Dalton Higgins, "The Audacity of Hip Hop," in Hip Hop World. Toronto: Groundwood, 2009, pp. 7-15. Copyright © 2009 by Groundwood Books. All rights reserved. Reproduced by permission.
Dalton Higgins is a multimedia pop culture critic whose work has been published in prominent urban culture magazines, including Source, Vibe, and Urb. He is the author of Hip Hop World: A Groundwork Guide and coauthor of the book Hip Hop, as well as a music programmer at Canada's Centre of Contemporary Culture in Toronto.
It's a hip hop world, and you're just living in it. For most music-addicted earthlings, hip hop culture is the predominant global youth subculture of today. For the non-music initiated, hip hop has become the black, jewelry-laden elephant in a room filled with rock, country and classical music—an attention-grabber whose influence is impossible to miss on the daily news, in school playgrounds, during water cooler conversations or in a political debate.
What is hip hop, and why should you care about it? Hip hop—a term coined by pioneering rapper Space Cowboy in the early 1970s to mimic a scat and then popularized later by rapper Lovebug Starski—is quite simply the world's leading counterculture, subculture and youth culture. Hip hop encompasses tour distinct elements: deejaying (the manipulation of pre-recorded music), breakdancing (dance), rapping/emceeing (vocalizing) and graffiti (visual art).
For starters, curious onlookers have to acknowledge its success as a massive chart-topping, revenue-generating music movement. When rapper Jay-Z's (Shawn Carter) American Gangster disc opened on top of the pop charts in 2007, that gave him ten Billboard number one albums in ten years, tying him with the King of Rock, Elvis Presley, for the most chart-toppers by a solo artist. Likewise, at a time when CD sales are plummeting, rapper Lil Wayne's Tha Carter III was the number one selling album of 2008 in the US, scanning an astounding three million units.
Forty-plus years after its birth, hip hop has officially grown up and left the hood.
Much has been written about hip hop's gritty African American origins in the South Bronx, but the primary American consumers are young suburban whites whose fascination with black youth culture has led to Caucasian rappers Eminem and the Beastie Boys becoming creators of both the fastest selling rap album in history (The Marshall Mathers LP) and the first rap album to go number one on the Billboard album charts (Licensed to Ill), respectively. Once a predominantly African American youth form of expression, or as legendary hip hop group Public Enemy's lead vocalist Chuck D once called it, the "black people's CNN," rap has taken root around the world as a primary news source for disenfranchised Asian, South Asian, First Nations, Latin American, Australasian, African, Middle Eastern and European publics.
Forty-plus years after its birth, hip hop has officially grown up and left the hood. Hip hoppers own palatial estates in exclusive gated communities and are world travelers racking up Air Miles in abundance.
From New York to Nigeria, hip hop is so wildly popular that it's crossing continents and oceans, and by many accounts its brightest future star might come in the form of an already wealthy, bi-racial (Jewish/black), Lil Wayne-tutored Canadian rapper named Drake. The incorporation, appropriation and wholesale celebration of the music has taken shape internationally, far from its American birthplace. Take Japan, where despite language barriers many Japanese youth have aped African American rappers' stylings by tanning their skin dark brown (ganguro or "blackface") and wearing cornrows and dreadlocks. In Cuba, former president Fidel Castro refers to rap music as the "vanguard of the Revolution." In Iran, heads of state complain that rap's obscene lyrics diminish Islamic values, and its influence is so pervasive that it has been officially banned. In France, it's considered the unofficial voice of the banlieues—the impoverished suburbs where African and Arab youth have staged violent anti-racism riots. Native American and aboriginal Canadian youth work out of the tradition or spoken-word iconoclast John Trudell, rapping out against past and present wrongdoings in their respective reserves and communities.
During the 1980s, Reaganomics wiped out inner-city school music funding programs in the US, leaving low-income youth to their own devices.
A Multicultural Movement
In North America, no comparable art form or music genre draws so many multiculti consumers to cash registers, music downloading websites and live concerts. Cultural critics point out that at rock'n'roll, classical or country music concerts, sometimes the only things that are "of color" are the stage curtains—and even them curtains ain't got no soul. Rap music, on the other hand, is anti-classical, a UN-friendly music with dozens upon dozens of subgenres to accommodate and account for the full range of experiences that make up the human condition—irrespective of one's race, gender, age or geography.
If you're gay or lesbian, there's a burgeoning Homo Hop movement. If you like your violence and sex gratuitous, there are large Gangsta Rap and Horrorcore Rap factions. If you're Jewish or a born-again Christian, the Klezmer or Christian Rap scenes might suit your fancy. And if you're a geek and rap music seems altogether too hipster and cool to comprehend, there's a large Nerdcore Rap movement where you and fellow squares can sink your cerebellums into raps about deoxyribonucleic acid patterns and nuclear physics.
