Among the mass media, "hip hop," or the "hip-hop generation," has generally become a kind of lazy journalistic and sociological shorthand for youth culture. It is a loaded term, to be wielded with sweeping disdain in reference to a whole range of superficial attributes, like tats and braids, viewed as antithetical to "mainstream society." Our overmatched, non-gold medal winning Olympic men's basketball team, for instance, was often referred to by contemptuous sports writers as "hip hop" (presupposing, I guess, that athletes influenced by classical music are preternaturally better jump shooters).
Of course, if there actually are a bunch of real people behind that "hip hop" abstraction, this externalist, dismissive approach to them can only lead to misunderstandings and miscalculations on the part of those who lack genuine insights on the culture and yet must interact with the people. Recall that folks didn't shut up about Generation X until the GenXers started writing their own articles and defining themselves.
Consider this part of such self-definition. Hip hop, as a culture, actually consists of four elements: deejaying, emceeing (rapping), breakdancing and writing (graffiti). Its most immediate origins are traced back to the borough of The Bronx, New York, during the late '60s and early '70s. The pioneers of the culture were largely black and Latino (although there was an undeniable white presence and influence in the early days, as well). Hip hop fits squarely within the African cultural continuum, especially considering that the chief sources of its non-African-American influences (Jamaican, Puerto Rican, Dominican) are themselves part of the African Diaspora. So for general purposes, we can consider hip hop, at its core, as black culture with an asterisk.
Hip hop music has thus far proven the more portable (or appropriatable) aspect of the culture, giving the two elements of rapping and deejaying a predominance over breakdancing and writing, which is decried by purists. While all aspects of hip hop have become worldwide phenomena (I've seen "burners," or elaborate, stylized graffiti murals, in Hong Kong, and there are folks b-boying, or breaking, on several continents), the music and other ancillary aspects of the culture like dress and speech are what are usually identified with "hip hop," globally. Musically, after only 25 years in recorded form, hip hop has followed the arc of rock 'n' roll (itself an offshoot of Rhythm & Blues), in becoming the most dominant musical genre of this generation. From a sales perspective, it may periodically trade pole position with Country & Western, but from the perspective of cultural influence, its preeminence is unquestionable. Hip hop been took over the burbs, but in its inexorable expansion it has gone from being a proxy for inner city black culture to a unifying aspect of global youth culture.
To further the cause of hip hop's self-definition, I recently convened a roundtable of folks to discuss what hip hop is, can be and, perhaps, should be. To form our cipher I selected two emcees from the Triangle area, Phonte Coleman of Little Brother and Spectac. And to represent the deejays (not to mention the oft-overlooked female presence in hip hop), I chose WXDU's DJ Chela. We got together a couple of days after the election to politic over dinner at Jamaica Jamaica in Durham. A fifth element, D'Weston Haywood, student government president at North Carolina Central University, couldn't make it that night, but I had the pleasure of speaking with him separately. And since I'm in charge of post-production, I took the liberty of blending his verses with the rest of our tracks.
Why these cats? Phonte, 25, is on the verge of blowing up. After just a few years in the game, Tay gots international props, garnering the respect of some of the most influential heads in the industry while steadily making the transition from starving artist to career emcee and producer. Mervin Jenkins, aka Spectac, is 33, and reps hard for the "don't quit your day job" crowd--by day he is respected as an assistant principal at Chapel Hill High School, and by night, he puts the "S" on his chest and rips mics. His heart for the youth and love for hip hop find expression in his music, and he reflects the reality that there are hip-hop doctors, lawyers, mayors, educators and yes, even IT consultants/political columnists. DJ Chela, 24, epitomizes the underground, DIY ethos that helps sustain and transmit the culture--college deejays and mixtape hustlas on the grind. Beyond that, she brings an international perspective (having spent part of her youth living in Nicaragua) and a strong sense of advocacy, as attested by her helping organize the 2004 Duke University hip-hop conference, which "used hip-hop music as a point of departure for an in-depth, cross-disciplinary conversation on imprisonment, religion, politics and social-activism."
I called Phonte, Spectac and Chela separately to propose this discussion. Given the proximity to Election Day and the buzz regarding various "hip hop" centered get-out-the-vote efforts, I'd already decided to steer our initial convo toward the role of rap in politics. When we met up at the spot, the night after the election, DJ Chela hit me off with her latest mixtape (CD)--recorded well before I contacted her--entitled Chela 4 President, featuring, among many other local and national emcees, Phonte and Spectac. That's when I knew this project was meant to happen.
I chose to include D'Weston Haywood without any knowledge of his relationship to hip hop. He could have hated the music and been completely unaware of the other aspects of the culture, for all I knew. But after reading an article in the News and Observer about nascent student activism and the elections, which characterized the NCCU students as "hip hop," I had to laugh, and promptly sought this young brother out.
"D', were y'all beatboxing and breakdancing as you marched those two miles up Fayetteville Street to the early voting precinct?" I asked.
