a thing I once wrote about Hip Hop

January 9th, 2009 · No Comments · By

I was digging through an old Hard Drive the today, and I came across a 15-page paper that I wrote about Hip Hop back when I was in college. If I recall correctly, it was written for a graduate seminar on urbanism, memory, and media taught by Norman Klein in late 2004 or early 2005.

I always meant to expand this writing out to a longer thing, but never got around to it; looking back at it now (I had pretty much forgotten much of what I wrote), the writing seems a little stiff and amateurish, many of my arguments are overly broad, and it could use a hell of a lot more details — But, I think it’s still kind of worthwhile and interesting.

Anyhow, here it is (click below) for those of you who are killing time at your day jobs and looking for something to read. Corrections, criticisms, and counter-arguments are more than welcome.


Hip-Hop has been defined variously as a style, a process, an era, a genre, an art movement, a dangerous nuisance, a generational identity, and a demographic. This much we can agree upon; Hip-Hop began as a very localized phenomenon in the Bronx borough of New York City in the 1970s, and today it is a major force in global popular culture. By examining Hip-Hop’s history as a Folk Art practice, an Avant-Garde art movement, a genre of Recorded Music, a Cultural Identity, and a Capitalist Product, I hope to provide some insight on exactly what defined Hip-Hop and why this is worthy of our attention. So much of what’s written about it’s history is ill-informed, misguided, and delusional, and I hope to in some small way begin to correct these views, to provide a constructive lens through which we can examine the phenomenon and what was important about it.

Hip Hop as Folk Art

The Bronx in the 1970’s was an area characterized by what Richard Nixon referred to as “benign neglect;” the government took an active disinterest in the well-being of the citizens there, and the region became a dangerous ghetto. Manufacturing jobs were outsourced overseas and working-class families fell into poverty; the white families were given the chance to move to suburban neighborhoods while the Black and Puerto Rican families remained in Housing that was increasingly unsafe, ill-maintained, and unaffordable, controlled by slumlords and routinely invaded by the Police and Fire Departments. Whole neighborhoods were bulldozed to make way for a freeway into Manhattan for the more ‘important’ New Yorkers. Crime rose, drugs proliferated, and the street gangs that had appeared in the late 60s grabbed these neighborhoods by the throat. Conservative politicians increasingly blamed the victims, and used this as an excuse to make things worse, cutting money for social programs, and doing little to stop the ever-increasing violence and crime. The people in these neighborhoods were the subject of intense racially-motivated discrimination and capitalist exploitation. The Gangs had took over and established self-sufficient systems of control (in the absence of any civic structure whatsoever) but they were in fierce territorial competition with one another; this intense conflict eventually looked as if it might even straighten out somehow as the gangs eventually attempted to unify in an effort to protect the community from the outside, but their efforts were hardly able to withstand the abuse of the NYPD and the Political attitudes that had created their situation in the first place.

Hip-Hop came from this urban gang culture of poverty and violence, and also existed in spite of it it or in opposition to it; early stories of Hip-Hop parties are both full of praise for the movement as a productive, nonviolent creative outlet, and also stories of inescapable violence; muggings, fights and shootings. Many of the same attitudes that characterized the gang culture were imitated in Hip-Hop, such as the intense competition and emphasis on groups and territory. But above all, Hip-Hop culture was stylistically competitive, with success awarded democratically to those who were able to simultaneously blend populist sensibilities with unique creativity and innovation. It’s one of the most heavily coded and idiosyncratic 20th century cultures that I’m aware of. This history of confrontational self-mythologizing has strong parallels to the gang culture at the time; but for the most part this art was being created outside of those gang structures and providing an alternative to it.

Before 1971 there was a small, localized amount of what we would now call Hip-Hop related graffiti, and it would be 10 years before anyone would give it that name or link it with any larger cultural phenomena. That year, the New York Times published a small article on TAKI 183, a Greek kid who had been writing his nickname and his apartment number all over his neighborhood. Far from demonizing him as a criminal, the article portrayed him as an outgoing kid doing something interesting, and sought to answer curiosity from the public about the cryptic phrases they had seen written around the city with increasing frequency.

