“All things come to an end. … Now, the
spirit of Hip-hop will always be alive… as long as there’s inner cities,
there’s ghettoes, and there’s poor people.”
Last week BBC News featured a report couched in questioning: “Has hip-hop
Besides the obvious condescension, we learned next to nothing (!) about what
musical maturity truly means or how it might relate to Hip-Hop. The scantily
clad article did very little to examine the dexterity and virtuosity that has sustained
Hip-Hop for three decades, and kept it in a permanent state of reinvention.
wheel keep on turning.
Maturity, it seemed BBC was trying to tell us, is achieved when privileged suburban students
(a la Yale) find an art-form valid
enough to study, and “think critically about,” it. Hip-Hop has indeed come of age because, now, “tourists
visit inner city ghettos and Ivy-league students study street culture.” No
mention of how this didactic experiment with Black artistry, of how this
fetishization, and trivialization, of Black culture is a practice as ancient as
colonialism. For, as Ralph Ellison wrote brilliantly a half-century ago, “it is
the crime of reducing the humanity of others to that of a mere convenience, a
counter in a barrel game which involves no apparent risk to ourselves. With us
Negroes it started with the appropriation of our freedom and our labor; then it
was our music, our speech, our dance.”
Sara Baartman knew a thing or two about
To say I was surprised would be
disingenuous. The whiff of ignorance-infused elitism was pervasive from start
to finish, so it seemed only right that it would end with a slight nod to the
much-hyped, but discredited, generational division between the younger and
older Hip-Hop family.
Somewhere in the shallow depths of my
mind, I can hear Toni Morrison reminding: “the subject of the dream is the
* * *
The recent wave of Rock-influenced
Hip-Hop is worth exploring.
It all seemed to start when Damon Dash,
a much underrated mind I should add, collaborated with Blues-Rock sensation The
Black Keys to formulate “a good business model… that kind of protects the
artistry, it’s lucrative, but where a lot of people can get [into] it without
compromising the brand.” Out of this, Blak
Roc sprung, and the rest, as is often said, is history.
The project, recorded in 11 days and due November 27 (“Black Friday”), is to
feature Mos Def, Jim Jones, Billy Danze (M.O.P), Pharoahe Monch, Q-Tip, Raekwon,
ODB (R.I.P.), among others, lacing their vocals onto instrumentals built with
the signature sound of The Black Keys.
Then surfaced a video promo clip late
last month in which Onyx, the ever-energized New York Hip-Hop group, expressed
displeasure about Blak Roc, as they
considered the concept essentially a rip-off of their soon-to-be released
album, The Black Rock. Group member
Fredro Starr described the instrumental feel to be expected on their album—“mad
guitars, hard drums.” Sticky Fingaz also promised to deliver “an hybrid album
of Hip-Hop and Rock & Roll.”
They contend the potency of their idea
was so strong that, now, “everybody and they mother want to do a Rock &
Roll album!” In a stark-raving-mad interview on Sirius Radio, Fedro Starr and Sticky Fingaz went so far as leaving
open the option for violent confrontation with anyone involved in “biting” their concept.
Besides the obviously exaggerated
outburst (meltdown?), they have every right to express righteous indignation at
the recent Rock & Roll frenzy brewing in the Hip-Hop community. Seeing as
Jay-Z now wants a Rock project of his own, they might have a point.
And, of course, within the last 3 years, unexpected
artists like Lil’ Wayne and Shop Boyz have found the initiative
irresistible—even if they lack the artistic sophistication to do something
worthwhile with it.
But if would be wrong for Onyx to
assume, or ordain, themselves the originators of Rock-Hip-Hop mash-up. Run
DMC’s pioneering role with “Walk This Way” (Raising
Hell, 1986) should never be forgotten. And neither should the Beastie Boys’
unabashed maintenance, and development, of a Rock-reflected sound their whole
It would be just as wrong for Jasiri X,
the highly skilled Pittsburgh MC, to pronounce himself the first Hip-Hop artist
with an inextinguishable dedication to fusing intelligent rhyme schemes with
social advocacy. He might be the finest example of our time, but he’s a legatee
of the Gill Scott-Herons, Muhammad Alis, Fela Kutis, Miriam Makebaas, Public
Enemys, and X-Clans that laid the foundation upon which he has built a legacy
of his own.
Hip-Hop artists must always remember, no
matter how convenient—and oft times lucrative—it is to forget, that our musical tradition is but an
extension of that which came before us. From the West-African folklore, to the
North-American Plantation Gospel, to the Blues, to Rock & Roll, to Jazz, to
Reggae, to Afro-beat, to Latin Jazz, to Opera, to Funk, to Soul, to R&B,
the peculiarity of Hip-Hop is only overshadowed by its strict reinterpretation of those elements.
Through sampling, one of Hip-Hop’s greatest contributions to humanity, this
truth is set free.
It’s much too easy to condemn modern-day
Hip-Hop production, and use it as proof positive of an innate defect Hip-Hop
artistry harbors, but anyone lucky enough to have been exposed to the eclectic
creations of Afrika Bambaataa, J Dilla, Outkast, Madlib, Questlove, Black Milk,
or 9th Wonder, can attest to the wide-ranging rhythms Hip-Hop is
capable of producing.
No other art-form in the history of modern
music is able to boast of exposing so extensively its younger demographic to
the sounds of old as Hip-Hop has demonstrated these last 30 years. The regeneration
of George Clinton and James Brown are two great examples of Hip-Hop’s
New Beats, a slept-on classic written by Hip-Hop critic S.H. Fernando Jr.,
George Clinton applauds Hip-Hop for making his “job easier”—the job of
sustaining that critical creation of Funk that is both unique and unnerving.
