Hip Hop Planet discussion

Hip Hop Planet
Whether you trace it to New York’s South Bronx or the villages of West Africa, hip-hop
has become the voice of a generation demanding to be heard.
By James McBride
National Geographic, April 2007
This is my nightmare: My daughter comes home with a guy and says, “Dad,
we’re getting married.” And he’s a rapper, with a mouthful of gold teeth, a dorag
on his head, muscles popping out his arms, and a thug attitude. And then
the nightmare gets deeper, because before you know it, I’m hearing the pitterpatter
of little feet, their offspring, cascading through my living room, cascading
through my life, drowning me with the sound of my own hypocrisy, because
when I was young, I was a knucklehead, too, hearing my own music, my own
sounds. And so I curse the day I saw his face, which is a reflection of my own,
and I rue the day I heard his name, because I realize to my horror that rap—
music seemingly without melody, sensibility, instruments, verse, or harmony,
music with no beginning, end, or middle, music that doesn’t even seem to be
music—rules the world. It is no longer my world. It is his world. And I live in it. I
live on a hip-hop planet.
I remember when I first heard rap. I was standing in the kitchen at a party in
Harlem. It was 1980. A friend of mine named Bill had just gone on the blink. He
slapped a guy, a total stranger, in the face right in front of me. I can’t remember
why. Bill was a fellow student. He was short-circuiting. Problem was, the guy he
slapped was a big guy, a dude wearing a do-rag who’d crashed the party with
three friends, and, judging by the fury on their faces, there would be no Martin
Luther King moments in our immediate future.
There were no white people in the room, though I confess I wished there had
been, if only to hide the paleness of my own frightened face. We were black and
Latino students about to graduate from Columbia University’s journalism school,
having learned the whos, whats, wheres, whens, and whys of American
reporting. But the real storytellers of the American experience came from the
world of the guy that Bill had just slapped. They lived less than a mile (1.6
kilometers) from us in the South Bronx. They had no journalism degrees. No
money. No credibility. What they did have, however, was talent.
Earlier that night, somebody tossed a record on the turntable, which sent my
fellow students stumbling onto the dance floor, howling with delight, and made
me, a jazz lover, cringe. It sounded like a broken record. It was a version of an
old hit record called “Good Times,” the same four bars looped over and over.
And on top of this loop, a kid spouted a rhyme about how he was the best disc
jockey in the world. It was called “Rapper’s Delight.” I thought it was the most
ridiculous thing I’d ever heard. More ridiculous than Bill slapping that stranger.
Bill survived that evening, but in many ways, I did not. For the next 26 years, I
high-stepped past that music the way you step over a crack in the sidewalk. I
heard it pounding out of cars and alleyways from Paris to Abidjan, yet I never
listened. It came rumbling out of boomboxes from Johannesburg to Osaka, yet I
pretended not to hear. I must have strolled past the corner of St. James Place
and Fulton Street in my native Brooklyn where a fat kid named Christopher
Wallace, aka Biggie Smalls, stood amusing his friends with rhyme, a hundred
times, yet I barely noticed. I high-stepped away from that music for 26 years
because it was everything I thought it was, and more than I ever dreamed it
would be, but mostly, because it held everything I wanted to leave behind.
In doing so, I missed the most important cultural event in my lifetime.
Not since the advent of swing jazz in the 1930s has an American music
exploded across the world with such overwhelming force. Not since the Beatles
invaded America and Elvis packed up his blue suede shoes has a music crashed
against the world with such outrage. This defiant culture of song, graffiti, and
dance, collectively known as hip-hop, has ripped popular music from its
moorings in every society it has permeated. In Brazil, rap rivals samba in
popularity. In China, teens spray-paint graffiti on the Great Wall. In France it has
been blamed, unfairly, for the worst civil unrest that country has seen in
Its structure is unique, complex, and at times bewildering. Whatever music it
eats becomes part of its vocabulary, and as the commercial world falls into
place behind it to gobble up the powerful slop in its wake, it metamorphoses
into the Next Big Thing. It is a music that defies definition, yet defines our
collective societies in immeasurable ways. To many of my generation, despite all
attempts to exploit it, belittle it, numb it, classify it, and analyze it, hip-hop
remains an enigma, a clarion call, a cry of “I am” from the youth of the world.
We’d be wise, I suppose, to start paying attention.
