"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:

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.  Music in their "Message":

  • Crisp voices mixed prominently

  • 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.


    Roots of Hip Hop Pt 2: "All of the Above", Disco DJs and Sound Systems

    "All of the Above"

    Digging beyond just the "popular Black music" of the 1960s and 70s, further roots of Hip Hop are found in Jazz, African American literature, and the Black Arts Movement of the period.  In particular, the more confrontational stance of the 1960s Black Power movement produced rhythm and poetry that bore similarities to rapping in the Bronx in the 1970s.  The Last Poets and Gil Scott Heron were the most notable performers of this type of "rap."  But, in regards to lyrical content, Hip Hop would not realize these types of subjects in a definitive fashion until the 1980s and 1990s. 

    Other influences of the Hip Hop MC can be found in the outspoken explicit monologues and performances of black comedians such as Dolemite's "Signifying Monkey", Redd Foxx or Jimmie Walker.  After all, what is an MC that isn't entertaining or have a sense of humor?  Richard Pryor's "Flying Saucers" is evidence how stand up could be both profane and political, humorous and poignant all in a span of a short few minutes.

    A jazz/soul comedian such as Millie Jackson  with her “Phuck U Symphony" shattered any preconceived notions of how a woman should behave or even what genre or attitude a performer should conform to for popular acceptance.  Again, the explicit content of rap music would not emerge until the late 1980s but these performers clearly had a swagger that the earliest MCs adopted when on stage.

    Good Times

    As for the Bronx Hip Hop DJ, the two turntable techniques employed by early pioneers such as Kool Herc, Grandmaster Flash and Afrika Bambaataa are owed to an underground music movement in which the DJ emerged as the center piece of the show: Disco.  In 1970, on the fringes of mainstream society, this new music labeled "Disco" was being created not by musicians but DJs.  

    In NYC, Disco music began as dance parties thrown by DJs often in predominately gay neighborhoods in downtown Manhattan, Fire Island, and other small clubs.  Early Disco was nothing more than an up tempo funk and soul recordings such as "Get Lifted" by George McRae.

    Importantly, disco DJs "blended" records of the same tempo together for one continuous mix of unending night of dance music. The video below effectively showcases a seamless mix of early Disco records; take note of the transitions from song to song at :45 and 1:22 mark and so on.  Disco became a DJ dominated genre of popular music, displacing the importance of the musician and elevating the DJ to the role of the artist and star performer.

    As the DJ's stature and power grew in the music industry, there is no question that Disco DJs mixing and matching tempos and using isolated parts of records directly influenced Bronx Hip Hop DJs.  One can see even in novelty soul records of 70s such as "Superfly Meets Shaft" foretell the cut and mix approach Hip Hop DJs and producers would become famous for in the ensuing years.

    Sound Systems

    If the sound, stylings, inspiration and influences of Hip Hop MCs and DJs were American, the actual structure of Hip Hop originates in Jamaica.

    Kingston, Jamaica c. 1960s
    A brief historical overview of Jamaica in the middle of the 20th century reveals a community adapting to industrialization.  As the country transformed from an agricultural society of slave labor into an industrialized economy of moderate incomes.  Factory labor displaced farming to a large degree and Jamaica becomes characterized by its Kingston city life rather than its agrarian traditions.  Somewhat akin to what was occurring in New York City,  industrialization  was economically successful in the 1950s but the effects of post industrialization soon impacted the lives of hundreds of thousands of Jamaicans in the ensuing decades.  Jamaica's economic and cultural inequality created a vacuum of opportunity for many contributing to high rates of poverty, crime and violence; the plight of many of Jamaica's people took place in Kingston, Jamaica's capital and largest city.