Haywood laughed in response, then added, "I wondered what that was about. I mean, I am a part of it (hip hop), and a fan. But, during the march--we didn't mention hip hop." He paused. "We're black, we're at an HBCU. And we 'fit the description'."
No disrespect to the writer of the N&O article. Her piece was positive, albeit framed by the skeptical perspective of the current generation's civil rights-era forebears. And Puffy's (rap mogul Sean "P. Diddy" Combs) influence over the political rally loomed large, in the form of Vote Or Die T-shirts and slogans amidst the throng she covered for the article. But that characterization of the students just goes to show that nowadays the young, and particularly the young and black, are considered "hip hop" by default.
So what is the hip-hop generation, to you?
Phonte: It's the generation for which rap has been the controlling music, the soundtrack to their life. I was watching the Scratch documentary, and DJ Shadow was talking about how the choices in his life were influenced by hip hop. He said he went to college because DMC (of Run-DMC) said, "I went to John Jay University." He grew up listening.
D'Weston: I think that the culture is a reflection of black youth who have something meaningful to say. Hip hop contains a message about a certain kind of life. Whether that message is good or bad is open to debate. But it's centered on storytelling. Always has been and always will be. I don't know quite what the message is from the mainstream nowadays, but hip hop is definitely an art form and a culture that tells a story about youth and black youth, primarily. Like I said before, I'm young. Black. I have dreads. I'm hip hop even by default. That's a reality that I've got to deal with.
Chela: It's becoming increasingly international, multicultural. In Nicaragua, reggaeton (a Spanish-language amalgamation of Latin rhythms, dancehall reggae and rap) was very popular.
Hip hop is big in Cuba, too.
Chela: Most definitely.
Spectac: It's about the four elements (rapping, deejaying, breakdancing, graffiti writing), the whole culture. Hip hop is its own thing. It even has its own language. It's powerful. One time a friend of mine called me. He'd just come from a club where Com (rapper Common) was performing. Com was rhyming and just went off into this vivid story about killing his brother, every verse describing in detail how it went down. Folks put their drinks down at the bar, people stopped dancing and everybody was just staring (because that's so unlike his persona). Then, when he finished the rhyme he flipped it like, "That was just a story. See what I mean? I had y'all believing it because of how I ran it down. We've got to be careful with what we put out there." That's powerful.
Phonte: It's like Chris Rock was saying, it's hard defending "Git Low" and some of the other stuff that's out there.
Word. Kids don't need to be hearing about what goes on in strip clubs. A lot of adults ain't trying to hear that either, for that matter. But since hip hop is always under attack for one reason or another, by folks who often could care less whether the content is X-rated or uplifting, we end up defending it by force of habit. Which isn't always the move. We need space to get our "Cosby" on.
Spectac: I remember presenting at an education conference --mostly old white ladies there--and speaking on the power of hip hop to educate and uplift the youth. Many of the attendees were very receptive, but one lady questioned me about all the "bad stuff," and how I could be affiliated with the music and culture in light of that. So I asked her a question back: "Where is there a profession where there aren't bad elements? There are bad doctors, lawyers, accountants É any activity or profession you can think of has its share of bad elements." The difference is, of course, we generally don't allow the bad elements in other fields to color our perception of those entire industries or vocations.
Chela: It's pervasive. I'll be watching the news sometimes and they'll say something like the perpetrator was wearing "hip-hop attire." What the hell is that? Hip-hop attire? It's just code words. This country is based on fear. It's manipulation. And because of this fear, people are cornered into a worldview that is not in their own interests. Who profits?
Spectac: (as if on cue, quotes a relevant verse from Kanye West's "All Falls Down," an admittedly self-conscious and self-critical diatribe against materialism) "Drug dealer buy Jordans, crackhead buy crack/ And a white man get paid off of alladat."
Chela: (not missing a beat) BET censored the video, bleeping out the words "white," "drug," and "crack." Censoring all that basically made it impossible for him to make his point--stripped the political, even semantic content.
At this point we digressed into a lengthy side discussion of the politics of profanity vs. obscenity (I promise to revisit one of my earliest articles on just that subject). We recall that it was not too long ago on when "cuss" words, would be censored, but they'd let you say "ni&&a" on the radio, and the unspoken implications of that. This line of thought invariably and inevitably leads to a critique of black radio and the corporate music industry, which have historically allowed just a relative sliver of hip hop's political and social commentary to reach the airwaves, amid a veritable buffet of booty music. We decided that the nexus of hip hop and social responsibility deserves the full-length treatment, so we took a note to address it in the future, switched the topic back to politics, and kept it movin'.
What are your thoughts on the elections?
Phonte: Well, ?uestlove (drummer and producer of the hip-hop band The Roots) has a theory that says Republican administrations are better for hip hop--that the bleakness of the economic and social conditions spur our creativity.
[Note: Hip hop's golden age occurred during the Reagan-Bush administrations.]
Phonte: Think about it. We got jazz from the Great Depression. Gospel came out of slavery. It applies to any art, really.
Rakim, KRS-ONE, Public Enemy. Yep. Reagan. Even Tupac really started coming into his own under Bush the Elder. I remember reviewing albums of his and interviewing him at the time. He had this running beef with Vice President Quayle.