Burning Man
Imagine a burning man. He is on fire. He runs into the room. You put out the
flames. Then another burning man arrives. You put him out and go about your
business. Then two, three, four, five, ten appear. You extinguish them all, send
them to the hospital. Then imagine no one bothers to examine why the men
caught fire in the first place. That is the story of hip-hop.
It is a music dipped in the boiling cauldron of race and class, and for that reason
it is clouded with mystics, snake oil salesmen, two-bit scholars, race-baiters,
and sneaker salesmen, all professing to know the facts, to be “real,” when the
reality of race is like shifting sand, dependent on time, place, circumstance, and
who’s telling the history. Here’s the real story: In the mid-1970s, New York City
was nearly broke. The public school system cut funding for the arts drastically.
Gone were the days when you could wander into the band room, rent a clarinet
for a minimal fee, and march it home to squeal on it and drive your parents nuts.
The kids of the South Bronx and Harlem came up with something else. In the
summer of 1973, at 1595 East 174th Street in the Bronx River Houses, a black
teenager named Afrika Bambaataa stuck a speaker in his mother’s first-floor
living room window, ran a wire to the turntable in his bedroom, and set the
housing project of 3,000 people alight with party music. At the same time, a
Jamaican teenager named Kool DJ Herc was starting up the scene in the East
Bronx, while a technical whiz named Grandmaster Flash was rising to
prominence a couple of miles south. The Bronx became a music magnet for
Puerto Ricans, Jamaicans, Dominicans, and black Americans from the
surrounding areas. Fab 5 Freddy, Kurtis Blow, and Melle Mel were only a few of
the pioneers. Grand Wizard Theodore, Kool DJ AJ, the Cold Crush Brothers,
Spoony Gee, and the Rock Steady Crew of B-boys showed up to “battle”—
dance, trade quips and rhymes, check out each other’s records and equipment
—not knowing as they strolled through the doors of the community center near
Bambaataa’s mother’s apartment that they were writing musical history. Among
them was an MC named Lovebug Starski, who was said to utter the phrase
“hip-hop” between breaks to keep time.
This is how it worked: One guy, the DJ, played records on two turntables. One
guy—or girl—served as master of ceremonies, or MC. The DJs learned to move
the record back and forth under the needle to create a “scratch,” or to drop the
needle on the record where the beat was the hottest, playing “the break” over
and over to keep the folks dancing. The MCs “rapped” over the music to keep
the party going. One MC sought to outchat the other. Dance styles were created
—”locking” and “popping” and “breaking.” Graffiti artists spread the word of the
“I” because the music was all about identity: I am the best. I spread the most
love in the Bronx, in Harlem, in Queens. The focus initially was not on the MCs,
but on the dancers, or B-boys. Commercial radio ignored it. DJs sold mix tapes
out of the back of station wagons. “Rapper’s Delight” by the Sugarhill Gang—
the song I first heard at that face-slapping party in Harlem—broke the music
onto radio in 1979.
That is the short history.
The long history is that spoken-word music made its way here on slave ships
from West Africa centuries ago: Ethnomusicologists trace hip-hop’s roots to the
dance, drum, and song of West African griots, or storytellers, its pairing of word
and music the manifestation of the painful journey of slaves who survived the
middle passage. The ring shouts, field hollers, and spirituals of early slaves drew
on common elements of African music, such as call and response and
improvisation. “Speech-song has been part of black culture for a long, long
time,” says Samuel A. Floyd, director of the Center for Black Music Research at
Columbia College in Chicago. The “dozens,” “toasts,” and “signifying” of black
Americans—verbal dueling, rhyming, self-deprecating tales, and stories of
blacks outsmarting whites—were defensive, empowering strategies.
You can point to jazz musicians such as Oscar Brown, Jr., Edgar “Eddie”
Jefferson, and Louis Armstrong, and blues greats such as John Lee Hooker, and
easily find the foreshadowing of rap music in the verbal play of their work. Black
performers such as poet Nikki Giovanni and Gil Scott-Heron, a pianist and
vocalist who put spoken political lyrics to music (most famously in “The
Revolution Will Not Be Televised”), elevated spoken word to a new level.
But the artist whose work arguably laid the groundwork for rap as we know it
was Amiri Baraka, a beat poet out of Allen Ginsberg’s Greenwich Village scene.
