December 14 – Volume 15, #12
“The Year of Hip-Hop: Roots and Culture”
In exploring why hip-hop matters last month, I began by inquiring whether it was a culture or whether it was just music. We all have heard the phrase, “hip-hop culture,” but I’m not sure we always have a clear understanding of what that word culture means. Even those of us who throw that term around loosely.
The fact is all of us have a culture. And most of us are a part of several cultures simultaneously.
For example, most readers of this post are influenced by American culture. The culture we’ve been raised under is different from the culture you’d see in Mozambique. Or Burma. Or even Canada.
We didn’t just naturally start eating corn dogs or loving football. The real football, not soccer.
Unlike most of the world’s nations, however, the United States attracts people from all over the planet who bring their cultures with them in spite of our increased xenophobia. Because we live in such an ethnocentric nation where we believe everyone should conform to the main, new citizens often are not stateside very long before they forgo their cultures.
Sometimes this cultural abandonment is forced such as efforts to prevent recent Central American immigrants from speaking Spanish in public schools. Other times the force is less overt such as the structural influences that motivated many early Jewish Americans such as Judy Garland, George Burns and Lauren Bacall to change their names in an effort to gain more access to America’s institutions such as schools, the economy, politics and entertainment.
Sometimes, deliberate efforts are taken to maintain at least some aspects of the cultures that all of us except the Native Americans left on the other side of the Atlantic. This is done publicly through spectacles such as the Puerto Rican Day parade that functions to maintain pride and knowledge of a culture that gets little visibility in America’s newspapers, movies, music and TV shows. While some may have though the purpose of such gatherings was just to hold up traffic, it has great significance for those who belong to the culture, and even those who do not.
A culture helps to remind you who you are and where you come from. And in a world that seems to be spinning more and more out of control, knowing who you are and where you come from feels more important than it ever has.
There are three components that distinguish one culture from another: cultural norms, values and the rules of each culture.
Norms refer to literally what is considered normal within a culture. Because each one of us are so wrapped up in our cultures, we often think that the things we do within them are normally done everywhere by everyone. It is only when we are exposed to other cultures that we see how unique it is that we are allowed to openly eat cows and pigs while some cultures view these acts as violation of God’s will. When we are exposed to other cultures we see most of the world not only drives on the left side of the road but have their steering wheels on the right. And most people throughout the world who go everywhere in suits and formal dresses find our custom of dressing casual in blue jeans, shorts and flip-flops just as strange as European missionaries found the tribal garbs of West Africa when they began the pillaging of the continent six centuries ago. Often times, particularly in a place like America, we have a tendency to weigh one culture over another. But these norms are just different. I absolutely prefer driving on the right side of the road and have steadfastly refused friends’ offers to take the wheel overseas when offered. But this doesn’t mean our way of driving is better. Five minutes on any major American road will quickly prove otherwise. It’s simply different.
A culture’s norms, ideally, reflect the values of the people who helped to create it. Vales speak to what is considered important within the culture.
Some familiar America values (in theory anyway, work with me) include hard work, religiosity, democracy, equality, and efficiency.
We Americans think it is important for people to work hard and look down on people who do not. We generally think you should be a Christian, but most feel that you should show reverence for some god even if it’s the wrong one. In spite of our incessant talk of separation of church and state, nowhere else in the world do religious matters like abortion and homosexuality so inform the political dialogue. Though it seems our conception of democracy is becoming increasingly immature, we still believe that people should have a say in how they’re governed and that people should be treated equally before the law. Americans live in a society that is very demanding in a way that is different than a small fishing culture so the efficiency we value is rooted in a fundamental need to get things done quickly because we live in a society where so very much needs to be done. All the time.
So although they are becoming commonplace throughout the world, fast food restaurants are derived from an American culture that required meals to be consumed quickly, cheaply and on the move. Who has time to stop and eat a meal like a civilized person after all? Cultures where entire major cities shut down for hours-on-end for lunch, that’s who.
And initially when people come from these other cultures to live in the United States, they find our tangible norms of efficiency in the form of drive-through pharmacies and microwave pizzas very odd. But most adapt to America’s customs before too long. After all, it’s easy to get people to conform to the wonders of White Castle. What kind of socialist terrorist wouldn’t like White Castle?