Spectac: Word? Under Clinton we had No Limit.
Phonte: ... an' Puffy. Hmm...
Spectac: Seriously, one of the most hippie-ish teachers told me, after the election, "at least now you've got something to write about."
I've had folks tell me the exact same thing. Truth be told, I'd rather have to scratch my head and wonder what to write about than deal with four more years.
Chela: Of course we only think if Kerry won it would have been better.
Spectac: Hey, let Bush finish. He has to clean up the mess he made.
Phonte: Nobody was really voting for Kerry, anyway. Just against Bush.
What do you think of the efforts to mobilize the so-called hip hop community? I'm talking about the voter registration efforts to mobilize the so-called hip-hop community? I'm talking about the voter registration efforts of Puffy, Dr. Ben Chavis, Russell Simmons... .
Phonte: It's interesting, because, economically, Bush serves their interests, moreso. This election reminds us of how few we still are. Puffy said he thinks that we did our thing, but it still wasn't enough.
Chela: I think their involvement was positive for this election, to get people out and involved. Outside of that, it seems that a lot of those groups just cropped up just for this election.
It was a good try. But we need more than just registration. We need voter education. Folks need to be more widely informed about the ways in which they can effect change via the electoral process. The youth may not have quite had the numbers to tip the scales nationally, but imagine the impact they could have on a local scale, where races are often decided by a few dozen or few hundred votes.They could decide who would be state superintendent, county commissioners, city councilpersons.
Also, I think we need more in the way of strategy and education on the electoral process itself. I mean, Puffy and Russell are aight, but their base and appeal is in NYC and the Northeast. Where's Luda(cris), Lil' John, etc. (Southern rappers). We need emcees in the red states on these campaigns.
D'Weston: N.C. Central was trying to take that position (registration plus education), by registering the people and getting them going. We implemented a Civic Engagement Task Force, whereby we actually set aside an instructional day to do voter education.
That's good. It shows the practical limitations of some of these national, celebrity-powered campaigns, but also suggests a model whereby they provide the energy and the local organizations provide the focus and direction.
D'Weston: If we can continue to infuse the consciousness (of the music) with the party side, know when to have fun and when to be serious, young people will continue to be stimulated. We saw that with the recent elections. I've never seen so many young black people energized to vote than this time around. Young people. Excited and active.
And you think that was attributable, in part, to the various groups that launched get out the vote movements?
D'Weston: Definitely. I saw it on campus, the impact of Russell and Puff. (Russell Simmons visited the NCCU campus as part of the Hip-hop Summit Action Network's tour). I supported everything they were trying to do here. When I came to NCCU as a freshman, I joined the NAACP. We did voter drives then. One kid was like, "Nah. I don't vote. I don't mess with that." This year, I saw the same dude rocking a Vote Or Die shirt.
When Russell got here, he said, "This (student activism and involvement) is great. Will it continue after the election?" There was no answer. Yet the music and culture still have a great power and potential to move young people. And we're trying to make it happen at a grassroots level.
I've heard hip-hop heads express skepticism about the leadership of folks like Puff and Russell Simmons, going so far as to suggest that they've made their respective fortunes, in part, from "dumbing down" the youth, yet here they come trying to do a U-turn and motivate them to do something useful. Puffy, in particular, has been at the forefront of making hypermaterialism not only more prevalent, but damn near synonymous with hip hop while building his Bad Boy brand/empire.
Nonetheless, I can't judge their hearts, and if they truly are committed to empowering the youth and helping improve their lives, I'm all for it. Of course, our current American democracy rests almost solely on the shoulders of an uninformed electorate. Let people start reading and analyzing things for themselves, a whole lot would change. But if folks really changed, would they really be the same voracious consumers that provide profits for the entertainment industry? Not likely. So, in order to have been as truly effective as they needed to be, Russell and Puffy would have had to plant the seeds of their own economic destruction--or else construct a model in which they could profit and educate/uplift. That's one to grow on, 'cause I don't think they signed up for all that.
Chela: Vote Or Die was catchy, but the truth is we're dying daily, from real stuff. Violence, lack of health care, all kinds of things. I registered a lot of people, though.
Phonte: The problem, going forward, is going to be overcoming the disappointment of all of those first time voters. It's like you put 'em on to a bad CD or something.
Folks looking at you funny, like, "He's the one that told me to vote. I told him it don't make a difference."
Spectac: I might even have felt like that except that I have a sister in Iraq right now...
[We pause to offer prayers and well wishes for her safety.]
Phonte: It all seems like an illusion. Voting makes you feel like you're participating.
Spectac: At times we all feel like it's rigged. But still, you may get something off.
D'Weston: Oh, a lot of students are disappointed, feel betrayed. Yeah, we lost, but this is the reason to continue and strategize. It's so easy for us to be disaffected with the process, because we already felt that way. If we can do something on as massive a scale as we did here, and replicate that elsewhere, we can have an even greater impact next time around. I'm disappointed, but I can't let that deter me from my objective to empower the oppressed.