Within weeks after the article, hundreds of kids were writing Hip-Hop graffiti. As a subculture formed around graffiti writers, their tags became increasingly stylized. Tagging as an activity became about forming an identity and seeking fame, by participating as an innovative competitor in a pre-existing movement with well-established rules. A Tag conveys little or no information apart from the name of the writer, and that name is a stylized alias. A Tag means two things: ‘I was here, and I’m cooler than you.’ It didn’t offer anyone a job or an escape from poverty, but it did offer fame. Tags were Icons, an instantly recognizable brand that gained prominence either through an innovative presentation or by sheer volume of output. Writers were respected by other members of the culture and often hated by the public, sometimes their true identity was even a well-guarded secret or a subject of debate. The fame it offered wasn’t necessarily substantial, although it was tangible and immediate.

For a long time this culture existed outside of the gang structure, and the practice was not limited to the poor or the non-white. While some gangs would beat up writers for trespassing on their territory, others respected writers for traveling all over the city in their efforts to spread their name everywhere. Eventually gangs recognized that graffiti was good way to mark their territory and spread their notoriety, but by the time they began practicing it, the graffiti-specific subculture was a substantial and established movement.

Writers tagged on walls, on street signs, on steel window shutters, and in each others notebooks, but most of all they wrote on and around the subway. Starting with small single-line scrawls evolving into larger bubble-text lettering on the sides of subway cars, which soon extended down the car and eventually grew into whole-car-sized pieces. Writers developed something called “wild style,” a complicated and hard-to-read style of writing their name, which allowed them room to experiment with their four- or five-letter messages, and which increasingly became readable only by other writers. Most tagging was done at night and alone, although few writers existed in isolation; in groups they began breaking into the train lay-ups overnight to paint, and during the day they gathered in communal spots to tell stories, critique each other’s work, and share techniques.

The Public reaction to graffiti was often a negative one, although few matched the sheer outrage of then-Mayor John Lindsay. Lindsay had an intense hatred for graffiti and by 1973 the city was spending over 24 million a year in graffiti prevention and removal; there was an infamous special branch of the police department specifically to catch writers, and the MTA began redesigning it’s cars and bathing them monthly in a corrosive acid called “the buff” that removed the graffiti but left the subway cars corroded and far uglier than before. This came at a time when New York City was hardly in the best shape economically, and in the face of much more significant social problems. Graffiti prevention was a conservative and reactionary response, and politically it was a way to gain the support of the public by making a big show, without fixing more immediate and significant problems (and that show didn’t even work– graffiti was far too widespread and subversive to be controlled). But Mayor Lindsay’s personal hatred of graffiti was almost comically intense; he launched a huge campaign against what he called “pollution” and vandalism,  and he was known to lose his temper often when speaking in public about the graffiti problem, leading to more than one public-relations mishap.

But apart from some positive interest shown by artsy Manhattan intellectuals, the public mainly disliked graffiti as well; it was seen as an indicator of violent crime, as a crime itself, and eventually even as a cause of crime and poverty. The hatred for graffiti was both racist and inherently capitalist in nature; graffiti was a shocking, unavoidable reminder of impoverished non-white youth that so much of New York was actively trying to forget, and those who were disgusted and outraged by the widespread presence of graffiti rarely if ever objected to the significant presence of public advertising; in a larger sense, it’s more than a little disturbing that so many members of a culture would rather have their public space decorated by predetermined corporate interests than by their fellow citizens.

Of course graffiti was vandalism, and it was illegal. Many writers were deliberately antagonistic and embraced their status as criminals; it was a way for them to gain identity and purpose in the face of marginalization and neglect. But many of the more respected and prolific writers were also idealists; they thought of their graffiti art as a positive thing, and wanted to beautify the city through personal expression. What these writers all shared was a sense of mischievous pride and an infectious obsession with fast-growing and increasingly idiosyncratic subculture.

