I have traveled this HipHop cultural journey for the better part of 40 years now, so I consider myself an authority on the subject.
I take HipHop so seriously because I literally grew up with it; born in NYC, the only place I’ve ever lived in the city was the Bronx. Somewhere on Bathgate ave is my earliest memory, but the neighborhood dearest to me is in the Morris Heights section, most specifically the intersection of Sedgwick & Tremont avenues, circa the mid 1970’s. The diverse make up of this area helped shaped my world view today; a close mixture of African-American, Puerto Rican, African, Afro-Caribbean, & Dominican folk, all communing in the shared existence that was/is south Bronx poverty.
Anyone familiar with the history of HipHop culture will know the significance of this area, most specifically 1520 Sedgwick ave. This is the building where the legendary Kool Herc 1st spawned the concept of repetitive, syncopated isolation of the 4 bar “break” in a funk record, which fueled the gathering of a variety of street culture practitioners, eventually leading to the world wide phenomena we have today. I was fortunate to have a very close proximity to this cultural rhizome at a very early age. My building was 1840 Sedgwick ave, literally 2 & 1/2 blocks up the hill. I don’t want to give the impression that at 5-6-7 years of age, I was all in the mix, but you cannot underestimate what effect the osmosis of a community’s culture can have on you. HipHop is as familiar & intimate to me as the Baptist church is to the southern Christian.
I give you that little back drop to provide a bit of insight into my feelings & motivations towards certain aspects of HipHop today. HipHop, like any sociological group endeavor (religion, artistic genre, etc…) has it’s own divisions within (including but not limited to); purist; newcomers with no true allegiance to historical foundation; usurpers; free thinkers that push boundaries & grow the art. It’s a rarity that you can actually find individuals who fit squarely into these categorizations without any nuance or complexity. Mostly, if people are sincere, they’ll fluctuate between a multiple of these ideologies. Other’s perceptions may also cause 1 to be categorized in ways he or she never intended, for better or worse. Art is ultimately subjective. Currently, there’s a large “us” vs “them” movement; the “us” being the purist & those of their ilk (which, to a degree, I qualify myself as, though the “free thinkers” module will always carry an elevated respect) & the “them” being this new age of rapper & their fans, who don’t seem to treasure or hold the same level of reverence for originality, skills, musicality, that the so called purist do. Its possible these are the effects that a strictly results-oriented mindset in a society will have, particularly on the artistic process. It fosters no appreciation for the process, the journey, or development.
Many factors contribute to & support the purist’s attitude towards HipHop’ers of today: most prominent is the industrialization of the music business, in particular radio, video, & TV outlets. These mediums were historically the primary methods in which music & other art forms are distributed for public consumption. With the relaxing of competition laws concerning media enterprises & different markets, we’ve witnessed a tidal wave-like move of consolidation of corporate controlled media. As with any corporate enterprise, the humanistic & holistic aspects become secondary; the trek for maximum profitability is the primary goal. As a result, entertainment choices become homogenized, sanitized, & un-diversified, to market to a “general” audience, usually those of a dominating class structure. This is the antithesis of what HipHop culture represents, as it was birthed & bred by the so called underclass. Anything that does not fit into a tightly focused-grouped-type paradigm is not allowed equal access or representation. The “product” must above all else, facilitate the consumerism desired for maximum profitability. The HipHop of the “purist” ethos, does not cooperate; it is essentially a counter culture reaction, built off of the remnants of previous traditions, left to fend for itself, hence is very under represented. The “them” style of rap music cooperates exceedingly. It consist of simplistic rhyme schemes, minimalistic musicality, nothing substantive from a lyrical stand point, promoting the most hedonistic aspects of society without context or consequence. At least Gangsta rap, in it’s most creative heyday, was expository in it’s nature, & at it’s best served as a reflection of society’s & classicism’s ills. The modern day rapper cannot boast of such (although this statement is simultaneously accurate & a gross generalization).
