Legends of the Fall 1994

"No time for looking back, it's done"

Like 1979, 1982, 1988 or 1997, any working chronology of Hip Hop music should never overlook 1994 as a pinnacle year of its development, especially for New York.  Knowledgeable heads will cite Nas’ Illmatic and Notorious BIG’s Ready to Die with just cause.  Those less provincial will note Snoop Doggy Dogg’s solo album, Common’s resurrection of Chicago and Outkast’s debut from Atlanta.  Strikingly, Fall 1994 Hip Hop is a period that sounds both dated and inventive.  It is a moment when old school sensibilities of rocking mics mixed with a menace inflicted by a box cutter’s blade.  The mixtapes When We Were Very Young Volumes One, Two and Three captures both the pleasure and pain of this period.  (Mixes are zipped up and iTunes friendly by yours truly)

"A strange form,
somethin' kind of lyrical"
By that autumn, the serendipitous creativity and commercial growth of rap music from 1986 to 1993 was coming to close.  1994 was, in some ways, the Golden Era’s wake.  These songs were brutal lyrical laments of a transformative and uplifting street culture passing away.  Moreover, raps of this era chronicle the impact of the crack cocaine epidemic on the black American urban underclass unflinchingly.  These kids grew up on Planet Ready Rock where the lines between the rap game and crack game had blurred.  The impact of the latter loomed too large to ignore evidenced by unflinching titles such as “Shook Ones” or “Stray Bullet.”

No doubt Nas' epic “One Love” or declarative “Life’s a Bitch” may be the best of these moments.  But Lord Finesse’s “Shorties Kaught in the System” or Rae and Ghost’s “Heaven and Hell” also capture a growing dread that things done changed.  The youth of the late 1980s and 1990s have been abandoned not only by systemic inequality of the Reagan years but familial rejection.  "Ready to die, why I act that way? / Pop Duke left Mom Duke, the faggot took the back way” Biggie scorns on “The What.”  

"You see it, I be it"
Songs such as “Downtown Swinga,” “Buck ‘em Down” and “Let’s Get It On” all capture a confrontational, uncompromising stance: alienated urban black youth who casually flash steel, blow trees and guzzle Hennessy as a means of opposition for anyone within or outside their cypher that encroach upon their block.  “The most violent of the violent-lest crimes we give life to / If these QueensBridge kids don't like you” Prodigy intones on “Shook Ones.”

Friends are no allies either, in “Alladat” Sadat X raps: “Everybody claims to know nothin’ /  And these is the peoples that's down wit me / Supposedly, theys on my side, yeah right / They let a nigga die in the night if you let em” Parrish Smith publicly feuds with his long time friend and business partner Erick Sermon on “I Saw It Cummin’”: “Not trying to promote violence but thats the way it is / The code of the ghetto ain't got shit to do with showbiz.” Further, Biggie and Tupac may famously share a track here on “Let’s Get It On” but within a year’s time whatever friendship they might have had would be marred by a growing violent coastal feud.  

The type of sonic and platonic unity showcased by Kid n’ Play’s “2 Hype” or Rob Base and DJ EZ’s Rock “It Takes Two” in 1988 has been eclipsed by the perils of both glitz and glamour and the code of the streets by 1994.  In OC’s words, “Time’s Up” the rap game had become a farce, ribald fables without lessons, lyrics without meaning: “Non-conceptual, non-exceptional / Everybody’s either crime-related or sexual.” Veteran Craig Mack swings in “Flava in Ya Ear,” simply saying of new jacks, “You won’t be around next year…”

"From Melrose to Patterson, Lexington to Madison"

"When we start the revolution..."
There has been always an issue of legality born of the original practices: the acts of graffiti writing, powering DJ equipment from lamp posts, breakdancing and partying in public spaces initially thrived because of the lack of civil order in the Bronx in the 1970s.  Paradoxically, as the clamp down of these “quality of life” crimes removed Hip Hop culture from public spaces in the 1980s, the emerging crack market and the recreational consumption of “blunts,” Heines and Becks become mixed up with B-Boy bravado.  By 1994 the traditional “Four Elements” archetype and illusions of the B-Boy literally transformed before our ears.  Hip Hop lore intersects with criminology as Nas outlines in “Represent”: 

More of matter of factly, graf writer and master of ceremonies El da Sensei from the Artifacts breaks down a day in the life: 

Curiously, some of the main ingredients of this era survives from a time before crack.  Vocal stop gap measures sometimes identified as the black preacher's “whooping” are heard in such as standard Hip Hop phrases “Yes, yes, y’all” or “And ya don’t stop."  Further the “call and response” devices for song hooks are evidenced throughout.  Whether with sample snippets or vocal choruses, songs such as “Mansion and a Yacht,” “Hit Me with That”, “Without a Doubt,” “2,3 Break,” “What a Niggy Know,” and “Word is Bond” all display the hallmarks of an Old School era fading away.  The works of the Redman and The Artifacts carry the baton as well but are weighed down by a casual misogyny and nihilism that characterizes American culture at large by this decade.

"For every rhyme I write is 25 to life"
Setting aside sociological analysis, scanning the track listings of these mixtapes reveals the emergence of notable long standing Hip Hop icons both on the mic and behind the boards during this particular autumn.  Biggie and Nas’ should not overshadow the rise in profile of household names such as Busta Rhymes, Common Sense and The Roots.  The verbal assault of Pharoe Monche of Organized Konfusion (“Bring It On”), Sadat XMad Skillz and Keith Murray should not be overlooked either.  Black Moon, Smif n’ Wessun and Mobb Deep refined a murder music aesthetic that continues to be emulated to this day.  The lyrical variety of 1994 was on display as well.  The Cella Dwellas dabble in mysticism (“Land of the Lost”) and the Gravediggaz the macabre (“1-800-Suicide”).  Common Sense (“Chapter 13”), Organized Konfusion ("Stray Bullet") and Jeru the Damaja ("You Can't Stop the Prophet") all employ metaphor skillfully.