While graffiti was creating an alternative to violence and an escape from poverty, Hip-Hop music culture also began to offer a localized alternative to the mainstream, popular culture at the time. Disco was at the peak of it’s popularity, but the world of exclusive Manhattan clubs and their carefree bourgeois patrons was off-limits to the impoverished youth. It’s generally agreed that Hip-Hop DJing started when a Jamaican immigrant calling himself DJ Kool Herc began throwing parties in the Bronx, at which he played Soul and Funk records. A new dance culture evolved around these parties that was as competitive and stylistically unique as the graffiti writing; Hercs parties were popular with these dancers and he got better as a crowd-pleasing DJ; noticing that the dancers would wait for the drums-only “break” in the record, Herc started skipping the body of the songs to get to the breaks, and repeating them over and over again to give the dancers room to improvise and do their flashiest moves. These parties grew from small house parties into club nights into larger events in outdoor parks and community centers. The culture that evolved around these parties was centered around young teenagers and Junior High students; it was their coming-of-age music, their localized personal version of Rock and Roll. But unlike the highly commercialized, white world of rock in the 60s, these kids were forming an active, subjective relationship with the music, isolating and exaggerating certain aspects of it, creating their own dances to go along with it and ascribing new meanings to specific songs or breaks.

The complicated and flashy world of technically precise DJ-culture as we now think of it did not yet exist; Like in the Jamaican Reggae culture than Herc had grown up around, groups would compete to see who had the best records and the best sound system, but these were usually just young kids would bring their parents home stereos down to the rec center. Before any well-established method of segueing between songs had been established, two groups would set up sound systems on either end of a room and when a song was about to finish on one side, a kid would flicker the light switch to let the group on the other side of the room know that it was time to start a new record so the crowd could keep dancing.

Every culture has it’s own rituals for adolescents, in which they begin to form social bonds outside of their family and find their place in a larger community; this is a thing that’s familiar to all of us, but how many of us can say that their adolescence produced something as substantial and enduring as Hip-Hop?

Hip Hop as the Avant-Garde

As Hip-Hop Djing got more popular, there were a series of innovations that led to an extremely stylized and unique new art form. Herc’s decision to skip directly to the break became common practice; Grandmaster Flash built a home-made mixer that allowed him to fade back and forth between two turntables, and Grand Wizard Theodore popularized the practice of “scratching” a record — creating new rhythmic patterns by manipulating the record while it was playing. Afrika Bambaataa was notorious for his eclectic record collection that contained breaks by everyone from Kraftwerk to the Monkees, but DJs everywhere were engaged in recontextualizing Funk, Soul, Rock, Pop, Disco, and whatever else they could get their hands on, blending separate elements from each to suit their newfound aesthetic.

All at once this new movement brought together Cubism’s collage structures, Musique-Concrete’s formal experimentation, and Pop Art’s sensationalist appropriation tactics, fusing them into a singular and unified sound that arose completely outside of the established and well-respected art institutions. it wasn’t just that they weren’t in museums; they weren’t even on the radio. This was one of the most significant developments in 20th century music and despite the unprecedented level of innovation, it was driven totally by aesthetic concerns.

As the music got more complicated the role of the DJ became increasingly that of a performer, and more thought and effort was put into presentation, and soon DJs were accompanied by MCs. Originally their job had been to get the crowd excited, to fill the space between records, to advertise upcoming parties, or to tell some kid that his mom was looking for him at the front door.

