Hip-Hop & I: Beyond Beats and Rhymes
It’s taken me a long time to write this post because there were so many possible starting points. I kept writing, editing, putting it aside and then coming back to it because I wasn’t sure what the focus ought to be. Yes, it’s a post about hip-hop, but it’s quite intimidating when you think about its rich history- which spans four decades- and how hip-hop, in my opinion, is the single most influential cultural movement of its time. It transcends geographical, racial and generational boundaries on a scale few who saw its beginnings in the 1970s Bronx could’ve possibly imagined. As a result, people today have very different opinions about what hip-hop actually is. So how do you write about something that big?
What’s the first thing that comes to your mind when someone says hip-hop? It’s a question that can go in many directions isn’t it? But, if I prompted you to finish the sentence, “I fell in love with hip-hop when…” I bet you’d follow-up with, “I heard [insert song of choice]”. Right? So I guess that’s a good enough starting point. Well, that was the starting point for my whole research project anyway - the fact that rap, the music first performed on New York streets and in sweaty clubs and block parties, essentially dominates not only the airwaves, but hip-hop studies as well.
In hip-hop, as with most fields, the literary element rules. But, being the kinaesthetic/tactile/multi-sensory person that I am, can I live with that? The answer is no, not really. Rappers certainly play an important and far-reaching role in hip-hop, serving as a mouthpiece and giving voice to entire communities of marginalised people. But for those who may not know, hip-hop is a nexus of cultural activity encompassing many things, most notably: deejaying and scratching; graffiti writing; breaking, or b-boying; as well as rapping and emceeing. Within these core elements, there are also offshoots, smaller interconnected elements and complexities. I chose to navigate some of those nuances in order to develop a piece of research that could potentially shed new light on this forty-year-old culture.
Before I continue, I think that now would be a good time to sum-up my research in a nutshell. Don’t worry, it won’t take long. Basically, hip-hop is the wider context of my study, it’s the big circle drawn on the page. Within that circle are smaller circles (or elements, as mentioned above), one of which says ‘dance’. Do I dance professionally, or competitively? No (which surprises a lot of people, given how passionate I am about it). But I love watching the people that do dance - the movement, the vibe, the musicality - it gives me chills and takes me to another place. But I digress. So, again, within the circle of ‘hip-hop’ we have a figurative circle labelled ‘dance’, and within that circle labelled ‘dance’ we have other little circles labelled ‘breaking’, ‘krumping’, ‘streetdance’, ‘locking’, ‘house’ and so on. There are also little circles labelled ‘class’, ‘audition’, ‘battle’, ’theatre’ and ’YouTube’, but let’s not go too far into that for the time being. I think you get the gist. The main thing is that, in the ’dance’ circle we have lots and lots of ‘people’ who tend to dip their toes into the different little circles that I’ve just mentioned.
For me, the people are the crux of the matter. I’m a sociologist, that’s my concern. These people are from all over the world, from all walks of life, and have all types of social identities. For the most part, they are all invested in hip-hop to some degree. They connect socially and professionally through local and international events, and increasingly, via the internet. Some of these people dance, some don’t. Some consume/observe the dance. Some teach/choreograph the dance. Some play the music for the dance. Some style/costume the dance. Some judge the dance. Some photograph and/or film the dance. Some write about the dance… and some do all of those things. It’s a massive community of practice, broken down into smaller, interconnected communities and relationships.
So I asked myself, “what is the constant variable across these circles of people?” (aside from the dance, of course!) The simplistic answer would be style. But in reality, it’s much more than that. It’s an unexplainable ‘aesthetic of the cool’. It’s a certain look, a je ne sais quoi. It’s ‘steeze’ (style with ease), fresh ‘garms’ and trainers, and looking ‘fly’ or ’dope’ with seemingly little effort. This got me thinking about the power of dress and its ability to communicate, to bind, to transform. In order to scope out this complex community and it’s inhabitants, I sought a platform - a theoretical framework - and FASHION provided! So here I am, having entered this magical fashion-y world, stage left. I’m in unknown territory, but that’s the joy of interdisciplinary social research, you can tap into whatever’s relevant to your work.
Still with me? Okay, that’s that.
I’ve come to realise that my cultural heritage has given me the biggest ‘alley-oop’ in this endeavour. I’m not studying hip-hop from the top-down or from the outside, I’m reporting from a solid position within. I’m using my own tacit knowledge to provide an accurate and sensitive account. It’s taken me a while to grasp the magnitude of that fact, but I’m very empowered by it! When I speak, I speak with conviction. Yes, I supplement my knowledge with literature and other people’s opinions - there’s always more to learn about hip-hop’s histories (it’s never-ending)- but I also trust my instincts and see the validity of my own claims. Hip-hop is embedded in my personal journey and I never take that for granted.
I say this because my hip-hop identity has served me well on the few occasions that I’ve had to defend my work amongst my own counterparts – black women in academia. The first time, a student from New York came up to me after a talk that I’d given at Central Saint Martins. It’s worth noting here that when you present your work at conferences, an abstract and a little bio is published in the programme for the attendees. She gushed about how much she’d enjoyed my presentation and that it was well-informed and had really resonated with her. This pleased me immensely. She then rolled her eyes, waved her hand and said airily, “Ugh, I read the abstract and thought it was going to be another ‘Step-Up’ kinda thing!” At these words, I faltered.