"That's what I consider real
in this field of music"
While production work in the Fall 1994 solidified Large Professor, Premier, Pete Rock and Q-Tip’s legacy, Bronx wunderkind Buckwild almost single handedly reinvented the Diggin’ in the Crates aesthetic.  Eschewing be bop horns and piano riffs, Buckwild unearthed the cinematic progressive jazz soundscapes of David Axlerod (“C'mon wit da Git Down”) and Les DeMerle (“Time’s Up”).  The sampling aesthetic had always favored a wide palate, but with “Alladat” and “Thirteen” Buckwild carried on tradition with inventive chops of familiar breakbeats.  Likewise making a name for himself, Chicago’s NO I.D. should be recognized for his new take on soulful boom bap in “Check the Method” and “Communism.”  As a result, twenty years later, NO I.D. has become sought out by Jay-Z, Nas, Common, Big Sean and Kendrick Lamar when attempting to recapture this storied sound of the 1990s.

It’s ironic to be canonizing a year and a season that itself was lamenting the end of one era and the beginning of the next.  If we were to personify Hip Hop culture, one might characterize that Hip Hop in 1994 began to take inventory of its self in its twenties, mourning the "back in the days" passed.  Captured on these mixtapes are the generational voices of young black adults navigating a rap music industry’s coming of age while simultaneously besieged by the violence and catastrophe of the avertible crack cocaine epidemic.  Their collective past histories had become the future by the fall of 1994 and as such, Hip Hop prepared to sing the blues.


If They Come In the Evening: Angela Davis and Nas at Lehigh University

A Black Power Mixtape
Last night Angela Davis and Nas visited Lehigh University in Bethlehem for a conversation about Civil Rights and justice for America's incarcerated population and their families.  Lupe Fiasco was originally scheduled, but sorry, Lupe, this billing is better.

Perhaps because I am so guarded when it comes to the strange bedfellows of Hip Hop and academia, I was pleasantly surprised how well it went.  Much respect is given to the entire MLK committee for creating a well organized but relaxed atmosphere.  Smartly, they played Nas' greatest hits over the loud speakers leading up to the event; such a necessary ingredient is sometimes missing  at collegiate affairs like this.  MLK Awards were given to students and faculty for definitive and identifiable contributions to the school and the community.  Rousing performances of spoken word and singing preceded the main event.  

The at large Civil Rights conversation between Prof. Davis and Nas was loosely focused on the Prison Industrial Complex.  Ms. Davis' career, her personal struggles and activism were obviously a compelling and instructional tale of overcome and the ongoing fight for justice.  Expressing a sincere gratitude toward the crowd, she appeared to be still in awe of an audience of 700+ hanging on her every word.  Her analysis and information were not breaking news but it was pointed in its indictments of the tragedy and farce that institutionalized racist private prison policies embody.  And she was not without a few criticisms of the Ivory Tower.  But the proceedings also felt safe rather than radical.  Formal academic spaces have a way of doing that.  

It Ain't Hard to Tell:
Cap Cee at the right place
at the right time
Nas effectively employed his skill to relate complex social, cultural and personal experiences in pithy phrases or imagery.  There were no cliches about "growing up in the 'hood" but rather he spoke frankly of his subjective experiences that he later learned in adulthood were a part of larger systemic dysfunction.  My words not his, but to his credit he didn't try to be an academic and yet he seemed comfortable and humble on such a stage, insightful in his own way.  Certain audience questions that came his way were the fantastic kind you might ask an oracle and he gave an honest answers to the best of his ability.  In his public persona he simultaneously conveys the affect of an old soul and a child at heart.

Nas successfully evaded questions about the objectionable lyrics of women and violence that pervade rap by distancing himself from the record industry and emphasizing he makes music for adults not for children to hear on the radio.  A few of my feminist friends- and also hip hop heads who know his discography well- felt he was let off the hook.  I mean, in this regard, perhaps someone could have asked just a two word question of him: "Oochiee Wally?"

Angela Davis and Nas: Voices of Resistance
But that would have been a disingenuous "gotcha" moment if things had gone in that direction.  That type of discourse was not what this particular evening was about.  What was perhaps most impressive was that a very public, impromptu conversation about inequality, imprisonment and social action was held by two very different luminaries who were nonetheless kindred spirits.  Their career arcs couldn't be more different but their politics the same.  It was a bridged a gap between the Civil Rights movement and the Hip Hop culture industries, a sight rarely seen.  The multi-generational nature of this event was reflected in the wide age range of the attendees as well.  

JBP, Angela D and Nasty
Professor Davis and Nas also did an excellent job connecting with audience members who asked questions, applauding student's thoughtfulness or their efforts to excel.  This was likely doubly so earlier in the evening when a group of Lehigh students worked one on one with Davis and Nas in the classroom.  Special shout out to Liberty High Students and Northampton County Community college students who showed up and came ready with questions.  There was a discernible feeling of uplift throughout this event.
Also acknowledgement must be given Dr. James B. Peterson.  As a moderator, he was at ease out the gate and deftly lead discussions between these two different types of individuals.   He never took any of the spotlight for himself, an important (and rare) talent reflecting his character, skill set and intelligence.  For an event billed as a intimate conversation, Dr. Peterson made that possible by his laid back but confident demeanor.  So props all around.  It's time to build (schools) and destroy (prisons).


Menace II Society? 1% vs. Five Percent

Question: are the 1% Motorcycle Club and the Five Percent Nation of the Gods and Earths sub-cultures or counter cultures? We use the following informal documentaries for discussion points

1% PT 1:

1% PT 2:

Five Percent History and Presence in Hip Hop Culture:

Speaking Upon Allah's Mathematics:

Brand Nubian Allah U Akbar:

Everything is everything. A German rapper with Muslim affiliations reps his Motor Club:


Nice Twerk If You Can Get It

A friend wrote me the following email last week.  He's a seasoned gentleman who has oft expressed to me disappointment when youth allow themselves to be entertained by the lowest common denominator. And to be sure, his response to the Miley Cyrus VMA performance was not unlike many other peoples regardless of age and sensibility:

It might be helpful in future if that what's-her-name MTV performer -- Miley Gaga? Beyonce Cyrus? -- remembered that "twerk" rhymes with "jerk."

What is being lost in all this controversy is (popular) cultural context.  "Twerking" has its origins as a Hip Hop dance found celebrated in down South rap songs as early as the 1990s.  DJ Jubilee's 1993 call and response laden dance track "Jubille All" may be the first commercially available song invoking the phrase.