As the DJ routines got more complicated the MCing became part of the routine, and MCs began “rapping” short rhyming couplets over the beat. Eventually groups of DJs and MCs formed and they would spend all week practicing a routine of scratching, rhyming, and dancing to impress everyone that weekend. This was just as competitive as graffiti, with the same standards placed on innovation and originality within a pre-established format. As a result the culture was constantly reinventing itself; DJs were obsessively searching for more old records, ones that nobody else had used before that would make their shows memorable and unique. Rapping was based in a standard  vocabulary that was understood, but was constantly revising and changing old phrases to create new slang. In the same way that graffiti writing had incorporated comic book and cartoon characters, rap routines were full of metaphorical references to popular culture. All these forms of Hip-Hop were a means of creating an identity and redefining oneself though the appropriation of elements from pre-existing popular culture.

Popular culture eventually took notice; Manhattan bohemians were becoming more aware of what was happening up in the Bronx, and Hip-Hop parties were gaining notoriety; soon, these cultures began mixing. Art galleries hosted shows featuring photographs of painted trains or “graffiti” works on canvas, while the Downtown art scene started booking Hip-Hop groups to play at their clubs. Sometimes this interaction was a thrilling polycultural party where rich and poor, black and white, neighborhood celebrities and world-famous celebrities could share music, drugs, and sex. But just as often it was a bizarre and uneasy culture clash that never quite fit, in which neither side fully understood each other, but both groups were willing to exploit each other for their own interests. The Graffiti works on canvas are the artifact through which this uneasy clash is the most immediately visible; taken out of the subways and into the galleries, graffiti was stripped of its vitality and context — and once there, it failed to succeed by the art world’s high standards. In order to become truly successful outside poor urban neighborhoods in the Bronx and Queens, Hip-Hop would have to undergo a radical shift.

Hip Hop as Recorded Music

DJs and Rappers didn’t think of themselves as musicians; surely they dealt with music, but the Hip-Hop wasn’t thought of as a musical style that one wrote songs in and performed; Hip-Hop was a process and an event. DJs had made cassette tapes of their shows to keep as mementos and to copy and trade with each other, but none of them had thought to release a record of Hip-Hop music. With the exception of a few otherwise obscure Funk B-sides that had featured imitations of rapping, the first Rap record came in 1979.

Joey and Sylvia Robinson were middle-aged entrepreneurs who ran a modestly successful but mostly unknown R&B record label. Realized that Hip-Hop had huge commercial potential, they tried unsuccessfully to talk the best-known rappers into recording with them, but none were really interested. In desperation, they spent an afternoon in the Bronx looking for the first rapper they could find; walking into a pizza parlour, they asked the guy behind the counter if he could rap. He knew some rappers and had rapped a little as a hobby, but was by no means well-known or respected in the Hip-Hop scene. But smelling an opportunity to do something other than make pizzas all day, he told them he was an MC and they took him straight to the studio. On the way he ran into two friends and they got invited too; they called themselves the Sugarhill Gang and recorded a song called “Rapper’s Delight” — it took them an entire afternoon to get the studio backing band to perfect a 15-minute loop of a sound-alike break from a big Disco hit at the time, and then the three would-be Rappers nailed the vocals in a single take. The record was an astounding commercial success, and an unstoppable cultural event, and in less than a year they were superstars planning a tour of Europe.

The majority of the Bronx Hip-Hop community was resentful; to them, the Sugarhill Gang sounded like a corny joke, and most of Big Bank Hank’s now-famous first verse had been stolen from an old Grandmaster Caz routine (on the record, Hank even spells out Caz’s early nickname “C-A-S-A-N-O-V-A F-L-Y,” not even bothering to change the name to his own). Most of the older and more  experienced people in Hip-Hop were reluctant to sign a record deal and were wary of getting exploited; a few people viewed the following years as the end of Hip-Hop as an era and a cultural event. This view came not from an elitist, I-was-there-first perspective, but simply from the fact that what followed was so strikingly different — it was no longer something they could point to an identify as the movement they had helped to create. Regardless of this, Rap as a phenomenon was suddenly huge; it became some widespread and well-known throughout the 80s that the views of those who helped to create and define it became irrelevant.