Funnily enough, the second instance was with another black-American female scholar, sometime later at LCF. She questioned my rationale for looking at LA-style choreography and not focusing more on New York, the birthplace of hip-hop. The third, was a woman who grilled me about cultural appropriation, given that I was also including hip-hop at Sadler’s Wells, a predominantly white space. While these comments and enquiries were valid, I, personally, felt that they were microagressive. I got the impression that these women felt more informed and secure in their knowledge of hip-hop (and black culture) than me, someone who, on paper, came across as an outsider. Or, maybe I was being oversensitive. I’ve since become much more resilient. The fact is, you’ll always have to defend your work, which is a lot easier to do if you know your damned stuff. According to the young New Yorker, she had lived hip-hop her whole life. What she didn’t realise, was that I’d lived it too.
Unfortunately, there’s only so much one can put in an abstract (it’s an awful thing to write, as some of you may know). Writing a few lines about hip-hop dance in an academic, and arguably stuffy way doesn’t exactly scream “authenticity” does it? It’s one of those things that I’m constantly trying to work out though - how to carefully tread the line between scholarliness and genuineness. But, as the old saying goes, “the proof is in the pudding”. Or, more accurately, “the proof of the pudding is in the eating.” When people dig deeper into my study, it tastes good. Yes, I’m aware that hip-hop originated in the Bronx, but to be honest, cultural historians have rinsed that angle. To find new knowledge - which is the whole point of a PhD - one must think outside of the box.
That doesn’t mean that I’m excluding New York from my study. Of course not. New York is the foundation not only for my work, but for the culture at large. But why aren’t other places equally important? If we trace the trajectory of hip-hop, it’s evident that places like Los Angeles, London and even the Midlands have had their own underground scenes and style stories. Hip-hop’s as confined to New York as it is to rap. Go figure! I’m interested in evolution, innovation and what’s happening in the here and now. Hip-hop will always be a manifestation of the street, but in the contemporary, it’s not just a subculture anymore, it’s dominant culture.
So, back to my earlier question - what comes to my mind when someone says hip-hop? It’s a feeling really, a vibe, one that I can’t really explain. But if I had to try and liken it to something, I’d say that it’s the first time I saw Salt ’N’ Pepa’s Push It on TV and thinking, “I NEED TO LOOK LIKE THAT WHEN I’M OLDER!!! It’s Slick Rick’s Children’s Story. It’s RUN DMC and LL Cool J. It’s getting my first pair of Adidas and a Kangol beret. It’s tagging letters. It’s FINALLY getting cable and watching Yo! MTV Raps. It’s the Ed Lover dance. It’s sneaking into Dad’s record box and scratching up his vinyls on the needle while he was out. It’s arguing with my cousin Mel about who was better looking- Mac Daddy or Daddy Mac? It’s messing around and wearing our clothes back to front. It’s laughing our asses off at the Baby Got Back video. It’s screaming “WOO HAH!!” out of Dad’s car window and making pedestrians jump. It’s Parental Advisory. It’s knowing every single line in House Party when we had no business watching hood films at that age!
It’s basketball jerseys, bucket hats and snapbacks. It’s Raiders, Lakers, Chicago Bulls and Charlotte Hornets. It’s fat laces. It’s ‘footwork’, the running man and dance battles. It’s learning routines at [leisure] Centre in the summer holidays. It’s getting chirpsed by boys in baggy jeans. It’s Black Beat and Right On! magazines. It’s MC Lyte, Monie Love, Queen Latifah, Lil Kim, Foxy Brown, Mary J and Missy Elliot. It’s Braun curling tongs, blonde hair dye, bandannas and Bobbies jumpers. It’s dungarees. It’s click suits and Karl Kani. It’s gold lipstick and dark liner. It’s gold chains and hoop earrings. It’s rolling one leg up on your jeans. It’s diamond socks. It’s having three toothbrushes- one for teeth, one for trainers and one for baby hairs! It’s me and my cousin Jen singing ‘M-E-T-H-O-D Man’ all the way from Brum to London, annoying the church couple on the seats in front of us. It’s Wu Tang, Nas, A Tribe Called Quest.
It’s house parties, grove parties, nightclubs and ticket stubs. It’s Biggie Vs 2 Pac, East Coast Vs West Coast. It’s Ice Cube, Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg. It’s The Chronic. It’s Radio Raheem, Kid n’ Play, Full Force, “RICKY!!!” Doughboy and Tre. It’s Caine and O-Dog, Craig and Smokey, Deebo and Melvin, Yvette and Jody. It’s Handsworth (Birmingham) carnival, Bristol carnival, Notting Hill carnival, any carnival! It’s buying bootleg CDs in ATL. It’s shopping tax-free in the Bronx. It’s MTV Base. It’s Avirex jackets and Evisu jeans. It’s the Blueprint. It’s Rocawear, Sean John, FUBU and Baby Phat. It’s Russell and Kimora Lee. It’s Hov and Bey. It’s State Property. It’s Dipset, Dame, Beanie Sigel, Memphis Bleek and Freeway. It’s old Ye, pre-‘Yeezy’. It’s shell toes, Air Max, Huaraches, Air Force Ones, Dunks and Jordans.
And, breathe… whew! Omg, that was intense and I’ve barely scratched the surface. I doubt this list will ever be finished, so I’ll close with my final point: hip-hop permeates EVERY part of my being. It’s embodied. It’s my vocabulary, my poise, my haircut, my silhouette. It’s my playlist, my watchlist, my wishlist. It’s my home, my mumble-rapping son, my b-girl middle child, my daughter named ‘Cali’, and my soulmate - the DJ that saved my life (you’re singing it now aren’t you?) Hip-hop is not what I’m trying to be, it’s what I AM. Period.
p.s. Feel free to fill in any gaps… I’d love to hear what hip-hop is to you in the comments below.
p.p.s. This lovely t-shirt is the handy work of Mim aka @madeinmim. Check out her colourful and empowering artwork, prints and clothing here. My hat’s New Era, and my sterling silver turntable ring is (way old, but) Thomas Sabo.