Imagine two turntables and a microphone. Alone, they seem inanimate, lifeless, and immaterial. Yet, they would come to represent the heart---the very core from which true hip-hop came into being. The average hip-hop listener today would less likely identify with them, as young kids and newcomers to hip-hop alike are saturated with a maelstrom of ubiquitous pop. You know the ones. The ones with those catchy "get the job done" hooks and dumbed-down lyrics. This type of music did not always represent the hip-hop culture; Hip-hop used to be about positivity, teaching others, and having fun. Now it isn't about anything--no one clear objective to reach, just an ongoing audio bad acid-trip that leaves many wanting more. It is akin to a drug, no, a virus that has spread exponentially in the past 30 years. There is, fortunately, a cure for this virus, and it lies in recognizing the link between what is known as old school hip-hop, and new-school hip-hop, and why the old school is the best representation of where hip-hop should go from here on out.
What is hip-hop? The term was coined by a New York emcee by the name of Cowboy, who later worked the "hip, hop" cadence into a part of his stage performance. He was in the legendary group, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, and soon other artists jumped on the bandwagon, such as The Sugarhill Gang in "Rapper's Delight". Murray says, “We know it as an expression of something called hip-hop. What is hip-hop? It is a kind of utterance: “Hip-hop hooray, ho, hey, ho,” an utterance of a habit of thought toward an increasingly rationalized and fragmented world of global commodiﬁcation... Rap is a way of thinking that cannot itself be rigorously thought about without thinking hip-hop."
However, this crucial data to understanding the humble beginnings of hip-hop is largely unknown. Even more unknown is the fact that Cowboyʼs contribution to Hip-hop would be non-existent if it werenʼt for DJ Kool Herc. The true origin of hip-hop has become a creation myth--a story that began at a West Bronx party at the end of the summer in 1973. Not for its guests–a hundred kids and kin from around the way, nor for the setting–a modest recreation room in a new apartment complex; not even for its location–two miles north of Yankee Stadium, near where the Cross-Bronx Expressway spills into Manhattan. Time remembers it for the night DJ Kool Herc made his name.
The plan was simple enough, according to the partyʼs host, Cindy Campbell. “I was saving my money because what you want to do for back-to-school is go down to Delancey Street instead of going to Fordham Road, because you can get the newest things that a lot of people donʼt have. And when you go back to school, you want to go with things that nobody has so you could look nice and fresh,” she says. “At the time, my Neighborhood Youth Corps paycheck was like forty-ﬁve dollars a week–ha!–and they would pay you every two weeks. So how am I gonna turn over my money? I mean, this is not enough money!"
Back in the 70ʼs, disco reigned supreme as the music choice for many Ameri-cans. Meanwhile, in Jamaica, a young man with two turntables, a speaker system, and a mic would set his equipment up and host parties for the neighborhood. This was DJ Kool Herc (AKA Clive Cambell). People gravitated toward the music, and before long he became known for it in his hometown. However, what people donʼt know, is that the mic wasnʼt used by Kool Herc--at least most of the time it wasnʼt.
Herc was the ﬁrst Dj to buy records just for a ﬁfteen-second instrumental solo, which he would often play over and over while at the same time talking over a microphone connected to an echo chamber. Not exactly toasting, it was a kind of primitive rapping, consisting mainly of new slang words and an occasional joke that might be making the rounds at the local high schools. “Rock on my mellow”, Herc would say. “This is the joint.”
"Talking on the micro-phone became a past time and everyone wanted to get in on the act. Herc later turned most of the rapping over to Coke-La-Rock and Clark Kent, who became the ﬁrst MC group.” (Cepeda) After he and his sister Cindy moved to the Bronx, she calculated it would cost a little more than half her paycheck to rent the rec room in their apartment building.
Her brother was an aspiring DJ with access to a powerful sound system. All she had to do was bulk-buy some Olde English 800 malt liquor, Colt 45 beer, soda, and advertise the party. She, Clive, and her friends hand-wrote the announcements on index cards, scribbling the info below a song title like “Get on the Good Foot” or “Fencewalk.” If she ﬁlled the room, she could charge a quarter for the girls, two for the guys, and make back the overhead on the room. And with the profit–presto, instant wardrobe. As his parties grew in popularity, he began to notice whenever he hosted one, the crowds got bigger and bigger. This is really where it all began for hip-hop.