Many of the original rap groups did make the transition to recording, although for the most part their records did not feature DJing — instead a tape was looped in the studio or, more often, session musicians would copy the record that was used in the live routine. Rap music was suddenly regarded as a recorded, rather than live, phenomenon.

Although “Rapper’s Delight” sounded weak and cheesy to some, it was nonetheless a moment fixed in time, and artifact — all recorded Hip-Hop since then comes from a tradition that originates with this record. Hearing it for the first time, a contemporary Hip-Hop listener will be overwhelmed by the dozens of lines that have been appropriated or modified of referred to in songs since then. Being a Hip-Hop fan means a life full of moments like this; the further into history that one digs, the more one finds instances of the same phrases and ideas in their earlier incarnations; even listening to 70s Funk music, one is constantly recognizing breaks that the listener experiences first in Hip-Hop songs. Since this moment Hip-Hop culture has been obsessed with it’s own tradition and history; this is the turning point after which Hip-Hop does not only recycle preexisting culture, but also begins to recursively recycle itself.

As more Hip-Hop records were released, songs grew increasingly based around a pop-song verse/chorus structure, while at the same time the fact of recording eventually allowed for a new type of appropriation to take place. DJs were initially excluded and marginalized by the recording process, due to the perceived impossibility of or impropriety of having a DJ scratch in the studio. But in the mid-80s as electronic samplers became cheaper and more common, they became an essential element in recorded Hip-Hop. Firstly, they allowed for the backing music in rap songs to be taken directly from pre-existing records; secondly, it democratized the process and made it possible for Rap records to be produced outside of a commercial studio; and thirdly, because the songs were now being constructed piece by piece rather than performed live, this offered a huge new realm of aesthetic possibilities due to the range of samples used the density with which they were layered and juxtaposed.

These new possibilities, combined with an increasingly high profile of Rap in mainstream culture with groups like Run-DMC and the Beastie Boys, eventually led to a period stretching from the mid-80s to the early-90s that many now consider to be the Golden age, the Renaissance period, the “True School” of recorded Hip-Hop music. During this era, Hip-Hop groups suddenly came from everywhere and could exist as a well-established and aesthetically diverse cultural movement that was recognized by the mainstream and was gaining in popularity, but which had yet to be fully embraced and commercialized by popular culture. The music being made at this time — after the innovation of sampling, and before expensive lawsuits meant that all samples had to be legally cleared and liscenced — is still captivating. it follows a strict formula, yet is constantly surprising, and the sense of competitive innovation is at its most developed. At it’s best, this music has an irresistible momentum and a compelling aesthetic singularity, while the sheer number of practitioners from disparate backgrounds allowed for a wide range of styles and subject matter.

Hip Hop as Folk Art

Hip-Hop Culture in the late 80s represented the experiences of those who had grown up with the Bronx/Queens localized Hip-Hop culture of the 70s, those who experienced Hip-Hop as the dominant cultural force in their formative years. Although some were original members of the Hip-Hop scene, many more had first been exposed to it as it was gaining in popularity through local radio and eventually through TV; Hip-Hop culture had soon spread to ever major urban area in the US. Many of the most interesting, sophisticated, and popular voices in New York Hip-Hop were coming from the Black Middle class – groups like Public Enemy, Eric B. and Rakim, and De La Soul, kids who had to take trains from places like Long Island to go to Hip-Hop parties on the weekends, but who nonetheless were able to identify with the culture at a time when that culture was expanding such that they could label themselves as a part of it. Hip-Hop had become more than a cultural movement, it became a perspective and an identity.

With the increasingly public profiles of rappers like LL Cool J in the public eye, Rappers were becoming legitimate celebrities. Hip-Hop’s self-glorifying egotistical game of constant stylistic and social competition was articulated most directly in Rap, and the text of lines from Rap songs was devoted almost exclusively to boasting and put-downs as Rappers created identities for themselves in the public sphere. Although there was plenty of racial and sexual diversity in Hip-Hop’s early years, Rappers were almost universally Black Males, and  Hip-Hop was now seen as the continuation of a black popular music tradition, following in the footsteps of Gospel, Blues, R&B, Soul, and Funk. The Rapper became a cultural icon representing the contemporary black male identity – they were increasingly expected to be spokesmen for the black community and eventually, some of them stepped forward to do so deliberately.