But a lot of our other norms are more difficult to adapt to. Not just for people who weren’t born here, but for people who have lived here all their lives.
I can’t lie. I probably would have assaulted several more people (all deserving) than I have in my life had there not been laws preventing such things. And since most people in this culture are far bigger than me, it is probably best that this rule against physically resolving conflicts is enforced to reflect our value of rule of law. Most of the rules that hold cultures together are informal and can only be fully understood by immersing yourself within the culture. You can read all you want about the myriad of American laws in a textbook but only by living here will you understand the informal sanctions against picking your nose in public, talking loudly during the National Anthem or cutting in line at the grocery store. There’s no law that mandates that you wear a shirt and tie to a job interview, but the unspoken penalties for not doing so are more severe than any law could be.
This summation of culture brings us to hip-hop. Unpacking the three components of culture just described; norms, values and rules, does hip-hop qualify as a culture?
I would answer with a resounding yes.
Hip-hop certainly has a set of distinct values that, like most of America’s many cultural norms, one can’t be fully aware of unless they’re actually immersed in the culture.
It is always important to remember that hip-hop was created by poor people to document poor people’s life in three dimensions. Like other American ethnic subcultures that are presented to the world as one-dimensional stereotypes, poor black people couldn’t count on anyone else to tell their story. Not only did the stories coming out of the South Bronx not jive with the larger cultural narrative, telling those stories wasn’t profitable for anyone. It is important that we understand that any art that isn’t somehow connected to the experiences of this group is drifting away from the value system of hip-hop culture.
Because hip-hop was born poor and working class, possessing a strong work ethic has always been at the core of hip-hop culture. Hip-hop doesn’t value laziness. This is why it has always been a cultural norm for MC’s, DJ’s, b-boys and graf artists who haven’t taken proper time to master their craft to be publicly and aggressively dissed.
Even though hip-hop was born in the ghettos of New York City, it never had any intention of staying isolated there. Hip-hop has always been aspirational. A person who lives their life according to a hip-hop value system is always seeking more. Sometimes it may be more props. Other times it’s more money. Often it’s more independence in some form or another. But hip-hop has always been about trying to move forward and reach the next level.
And yet hip-hop values the past so much that not only is it a subculture characterized by an omnipresent romanticization of previous eras and toasts to the fallen among us, but often the most common way to test an individual’s hip-hop cultural acumen is by measuring how far back their knowledge of hip-hop spans.
In spite of such parameters, hip-hop is very much an open and inviting space, far less discriminatory towards new entrants than most cultures in spite of its undeniable Afrocentricity. We truly like em’ brown, yellow, Puerto Rican and Haitian. You can be a Fat or a Skinny boy. A tall MC or Too Short. But sucka nigga, whoever you are, you have to get your hands dirty, you can’t touch hip-hop from a distance.
That’s because hip-hop has always been a collectivist culture meant to be experienced in the flesh with other people. Technology has always played a major role in producing and disseminating hip-hop culture. And this has been done to great effect as there is not a corner of the planet that hasn’t felt hip-hop’s influence. But one negative by-product of us having such access; to hip-hop music in particular, is that people no longer feel as incumbent to experience the culture collectively in a way that they were compelled to in 1978. Experiencing hip-hop in mass is a quintessential value of the culture that will never die because this is how it was conceived.
Hip-hop is a culture that values interaction, exemplified by the norms at a hip-hop show where without warning you may be asked to yell “Ho” or “ow” even if you aren’t hurt. 5-0 may be nowhere in sight but you are still likely to be ordered to throw your hands in the air. And just as the Furious Five’s Cowboy requested of NYC party goers 40 years ago, the DJ may ask you to clap your hands to the beat (just clap your hands to the beat). Hip-hop is not a passive culture that requires nothing of its audience. It demands that you get involved. Most of us are able to engage in the aforementioned call-and-response rituals without even thinking but they are not natural. They are learned actions. None of these behaviors would make any sense at a country or rock concert. And it would be strictly taboo to yell out in such a way were you to attend the Opera. In most European performances, the crowd is to be understood as separate from the singular, genius performer. Hip-hop obliges you to be part of the show.