It became important to let the current crowd know the next gathering place where the music was going to be played, without having to stop the music to do so (disrupting the vibe of the crowd). This is where the MC (or emcee) comes in. Using the mic, the MC was responsible for, at ﬁrst, telling the crowd details of the next show, and if there would be a price to get in or not. It was kind of like in church, where before the pastor preaches, there is always this person who talks about the latest in church news. What Sister Mary baked for the choir, or where the blood-drive would be that following Monday for those who want to give blood, for example. This was part of the early intentions of hip-hop. It was about the music, and people having fun and coming together in a positive homogenous mix in an attempt to get away from the hell of their daily lives. They had a lot to want to get away from, too.
In the Bronx, the sounds of creaking doors in dilapidated buildings, drug addicts, cop cars, and gang violence echoed off every solid brick wall in sight. The projects there were bigger and more encompassing than the ones down here in the south; 10 thousand buildings, covering the area of more than two football ﬁelds. Kool Hercʼs unique parties brought a ray of light to a neighborhood in ruin. Soon after the parties became a regular thing, the MCʼs role expanded. It became more about what the MC said, rather than the DJ playing the music. However, the music was always an important part of what made the parties such a huge hit. Itʼs just that the role of the MC expanded to include more things, like what they thought about life, and the world around them; The people loved it.
Soon more DJʼs came about, like Grand Master Flash and DJ Lantern. It became apparent that DJʼs made more money the more popular they were, and having the best MC host along with them at their parties was also a top priority. Soon DJʼs began to use the MC as a frontman, or marketing tool to get lucrative results. Opposing DJʼs would use their MCʼs to stake a claim to become the one with the livest parties on the block. It was a positive rivalry, and though it did become violent sometimes, for the most part, MCʼs kept it clean and creative. There's a lot that could be said of many MCʼs, but this paper will focus on two MCʼs and two songs, respectively. The reason for this will be to show the striking differences between the two, with respect to the overall quality and subsequent inﬂuence on pop culture.
We will begin with a song called “The Message”, and compare it with one the top gross-ing songs of today--a song called, “Bitch I might be” by Gucci Mane of Atlanta Georgia. “The Message” was released as a single by Sugar Hill Records on July 1, 1982, and was later featured on the group's ﬁrst studio album with the same name. The main artist, Melvin Glover AKA Melle Mel spoke of the struggle many dealt with in their poverty-stricken neighborhoods. It should be noted however, that some of Mel's lyrics on "The Message" were taken directly from "Supperrappin'", a song he had recorded three years earlier. Itʼs really a great listen, if you are into vintage hip-hop. Gucci Maneʼs song “Bitch I might Be”, on the other hand, is not.
About "The Message", itʼs a song by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five. It “was the ﬁrst prominent hip-hop song to provide a lyrical social commentary. It took rap music from the house parties to the social platforms later developed by groups like Public Enemy, N.W.A., and Rage Against The Machine. It is credited as the catalyst for the conscious Hip-Hop or political sub-genre of Hip-Hop music. At itʼs core, itʼs a social narrative that details the struggles and difﬁculties due to living in poverty in the inner-city (The Bronx, for example). In addition, it embodies the distress, anger, and sadness an individual experiences when confronting these inequalities. Though not the ﬁrst in the genre of rap to talk about the struggles and the frustrations of living in the ghetto, the song was unique in that it was set to a slower beat, refocusing the song on the lyrics over the music.” (Wikipedia 1) It encouraged those who took a listen to contemplate a kind of common bond that existed between everyone; The song basically says “Weʼre all in this together, letʼs make a positive change.” Another song, “Freedom” is also a good listen.
Their songsʼ impact was felt all throughout the ghetto. It was good dance music, too. It should be noted that the disco era was coming to a close, but its inﬂuence was still apparent on the beat they chose to use for this song. They called it Disco Rap. With clever lyrics like “People pissing on the stairs, you know they just don't care/I can't take the smell, I can't take the noise / Got no money to move out, I guess I got no choice/ Rats in the front room, roaches in the back/Junkies in the alley with the baseball bat...”, they were able to reach an audience that before they came along, didnʼt even exist. People went crazy over this song.
Dope lyrics, a ﬂy beat, what more could you ask for in a hip-hop song? However, what people didnʼt know, was that hip-hop would transform into a cultural phenomenon, sweeping the nation, then the world with its inﬂuence. But that inﬂuence came at a price; Multi-billion dollar companies saw the potential to make money off of it, so they moved in an attempt to capitalize on the unique street essence of an aura that hip-hop as a whole gave off. This was the beginning of the end for true hip-hop. The positivity and fun ended, and the race (for the execs and artists alike) to get rich began.
Fast forward to today. A time where Hip-hop is not only globally known, but also regularly being siphoned like a million small tubes in a giant gas can. These tubes all lead to different places, but at the end of each tube awaits a person with their cup out, hoping to get a drop of it. At a time like this, itʼs no surprise that the gas can is empty. Thatʼs if the gasoline is analogous to the number of marketable songs produced--that indeed is going empty at an alarming rate. However, if we analogize the gasoline as “the essence of raw hip-hop”, it will never run out. Itʼs always full, and this explains why there will always be a million (or more) tubes stuck in it trying to draw it out somehow.
All they get is air.
The ones who manage to get a few drops of it in their cups are analogous to those who made a little money off it for themselves, stealing the drops that rightfully belonged in someone elseʼs cup. People like record execs, managers, and everyone else who isnʼt in it for the love of the art.
We all know there is nothing wrong with getting paid to do what you love to do. One has to survive, yes? And then to be paid to do what you love to do at the same time? As Confucius said, “If you get a job you love, youʼll never work a day in your life.” This is the absolute truth. However, at the same time, there are those who simply wish to capitalize, jump on the bandwagon of, and be disingenuous in hip-hop. Those are the ones who are sucking it dry. Itʼs party because “..mass communications embody some of our deepest hopes and engage some of our most profound sympathies. People ingeniously enter those discourses to which they have access; the saxophone or the guitar, the stage, or the camera can offer precious and unique opportunities for expression. For some populations at some times, commercialized leisure is history- a repository of collective memory that places immediate experience in the context of change over time.”
However, the media just wants to make a buck, causing a maelstrom of garbage to spew through the radio. Why is this garbage popular? The real question is, what is popular? The answer is a bit complicated. Everything is manipulated these days. Unfortunately, hip-hop is “jacked in” to a matrix where it is not itself, and therefore does not know what itʼs doing. While jacked in, it has been shown a false reality, an illusion where it is gloriﬁed and commended. It has been shown beautiful women with expensive cars in the driveways to huge mansions. It has been shown that there are no negative effects of drug abuse, and no real reason to treat anyone with genuine respect or kindness, decency, or humility.
Now letʼs bring forth an example. A song called “Bitch I Might Be.” With no real direction, this song caters to drug abusers. From the beat to the lyrics, everything is dumb. Itʼs like it puts your brain on vibrate to the point you drool. And this is okay. This is acceptable. Facetiousness aside, there is more that could be said about this song. For the purposes of this paper however, letʼs just leave it at that. The point to be made here is that there is no thought whatsoever. The multi-billion-dollar companies have caused hip-hop to assimilate into their greedy, money-hungry ways. As a result, the artist and the listener suffers. All the big companies want to play is music that keeps people dumb.
The reason for this is clear--If people are distracted, they wonʼt see/question the world around them. Just keep dancing. Donʼt question anything. Everythingʼs ﬁne. Pop a bottle. Smoke a joint. See? Everything is alright, right? Of course not! Fortunately, there is a group of minds that are seeing through the illusion. You are those that this paper should be broadcast through, so that you may amplify its message and help gain advocacy throughout the hip-hop world. Chang says, “....yet, after more than three decades, hip-hop is encountering a sense of exhaustion, even among its most ardent followers.
By 2005, hip-hop music, in particular, had become a weapon of mass distraction-abused by big media monopolies with their deployments of block-buster-minded execs, reactionary programmers, and vernacular shock jocks, incurring a grassroots clap back from hip-hop activists dismayed at the pimping of their culture.” When an artist tries to get people to think, they are demonized, and in most extreme cases, they are killed. Tu Pac is a perfect example. Big Boi from the rap group Outkast said of Tu Pac, “Sometimes youʼve got to scream. Youʼve got to snatch their attention. And thatʼs why music lives on, that's why people care--youʼve got to make an impact.” He caused his fans to sort of go, “Huh? Wait a minute. Something isnʼt right here.” They looked up from the illusion--just for a second, and that was a threat to those in power.
Hip-hop had become another tool by which “they” could use to control, manipulate, and dominate people into doing whatever would beneﬁt “them.” You know the ones. With their top hats, canes, monocles, and big bellies. They type of people who sell products that ultimately hurt the consumer, but they donʼt care. Gucci Mane was/is a victim of their system. He was so successful because he “sold out” (this has an even more esoteric meaning, but we will focus our attention on the objective end of the vortex) to them in exchange for fame and notoriety. He is “jacked in” one hundred percent. With lyrics like,
'East Atlanta slum man is where I come from/Pass that bubble thrax and put this bean on your tongue/Now everything was gravy 'til your bitch came in/'Bout the same time that that thang kicked in/'
on “Bitch I might Be”, his music represents the epitome of that of a true sell-out.