Public Enemy was as much a media event as a musical one, and they gained a high profile arguing militant pro-Black revolutionary politics, while putting out records that were groundbreaking in their sonic complexity and innovation. They became extraordinarily controversial media figures, partly because of their revolutionary attitude and partly because their position was constantly misrepresented by the media — which was not helped at all by the frankly racist and increasingly paranoid views expressed in interviews by a minor member of the group who was eventually fired.

Chuck D, the main rapper and central figurehead of Public Enemy, is often quoted in his claim that “Rap Music is the Black CNN” and, like his lyrics, this phrase contains a kernel of essential truth blown up to propagandistic proportions. Rap Music was an act, a construction, an exaggeration, and it had far more to with self-mythologizing than with communicating legitimate factual information; nonetheless, it was true that Rap Music and Hip-Hop culture were becoming almost universally accepted by urban Black youth as their major form of cultural expression.

Contrary to the way they were treated in the media at the time, and the way that they’ve been retroactively glorified, Public Enemy rarely presented a coherent and unified ideology; they were essentially making it up as they went along, generating sound-bites that suited their position best at each moment, and spending at least 2/3 of their time, in interviews and on records, defending themselves. They were constantly provocative and rarely predictable; they were the American equivalent of the Sex Pistols, 10 years later. Their records fit this persona exactly; they’re some of the densest, noisiest and most involving Hip-Hop records that have been made, before or since.

At the same time, the west-coast group N.W.A. was gaining national notoriety for the most violent, sexist, and profane rap record that anyone had made so far – “Straight Outta Compton” is an indelible cultural landmark, unavoidably influential and almost universally misunderstood. It’s a cartoonishly extreme representation of life in the gang-filled ghettos of LA, and its creators deliberately intended for it to be both an absurd joke taken to an extreme and a dead-serious criticism; the result is both wholly indefensible and completely irresistible.

Although there were several precedents in New York in the years before, N.W.A. signaled the arrival of Gangsta Rap — tough-sounding rappers who talked about gang warfare, degraded women, and glorified a criminal lifestyle.  It was seen as the West Coast’s answer to to the East Coast’s innovations, and most of New York rap since has been a retaliation and a response.  Within a few years it was easily the dominant form of Hip-Hop, both culturally and economically. This was both because in the game of constant one-upmanship, Gangsta Rap’s intensity made most traditional rappers sound dated and weak; also, it had a remarkable appeal to white suburban teenagers. Gangsta Rap helped to solidify the arrival of Hip-Hop as a major American cultural institution, proving that Hip-Hop was much too large and too complex to be dismissed as a brief New York-related fad.

At it’s best, Gangsta Rap was a demand for America to examine it’s ghettos, and a format for the continuation of Hip-Hop’s ongoing aesthetic revolutions. Even as a mere formalist exercise Gangsta Rap produced things like the Wu-Tang Clan, a gigantic New York group that took idiosyncratic cultural references and self-glorifying put-downs to an unanticipated level of efficiency which made everything that came before seem quaint by comparison.

But at it’s worst, Gangsta Rap was an unstoppably ubiquitous regurgitation of thoughtless hatred that caused serious damage to the public perception of blacks in urban areas, perpetuating unfortunate cultural stereotypes and irresponsibly promoting a culture of misogyny and violence. It signified excess in a way that the dominant power structures were all too willing to both condemn and exploit.