In the late 1950s and ’60s, Baraka performed with shrieks, howls, cries, stomps,
verse floating ahead of or behind the rhythm, sometimes in staccato
syncopation. It was performance art, delivered in a dashiki and Afro, in step with
the anger of a bold and sometimes frightening nationalistic black movement,
and it inspired what might be considered the first rap group, the Last Poets.
I was 13 when I first heard the Last Poets in 1970. They scared me. To black
America, they were like the relatives you hoped wouldn’t show up at your
barbecue because the boss was there—the old Aunt Clementine who would
arrive, get drunk, and pull out her dentures. My parents refused to allow us to
play their music in our house—so my siblings waited until my parents went to
work and played it anyway. They were the first musical group I heard to use the
N-word on a record, with songs like “N—— Are Scared of Revolution.” In a
world where blacks were evolving from “Negroes” to “blacks,” and the
assassinations of civil rights leaders Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr., still
reverberated in the air like a shotgun blast, the Last Poets embodied black
power. Their records consisted of percussion and spoken-word rhyme. They
were wildly popular in my neighborhood. Their debut recording sold 400,000
records in three months, says Last Poet member Umar Bin Hassan. “No videos,
no radio play, strictly word of mouth.” The group’s demise coincided with hiphop’s
birth in the 1970s.
It’s unlikely that the Last Poets ever dreamed the revolution they sang of would
take the form it has. “We were about the movement,” Abiodun Oyewole, a
founder of the group, says. “A lot of today’s rappers have talent. But a lot of
them are driving the car in the wrong direction.”
The Crossover
Highways wrap around the city of Dayton, Ohio, like a ribbon bow-tied on a box
of chocolates from the local Esther Price candy factory. They have six ladies at
the plant who do just that: Tie ribbons around boxes all day. Henry Rosenkranz
can tell you about it. “I love candy,” says Henry, a slim white teenager in glasses
and a hairnet, as he strolls the factory, bucket in hand. His full-time after-school
job is mopping the floors.
Henry is a model American teenager—and the prototypical consumer at which
the hip-hop industry is squarely aimed, which has his parents sitting up in their
seats. The music that was once the purview of black America has gone white
and gone commercial all at once. A sea of white faces now rises up to greet rap
groups as they perform, many of them teenagers like Henry, a NASCAR fanatic
and self-described redneck. “I live in Old North Dayton,” he says. “It’s a white,
redneck area. But hip-hop is so prominent with country people . . . if you put
them behind a curtain and hear them talk, you won’t know if they’re black or
white. There’s a guy I work with, when Kanye West sings about a gold digger, he
can relate because he’s paying alimony and child support.”
Obviously, it’s not just working-class whites, but also affluent, suburban kids
who identify with this music with African-American roots. A white 16-year-old
hollering rap lyrics at the top of his lungs from the driver’s seat of his dad’s latemodel
Lexus may not have the same rationale to howl at the moon as a
working-class kid whose parents can’t pay for college, yet his own anguish is as
real to him as it gets. What attracts white kids to this music is the same thing
that prompted outraged congressmen to decry jazz during the 1920s and Tipper
Gore to campaign decades later against violent and sexually explicit lyrics: life
on the other side of the tracks; its “cool” or illicit factor, which black Americans,
like it or not, are always perceived to possess.
Hip-hop has continually changed form, evolving from party music to social
commentary with the 1982 release of Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five’s
“The Message.” Today, alternative hip-hop artists continue to produce socially
conscious songs, but most commercial rappers spout violent lyrics that debase
women and gays. Beginning with the so-called gangsta rap of the ’90s,
popularized by the still unsolved murders of rappers Biggie Smalls and Tupac
Shakur, the genre has become dominated by rappers who brag about their lives
of crime. 50 Cent, the hip-hop star of the moment, trumpets his sexual exploits
and boasts that he has been shot nine times.
“People call hip-hop the MTV music now,” scoffs Chuck D, of Public Enemy,
known for its overtly political rap. “It’s Big Brother controlling you. To slip
something in there that’s indigenous to the roots, that pays homage to the
music that came before us, it’s the Mount Everest of battles.”
Most rap songs unabashedly function as walking advertisements for luxury cars,
designer clothes, and liquor. Agenda Inc., a “pop culture brand strategy
agency,” listed Mercedes-Benz as the number one brand mentioned in
Billboard’s top 20 singles in 2005. Hip-hop sells so much Hennessy cognac,
listed at number six, that the French makers, deader than yesterday’s beer a
decade ago, are now rolling in suds. The company even sponsored a contest to
win a visit to its plant in France with a famous rapper.