Again, recall cultures aren’t better. They’re just different. So it is without malice that scholars have observed that most European cultures like the one found in the United States are individualist cultures that value individual will over the interests of the group. This is at odds with the cultures of Africa and East Asia that stress group solidarity, limited confrontation and subversion of individual will to that of the pack, particularly the family. Like many values found in hip-hop, these contradictory value systems found a home in hip-hop through what I have referred to in my academic work as collective individuality.
The American ambition is to strike it alone and pull yourself up by your bootstraps. But this is not a luxury black people could ever enjoy in this country. We didn’t have no fuckin’ bootstraps. Hell, most of the time we didn’t have boots. A lot is made of the crab in the bucket mentality and there is much merit to it. But the reality is that black folks could never have survived in this country as we have without relying on one another. This is made explicit within hip-hop. As stated, hip-hop is all about working hard but we aren’t above a hookup. And in our culture, the goal isn’t merely to win alone, but to win as a team. We have always labored to bring our whole squads with us when we achieve individual success. Whether it’s our crew, posse, clan, clique, block, borough, or city; hip-hop MC’s, b-boys, DJ’s, graf writers and the community-at-large have not only generally operated in groups, but have used our personal achievements to catapult others. The kind of apprenticeship relationship that Dr. Dre has enjoyed with the D.O.C, Snoop, Eminem, The Game and Kendrick is ubiquitous to all elements of hip-hop culture.
The Chinese have a proverb that says that the nail that sticks out gets hammered down. While hip-hop is collectivist in a manner that is similar to many Eastern cultures, having space for individual expression is crucial. This is especially important in a male-dominated culture like hip-hop because black men in America have had to so long swallow our individuality and humble ourselves before white folks. So even while we roll 20 deep with our squad, we still aim to distinguish ourselves in some form. Carving out some originality in our style and expression is one of the essential values of hip-hop. Biters are only held in slightly higher esteem than pedophiles in hip-hop subculture.
Hip-hop, even when it’s not trying to be, is political. But our politics are different from our parents’ politics that was informed by the Civil Rights Movement. The Civil Rights Movement was vital in creating pathways to success for black people in America. But part of Civil Rights political symbolism was a physical presentation that conformed to mainstream sensibilities. Michelle Alexander writes of this strategy, “the politics of respectability was a politics that was born in the nineteenth century and matured in the Jim Crow era. This political strategy is predicated on the notion that the goal of racial equality can only be obtained if black people are able to successfully prove to whites that they are worthy of equal treatment, dignity and respect. Supporters of the politics of respectability believe that African Americans, if they hope to be accepted by whites, must conduct themselves in a fashion that elicits respect and sympathy rather than fear and anger from other races.” To this end, Civil Right Leaders made it a point to always publicly appear in finely pressed shirts, ties and modest dresses to communicate that they were just like rank and file white Joe Public, and that they weren’t a threat to the American way of life. But we hip-hop heads aren’t like Joe Public. And we damn sure ain’t gonna dress like him. And we absolutely want to threaten a way of life that not only hasn’t served black people very well in four centuries, but actually hasn’t served most white people very well either. Besides, no shirt and tie protected Martin Luther King or Medgar Evers from the crosshairs of bigoted assassins. So if you’re going to be hated just for being you, you might as well be comfortably dressed.
In this way, hip-hop follows in the nationalistic tradition of the Black Panthers and similar militant groups of the later 1960s. We don’t give a fuck if our hair, clothing, language, or our very being offends white people and bourgie negroes. In fact, the true hip-hop head lives for such a thing.
This doesn’t mean that we don’t get prim and proper. We absolutely can dress up with the best of them, but it’s going to be for our own self-fulfillment not to appease anyone else. Not only do we make no apologies about our appearance, hip-hop has no shame for its hedonism, no matter how much we are mocked for our drug and alcohol abuse because in the spirit of Frank Sinatra, we plan to live until we die; not just survive. Unlike America, who talks of equality in a land full of Michael Browns, Eric Garners and Trayvon Martins, hip-hop fully embraces its numerous contradictions. We’re queens and bitches. Gods and niggas. We are not Tiger Woods, but we are Tupac. Both nihilistic thugs and inspirational revolutionaries.
