Hip Hop Hooray…
Not long ago, I was travelling in a car and some hip hop was playing on the stereo. I’m not sure who the artist was, as the MC was speaking in Swahili, but one of the people I was travelling with, a man who I’d only met days before, turned around in his seat, looked right at me and said:
‘I don’t like Hip Hop.’
And I wasn’t sure how to reply to that. He went on to tell me that although he appreciated pretty much every other music form known to man, he just couldn’t ‘get’ Hip Hop. I was still at a bit of a loss, as I don’t particularly like The Proms, but wouldn’t have said as much just out of simple courtesy. Then I tried to tackle the point at hand by discussing what I actually like about this much-maligned genre of music, which is actually not very much these days.
I tried to point that out, that what it used to be and has now become, is separated by a broad gap that some would label COMMERCE, others LACK OF INTEGRITY. I tried to talk about the difference between Hip Hop and Rap, what the radio does and doesn’t play, the true meaning behind the ethos ‘keeping it real’. And while I spoke I began to sense a growing detachment, a very real sense of ‘I don’t want to know these things, much less talk about them,’ apparent in the eyes of my listener, who after all, had only wanted to state his dislike of contemporary youth music, and didn’t actually want to know why contemporary ‘youth’ (leave it) might actually like the stuff, or where the perceived misogyny, and violence might stem from.
Over the next few days I started to think further about this problem. How Rap, and by extension Hip Hop, is perceived worldwide, is inexorably tied up with the way people see youth culture as a whole, particularly young black culture. These naysayers don’t even seem to realise that Hip Hop consists of 5 elements – Mc’ing, Breaking, Graffiti, DJying, and Beatboxing – and that Rap is but one of those very essential components. There seems to be a miscommunication somewhere along the line, either that or willful ignorance, because in a lot of cases, especially regarding the old skool members of the Hip Hop fraternity, we hate the music that dominates the charts.
Many MC’s bemoan that current state of the genre. Talib, Mos, Jay Elect, Phonte, Madlib, Jenrio Jarel, and many more, in song after song – but who’s listening anyway? They want experimentation, new subject matter, more musicality. For people who doubt the potential of the form, the evidence is in what we see. Monotonous videos, booty shaking (mostly black) women, people waving jeweled watches, jeweled cars, jeweled teeth, in our faces.
Stuck in Nairobi airport, waiting for a flight delayed by 3 hours, I was subjected to a tirade of these artists playing on KISS. And I respect their hustle. I really do. I even like the occasional tune, when the guy/girl can flow and the beat is bumping. But the majority of those songs, and those MC’s, are proper wack.
In the late 19th C. and early 20th C. there was an Italian literary movement known as Verismo. It derived from the French Naturalism movement, and was even applied to the violent, melodramatic operas of Puccini and others. For the Verists, as they became known, literature and by a greater extension art as a whole, should represent the truth of reality, no matter how disagreeable that truth may be.
I have long considered myself a Verist. Hip Hop made me that way. In the past, the truth the music purported to tell wasn’t just guns and crack, loose women and jail. It was Tupac’s love for Brenda and his Mother, Kwame the Boy Genuis daring to be different, the comedy of De La Soul’s spoof rap, even the mis-timed allure of a dance craze (The Pee-Wee Herman – less said the better!). There was politics and enlightenment and poetry and even abstraction (remember when Busta was still with Leaders of the New, pretty much near the end of their days, when he began to get a little TOO deep into his craft?) There was all these things and more and it was all real back then, it was all us.
I propose that rap and the MC’s risk the corporate buck to go for what’s disagreeable now; the humanity, versatility and sheer creative drive of the people that make the music. I propose they grasp firmly onto what they once had, and haul the art back from the abyss to which it has been cast.
Otherwise, it is lost, and people like my friend, who doesn’t like ‘Hip Hop’, have been proven right.