    While the economics of globalization might of marginalized its inhabitants, the dissemination of popular American music to the little isle of Jamaica gave birth to one of the most durable and worldwide prolific forms of modern music: Reggae.  After WWII, migrant American workers and entrepreneurs begin to inhabit the island; Jamaican interest developed in the American R&B music being broadcast from American cities such as New Orleans on these workers' AM radios.  Local radio was government controlled and would not play the likes of Louis Jordan and Ray Charles.  Imported records were far too expensive for the average Jamaican to purchase and own.  As the appetite for American music grew and the desire to socialize and dance increased in Jamaica, how would the demand be met?

    King Tubby's Sound System
    Musical entrepreneurs met this demand by investing in buying records and large mobile speaker systems.  Headed by local vocal talents these "sound systems" emerged as new cultural form as much influenced the technologies on hand as they were by any musiciansSound systems were essentially travelling record shops where DJs would play new American music to gathered audiences in a tenement yard or dancehall"Sound selectors" used turntables and microphones powered by these large speakers and powerful amplifiers to host these events, aided by their "Deejay." By the Jamaican definition, the Deejay would would mimic the stylish vocal patter of the American radio disc jock in their indigenous patoisDifferent sound systems throughout Kingston would often compete or "clash" against each other for prize money and prestige.

    In the early 1960s, the waning quality of American R&B compelled sound systems to hire local musicians to compose and perform "original" records.  Fusing the indigenous rhythms of calypso and mento with American R&B and jazz, Jamaica forged its own music called SkaSound systems now not only threw parties but also entered the record business, recording bands in hopes of scoring the next hit singleFrequently these recordings were covers of popular American tunes or original Jamaican tunes that would soon to become standards that would be adapted later. The Ska version of "One Love" by Bob Marley and the Wailers is a prime example of this early reggae sound and the ground work for its later more recognized reggae version.

    In 1966, the speed and brass horns of ska music come to a halt and the slower, more bass heavy sounds of Rocksteady emerge.  Covering songs and refashioning them with a Jamaican sound became an established pattern by this time in Jamaican music.  Here The Techniques cover Curtis Mayfield and The Impressions' "Minstrel and Queen" for their "Queen Majesty."

    Sound System Deejays
    An interesting new feature of Sound System culture emerged in this period.  In the quest for fame, money, and a distraction from routine violence that plagued parties, directors of the sound systems gave Deejay space to not just speak between records, but to "chat" or "toast" along with the record.  The Deejay would often rhyme a couplet or sing a catchphrase ("Live the life you love, love the life you live") between the sung lyrics of the original record.  

    The purpose was to compliment the theme of the record by riding the rhythm of the music with rhymes chants, squeals or screams; provide comedic relief; declare a sound system's supremacy; or to acknowledge members of crowd such as the "rude boys" in the audience.  A common practice of these "bad men" were to fire their pistols in the air in approval of a particular record or performance.

    U-Roy and friends
    The similarities of Jamaican Deejays and American MCs does not end there.  By the late 1960s and early 1970s, commonly Rocksteady and the emergent more musically complex Reggae records became the backdrop for complete "toasts" by Deejays. These "Talkover" singles were cut by deejays capturing their toasts using the original rocksteady song as an underlying rhythm.  An example of this practice is seen below in "Chalice In The Palace" by pioneering deejay U-Roy who comically adopts The Techniques' love song "Queen Magesty" to beckon the Queen of England to share his love for ganja.  While U-Roy was not the first to chat over music he is often considered the best as he transformed toasting into a song form.

    Hip Hop DJs later take note of the works of studio wizards such as King Tubby who began to "dub" "versions" of original rocksteady records, dropping vocals and instruments out of the mix to create instrumentals for deejays to chat overJamaican music now became truly influenced by the hand of the studio engineer.  Sometimes favorite talkover versions sometimes overshadowed the original rocksteady cut.  More revealing, certain dubs of rhythms, the bass line and melody itself, became so popular multiple deejays and singers would cut their own "version" of the rhythm resulting in a flood of records utilizing the same beat.

    This approach to pop music ushers in the technique often called the "remix" where DJs and producers give a different take on a first recording.  From elongated Disco 12" "dance edits" to Hip Hop's obligatory R&B or "posse cut" remix, the rehashing and reformatting of original material has become a staple of popular music worldwide.  Thus, Jamaican Sound System culture serves as the musical "blueprint" of Hip Hop music.