From vinyl records, blunt cigar papers to break beats; hip-hop has always taken only what it has needed from America and left the waste behind. We value your capitalism but not your oligarchy that allows wealth to only be concentrated in the hands of a few. We value justice but not the American sense of it. We very much value knowledge, but only knowledge which directly functions to benefit our lives in some way materially, socially or spiritually. We value God but not your oppressive theologies. We value love. But a love constructed of a Method Man-Mary Blige complexity, not that corny, simplistic Nat King Cole shit. We value unadulterated, unfiltered honesty because everyone has lied to us for so very long.
Of course hip-hop culture has no formal laws. Hip-hop hates formality nearly as much as the men and women of law enforcement seem to hate black people. And quite unlike the United States which just saw fewer than 37 percent of the voting public take part in the most recent congressional midterms, hip-hop is the epitome of democracy. So there are no official leaders who have given the final word from on high of what hip-hop is supposed to look like henceforth and forever. To be sure, great weight is given to the words and lived actions of documented pioneers like Kool Herc, Bambaataa, and Grandmaster Flash. It is these three men, more than anyone else, who inform the values I laid out above.
Originality, for example, was so vital in early hip-hop that pioneering break record DJ’s like Flash would soak his records in a bathtub to remove the labels from the records so no other DJ could play the record at their party. Flash had worked hard to create a unique style and sound for himself in hip-hop and he didn’t want someone coming and biting who was more interested in profiting without investing the required time and labor. A true hip-hop head not only toils endlessly to avoid biting others, they endeavor not to bite themselves. While clone DJ’s today show no originality by playing the same popular radio songs that are being bumped in 10,000 parties all across the country on a random Friday night, the early break beat DJ’s wouldn’t play the same record in public twice for months.
It was Kool Herc who incorporated the idea that hip-hop would always be the people’s music. The people who lived in the isolated post-industrial, urban ghettoes of the 1970s felt like the wealthy had taken everything from them. So Herc wanted to make conscious efforts to give something back. Speaking on bringing hip-hop jams to the park during the culture’s primitive years Herc says, “See , the park playin is like playing for your people. You give them something for free. Sometimes it’s hot and a lot of the clubs didn’t have no air conditioner. So I gave parties out in the park to cool out while summer’s there. To play in the park is to give the fans and the people something.”
And Afrika Bam is perhaps most responsible for instituting the values of collecitivism, intellectualism, Afrocentricity and cultural open-mindedness within hip-hop. He knowingly used his turntables as weapons in which to educate and break down cultural barriers all over the world.
But even these cats didn’t create the rules in and of themselves, the rules developed organically. Democratically. Nor are the founding fathers above these rules that have governed hip-hop culture across five decades now. Once upon a time, being held in violation of these informal rules in the court of hip-hop public opinion was the greatest fear any hip-hop head could have. But in these anarchistic times in hip-hop, we seem to be in a wild west of sorts where anything goes.
Already released an album called The Blueprint, Cuban Linx or The Carter? Go ahead and release another one. There is no hip-hop sheriff to enforce the norm of originality. In fact, artists are encouraged to draw within the lines of safely confined boxes as much as possible. Being original could mean the end of a rapper or producer’s career. And hip-hop has always aspired to live a life that’s juicy like Biggie, no question. But it is rare these days to hear an anthem of success that is rooted in the collective struggle of all the stereotyped “black men (and women) misunderstood” the way that track was. Today’s rich rappers are far more likely to mock the poor than to relate to them or speak to their struggle. And most of us non-artists who love hip-hop on the ground floor are far too busy these days to go check out a hip-hop show or festival with other like minded souls. Besides, our I-Phones have all the songs we’d hear at the concerts anyway. And the technology is dope. It’s more efficient to have your music accessible on modern devices than having to carry around a huge boom box everywhere. But these gadgets, coupled with the self-absorbed rappers spitting drivel out of them, are helping to make our culture more individualized and less collective in a way that does not follow in the tradition laid out by Kool Herc.
Make no mistake, cultures are not meant to stay the same. Much of the change that culture’s inevitably experience is good. Japanese culture spans thousands of years and remains very traditional. But it’s probably a good thing that men in their culture no longer respond to bringing shame on themselves or their families by taking their own lives.
Next month we want to explore whether this cultural transformation within hip-hop matters or not. And if so, who does it matter to? I hope you’ll join me again at that time.
Peace and God bless,