When I think of what hip hop is, I think back to the roots and characters like DJ Kool Herc, Afrika Bambaata, and Grandmaster Flash. I see hip hop coming out of a culture of poverty, struggle and repressed aggression which spurred a creative movement and empowerment through the forms of graffiti, DJing, and MCing. I think of people using whatever they had to create something unique and the energies that fueled this movement which came from a place of rebellion against society and the injustices that surrounded it. I think of people breakdancing on cardboard refrigerator boxes, painting on subway trains, and DJs scratching records. Raw, unique, and original.
Hip hop has expanded so much since its humble roots and is now interwoven in society and culture. Something that was once on the fringe has made it’s way to the front and center of mainstream culture. And I wonder, has culture influenced hip hop or has hip hop influenced culture? I think both are true but in light of reading some essays by Questlove on how hip hop has failed black America, I lean towards the side that capitalistic culture and individualism has influenced hip hop immensely.
He uses an example that brought this home for me. Back in the day, Run DMC was rapping about their Adidas sneakers, a fairly common item that a fan of their music could go get in a store. Now, rap icons like Jay-Z are rapping about how they want to buy their own Picasso, a luxury that most people cannot relate to yet people still love his music. What happened? For me, hip-hop and music, in general, have always been about being able to relate to the artist yet I don’t think most people can relate to the idea of buying a Picasso or a Bugatti or owning one’s own island.
I have a vision in my mind of a community gathering where a DJ is playing music, people are dancing, and others are sharing their poetry through rap. I see support, collaboration, and unity. Then I compare that to a vision of a rapper with some friends in a mansion, isolated from the community at large rapping about material. Don’t get me wrong, I love to see people succeed and have all the best things that life has to offer, I just wonder how we are engineered to view what the best things in life are.
On Hardknock TV Scarface, old school hip hop legend, talks about how record labels (often owned by white folks) are dictating what the black community is listening to. How is it right that someone not actually in the culture is dictating what is hot in the streets? This goes along with what I heard in a recent interview with Vinnie Paz, a well known underground hip hop artist, who mentioned how he read in an article that 28 out of 30 major label rappers said their label suggested them to talk more about women, cars, clothes, and drugs. Not that there’s anything inherently wrong with any of these things but there are so many other more important topics to weave into one’s art. He also mentioned how hip hop culture pays little respect to the architects. For instance, the Rolling Stones still do shows, BB King could still go on tour yet how many hip-hop groups from the 80s or 90s can you name and would they be successful if they went on tour today? I know I can’t really name any and I think it’s sad considering how affluent hip-hop has become (at least in appearance). It would be nice if there was more recognition for the originators of hip hop. The Cold Crush Brothers were a group that Vinnie mentioned in the video as one of the architects.
It seems that the old hip-hop heads aren’t too pleased about the current state of affairs and where hip hop is going. Kendrick Lamar seems to be holding it down as far as mainstream artists go but is he an exception? Hip hop is evolving and it’s safe to say that many people resist change. I think there will always be people who stay true to the craft and people who will alter their music in order to get more money and fame. In the end, hip-hop is largely subjective. For instance, Soulja Boy and his hit song Superman. Is this hip hop? Ice T said Soulja Boy literally killed hip hop and many others may agree yet Kanye made the point that what Soulja Boy did was definitely hip hop. He made his own beat, made his own dance, and did something original. I wonder what is hip hop to you?
Vinnie Paz Interview:
Essays by Questlove:
Scarface talks Tupac, Kendrick Lamar, says Hip Hop is white now: