It may be hard to believe, but Hip-Hop is almost 40 years old. Its origins can be traced back to New York in the early 1970’s where DJs started mixing records together and MCs began developing the lyrical styles that would distinguish them as rappers.
Many of the founding fathers of Hip-Hop are now in their 50’s and show the tell-tell signs of aging. Sagging midriffs protrude from their baggy trousers and greying hairs can be seen underneath their baseball caps. It is perhaps no surprise that Hip-Hop appears to be going through a mid life crisis.
Make no mistake; Hip-Hop has always had conflicts of identity and had to fight to justify its existence. From its earliest days, Rap music and Hip-Hop culture was first ignored and then reviled by the mainstream. The story of Hip-Hop is that of David triumphing over Goliath. It tells the tale of how the most disenfranchised and demonized members of society, African-American youths from the poorest neighbourhoods, conquered popular culture and refashioned it in their image.
Follow The Leader
When Barack Obama was elected as the 44th President of the United States, it felt as though Hip-Hop had made it from the Crack House to the White House. But this cultural victory was somewhat unexpected. Like a challenger brand that becomes the market leader, Hip-Hop is slowly coming to terms with the fact that it is now the king of the castle and no longer the dirty rascal.
As Rap music’s leading proponents preside over their multi-million dollar empires, rubbing shoulders with the likes of Warren Buffett and Bill Gates, there’s no denying that Hip-Hop culture is part of the establishment. In many ways, this exemplifies the American dream, but it is something of a problem within a culture that is more comfortable being the outsider shouting: “Burn Hollywood Burn”.
Hip-Hop on Trial
This crisis of identity was played out last month at the ‘Hip-Hop on Trial’ debate held at the Barbican in London. It featured rappers such as KRS-One, ?uestlove, Q-Tip and Estelle, alongside intellectuals including Michael Eric Dyson, Tricia Rose and dream hampton. Even the legendary civil rights campaigner Jesse Jackson was present as a slightly surprising advocate of Hip-Hop.
The debate raged around Hip-Hop’s portrayal of women and use of the ‘N’ word. These are two topics that have sparked controversy for decades, but are even more loaded issues given the influence that Hip-Hop culture has worldwide today.
Comparisons were also made between ‘commercial’ Hip-Hop (seen as an extension of corporate America), in contrast to ‘conscious’ Hip-Hop, (as practiced by the likes of Public Enemy). But few were willing to acknowledge that conscious Rap isn’t generally what sells. What sells is what’s cool. Being cool doesn’t always equate to doing the right thing. In fact, it is often quite the opposite.
In ‘Cool Rules: Anatomy of an Attitude’ authors Dick Pountain and David Robins describe ‘cool’ as “a permanent state of private rebellion”. They trace the roots of this attitude back to ancient Yoruba and other West African cultures, illustrating how it was deployed by Black slaves in America as a means of resistance against oppression by white slave owners.
In today’s society there are many variations of cool that have emerged from different subcultures, such as Hipsters. However, the character of cool that can be found in urban street culture often displays four features:
- Nihilism: The general rejection of established social conventions and beliefs, especially of morality and religion.
- Anti-authoritarianism: rebellion against the establishment and authority figures.
- Materialism: Concern with material wealth and possessions at the expense of spiritual and intellectual values.
- Hedonism: Devotion, especially a self-indulgent one, to pleasure and happiness as a way of life.
These ‘isms’ are recognizable themes in raps by 50 Cent, Eminem, Snoop Dogg and Jay-Z. However, they stand in stark contrast to the notion of ‘true Hip-Hop’ reflected in The Hip-Hop Declaration of Peace that was presented to the United Nations Organization on May 16th 2001.
This tension between what some see as the different cultures of Rap and Hip-Hop lay at the heart of the ‘Hip-Hop on Trial’ debate. Although it was an entertaining spectacle, neither side landed a knockout blow.
The Art of Rap
Ice-T, although no stranger to controversy himself, decided to take a different route when making his movie documentary ‘Something From Nothing: The Art of Rap”. Instead of getting bogged down in ideological debates about language, or Hip-Hop vs. Rap culture, he simply asked many of the world’s best rappers to explain how they craft their lyrics. The result is an extraordinary insight into the passions and motivations of these modern day poets.
The film illustrates that the best rappers articulate the contradictory and multi-faceted realities of life with breathtaking intensity and eloquence. Stripped of all music, the a cappella raps delivered by the likes of Kanye West, Eminem – and perhaps most powerfully – Joe Budden, demonstrate the true art of creating something from nothing.
Having seen Ice-T’s evocative film, I am reassured that although it may be experiencing a mid-life crisis, Hip-Hop is not dead, it’s growing up.