    Roots of Hip Hop Pt 1 : Preachers, Prisons and Soul Brother #1

    Afrika Bambaataa
    “While [African music] admits of being discussed,
    it cannot be strictly defined” – Andre Craddock-Willis

    It is impossible to fix one cultural antecedent as the ancestor of Hip Hop music but we can identify that it springs from the rich and complex history of African American music and expression.  As a result, both the musical and lyrical performers of Hip Hop- the MC/rapper and the DJ/producer- draw from a seemingly endless well of direct and indirect sources.  In the words of Afrika Bambaataa, Bronx, NY Hip Hop pioneer:

    "You gotta remember that rap goes all the way back to Africa. There have always been different styles of rappin', from the African chants to James Brown to Shirley Ellis in the '60s doin' "The Clapping Song."  There's Isaac Hayes, there's Barry White, there's Millie Jackson, that love-type rappin', and there's The Last Poets. And then there's your "dozens," that black people used to play in the '30s and '40s.  The dozens is when you tryin' to put the other guy down, talkin' about his mama, his sister, his brother, sayin' it in rhyme.  These days, rap is made up of funk, heavy metal, soca, African music, jazz, and other elements.  You can do anything with rap music; you can go from the past to the future to what's happenin' now."

    The definitive first study
    of Afro-American music
    What can be identified though, in acknowledgement Leroi Jones' Blues People, is the similar form and function of African American music and West African music.  Quoting Jones:

    “...the music of the Negro in America, in all its permutations... [reveals] something about the Negro's existence in this country as well as something about the essential nature of this country, i.e. society as a whole.” (from Blues People Introduction, 1963)

    Practitioners of modern African American music transmuted musical and cultural traditions of West Africa in reaction to their environment.  Jones asserts that essential qualities of West African music- its social function and its rhythmic and lyrical forms- continue on in the 20th century altered by African Americans experiences in the rolling fields of the South, the bustling urban cities in the north and the roads and train tracks that ferried them in between.

    As African Americans encountered the wonders of modernity or the lingering oppression of slavery and institutional marginalization, the ability to account for these experiences were often lyrically expressed.  Thus, these experiences were expressed with grave seriousness in the work of African American preachersrevolutionary orators such as Malcolm X or Gil Scott Heron or the soul crooners like Sam Cooke.  

    Skat singers like Cab Calloway, Ella Fitzgerald or early rhythm and blues performers like Louis Jordan offered a more worldly expression that still bore links back to West African music and traditions.  And while particularly ribald, the "toasts" of the early 20th century displayed a verbal, lyrical rhythm while spinning a tall tale born from an actual event.  Below, a prison "toast" of the story of the legend of Stagger Lee

    Clearly, in a wide variety of forms, African American cultural history has its share of oratory masters.  Hip Hop MCs and rappers have been influenced and informed by all of these traditions. The first “Masters of Ceremony”- the hosts of the first Hip Hop parties in the Bronx in the mid 1970s- adopted both the preacher's power and a toaster's rhymed wit.  These previously styles of speak and slang were twisted into a vocal performance at Bronx parties known initially as MCing and later called rapping.  The following briefly discusses the "Black American" musical influences of the 1950, 60s and 70s that had the most immediate impact on the sound of Hip Hop in 1973.

    The Genius, Disc Jocks and Mr. Dynamite
    Ray Charles

    At the risk of oversimplifying, the crossover of the sacred sounds of much African American musical expression to a more secular gesture of mainstream American sensationalism is best evidenced in the music of Ray Charles.  Charles was not the only artist to do this as he built upon the foundation of jazz and blues music that emerged in the first half of the 20th century.  But Charles' pioneering fusion of traditional "Black" gospel vocal styling with lyrics about love and women made him one of the most acclaimed and reviled.  His 1959 hit "What'd I Say?" is the clearest example of this.  There is little question that Charles popularization of the concept and sound of "soul" shaped modern American R&B if not Pop music in general.