Before we indict Jubilee for unleashing such a pithy sexist commemoration of rhythm and gyration, at least one interview of the man during his heyday seem to indicate Jubilee understood his music to be aligned with that of any well intended after school program:
“I don’t use drugs. I don’t smoke weed. I don’t drink. I don’t gamble. I grew up around all that, I see it every day and I wouldn’t wanna live that life. It’s not me so that’s why I don’t rap about it.” As far as his image goes, DJ Jubilee takes his responsibility as a role model very seriously. “I’m out every day tellin’ kids who are on the streets sellin’ drugs—’You have a chance. You have a chance in life. Your chance is now. Go to school. Get your education.’”

The above is not an attempt to justify a man extolling the virtues of twerking but to place this dance in a larger, more confusing cultural context.  Jubilee may be hiding in a suit of male armored privilege but take that away and he still may be a genius billionaire playboy philanthropist.

The "subculture" of Hip Hop from the Dirty South has always been characterized by its illicit nature in both lyrics and dance.  It is often equally praised and criticized for it's all out celebratory nature.  I am not the first to do it, but I describe southern Hip Hop to the uninitiated or close minded as embodying the same festive nature of 1970s "Old School Sugarhill" rap records: flash, cash and pizzaz.  However, many Dirty South artists combine that aesthetic sensibility with a contemporary disregard for sexual taboos or enlightened gender relations.

What's more, an armchair anthropological study will find similar moves movements found in the African dance, Mapouka. Here a workshop held in Poland explores the dance:

Same Difference:
In a sense, the outcry about the lack of virtues of twerking is a tangled ethnocentric debate.  An argument can be made both ways.  A (black) woman should not allow herself to be objectified and used in such a salacious fashion.  Another point of view argues that no man, especially white, has any business telling what a woman to do with her body and that her sexuality is her tool and pleasure to do as she sees fit.  Further, note that in a world of epidemic eating disorders, Mapouka and Twerking prize a supple (African) body as healthy and desirable as opposed to Western idealized rail thin (white) body.

But what is even less easier to discuss are the issues of class and race that Miley Cyrus so easily transcends by being a mass media magnet that reduces the conversation down to headlines and hashtags.

Meet the new boss,
same as the old boss
The problem with Miley Cyrus' twerk is that she gets all the publicity and none of the socio-cultural backlash.  Sure, she may be blasted by those of us who find it distasteful and those of us who are clearly aware it was a publicity stunt to assure her long time fans she is growing up.  "Look at me now" her pose says as her publicists position her as a fully realized tart, ready to use her sexuality in order to distance herself from her Disney roots.  But the disgust matters little to her handlers.  Mission accomplished.  By twerking, Miley Cyrus will never be considered a little girl and can compete with her elders like Gaga and Ke$ha.  Let's be sure to indict the entertainment biz's largely male button pushers and bean counters who profiting off of such senseless sex and violence.

Furthermore, what Miley leaves on that stage is the racial and class stigma associated with twerking that perhaps a black woman working at a strip club in Atlanta will likely have a harder time transcending.  Moreover, this hypothetical young black woman is somehow used as a marker for her fellow young black woman- a discredit to her race.  Examples of this can be found in formal media and educational discourse and likely in informal discourse amongst family and peers as well.

Miley gets to Twerk and I doubt anyone will say to my daughters, "What's wrong with young white women today?"

Our Bodies,
Express Ourselves
One last thing.  In my mind, Miley Cyrus actually makes Madonna that more of a compelling figure.  Madonna was a woman who also brazenly revealed herself and reveled in her sexuality in the 80s and 90s but did so as means to disrupt largely white Catholic perceptions of what a woman can and cannot do with her body.  Madonna writhed on stage while still declaring a love for God and her church, a post modern duality that I think created further acceptance of diverse representations of women, sexuality and religion.

Miley Cyrus and company are simply cashing in and selling the nuances of Hip Hop culture and the African American woman short.  If there's a body part to blame, it's hipsters.


Show and Prove: Back to the Future

On the last day of the semester in my "Pass the Peas" Hip Hop class, I request my students Show and Prove.  Each student is required to present a song they think will rock the house, score them points and earn them the much coveted "Pass the Peas" award: a physical copy of the legendary ARM 18 mixtape "Version City Vol. 1"  Perhaps surprisingly to us cynical older cats, the three top scoring songs a room full of 19 or 20 somethings chose were insightful, inspirational tracks of traditional boom bap.  

The "Get By (Remix)" garnered the most votes with its star studded cast and its universal themes of struggle.  "Thieves In the Night" is not the first time I have seen this song in this contest, proof that classics have still been made in the last 15 years and that Talib and Mos' literacy is not over the heads of the supposed illiteracy of Generation Text.  But its the props "Rebirth of Slick (Cool Like That)" received truly took me back.  I am pretty sure some of the students were but in diapers when this song dropped and earned a Grammy.  Yes, children, there was a time when uplifting raps could crossover while still booming out of jeeps, shake streets and invite listeners to strike a pose of cool thoughtfulness.  Thanks for reminding me.



Back To The Future

At the end of every semester in "Pass the Peas" the tables are turned and this teacher becomes student. Each year my students learn me new artists, new songs, new flows, new beats. Here is a sampling of some of the submissions:

You know what that Down South rap has? That energy, that thirst that drove Hip Hop in the 80s and 90s. You hear geographic pride, confidence, swag: "No insurance on these whips, tags all outdated / I might not be sh*t to you, but my momma thinks I made it"

Hopspin's not wrong.  My only criticism is the eye contacts make him an angry freak show distracting from his message and talent.

Straight outta Dubai, this kid nails the hook (and production too) like it's the next anthem of every kid on the come up.

Reppin' 1994, HD was born the year the kind of Hip Hop he makes topped the charts: when lyrics were at a premium and beats snapped necks. I don't know, maybe not much has changed...


"It Was All A Dream" : Hip Hop Consciousness

People's Instinctive Travels Upon the Crossroads of Lack and Desire:
"Industrialized" Hip Hop in the Post Industrial Age

As always, using Simon Frith's "Technique and Technology" theory as our guide, we have learned through a combination of Cobb's To The Break of Dawn and Philipe Bougouis' In Search of Respect that Hip Hop music in the modern era is an amalgamation of the Blues ethos with South Bronx boom bap.  By the early 90s, rap music became in particular characterized by the tragedy of urban America's crack cocaine epidemic, from its lyrical content to how it has been marketed by a global entertainment industry.