Drug use, violence, and mayhem. This is what sells? What? Itʼs hurting Hip-hop!
Go into any club that plays hip-hop music. Does anyone question any of the lyrics? Do any of the songs they play cause them to see the reality they live in is in shambles? Of course not! They want the money! They want the life! They want to live the life, even if only vicariously through whoever happens to be “hot” at the time! But there is a way that this is rationalized to be okay to do, from a “business-minded” perspective. A sort of “The ends justify the means” perspective.
As Hess puts it, “Hip-hop's representations of racial identity are very much tied to social class. Of course, drug abuse, fatherless homes, street gangs, and welfare and housing projects are not strictly African#American problems, nor are they part of the experience of many black Americans. Hip hop's very development, though, has been attributed to the social conditions its pioneers faced in the South Bronx in the 1970s. Rappers often promote their class struggle as key to their legitimacy, and they go so far as to expose the middle."
In the past, the MC was a sort of news reporter, one who brought what was going on to the rest of the ghetto--and to the world. There has to be a change back to the old way--the true way--of expressing oneself through the medium of music, hip-hop speciﬁcally. What we need is a return to art; There is no real room for “dumbed-down” music, as it does not have a shelf-life. This crap is pushed out and devoured, and re-created for more mash-ups and re-runs of the same mind-dumbing, self-exploiting, un-productive music. But what are the challenges we face when we are to be serious about instituting this change?
Well, for one, there is the challenge of reprograming our minds. In 2012, there is evidence of a reemergence of politically conscious rap music that is slowly gaining momentum. This is the top-grossing song of 2012, “Thrift Shop” by Seattle-based American rapper Macklemore. On the song, he talks about having no money, and still being able to be perceived as “ﬂy”. Itʼs creative and provocative, as it shows that Hip-hop is still connected to some form of trueness at itʼs core. However, there are still more songs about the same “bling-bling” subjects, drug use, and violence. That Gucci Mane song mentioned above was a hit all over Atlanta and most of the Southern Region of America.
Young African American men, my brothers, would ride down the street blasting it as loud as they could. And when they would stop at a red light, another car would be bumping the same song! Itʼs like we take one step forward, and ﬁfty-ﬁve (thousand) steps back! We have to let go of this mentality that we are to be gloriﬁed, and take a back seat to notoriety, in lieu of making the music about just that, the music. There is no reason to throw what you have in someoneʼs face, especially when you yourself didn't have it to throw not too long ago. We forgot where we came from, and as a result, are blind to where we are going.
The goal was always some form of equality, not separation. “Hip-hop culture began in the early 1970s as the creative and activist expressions -- grafﬁti writing, deejaying, break dancing, and rap music -- of black and Latino youth in the depressed South Bronx, and the movement has since grown into a worldwide cultural phenomenon that permeates almost every aspect of society, from speech to dress. But although hip-hop has been assimilated and exploited in the mainstream, young blacks who came of age during the hip-hop era are still ﬁghting for equality.” (Pough)
Letʼs “un-jack” ourselves from the matrix, and re-insert ourselves into reality. Itʼs what made Hip-hop popular in the ﬁrst place. Come on people, we need a RETURN TO ART!
Other works from my RTA franchise:
*Return to Art: The Paper (2013)
Cepeda, Raquel, ed. And It Don't Stop. The Best American Hip-Hop Journalism of the Last Twenty-Five Years. New York: Faber and Faber, 2004.
Chang, Jeff. Can't Stop Won't Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation. New York: St. Martin's Press, 2005.
Chang, Jeff. Total Chaos: The Art and Aesthetics of Hip-Hop. New York: Basic Civitas Books, 2006.
Dyson, Eric, Michael. Holler If You Hear Me. New York. Basic Civitas Books, 2001.
Forman, Murray, and Mark Anthony Neals, eds. That's the Joint! The Hip-Hop Studies Reader. New York: Routledge, 2004.
Hess, Mickey. Is Hiphop Dead? The Past, Present, and Future of America's Most Wanted Music. Westport: Praeger Publishers, 2007.
Lipstiz, George. Time Passages: Collective Memory and American Popular Culture. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1990.
Pough, Gwendolyn D. Check it While I Wreck It. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 2004.Wikipedia.