Hip hop at its core is about (as Charles Wright put it) expressing yourself. Projecting an authentic image of who you are and what you're all about in a fresh, hype, and new way through one of the four elements, be it writing, breaking, DJing, or emceeing. As the music began to develop into its own, young people saw the potential and profit that could be made in this culture. What started as a dope party scene was growing into a cultural phenomenon that money was to be made in. Russell Simmons and Rick Rubin realized this when they founded Def Jam in 1983.
Rick stated, “We’re going to pull the mainstream into our direction simply on the basis of the integrity of the records themselves. We are going to win with no compromise.”
But let’s question the integrity of this early acts. Def Jam’s premiere artist, LL Cool J, Run-DMC, the Beastie Boys, and Public Enemy all were big, boisterous hip hop acts projecting the street, hardcore aesthetic of inner-city life, the struggle against “the Man,” fighting for our right to be and party. They draped themselves in the guise of the b-boy, the rebel, the fly guys, and the militant. Yet these tough guy appearances were forged in the suburbs of Hollis, Queens and Long Island’s Black Belt.
Many artist kept a close ear to the streets, but experienced them from a distant, more objective perspective. The idea was to appeal to people beyond the ghettos of New York. Even Chuck D of the infamous Public Enemy stated, “Raps from the suburbs are a little more broad. They don’t have the close-in focus like inner-city raps. In the suburbs you can rap about regular everyday life like going to the park and taking a swim. The rest of America can relate to that.”
This came from the college graduate who made his career being known as the front man of “the most dangerous band in the world.” Hell, Bill Stepheny chuckled, “A good portion of Public enemy was jazz improvisation.” Was it all just an act they got caught up in?
“With Run-DMC and the suburban rap school, we looked at that [ghetto] life like a cowboy movie. To us, it was like Clint Eastwood. We could talk about those things because they weren’t that close to home.” Rubin stated. With that in mind, was hip hop’s evolution based on a facade? Rap music which prides itself on originality and honesty of the artist is pioneered by costumed emcees? This culture notorious “because for all those other musics you had to change or put on something to get into them. You don’t have to do that for hip hop.” as the late DJ Jammaster Jay so eloquently put it?
Regardless, hip hop, for better and worst, grew out of necessity of survival and the dedication of the artist participating, whether dressed up or authentic, have been sustaining it by the work they put in.
It’s interesting how Alan Light indicated several cases of hip hop nearly dying in the early days and comparing then to its current state of dying. This culture has always been on the cusp of innovation and reinventing itself when it seemed on the brink of ending. Whether technical breakthroughs like the Beastie Boys pioneering sampling or telling a convicting story like the good kid, m.A.A.d city by Kendrick Lamar, hip hop finds salvation in those willing to save it.
Being an aspiring emcee, hip hop, to me, is a way to not be hardcore, political, or even “gangsta,” but a way to be the man I dreamed of being as a kid. I rap for two main reasons: to be my father’s favorite emcee and to be a “superhero.” Hip hop is the one thing my father and I connect on. Growing up, I was into visual arts, and he, a sports addict, so this is my way of relating to him and earning his respect as not just his own, but as a man he can be proud of. I write music that motivates myself to reach my full potential and gets me through my roughest days on a more spiritual level. I’m not a thug, nor will I try to be. And to me, that is what hip hop is all about. Being the best You that you can.
But at the end of the day, “[E]verybody gets into rap just to get the dollars or to get the fame.” as San Fran rapper, Paris, so soundly put it. So if I can be myself and make some money in the process, that wouldn’t be so bad too. Just saying.
Written February 2014
S/O Prof. Josh Karant