For an understanding of Hip Hop music in 2011, Rather than analyze record sales or identify who pioneered the seemingly infinite sub-genres of rap, we turn to Rha Goddess' essay "Scarcity and Exploitation: The Myth and Reality of the Struggling Hip Hop Artist."  This essay along with Danny Hoch's "Toward a Hip Hop Aesthetic: A Manifesto for the Hip Hop Arts Movement" and, importantly, M.K. Asante Jr's chapter "Old White Men (Or, Who Owns Hip Hop?)" from It's Bigger Than Hip Hop provide for us a concluding analysis of where Hip Hop has come from, how it has grown and its present state.  This is not a dissection which rapper is the "Greatest Of All Time" but are far more serious quest to identify Hip Hop's Collective Consciousness.

First, Rha Goddess defines Poverty Consciousness as psychological fear of lacking material items and denial of self worth.  It is oft romanticized belief that this mental condition and material state is beneficial to artistic process.  For example, while it is an oversimplification, we often correlate oppressive conditions with creative (African American) output.  Think how we connect Jim Crow era oppression begetting the blues or urban strife in our America' northern cities creating the sound of jazz.  Or the people in the South Bronx birthed Hip Hop culture in the face of post industrial peril.  Simply put, right or wrong, we believe Poverty Consciousness breeds creativity.

Hip Hop culture did begin under the conditions of poverty and lack of resources. Danny Hoch calls them the “traditional aesthetics” of Hip Hop like the devices of metaphor or illusion.  What has emerged as Hip Hop culture grew and its identity formed is a recognizable “Collective Consciousness.” (CC) Hip Hop's CC is its the understanding of identity, history, money, competition of survival, scarcity of resources, and feelings of exploitation (real or imagined).

Mobb Deep's "Hell On Earth" itemizes these real fears and imagines them to be something even worse:

Rap music is a defiant celebration of the struggle;  going from rags to the riches, the transformation and triumph are hallmarks of the rap song form. Thus, rapper must "pay their dues" as a "starving artist" to establish credibility and validity.  Game and 50 Cent make this clear in "Hate or Love It":

Rappers who obtain credibility and validity define themselves in lyrics, images or symbols as possessing or experiencing any or all of the following:
• In touch
• On the pulse
• Original
• Innovative
• Pioneering
• Courageous
• Crucifixion earns “extra props”

If an rap artist has not struggled to obtain this, they are “commercial” or “sellouts.” Paradoxically, credibility is diminished by success.  (This was especially true during Hip Hop's Golden Era from1987 to 1993).  What is the incentive to be anything else other than a "starving artist"? You must maintain the appearance of struggle even while succeeding.

 “Industry rule number 4080 / record company people are shady...”
A Tribe Called Quest “Check the Rhime"

But since the mid 1990s, making money off of Hip Hop has not only been accepted but it has all but become its singular focus.  So why are rap artists today still "starving"? Answer: bad business practices.

Often in rap music (and perhaps other popular art forms), this "struggling" Collective Consciousness creates a trend of bad business management and poor business decisions.

Follow how a rapper's path to success takes shape in this narrative:
• Artist as victim.  Faces lack of recognition, resources and stability.
• Organized money and institutions are the primary culprits along with fellow artists and unsupportive family and friends.
• Artists don't know how to do business and they are victims of labels, lawyers and finicky fans.

or conversely when a Hip Hop artist succeeds:
• Friends, family and community treat you differently
• Rappers feel uneasy and guilty about success
• Worse, they feel unsafe and about success (“watch your back”)

What develops is a “scarcity of success”; thus, the Hip Hop industry is:
• fiercely competitive
• artists hoard information and work in isolation
• record labels marketing "gimmicks" are actual lived experiences. This ensures a rapper's authenticity and artistic dominance

Consider how the following "real life" situations are exploited by labels, media and / or the artist themselves.  For rappers especially, the line between "real life" and entertainment is blurred purposely.  This is nothing new to Hip Hop (or pop music) as the public criminal lives of Buskwick Bill, Slick Rick and Tupac all fueled record marketing strategies.

*Artist / Marketed Struggles and Events*
- Eminem / White, Addiction, Kim, Haley, Mom
- 50 Cent / Shot nine times
- Kanye / Car accident, Mom died, dumped by girlfriend
- Jay Z / Life of poverty, jail record, death of Auto-Tune
- Lil' Wayne / Pending charges, conviction, jail time
- Diddy / Biggie's death

“If skills sold, truth be told, I'd probably be / lyrically, Talib Kweli / Truthfully I wanna rhyme like Common Sense / But I did five mill' - I ain't been rhymin like Common since” - Jay Z “Moment of Clarity"

If an artist commits to having credibility they accept being under acknowledged and under paid because society doesn't “value” art with integrity.

“Hustlers and boosters embrace me and the music I be makin / I dumbed down for my audience to double my dollars / They criticized me for it yet they all yell "HOLLA!" - Jay Z “Moment of Clarity"

But art is valued in our society- We consume it in abundance, don't we? It is predominately thought of as escapism- it is supposed to be entertaining, amusing, easy to digest, not requiring much thought. Thus, rappers who choose artistic success often adopt these “dumbed down” strategies.  Jay-Z takes a second to dis those who "dumb down" their "art" which ironically confirms his authenticity as a "true artist."

Hip Hop's "Industrial Era"

This Hip Hop Consciousness does not empower rappers and producers as their "artistic" practice is consumed by the machine of the music business.  A sampling of the forms of companies, services and careers the Hip Hop and Rap Music Industry is comprised of:

• Entities that seek to profit from the marketing and sales of rap music and its ancillary products.
• Record companies
• Music publishers
• Radio stations
• Record Stores
• Music video shows/channels
• Recording Studios (Owners, Engineers, Mixers)
• Performance Venues
• Booking Agents
• Promoters
• Managers, Accountants, Lawyers
• Disc Jockeys
• Music Publications
• Music/Entertainment Websites

The state of the Hip Hop Industry largely parallels the economic inequality African Americans face at in society at large.  With the synergistic relationship Hip Hop and R&B have had in the last 15 years, these “black” genre labels have re-categorized under the euphemism of “Urban Music” to make marketing of this product more palatable for "mainstream" tastes.  But the following questions must be clearly answered if we are to think that Hip Hop music is something more than disposable entertainment:

Who sponsors rap?
Who buys the most rap?
Who promotes death and violence?
Who backs ignorance?
Who exploits Hip Hop artists?
Who profits from “Black on Black” violence?
Who owns “urban” radio stations, television stations, print publications?