Hip Hop as Corporate Branding

Capitalist America had always been skeptical of Hip-Hop; they didn’t understand it, they didn’t like it, but they knew that it could make a lot of money. In the aftermath of Gangsta Rap, following the highly-publicized murders of 2Pac and the Notorious B.I.G., Hip-Hop was simultaneously experiencing an era of self-examination and the pinnacle of its commercial success. As few as 5 years previous, it was still common to hear debates about whether or not Hip-Hop could be considered as “real music” — but by the late 90s Hip-Hop had become such a large industry that it was unavoidable. Major news outlets devoted time to Hip-Hop’s “20th Anniversary” while the most widely respected top-selling Hip-Hop artists were either such accessible cross-over material (Lauryn Hill) or so watered-down and mediocre (Sean “Puffy” Combs) that they were nearly unrecognizable as Hip-Hop; all the signifiers were there, but they lacked the vitality, the immediacy, and the basic sound of Rap music.

Breakdancing had disappeared early in the 80s apart from a few small devoted groups of practitioners, it was the easiest element of Hip-Hop to write off as a fad whose time had passed. Graffiti is still an indelibly popular folk tradition, but Graffiti-style writing is seen more often on T-Shirts, Soft Drinks and Magazine Ads than on actual trains. Many urban youth programs now offer classes on “How to DJ,” which place such importance on the proper procedure that they allow no room for innovation and creativity on the level of Flash and Theodore. From a creative standpoint, Graffiti and DJ/Turntable culture had essentially both become niche-markets that obsessed over their own codes and traditions to a fault, rendering themselves helplessly backward-facing and immobile. Commercially successful Hip-Hop records were increasingly relying on synthesized, studio-based production (some of which was actually quite innovative and interesting), and so the Rapper was what remained as the singular cultural signifier of Hip-Hop; and once removed of all distinguishing features, the Rapper was reduced to merely another flavor of music celebrity, interchangeable with the pop singer or the rock band.

Puff Daddy was the most prominent instance of the Rapper-as-Icon in the late 90s; an entrepreneur, a self-made mogul whose shrewd business decisions and ubiquitous presence as a symbol of wealth were far more important than his actual music. His hits themselves were largely consisted of 70’s MOR Pop/Rock records sampled in their near-entirety while he and a series of interchangeable guest stars mumbled incoherently and unenthusiastically to disguise a void of talent or recognizable personality.

Recorded Hip-Hop had long been a brand, a time slot on MTV, a genre. In the 90’s Rap was given it’s own section in record stores and it’s own marketing demographic. It was experiencing a crisis of identity, and the records were increasingly characterized by Puffy-related displays of wealth and dull excess; the few alternatives in the popular music sphere were mostly nostalgia acts like Jurassic 5, who began as an acceptably sufficient reproduction of their early-90s inspirations, but whom quickly faded into calculated sentimentality. This dichotomy meant that most acts followed one of these two paths, with little room for innovation or insight. Hip-Hop was winning Grammys while it was selling deodorant; neither of these things can possibly be healthy for an artistic movement that seeks to maintain its integrity.

Hip-Hop had always been ripe for commercialization; from its crowd-pleasing populist tendencies to its fascination with clothes and jewelry as symbols of success and importance, Hip-Hop lacked many of the basic factors that made the commercialization of Punk so contradictory and difficult. In one sense, Hip-Hop as a movement had perfectly achieved the goals of it’s practitioners: prominence, respectability, fame, and validation. But in doing so it had sacrificed most of the qualities that made it so fascinating and important in the first place. While Hip-Hop culture had once stolen from popular culture to suit it’s own needs, Popular culture was now creating products specifically to be sold to a Hip-Hop Generation; the rebels had become consumers. It was a phenomenon that had been able to accomplish so much creatively and culturally while existing outside of popular culture, and was then able to continue to increase in prominence and quality, gaining notoriety without the acceptance or validation of the mainstream. Now that Hip-Hop was the mainstream, it could no longer be a thriving and subversive alternative, and the essence of its importance was lost.

