Friday, November 19, 2010
Ten Things Everyone Should Know About Hip Hop
1. The rap music you hear on the radio or see on TV is less than 1% of the hip hop that is actually being made in the world. To dismiss all hip hop based on casual exposure to it is like saying "film is a worthless art form" after seeing all three Transformers movies and nothing else.
2. Hip hop music has as much stylistic diversity, from song to song, as any other genre of music…if not more. Through TV and commercial radio, we are generally given one style or approach, but the community is unbelievably large and varied in terms of aesthetics. We just don’t often get a chance to hear the hip hop that doesn’t fit into the boxes that the record companies have built.
3. That stylistic diversity is mirrored in the identities of the participants. Hip hop was born out of the black and brown struggle in the Bronx of the 1970s, and it is very much a piece of the African-American musical tradition. But practitioners of the art today come from every community—every racial/ethnic group, gender, sexual orientation, immigrant status, nationality, class background, geographic origin and any other marker of identity. Some see this as another example of black art being co-opted; some see this as a truly multicultural art form capable of transcending borders. Some see it as both.
4. Every city in the U.S. has a hip hop scene. It’s not just New York, and it’s not just major cities. Even suburbs and smaller rural communities often have one or two kids who rap, or at the very least take part in the culture in some way. On top of that, just about every country in the world has a hip hop scene. At this point in time, it truly is a global culture.
5. There is a difference between “hip hop” and “rap,” but that difference has nothing to do with the quality or style of the music. Rap is the physical act of rapping, of speaking lyrics over beats. Hip hop is the culture that umbrellas over rap, but also umbrellas over other elements of the culture (see next point).
6. The traditional four elements of hip hop are DJing, rapping, graffiti and b-boy/b-girl dance. KRS-ONE and others have identified other elements that are sometimes thrown into the conversation: beatboxing, fashion, knowledge, entrepreneurialism, slang/language, music production and many more. It helps to think about hip hop as this impressionistic landscape, not just as “rap music.” It’s much bigger than that.
7. Hip hop started out as party music. People having fun and dancing. It wasn’t evil gangster music, as some detractors might assume; it also wasn’t people making grand revolutionary statements, as some supporters seem to believe. The act of having these parties may have been implicitly political, but the content of the music itself generally was not. For a full history, read Jeff Chang’s “Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop.”
8. Hip hop is not inherently violent, sexist or homophobic. Subject matter and approaches to writing in hip hop are as diverse as any other form of art. The reason we hear/see so much violent, sexist, homophobic hip hop is that record companies (almost universally run by rich, white men) know that they can make money by pushing (through money for media campaigns and promotion) artists who speak to the lowest common denominator. That’s not to excuse the artists themselves, but one cannot ignore this larger picture.
9. On the flipside, underground or independent hip hop is not inherently progressive, intelligent and revolutionary. Lots of underground artists are simply trying to emulate their mainstream counterparts. Others are just rapping about whatever they feel like rapping about. “Mainstream vs. Underground” is a false binary that simplifies the culture in a way that makes it easy to not really engage with the art itself.
10. And that’s a key point. To effectively teach using hip hop, or even just to intentionally take part in the music, you have to really engage with the culture. It takes research, time and energy, and it can't just be in books. Hip hop didn't end with the deaths of Biggie and 2pac, or with the rise of Eminem and Kanye, as many scholars seem to imply. Attend events, talk to people and LISTEN. Here’s a start, a few songs that I find are useful when talking about hip hop:
Toki Wright: A Different Mirror (Twin Cities)
Invincible: Sledgehammer (Detroit)
Denizen Kane: Holdin' Up the Wall (Chicago/Oakland)
No Bird Sing: Devil's Trombones (Twin Cities)
Orishas: Que Pasa (Cuba):