Hip hop's adaptability becomes even more marked internationally because at its genesis rap music essentially involves creating something out of nothing. During the 1980s, Reaganomics wiped out inner-city school music funding programs in the US, leaving low-income youth to their own devices. Manipulating vinyl records on turntables to make music replaced violin and horn sections, and spoken-word diatribes replaced organized vocal choir practices. Today, in a similar vein, Native American youth on reserves don't need to be classically trained in a musical instrument or attend a costly music conservatory to create rap music. And neither do youth in Africa, the poorest continent in the world, where the rap scene is blossoming at a faster pace than in any other region. Groups can simply utilize their lips, tongues and mouths to create the vocal percussion music—or "human beat box" sounds usually created by drum machine-produced beats—that forms the backbone of some of the best universal rap tracks of all time, like "La Di Da Di" by Doug E. Fresh.
An Unrepentant Outlaw
But don't get it twisted. The world is not a greater place because of rap music. The genre is not a panacea for global famine, nor is it encouraging us to hold hands and sing "Kumbaya" with our multicultured brothers and sisters around the planet. Not even close. Rap music actually dominates headlines for being quite the opposite—an unrepentant outlaw music that magnifies the darker side of black.
Despite societal well-wishers hoping to see some sort of Obamaian racial progress shift taking place under the aegis of hip hop, when we look at real measurements of equality—access to education, housing, politics—we can see that it's just not happening fast enough. Sure, youth from around the world from all cultural backgrounds are downloading the same Young Jeezy songs as a collective global unit and fanbase. But the economic conditions between them aren't changing much. What exactly are privileged Western rap audiences—who are listening to the same rap music as say youth in Brazilian favelas—doing to eradicate extreme poverty in Rio? Isn't that what rap was intended to do—speak and act out against oppression—not just rhyme and dance to it?
Rappers speak about the beauty and ugliness of the world with equal candor, putting up a sharp mirror to reality.
This is the crafty nature of rap. It acts as a virtual magnet for controversy and scandal because rap music's vanguards spend much of their recording time replaying what the real issues are, including what dystopia looks, smells and feels like, with their words. It's a pure artistic response to oppression—protest music where art truly imitates life, its music intended to play back society's most celebratory and inflammatory aspects.
Raw and Uncut
As politicians increasingly refuse to address genuine social inequalities, rappers speak about the beauty and ugliness of the world with equal candor, putting up a sharp mirror to reality. And they've received heavy verbal critiques for coming off so raw and uncut. Some of the genre's most cogent songs, for example, come in the form of blunt responses to police brutality in African American communities. They include anthems like "F—- Tha Police," a searing indictment of racial profiling by the LAPD (Los Angeles Police Department) recorded by one of rap's most influential groups, N.W.A. (Niggaz With Attitude), and musically re-tooled by one of its greatest producers, the late J Dilla, to address Detroit area police all the way to Ice-T's "Cop Killer," which calls for frustrated victims of anti-black police misconduct to "dust some cops off" (shoot or stab crooked cops). Clearly, the rapperati have no intention of getting Rodney Kinged, and aren't afraid to tell you.
When the music is not taking vicious verbal swipes at injustices, it's doling out bushels of lyrics that carry some of the most offensive words in the English language. A mini-alphabet of forbidden words, including the B- and F word, appear with nauseating frequency. These are words that don't get remote consideration for inclusion on the CDs of other music genres. And would the use of the explosive N-word be debated today on CNN, in barbershops or in strip malls around the world if not for hip hop? Rap is the only genre of music where the term is widely used, despite most of its leading figures being African American, the community for whom the word was created by racists to disparage. N-word debates have flared up frequently in the US over the last few years, from shock jocks Don Imus to Bounty Hunter Duane "Dog" Chapman to Seinfeld's Michael "Kramer" Richards—all non-black performers who've used the form, implicitly claiming they are taking the lead from hip hop. Critics have also long argued that rap music's sexually explicit lyrics—where the use of "bitch" and "ho" to describe women and the unrepentant use of the word "fag(got)" are commonplace—contribute to the moral breakdown of society.
Who's to blame for all of this? Who really profits from the cartoonish rap stereotypes of young black maledom that African Americans have been trying to shake for decades? Some argue that hip hop is simply a byproduct of a society that is equally foul-mouthed, sexist, racist and homophobic. Should the African American community be held accountable for the dissemination of such vile, lewd language and imagery? Or does the responsibility lie with the largely non-black recording label presidents of multimillion-dollar corporations who draft up and sign contracts with these musicians? Is there a reason many non-Western hip hop artists and critics have held their tongues in debates over the use of the N-word? Are black community broadcasters like BET (Black Entertainment Television) that traffic the negative elements of the culture to global audiences complicit? When BET rotates graphically sexist videos to audiences in Canada and the UK around the clock, are they aware of the global effects on their young female—and male—constituencies?
Once a form of social protest in the United States, rap appears to be anything but that now. Outside of the US, where rap music is articulating and addressing local political and social concerns, it presents a remarkable contrast. Tapping into hip hop's potential as a force for social change should be easy to realize, given that it boasts an active, captive, global youth base. But can we realistically expect solutions to complex world problems from teens and twenty-something rappers? More importantly, is hip hop immune from the same historical processes that turned historically black musics like jazz and rock'n'roll into pale shades of their former selves, genres enjoyed, profited from and largely consisting of performers from every other ethnic group but that of the creators?
As for the future of rap, are performers still able to sing the blues, or authentically rap about the 'hood, when some of the conditions that created rap have changed? Or since its vanguards such as so-called "gangsta" rappers Ice Cube and Snoop Dogg have become multimillionaires?