Mos Def's "freestyle" cut "The Rape Over" asks the same:

To quote Jay Z, truth be told, major label rappers have little to no ownership in this distribution, marketing and ultimate profit from their product.  The “Big Four” Universal Music Group, Sony BMG, EMI Group, Warner Music Group account for 82% of US Music Market and 90% of the retail market. There are no Black Americans in the top executive positions of these companies. Rap record labels and “black entrepreneurs” like Diddy, Russell Simmons, Jay Z give an illusion that the Hip Hop industry is "black owned" but the Big Four are really “parent” companies of the most prolific Hip Hop success stories. Diddy, Simmons and others employ “perception management” to create the illusion of control over the content of the music.  Ultimately, these entrepreneurs make more money from clothing, liquor sales, car parts, etc. and other accessories than they do from music.

“Subliminal hypnotism and colonialism / leaves most niggaz dead or in prison”- Jeru da Damaja “Return of the Crooklyn Dodgers

Neo-colonialism: Forcing countries to consume what they do not produce and produce what they do not consume.  If the largest records and ancillary companies had but even a peripheral interest in the poor and the Black and Latino population rap music supposedly represents, then why would this rap "culture" be so overwhelming negative and self destructive?

Perhaps main stream rap's biggest audience is not even Black at all: According to Asante's referenced Forbes study: 45 million Hip Hop consumers between the ages of 13 and 34. 80% are White and have $1 trillion in spending power.

Thus, “Commercial” Hip Hop is programmed by corporations that have little to no Black or ethnic representation despite peddling a product that purports to be “Black.” As a result the music:
• Has lost its edge
• Sense of rebellion and Black improvement
• The founding principals of artistry and empowerment

After the platinum successes of the low budget investments artists of the Golden Era, signed artists whose political agenda was in direct conflict with a record label's bottom line were dropped. The “Cop Killer” controversy accelerated this trend; the 2 Live Crew First Amendment “victory” certified that misogyny and Black on Black violence was a selling point.

A trend of “corporate censorship” has developed where politically charged artists are marginalized by the label's “choice” on how to distribute the product.

Restriction of socio-poltical Hip Hop artistry can take the form of:
• Intimidation
• Budget Cutting
• Refusing to advertise or allow airtime
• Dropping “questionable” songs from final product
• Repackaging of artwork

Large record labels are practicing a policy of that seeks to make money off Hip Hop art and culture as long as it does not challenge the status quo in tone or content.

Plain and simple, Hip Hop artists do not own their music because they do not own the channels of production. Ownership of the music, distribution of the music and the final manufactured product are largely beyond a Hip Hop artist's control. Thus, the feeling of alienation is sustained in Hip Hop's collective consciousness.

The widespread dysfunctional reaction of rappers to seemingly all forms of marginalization is a dominate Hip Hop musical narrative that outlines mass consumption of material items, drugs, guns and women as some sort of defiant stance. There is no spiritual base or sense of peace or accomplishment as the Hip Hop artist is seeking internal serenity but only acquires external satisfaction.

Hip Hop music at it best is "Edutainment," food for thought over sublime beats. But its capacity to subvert norms and revolution communication and pop cultural expression so readily realized in the 1970s, 80s and 90s have been stunted.  Hip Hop "artists" and its audience may one day desire more than material success and it express themselves accordingly.  But likely, we won't call it Hip Hop anymore.


Same Difference: East Coast vs. West Coast Hip Hop

- South Bronx's KRS-ONE
- Oakland's Souls Of Mischief

Not only was a first of its kind, Brian Cross’ ethnography of the West Coast Hip Hop scene “It's Not About a Salary...” also provides insight into why Hip Hop originating from across the country differs in content and style in many ways.  Further, when we use Simon Frith's methodology of identifying technique and technology to identify genres of popular music, we discover why West Coast Hip Hop may sound different than East Coast but ultimately its music structure is similar. 

Differences in props:
Jam Master Jay holds a box...
To begin, Cross analyzes Run DMC’s “Peter Piper” and the World Class Wrecking Cru’s “The Cabbage Patch,” using the differences between the two records to illustrate variations between the East Coast and West Coast approach to hip hop.

...Dr. Dre (left) carries a stethoscope
Cross purposely contrasted two songs from the same era that employing the same sample source, Bob James' "Take Me the Madri Gras." What is difference? Cross likens “The Cabbage Patch” to a “big-band sound” as compared to “Peter Piper's" “stripped down funk.” Cross generalizes that from 1982 to 1987, most West Coast Hip Hop releases tended to lack originality or complexity in rhythm or lyrics.  The music was largely derivative and did not gain as much critical or commercial recognition.

Sugarhill Gang's "Rapper's Delight" is often cited as
the "first" rap song heard on the West Coast
There is informal evidence that DJing, rapping, breakdancing and graffiti had its West Coast counterparts as early as the late 1970s.  But considering that recorded Hip Hop music did not originate out West, Cross' opinion is not surprising.  West Coast techniques were being shaped by what technologies are immediately available or in this case, unavailable.  The regional beginnings of this culture relied on imported Hip Hop from New York City in the early 1980s, primarily rap music biggest hits.  

Cross indicates that the stylistically varied East Coast Hip Hop of the early 1980s was difficult to locate in CA.  Another speculation cites that records like electro-funk sound of “Planet Rock” were more enthusiastically embraced than the “underground” East Coast sound.  Thus, Cross states “more commercial aspects of the music seemed dominant in LA.”  While the community reflected the some of the same forms of structural marginalization of education and job opportunity- Cross contends the “cutting edge of the music seemed to have been lost, in crossing the country, to commercialism.”  Bobby Jimmy and the Critters made a name for themselves with their parody raps.

Uncle Jamm's Army
We also learn that much like Bronx Hip Hop in the 1970s, the West Coast scene began with a nomadic sound system, Uncle Jamm’s Army.  Local DJs and MCs also made mix tapes and pressed their own records in the first half of the 80s, soon aided by radio and a dedicated club scene.