But now we arrive at the dynamic tension in the plot - the conflict in the drama: the desire & obligation to support artist that clearly represent the purist aesthetic you gravitate to, when these artist’s talent levels & execution don’t meet your standards of entertainment. Simply put, some of them are not that good. Hence the dilemma: here’s an artist that, at least on the surface, represents everything you want from a practitioner of the craft. They hold the same reverence for the culture you hold. Historical context & precedence is properly acknowledged. Language, mannerisms, & the external trappings all seem to scream of authenticity. But…. . Occasionally the flaws are minute, something you just can’t put your finger upon, that particular reason why some cats don’t cut it for you. Other times it’s just plain whackness: weak rhymes, un-inspiring flow. More often it’s a general lack of charisma. There’s a reason why certain individuals become stars (sometimes even with marginal talents). You cannot discount the power of charisma & presence, it’s a large part of what makes great leaders great. Now couple that with genuine talent to match, & you’ve got a pretty powerful entity on your hands. When you’re exposed to artistry of this magnitude, it has a profound effect on your standards. When exposed to a multitude of this level of artistry in a single generation, well there’s simply no going back to anything less.
This dilemma is extremely personal for me, as the advent of social media has built bridges & made connections with a number of like minds, at a time when I was beginning to believe I was a solitary creature, soaring the cosmos alone on his silver board (#MarvelComicsGeekAlert). Many of these new connects are artist as well. The discourse nature of outlets such as Twitter lend to a more intellectual type of bonding over HipHop culture. We wax nostalgic over the days of the golden era, when beats & rhymes were life. Similar life & cultural experiences forge strong bonds. And then, the topic of their artistry comes up. After developing a reasonable determination of the type of persons they may be, your desire to support their craft becomes compelling. You hit their blogs or websites & sample the product. Unfortunately, sometimes that’s when disappointment hits. The disappointment of failed expectations; of undeveloped craft & potential. It’s understandable that not everyone can achieve certain levels of talent. But when the bar of excellence has been set at a certain height for some time, I expect an earnest attempt to reach it. Too many underground MC’s rest on the laurels of being “real”, or being “unsigned”. Their lyrical content primarily consist of bashing more established artist. On the opposite swing of the pendulum, the content may be overtly political or counter establishment, sentiments I can readily appreciate, but lacking the creativity or aestheticism to make their presentation palatable.
These qualities are not endemic to the underground MC, indeed there are a multitude of artist who deliver polished, artistically strong, pleasing product. Simply, they drop dope sh*t. I would not want to give the impression that I cannot find adequate artistry to support; that is far from reality. There are numerous artist who I consider vanguards to the artistic viability of HipHop culture, & I support them whenever financially possible. This is more of an intervention, or a call to arms, to those who would do a disservice to the culture by not employing critical examination of their talents, or give an earnestness to their approach. It is also a way for me to wrestle with the guilt of not supporting some of these artist. It is proven that the capitalism machine will continue to provide service to whatever feeds it’s profit hunt. The routine financial support of these type of artist goes a long way to us being able to have wide spread access to the artistry we seek. But artist must do their part as well. They must hone their craft, constantly seeking to improve & expand the culture. Because for my continued support, you must feed my soul the artistic nutrients it craves. You must be original, & pleasing to the ears. & above all, (good or bad, positive or negative) you work must be honest & sincere. & believe when I say, people will know.
Peace to all - HipHop for life
As I was completing this piece, I came across this —> Music As Expression vs. Music As Entertainment http://bit.ly/n5DimP -written by Tyler Hakes. Hakes is the founder & editor-in-chief of above ground magazine http://abovegroundmagazine.com/ , an enterprise that supports the purist ethos that I wrote of. It’s eerie how similar & like minded the tone of these 2 pieces are. His take on the subject comes from slightly different angle & motivation, & some points may appear to contend against some of mine at 1st glance, but in my opinion, these 2 essays are simply different tributaries from the same river source. I see very little conflict in our assertions. It’s a very good piece, & Above Ground provides excellent HipHop content. Be sure to check for them.