    In "Towards An Aesthetic of Popular Music" Simon Frith theorizes that modern genres of popular music are shaped by the technologies that create and disseminate them.  With this in mind, it must be emphasized that the music of Ray Charles' contemporaries and successors was regularly received by audiences via radio during this period.   As popular forms of rock and R&B grew in popularity and stature, the experience of this music was often framed by the talents of the local disc jockey.   Sociologist Todd Gitlin speaks of how DJs in the 1960s shaped listeners experiences:

    [The DJ] invaded the home, flattered the kids’ taste (while helping mold it), lured them into an imaginary world in which they were free to take their pleasures… …the disc jockeys played an important part in extending the peer group, certifying rock lovers as a huge subsociety of the knowing.

    The local disc jockey played new hit songs first; introduced new artists; promoted local businesses, informed listeners what cool happenings were going down; and, simply, what was "cool" and what was not.
    Standouts in the field always did this with a flair and change of speakDouglas "Jocko" Henderson, a popular DJ in Philadelphia and New York City during the 1950s and 60s used jive and slang while on air, granting his radio show character and status that was as entertaining as the music itself. A sample of Jocko Henderson’s broadcast style as he speaks between songs: 

    "Soul Travelin'" by Gary Byrd is a musical example of the DJ's charisma and narrative power over the music.

    During the 1960s and 70s, R&B music and their artists grew in profileDetroit's "Motown Sound" enjoyed both a large white and black audience and represented the first largely successful black owned record label.  The wider acceptance of "soul" music was reflective of the racial upheaval that began with the 50s Civil Rights Movement and Motown label owner Barry Gordy's purposeful streamlining of his artists' sound. 

    Many, many other African American artists of this period continued the traditions of Ray Charles, marrying the gospel singing with gritty blues music, most notably those on the Memphis' Stax/Volt label: Otis Redding, Sam and Dave, Rufus Thomas, Booker T. and the MGs.  While Stax was not as financially successful as Motown, Stax records celebrated unabashed soul or told the blues of poverty in a fashion Motown would not dare.  Stax Records staff and musicians were both white and black, working in the deep South, no small feat as American race relations entered a even more tumultuous period in the later half of the 1960s. 

    Embodying both the dirtier, funkier sound of Stax and the immense popularity of Motown was James Brown. The Hardest Working Man in Show Business, Soul Brother #1, the Godfather of Soul, Mr. Dynamite became the most prolific black soul singer of the late 1960s, dominating R&B charts and pop charts alike. Risking his commercially privileged status, Brown also made considerable efforts to champion the "Black Power" movement of the 1960s and 70s in his music ("Say It Loud, I'm Black and I'm Proud") or as a an instrument of peace during the riots following Martin Luther King, Jr's assassination.  Brown's impact on Hip Hop and popular soul and dance music at large is undeniable. 
    As Brown's musical career expanded in the 1970s his band the JBs in both sound and lyrics reflected the plight of the urban cities.  Lyrically, songs like "Get on the Good Foot" spoke of limited economic opportunity, while "The Payback" was tough anthem for street hustlers. Musically, Brown and the JBs created beats stripped of orchestration, emphasizing rhythmic improvised interplay between singer, drummer, bassist, guitarist, organ, and horn players.  "Think" by Lyn Collins, one James Brown's leading divas, showcases the JBs penchant for danceable grooves and provoking lyrics.

    The JBs live show stunned audiences with unyielding volume and energy.  With unworldly fervor, James Brown's famous 1964 "T.A.M.I." show may be the best and most astonishing example of this:

    For Hip Hop music, Brown and his bands provided innumerable rhythmic backdrops; as an African American icon he personified both an inspirational success story and the first example of a pioneering "Black owned" entertainment franchise that made decisions on its own terms.

    Exploring the "Roots of Hip Hop" continue here with a look at Disco DJs and Jamaican Sound System culture.