In many ways, the music represents an old dream. It’s the pot of gold to millions
of kids like Henry, who quietly agonizes over how his father slaves 14 hours a
day at two tool-and-die machine jobs to make ends meet. Like teenagers across
the world, he fantasizes about working in the hip-hop business and making
millions himself.
“My parents hate hip-hop,” Henry says, motoring his 1994 Dodge Shadow
through traffic on the way home from work on a hot October afternoon. “But I
can listen to Snoop Dogg and hear him call women whores, and I know he has a
wife and children at home. It’s just a fantasy. Everyone has the urge deep down
to be a bad guy or a bad girl. Everyone likes to talk the talk, but not everyone
will walk the walk.”
Full Circle
You breathe in and breathe out a few times and you are there. Eight hours and a
wake-up shake on the flight from New York, and you are on the tarmac in Dakar,
Senegal. Welcome to Africa. The assignment: Find the roots of hip-hop. The
music goes full circle. The music comes home to Africa. That whole bit. Instead
it was the old reporter’s joke: You go out to cover a story and the story covers
you. The stench of poverty in my nostrils was so strong it pulled me to earth like
a hundred-pound ring in my nose. Dakar’s Sandaga market is full of “local
color”—unless you live there. It was packed and filthy, stalls full of new
merchandise surrounded by shattered pieces of life everywhere, broken pipes,
bicycle handlebars, fruit flies, soda bottles, beggars, dogs, cell phones. A
teenage beggar, his body malformed by polio, crawled by on hands and feet,
like a spider. He said, “Hey brother, help me.” When I looked into his eyes, they
were a bottomless ocean.
The Hotel Teranga is a fortress, packed behind a concrete wall where beggars
gather at the front gate. The French tourists march past them, the women in
high heels and stonewashed jeans. They sidle through downtown Dakar like
royalty, haggling in the market, swimming in the hotel pool with their children, a
scene that resembles Birmingham, Alabama, in the 1950s—the blacks serving,
the whites partying. Five hundred yards (460 meters) away, Africans eat off the
sidewalk and sell peanuts for a pittance. There is a restlessness, a deep sense
of something gone wrong in the air.
The French can’t smell it, even though they’ve had a mouthful back home. A
good amount of the torching of Paris suburbs in October 2005 was courtesy of
the children of immigrants from former French African colonies, exhausted from
being bottled up in housing projects for generations with no job prospects. They
telegraphed the punch in their music—France is the second largest hip-hop
market in the world—but the message was ignored. Around the globe, rap
music has become a universal expression of outrage, its macho pose borrowed
from commercial hip-hop in the U.S.
In Dakar, where every kid is a microphone and turntable away from squalor, and
American rapper Tupac Shakur’s picture hangs in market stalls of folks who
don’t understand English, rap is king. There are hundreds of rap groups in
Senegal today. French television crews troop in and out of Dakar’s nightclubs
filming the kora harp lute and tama talking drum with regularity. But beneath the
drumming and the dance lessons and the jingling sound of tourist change, there
is a quiet rage, a desperate fury among the Senegalese, some of whom seem to
bear an intense dislike of their former colonial rulers.
“We know all about French history,” says Abdou Ba, a Senegalese producer and
musician. “We know about their kings, their castles, their art, their music. We
know everything about them. But they don’t know much about us.”
Assane N’Diaye, 19, loves hip-hop music. Before he left his Senegalese village
to work as a DJ in Dakar, he was a fisherman, just like his father, like his father’s
father before him. Tall, lean, with a muscular build and a handsome chocolate
face, Assane became a popular DJ, but the equipment he used was borrowed,
and when his friend took it back, success eluded him. He has returned home to
Toubab Dialaw, about 25 miles (40 kilometers) south of Dakar, a village marked
by a huge boulder, perhaps 40 feet (12 meters) high, facing the Atlantic Ocean.