“I never knew that I would be sampled,”
he said, referring to the rampant recycling of old P-Funk records which gave
rise to West Coast Hip-Hop—particularly the G-Funk genre. “But once it started
working, we wasn’t gonna get on the radio no other way. And when people started
bootlegging, I was glad. All of that was part of keeping the funk… alive.”
“Rap is that new, edgy sh**,” Clinton is
quoted saying. “It’s gonna be around and, like I said, the funk is gonna be in
it, the jazz is gonna be in it. It’s starting all over again.”
“No idea’s original, there’s nothing new
under the sun,” Nas once informed us. “It’s never what you do, but how it’s
And The Teacher KRS-One instructs new, neophytic
artists to “Go online, look up Kraftwerk/ Everything we doing is past work/ We
already wore that hat, those pants, and that shirt/ So do you, man—if that
In “Rock is Black Music, Too,” an op-ed
posted on TheRoot.com, writer Rob
Fields declares: “Hip-Hop has run out of ideas.”
Like the BBC piece, he provides
absolutely no critical insight to corroborate such blatantly misinformed
conjecture. The sole evidence cited
is that “[t]he best-selling rapper of 2008—Lil Wayne—is doing a rock
“We need artists who have the courage to
explore new sounds and ideas,” he pompously proposes. In the next breadth,
though, condescension reigns supreme: “But there’s no way today’s artists can
do that if their grasp of music history only extends to the latest ‘80s record
Thus, Fields wants the Hip-Hop community
to examine critically his clarion call, even if the only valuable, however
unremarkable, revelation in his piece is that Rock & Roll, before the MTV takeover,
was as Black as night—and, in many ways, still is.
But this isn’t Hip-Hop running out of
ideas or things to say. Rather, this is Hip-Hop reinventing itself, re-imagining
itself, recreating itself. This is Hip-Hop, like it or not, stepping into
Journalists of all stripes have always
found desperate and unpleasant ways to describe Hip-Hop. Early as 1990, Newsweek had condemned it—“the thumping,
clattering, scratching assault of rap”—as “music so postindustrial it’s mostly
not even played, but pieced together out of pre-recorded soundbites.”
This laziness, this “biased and
uninformed reporting,” as S.H. Fernando puts it, would also be picked up by Time Magazine, which described Hip-Hop
lyrical content as “a raucous stew of street corner bravado and racial
boosterism… often salted with profanity, and sometimes… demeaning remarks about
whites, women, and gays.”
Of course, not everyone lacked so
bitterly foresight. Princeton professor and renowned philosopher Cornel West
understood, as far back as 1982, that Hip-Hop’s core intention was to serve as
an extension of the great, rich, soulful musical traditions that had made its
rise possible—to begin with.
Part-time working as American
correspondent for the French journal Le
Monde Diplomatique, he wrote:
music indeed Africanizes Afro-American popular music—accenting syncopated
polyrhythms, kinetic orality, and sensual energy in a refined form of raw
expressiveness—while its virtuosity lies not in technical facility but rather
street-talk quickness and linguistic versatility. In short, black rap music
recuperates and revises elements of black rhetorical style—some from our
preaching—and black rhythmic drumming. It combines the two major organic
artistic traditions in black America—black rhetoric and black music.
What Dr. West was aware of, which so
many of his peers lacked the insight to see, was that Hip-Hop could have never
taken flesh without the existence of those great sources of musical depth that
collectively breathed the breadth of life into it.
of many, one.”
Yes, it is true that “Hip-Hop has stood
the test of time as one of the only artistic developments, throughout the
history of humanity, to come to life without the help, supervision, or even
awareness of an adult population.”
But it is also true that without a reference
point to which the culture was able to refer, this musical phenomenon might
have never come to be.
Without a Louis Armstrong to look up to,
or a John Coltrane to admire; without a Cab Calloway to imitate, or a Mahalia
Jackson to emulate; without a Bob Marley to draw strength from, or an Aretha
Franklin to respect; without a
Machito to be inspired by, or a Celia Cruz to take cues from; without a B.B.
King to learn life’s lessons from, or a Hector Lavoe to pay dues to; without a
James Brown to get down with, or a Teddy Pendergrass to uncover the art of
seduction through; without a Fela Kuti to develop political audacity from, or
a, yes, Gladys Knight to be moved
deeply through, Hip-Hop is less likely to have broken out the shell of misery
that enclosed the lives of many Black and Brown youth.
And though I would like to see Rap music
retain its organic, street-toned, unattenuated quality and sound, if a
Rock-inspired theme is the next turn of the wheel, then the selfishness of my
preferences would have to succumb to a greater desire—its preservation.
Tolu Olorunda is a cultural critic and a
columnist for BlackCommentator.com.
He can be reached at Tolu.Olorunda@gmail.com.
 Ellison, Ralph.
and Act. New York: Random House, 1964, p. 124.
 Morrison, Toni.
in the Dark: Whiteness in the Literary Imagination. Cambridge: Harvard
University Press, 1992, p. 17.
 Fernando Jr.,
S. H. The New
York: Anchor Books/Doubleday, 1994, p. 71.
 Reference from:
Nas, “No Idea’s Original,”
The Lost Tapes, 2002.
 Reference from:
KRS-One & Buckshot, “Robot,”
Survival Skills, 2009.
 Ibid. The New Beats, p. xxii.
West: Living and Loving Out Loud, A Memoir. New York: Smiley Books,
2009, p. 149.