Now that Hip-Hop is more popular and acceptable than ever before, it’s receiving much more critical attention, not just as a signifier of contemporary Black culture or as a dangerous threat, but as an artistic and cultural movement with a rich, underreported history. It’s only in the past few years that a large number of serious texts have really sought to address Hip-Hop as a whole; some are essential documents of it’s early years and development (many of which were used sources in my research), while many others miss the point entirely. The majority of the more misguided texts attempt to validate Hip-Hop’s history through its current commercial success; ultimately, this amounts to little more than bandwagon-jumping on the part of the writers, although arguably a few are well-intentioned but blinded by the lack of perspective on anything other than what’s currently popular.

In their texts, Rakim is important because 50 Cent quotes him, rather than the other way around. The History and development of the music is simplified to a sound bite “two turntables and microphone” while the near-universal popularity of Hip-Hop in global urban mass-media culture is used to explain why it’s history is worthy of investigation, as if Hip-Hop were a self-fulfilling prophecy that had finally arrived. Almost universally the prevalence of Hip-Hop in a wide plurality of cultures around the world is used to justify the relevance and importance of the practice. But this view ignores precisely everything that is fascinating and essential about Hip-Hop — the specifics of it’s creation, the context in which it existed, the unprecedented and groundbreaking nature of what it accomplished, and the possibilities that it suggested. These writers are essentially arguing that Hip-Hop’s history is important because it helps explain why we now listen to Nelly so much.

The fact that culture-hungry rich kids from places like Scandinavia and Australia might be blindly embracing Hip-Hop as music fashion indicates not the fruition of Hip-Hop’s relevance, but the absence of it. If teenagers in Japan are rapping and writing graffiti in what they feel is a close imitation of 1982 New York, this suggests not the universality of those modes of expression, but the degree to which those traditions have become robbed of their specificity and relevance, and are now being packaged and sold to foreign youth cultures as a product that they can buy instead of creating a youth culture of their own. If every movie has a guest appearance by Snoop Doggy Dogg, this means that Snoop has been removed of the specificity which is the essence of his appeal, and has become essentially a cartoon character that can be stuck in any situation, where he will be recognized and accepted without having to much more than spout absurd slang that even white country-club grandmothers can mimic without ridicule.

Although almost nobody has suggested this since 1982, perhaps it’s time to consider Hip-Hop a dead tradition, like Rock or Classical music. Once Hip-Hop has been given closure it can be examined from a perspective outside of its currently most popular trends; the notion of Hip-Hop as a thing of the past allows us to move on and create new artistic forms rather than retreading the same narrow path until it stops making money. To declare Hip-Hop a dead art form is not to dismiss it, or even it’s contemporary practitioners. It would be just as ignorant and misleading to suggest that no good rappers exist today, as it would be to suggest that there are no more good rock bands. But the sooner that we, as analysts of culture, can declare Hip-Hop over, the more clearly we will be able to analyze it as a whole and come to some sort of understanding about that it represented, what made it unique, and what we can learn from where it ended up.

This has happened to Punk music quite nicely; the arbiters of public opinion have classified Punk as a significant cultural and musical movement that arose in the late-70s, enjoyed a period of importance and creativity, and faded into other things over the next decade. Punk subcultures still exist everywhere, usually kitschy but often enjoyable, but only the most foolish observers would classify today’s Top 40 “Punk”-influenced artists as anything of the sort. It seems the majority of the serious texts written about Punk have a healthy and productive view of it; why it happened, what was essential about it, and what it signified.  Perhaps Hip-Hop as a historical event could benefit from a similar assessment.

Selected Bibliography

Fricke, Jim and Ahearn, Charlie Yes Yes Y’all – the Experience Music Project Oral History of Hip-Hop’s First Decade. Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press, 2002.

Chang, Jeff, Can’t Stop Won’t Stop – A History of the Hip-Hop Generation. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2005.

Castleman, Craig. Getting Up – Subway Graffiti in New York. Cambridge, MA: the MIT Press, 1982.

Schloss, Joseph G. Making Beats – the Art of Sample-Based Hip-Hop. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2004.

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