While this is not an absolute, one can also generalize that West Coast DJs favored the spacey George Clinton P-Funk sound, while East Coast DJs preferred the sparse, tough funk of the JBs.  Roughly from 1987 to the "Industrial Era of Hip Hop" in 1997, this difference in inspiration and source material would characterize the musical difference between the two coasts.

However, both the sharp contrast in urban culture and leisure practices of LA to NYC proved to be the West Coast’s literal selling point.  In New York, since warm weather was seasonal, dark stuffy hip hop clubs were the norm. Crowded buildings and streets, cluttered skylines, and an aggressive but distant attitude characterized New York. Whereas Los Angeles was favored by the sun year around, by sprawling suburbs and a laid back demeanor. While LA is as distinct and awesome as NYC, the rest of America, especially the nameless suburbs, have more in common with this characterization of LA than they do with the nature of New York.

Perhaps the pace of the West Coast may be more appealing to a broader mainstream American sensibility.  But perhaps far more influential on the content of West Coast rap music was the proliferation of crack cocaine, automatic weapons and gang warfare that became to characterize California's most troubled communities such as Compton, Watts and Oakland.

Further, as Compton drug dealer turned rapper Eazy E bankrolled NWA recordings or Crenshaw's Ice-T flaunted gang connections, the criminal underworld and Hip Hop's rebellious spirit became linked.  This desire to explicitly make money via Hip Hop music compelled West Coast hip hop crews to take artistic or political risks their East Coast brethren simply did not conceive.  With its blunt emphasis on gang violence, drug dealing, and pimpology, West Coast Hip Hop music was seemingly all the more dangerous and alluring to outsiders curious enough to know how the other half lived.

Ice T immediate makes clear how addictive and dangerous his brand of rap is:

For those within the culture who understood Hip Hop’s theatrical raps of exaggerated claims of supremacy and cruel disses, “gangsta rap” as the critics called it, simply signaled a new era of Hip Hop MCs.  Through the success of Ice T, NWA, and Too Short most notably, by the end of the 80s the metaphoric base of MCs boasts now included graphic depictions of sex, abuse of women, detailed accounts of black on black violence, rebelling against police, and selling crack cocaine.  While a group like NWA was suddenly heralded as street reporters, the careless violence of their lyrics was intended as a selling point like a Hollywood action film rather than a carefully considered protest of injustice.

Too Short's "Freak Tales" were ribald limericks set to heavy Oakland bass peppered with pimp imagery:

NWA's "Fuck the Police" earned the group a warning from the FBI.  The record begins with Ice Cube's premeditated outrage, followed by Ren's aggressive defiance and finished by Eazy E's self aggrandizing swagger.

While not as notorious, "Express Yourself" NWA's sensationally equates self expression will result in incarceration, peril and death:

One of Dr. Dre's first production projects outside of NWA came in the form of Above the Law. Their debut video was banned from MTV. It's lyrical content simply confirmed West Coast Hip Hop culture's lyrical intent: "Here's a murder rap to keep you dancing..."

Same Differences

At the turn of the decade, East Coast and West Coast rap artists, using common mediums- album releases, YO! MTV Raps, concert tours, growing journalistic press- evoked Chuck D's claim that "Rap music was Black Amercia's CNN." The following video illustrates this idea as rapper's from across the country piece together Hip Hop history.

Low End Theorists
In hind sight, stark contrasts in conception and intention of making rap music is clear when examining music and media content of the early 1990s.  When reading Source's interviews of Too Short and A Tribe Called Quest, it is clear both sets of performers are at odds with the recording industry but both have different means on how to cope.  For Todd Shaw, his Too Short is a business persona created for the convenience to manage a business enterprise.  For Q-Tip, Ali and Phife, beats and rhymes are their life, their identities as MCs and producers inseparable.   Too Short looks to move units, Tribe Called Quest seem intent on preserving the integrity of their art.

Pimpin' Ain't Easy
Two videos released the same month, October 1991, reflect similar sentiments expressed visually and lyrical different.  ATCQ's "Check the Rhime" champions the craft of battle rapping, celebrates the Jamaica Queens community they represent and questions the credibility of pop rappers and the intentions of the record industry.  Ice Cube's "True To the Game" not only indicts rappers going mainstream but any Black Americans from the 'hood who tries to conform to a white America either where they dwell or where they work.  Cube's smooth flow is stark and menacing; Phife and Tip are conversational but nuanced and referential.

From William Cobb's, To The Break of Dawn, pg. 56: “The MCs of West Coast were generally looked down upon their eastern counterparts; their tendency toward languid, head throbbing cadence was taken as an absence of lyrical ability. [The East Coast MC’s] were overstuffing their bars with syllables, labyrinths of alliterations, and clever verbal effects to illustrate their dexterity of tongue.”

Quest confirms their authenticity by actually performing a concert in their neighborhood during the shooting of their video.  In contrast, at no point in the video does Ice Cube even rap into the camera, his lyrics secondary to his overall theme of unflinching, uncompromising black urban masculinity.  While the music plays in the background, Cube is scripted to attack "sell outs", kidnapping them at gun point and racially re-programming them via the Nation of Islam.  Lyrics are so important to A Tribe Called Quest, however, they scroll in the background of their video, lest the viewer forget the literary nature of their craft.

It is these similar differences that begin to create a divide between the two coasts most highly prolific and successful Hip Hop recording artists. 

California Love Hate Relationship

The East Coast / West Coast “War” was a legitimate rivalry on record having its beginnings in the early 1990s with Tim Dog barking, “Fuck Compton." The West Coast's growing profile did not sit well with tough South Bronx purists:

Nas' debut secures the
coveted 5 mic rating
The Chronic is "snubbed"
with a 4.5 mic rating
 As Hip Hop culture emerged in new forms via new mediums, respect and exposure in television, films and in print began newly contested grounds to obtain respect.  The Source Magazine, the self proclaimed "Hip Hop Bible" became a hot bed of controversy, debate and acrimony erupted over coverage and album reviews in particular.  While the West Coast was gaining greater record sales, East Coast Hip Hop tended to garner more attention of music critics.  Increased competition between East and West Coast crews seemingly at first only forced MCs and DJs to up the creative ante; the reverence paid to Dre’s 1992 Chronic or Wu Tang’s 1993 36 Chambers confirms this idea.

