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