About a century and a half ago, a local ruler led a group of people fleeing slave
traders to this place. He was told by a white trader to come here, to Toubab
Dialaw. When he arrived, the slavers followed. A battle ensued. The ruler fought
bravely but was killed. The villagers buried him by the sea and marked his grave
with a small stone, and over the years it is said to have sprouted like a tree
planted by God. It became a huge, arching boulder that stares out to sea,
protecting the village behind it. When the fishermen went deep out to sea, the
boulder was like a lighthouse that marked the way home. The Great Rock of
Toubab Dialaw is said to hold a magic spirit, a spirit that Assane N’Diaye
believes in.
In the shadow of the Great Rock, Assane has built a small restaurant, Chez Las,
decorated with hundreds of seashells. It is where he lives his hip-hop dream. At
night, he and his brother and cousin stand by the Great Rock and face the sea.
They meditate. They pray. Then they write rap lyrics that are worlds away from
the bling-bling culture of today’s commercial hip-hoppers. They write about their
lives as village fishermen, the scarcity of catch forcing them to fish in deeper
and deeper waters, the hardship of fishing for 8, 10, 14 days at a time in an open
pirogue in rainy season, the high fee they pay to rent the boat, and the paltry
price their catches fetch on the market. They write about the humiliation of
poverty, watching their town sprout up around them with rich Dakarians and
richer French. And they write about the relatives who leave in the morning and
never return, surrendered to the sea, sharks, and God.
The dream, of course, is to make a record. They have their own demo, their own
logo, and their own name, Salam T. D. (for Toubab Dialaw). But rap music
represents a deeper dream: a better life. “We want money to help our parents,”
Assane says over dinner. “We watch our mothers boil water to cook and have
nothing to put in the pot.”
He fingers his food lightly. “Rap doesn’t belong to American culture,” he says. “It
belongs here. It has always existed here, because of our pain and our hardships
and our suffering.”
On this cool evening in a restaurant above their village, these young men, clad in
baseball caps and T-shirts, appear no different from their African-American
counterparts, with one exception. After a dinner of chicken and rice, Assane
says something in Wolof to the others. Silently and without ceremony, they take
every bit of the leftover dinner—the half-eaten bread, rice, pieces of chicken, the
chicken bones—and dump them into a plastic bag to give to the children in the
village. They silently rise from the table and proceed outside. The last I see of
them, their regal figures are outlined in the dim light of the doorway, heading out
to the darkened village, holding on to that bag as though it held money.
The City of Gods
Some call the Bronx River Houses the City of Gods, though if God has been by
lately, he must’ve slipped out for a chicken sandwich. The 10 drab, red-brick
buildings spread out across 14 acres (5.7 hectares), coming into view as you
drive east across the East 174th Street Bridge. The Bronx is the hallowed holy
ground of hip-hop, the place where it all began. Visitors take tours through this
neighborhood now, care of a handful of fortyish “old-timers,” who point out the
high and low spots of hip-hop’s birthplace.
It is a telling metaphor for the state of America’s racial landscape that you need
a permit to hold a party in the same parks and playgrounds that produced the
music that changed the world. The rap artists come and go, but the conditions
that produced them linger. Forty percent of New York City’s black males are
jobless. One in three black males born in 2001 will end up in prison. The life
expectancy of black men in the U.S. ranks below that of men in Sri Lanka and
Colombia. It took a massive hurricane in New Orleans for the United States to
wake up to its racial realities.
That is why, after 26 years, I have come to embrace this music I tried so hard to
ignore. Hip-hop culture is not mine. Yet I own it. Much of it I hate. Yet I love it,
the good of it. To confess a love for a music that, at least in part, embraces
violence is no easy matter, but then again our national anthem talks about
bombs bursting in air, and I love that song, too. At its best, hip-hop lays bare the
empty moral cupboard that is our generation’s legacy. This music that once
made visible the inner culture of America’s greatest social problem, its legacy of
slavery, has taken the dream deferred to a global scale. Today, 2 percent of the
Earth’s adult population owns more than 50 percent of its household wealth,
and indigenous cultures are swallowed with the rapidity of a teenager gobbling a
bag of potato chips. The music is calling. Over the years, the instruments
change, but the message is the same. The drums are pounding out a warning.
They are telling us something. Our children can hear it.
The question is: Can we?
James McBride is a writer and music composer. He has written for many well-known
newspapers, including the New York Times, Boston Globe, and Washington Post. He is
most well-known for his 1996 memoir, The Color of Water. “Hip-Hop Planet” first
appeared in National Geographic in April of 2007 and was included in Best African
American Essays in 2009.

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