But by the mid 90s, with the lines between drug dealing and music making blurred, the competitiveness of hip hop culture turned fatal with the September 1996 shooting of Tupac Shakur in Las Vegas and March 1997 shooting of Christopher Wallace in Los Angeles.

The "beef" began after Tupac Shakur’s initial 1995 shooting in New York seemed to implicate the Bad Boy camp or at least somebody from an East Coast crew.  Rivalries on record between Bad Boy and Death Row turned from competitive to threatening as in Tupac’s “Hit ‘em Up” or Biggie’s “Who Shot Ya?”

Did the music itself create conditions that lead to the killing of Big and 'Pac? Antagonistic rivalries have always been a component of Hip Hop traditions.  A “dis” record or “beef” between MCs is nothing new.  See the Juice Crew’s “The Bridge” vs. Boogie Down Productions’ “South Bronx.” Even George Clinton told James Brown, “Let’s take it to the stage, sucka,” rivaling each other as to who owned the title of “Godfather of funk.”

What was new to this still relatively young Hip Hop record business were the criminal backgrounds of its producers and promoters.  Suge Knight’s openly stated connection to the Mob Piru Blood Gang and Sean Combs' history overseeing a fatal concert event created an atmosphere in which controversy was a business practice and tragedy was quick to be capitalized upon. 

Here the tensions erupt at award shows, interviews and the press, resulting in hurt feelings, gun fire and ultimately death:

Newspapers and television journalists immediately declared a “Rap War” between West and East Coast hip hop crews; ignoring any of the traditions of rivalry within Hip Hop music, news reports instead emphasized the troubled pasts of Tupac and Biggie as if their deaths were inevitable.  Any larger social context in which the more violent nature of rap music portrayed was being ignored in favor of highlighting the tragic story of its fallen stars.  Yet, to this day neither murders have been solved and the direct or indirect involvement of the LAPD and LVPD remains a distinct possibility.

It should be noted that Minister Louis Farrakhan and the Nation of Islam were instrumental in conducting a “peace summit” in Chicago between high profile East and West Coast rap artists. “Beefs” between the Coasts or artists have been generally confined to the recording booth since the loss of two of hip hop most charismatic, talented, and troubled MCs.


The New School 1982 - 1986

The New School:
The Boogie Down comes downtown
Bam and Melle Mel give Hip Hop music a social purpose
Run DMC crown themselves Kings.

For the purposes of this discussion, we will consider the "Old School" the period of Hip Hop at its inception from 1973 to 1981.  When thinking of this time frame, the Old School marks where Hip Hop birth at Kool Herc's first parties in '73 at the Sedgwick Housing Projects in the Bronx to the emergence of Bambaataa's Zulu Nation, Grandmaster Flash's DJ mastery and MC crews in the late 1970s.  It would also include the first recorded efforts of Hip Hop whether it be the dubious smash hit "Rapper's Delight" or the early recordings on Enjoy Records.  Kurtis Blow emerged from this era as the first Hip Hop recording star that straddled both legitimacy and commercial success.  The following two part ABC news report overviews the roots of rap and this early period effectively:

But by 1982, parties in the Bronx start losing popularity, questions about the sustainability of the culture within NYC or beyond emerged. There is speculation that the original hip hop audience started to “grow up”; Hip Hop’s first generation began to seek jobs, settle down. Others who continued to contribute to the culture sought for more; simply put, parties in your old high school gymnasium or local community center were losing favor.  Most record labels treated rap records as novelties without artistic potential, a fad presumed that would soon meet its demise as popular disco had by 1980.  “Between the 1979 release of ‘Rapper’s Delight’ and 1983, the music was perceived as a cute Negro niche market” – William Cobb, To the Break of Dawn pg 44

Occurring essentially at the same time during '82, the “New Wave” music scene of downtown Manhattan and the Bronx hip hop movement began to intermingleNew avenues of artistic and economic growth for Hip Hop music and culture appeared in the form of breakthrough recordings, videos and feature length movies.

Producer Martin Hannett mixing & matching
drum machines, keys, & guitars
“New Wave”, like punk music which it sprung forth from, sought a new approach to creating pop music. Punk championed a “Do It Yourself” attitude that shunned music training for sheer energy and aggression. New Wave bands from Europe and NYC also moved away from the rock ‘n roll’s predictable "guitar gods" and drum solos. Choosing to use synthesizers and drum machines, songs were often danceable with moody, obscure lyrics- a darker, futuristic disco sound. New Wave songwriters also drew musical inspiration from Reggae, Disco, and R&B, mixing elements of those genres into their music. Talking Heads, New Order and The Police are the perhaps the most recognized bands of this genre. New Wave music’s appreciation and “borrowing” from other music genres was in line with the spirit of the Hip Hop movement.

As New Wave artists began to "check out" Hip Hop performances, the culture itself benefited by gaining a new audience that produced broader artistic possibilities and potential for securing more lucrative performance venues or recording ventures.

Notable moments of 1982 that shape the development of Hip Hop culture as it emerged from the Bronx to international recognition:

Fab Five Freddy salutes Warhol
1.  Hip hop DJs, MCs, writers, breakers, “activitists” start to rub elbows with record industry executives and learn the in and outs of the downtown Manhattan club scene. Fab Five Freddy (graffiti artist, party promoter) and Russell Simmons (party promoter, manger of Kurtis Blow and Run DMC) are especially instrumental in getting hip hop acts into downtown clubs.

2.  Malcolm McLaren, former manager of the Sex Pistols, invites Afrika Bam’s and the Zulus to open for Bow Wow Wow @ the Ritz. McLaren later promotes the World’s Famous Supreme Team, a hip hop crew of radio DJs and MCs.

3.Tom Silverman- publisher of Dance Music Magazine- starts Tommy Boy Records and asks Bam to record “Planet Rock.”  (See "Afrika Bambaattaa’s Message" below)

4.  Downtown Manhattan clubs (Mudd Club, Peppermint Lounge, Danceteria, The Roxy) begin to regularly host DJ and MC crew performances, typically the Zulus and Flash.  A fictionalized account in the movie Beat Street captures this moment:

5.  A broad spectrum of races and nationalities mix at these clubs. Crowds of 3,000 to 4,000 people in attendance from all over the northeast, exposing hip hop music to thousands of new listeners.

6.  New Wave songs begin to be “versioned” by hip hop acts. For example, in 1982, Tom Tom Club, an offshoot of the Talking Heads, records “Genius of Love” an ode to funk and soul music. Using the beat and / or lyrics, hip hop versions of “Genius of Love” are soon recorded or performed at hip hop shows.

Afrika Bambaattaa’s Message

The success of this record simultaneously revolutionized pop and hip hop music.

1.  “Planet Rock” sampled or replayed the records Bam used in his DJ routines. Bam proved that the innovations of the hip hop DJ could create new music.

2.  Similar to the New Wave attitude, new forms of music would be found using the newest technologies. Bam and his producers willingly used voice changers, drum machines, samplers, and keyboards.

3.  “Planet Rock” primary use of electronic instruments further centralized the role of technology in popular American music.

Prior to “Planet Rock”, electronic instruments as the principal tool for production of music occurred only on the fringes of popular music in the works of Kraftwerk or jazz. Most conspicuously, albums such as Michael Jackson’s Thriller and Madonna’s debut were propelled by drum machines and keyboards.

“Planet Rock” also confirmed Bambaataa’s ideological vision of hip hop culture.

1.  “Planet Rock” was meant as an anthem for the Zulu Nation’s philosophy: peace, unity, love and having fun.

2.  By simply listening to “Planet Rock” you were participating in an cultural event not just a recording.

3.  If you take Bambaataa’s record selections and the “Party People” and transport them to “Planet Rock” something special happens: here breakbeats were looped effortlessly, vocals were entertaining food for thought, and pleasure was a never ending sensation.

4.  Bambaataa was assisted by white musicians from New Wave scene, Arthur Baker and John Robbie, confirming that hip hop music could be a means to breaking down social and racial barriers.

“Planet Rock” inspired several New Wave / Hip Hop collaborations. Jean-Michel Basquait, a prolific SoHo artist produces the record, “Beat Bop.” The MCs of this record predate the nasal deliveries of the Beastie Boys and Cypress Hill, not to mention the “gangsta pimp” imagery of the lyrics.  New Wave eccentric, Thomas Dolby borrows his own “Blinded Me with Science” to produce Whodini’s “Magic’s Wand.” Graffiti writer Futura 2000 produced the instrumental “Escapades of…” with The Clash. With Fab Five Freddy, Blondie’s guitarist Chris Stein produces the soundtrack to Wildstyle, Hip Hop’s culture’s first cinematic manifesto.

As described by Downtown club owner Kool Lady Blue: "It was the Reagan era and Nicaragua and talk of war and nuclear weapons. But then there was this whole thing going on in New York where it was the youth culture getting together in unity and peace and having fun. No segregation and everyone joining together. Just the opposite of what was going on politically in America."

The Message

“Planet Rock” pointed to the musical direction of hip hop music by using samplers and drum machines. “The Message” initiated the lyrical direction of hip hop music with tales of urban woe, personal struggle, or “realism.”

1.  The music and the lyrics of “The Message” purposefully compliment each other. The spooky key boards and dark basslines looped w/o bridge or downbeat create a disturbing atmosphere that serves as a metaphor for the lyrics. This songwriting technique gave depth to the MC Melle Mel and Duke Bootee's verses, awarding “rap” critical praise it had never earned prior.

2.  Lyrics of The Message:

  • Crisp voices mixed prominetly

  • Vivid images of desperation, suffering, and poverty

  • Studio tricks: vocal over dubbing and “skit

  • Tone: calm and determined, but disgruntled

  • Like “Planet Rock,” there was no shouting of zodiac signs over disco grooves. This record was not only different than any “rap” recording at the time, but it was a dark contrast to most popular music in general.

    3.  Of note, this record did not feature Grandmaster Flash on turntables and did not even feature the original members of the Furious Five.  It was the last recording Melle Mel, Flash and the Furious Five would record together.  In retrospect, this effort was proof that a compelling lyricist matched with just a drum machine and a keyboard could spawn a hit record and a new direction for Hip Hop.

    Run DMC

    So how did a group from Hollis, Queens become self professed "ambassadors" for Hip Hop music? How were they able to become recognizable international icons of Hip Hop? Lyrically speaking, Run and DMC took a bold new approach to rhyming that was a distinctive depature from the "Old School."  Secondly, though this is an oversimplification, Run DMC took the musical direction of "Planet Rock" and married it with the hard hitting but catchy unwavering realism of "The Message."  Run DMC not only preserved and perfected Hip Hop blueprint from the Bronx but they gave it to the world to consume as the group's success forever married rap music as a commercial endeavor.

    Qualities and attributes of Run DMC:

    1.  Rapped with commanding, bellowing voices songs were confrontational in both style and content.  In contrast to many old school MCs’ smooth, female seeking personas, Run DMC were devastating rather than debonair.

    2.  Used primarily loud, booming electronic drum beats for music.

    3.  Dressed like kids in the parks, unlike the elaborate costumes of old school MC and DJ crews. Run, D, and Jay sported Adidas track suits and sneakers or Kangol hats with black jeans and leather jackets.

    Bambaataa and Flash’s groups emulated George Clinton and Parliment’s extravagant costumes, clothing themselves in leathers and feathers or sequins and silk suits. To a certain degree, this was recommended by the record labels as they were more comfortable marketing a funk/disco group than they were a hip hop crew.

    4.  The group first single, “It’s Like That / Sucker MCs” displayed both a talent for “message raps” and “battling.”

    “Sucker MCs” chronicled the life of a b-boy’s rise to hip hop fame. It was hip hop’s first “rags to riches” story where hip hop music was understood as a means for fame and fortune.

    5.  Hailing from previously “unknown” Hollis Queens, Run DMC displayed swagger and unfailing confidence.  Called themselves and their music “The New School”

    6.  Had a DIY attitude that said you don’t have to be from Uptown to rock the house. Ironically, this was similar to original impulse for hip hop music: you don’t have to be at a pricey disco to dance or ignore great funk and soul bands of the past.

    7.  Ambitions were less simply winning rhyme battles at shows than a explicit goal to entertain the masses whether on record or stage.

    8.  Run DMC brought the DJ back to the center stage.  Jam Master Jay had singles dedicated to him, full album cuts and was highlighted at live shows.

    9.  By adopting rock guitars for hip hop use and declaring themselves, “The Kings of Rock,” Run DMC were declaring that hip hop was the new form of popular music.