Soliloquy of chaos: the political poetry of the golden age of Hip Hop
Early in the third year of secondary school some of my friends assured me that I’d get into hip hop by the time we broke up for the summer holidays. At the time I thought that Fatboy Slim was the pinnacle of musical output so I wasn’t convinced that I’d be converted to ‘a bunch of black guys talking over a baseline.’
I was, of course, wrong. I was wrong both in my description of the music and in my belief that I couldn’t possibly like it (note 1). In part that mistaken belief stemmed from a perception that it was all very angry and, therefore, wasn’t really for a middle-class white kid from Cambridge (2).
On some level I’m still uncomfortable writing about a form of cultural expression that emerged from experiences that are so distinct from my own. This is especially so because a superb explanation and defence of hip hop music has already been offered by some of its greatest proponents. So, if all this post does is draw your attention to The Black CNN then that’ll be enough. I’ll write more, though, because I love so much of the music and what it says. In particular I’m going to focus on hip hop from the Golden Age, which ran from the mid-eighties to the mid-nineties. I focus on this music because it’s what I tend to listen to, not because I believe that there hasn’t been any good hip hop produced since then; there absolutely has. However, as I conclude, I think it is hip hop from this era that can lay claim to the original purpose of the cultural expression and, at the same time, I think that this music and it’s messages are still alive today.
The group that converted me to the music genre is Jurassic 5 with the line “We were sittin’ out on the step, you know.” (3) These are the first words in Concrete Schoolyard, which is as fine an example of great sampling and the poetry of rap as you’ll find. The honky-tonk piano sandwiched between a simple bassline and some brilliant rhyming never fails to get my head bobbing. Couple that with an incredibly catchy chorus and you’ve got a track that brings a smile to the face, which is what I think it was intended to do. This is upbeat music and it is so partly because of the choice of samples (4), which are one illustration of my first point; hip hop can recreate and revive fantastic music from the past. In doing so it demonstrates that the people who create it are as immersed in music as artists from any other genre, with an encyclopaedic knowledge of great old tracks (not-to-mention the skill required to find break beats and mix samples together). This talent for sampling is demonstrated in style by Swing Set, an instrumental number that uses tracks from the sixties and seventies to create a pretty authentic swing sound with a modern twist. The desire to inject something new into old music is more explicitly tackled by Stetsasonic in Talkin’ All That Jazz, which also emphasises that part of the purpose of sampling was to keep the music of the past alive (a point covered less bluntly by Public Enemy’s Chuck D in The Black CNN):
“Tell the truth, James Brown was old
‘Til Eric and Rakim came out with ‘I Got Soul’
Rap brings back old R ‘n’ B
And if we would not, people could’ve forgot”
I’m now a huge fan of sixties and seventies funk and soul as a direct result of the hip hop that I listen to, which is an experience I reckon is shared by many. Crucially, the purpose was not only to reproduce and update the music but also, in some cases, the message too. A great example of this is Schoolly D’s Am I Black Enough For You? which samples Billy Paul’s original track of the same name. Schoolly D’s version centred on a positive message about taking pride in being black whilst retaining the title’s implicit direction against those who expect black people to behave in particular ways. This assertion of black identity was linked with the more explicitly angry tone of the track, which brings me to my second point; some hip hop is very angry but understandably so. Other great tracks expressing anger whilst focussing on black identity and awakening include Pete Rock & C.L. Smooth’s Anger in the Nation and The Predator by Ice Cube, which includes the lyrics:
“Fuck Laurence Powell and Briseno – Wind and Koon, pretty soon
We’ll fuck them like they fucked us and won’t kiss ’em” (5)
The names referenced in those lines are, of course, those of the white police officers who’s acquittal for the videoed beating of Rodney King (beware, this is an extremely unpleasant video) had sparked the Los Angeles riots that shortly preceded the album’s release. I’m uncomfortable with violence as a political tactic but, at the same time, can recognise when there is reason for people to feel the anger that can lead to aggression or violent defensiveness. If the historic treatment of black people in the United States isn’t grounds for rage (whether or not that’s the most productive response) then I don’t know what it. This point is particularly well made by the masters of political hip hop, Public Enemy, in Can’t Truss It, which draws parallels between slavery and the oppression experienced by black people in the contemporary United States at the hands of employers and the justice system. This sentiment was summarized by another great proponent of the form, Guru, who tackled the matter comprehensively in Conspiracy, and more succinctly in Le Bien, le Mal (featuring M.C. Solaar):
“Crazy madness, it’s all I see out my window
It doesn’t matter who’s the president, yo
I hate to tell ya, but slavery is still in effect
Haven’t you checked, us black folks we ain’t free yet”
Guru, though, is a great example of how the righteous indignation at centuries of oppression can be transformed into a positive message (6). During his time in Gang Starr (when the track that gave me the title for this blog post was produced) many of his tracks were essentially urban fables, with a clear moral message opposed to the violence that was (and is) part of everyday life for some black communities in the United States (7). A superb example of this is Just to Get a Rep, which tells the story of a kid committing a series violent crimes just to get a reputation as a gangster, and has a tone of sadness at the prevalence of such behaviour. This brings to me to my third point; much hip hop is laden not only with opposition to negative actions but also with genuinely positive messages.
The Native Tongues collective was committed to creating upbeat music with positive or humorous lyrics, and it produced some of the greatest hip hop of all time, from A Tribe Called Quest’s Can I Kick It? (also check out the Von Trapp remix, which features a sample of Prokofiev) to Monie Love’s It’s a Shame by way of Jungle Brothers’ Doin’ Our Own Dang and De La Soul’s The Magic Number (8). The latter group also produced the track Millie Pulled a Pistol on Santa, which is unusual (amongst music as a whole, not just hip hop) in its focus on the abuse of a teenage girl by her father, and the refusal of her friends or the community to believe her accusations. It’s a moving track and, again, contains a moral message about overlooking the claims of those who are in distress. This indicates De La Soul’s belief that hip hop music should be used to tell stories and share messages (as well as, in other tracks, spread some fun) rather than sustain an obsession with material wealth, violence, or reputation. This is best expressed in the track Brain Washed Follower, which explicitly challenges materialism using humorous lyrics and fantastic samples. The enjoyment that can be had from such tracks comes not just from the message and the great choice of sampled music, but also from the verbal dexterity of the rappers. Such lyrical brilliance is masterfully expressed in the sub-genre of self-promotion tracks, the best examples of which include Grandmaster Caz’s I’m a Legend, Young M.C.’s Know How, and Eric B. & Rakim’s Don’t Sweat the Technique (also check out the brilliant Coldcut remix of the same group’s Paid in Full).
Of course, none of the above is a claim that there is nothing negative expressed in rap or that the genre hasn’t been male-dominated and therefore often blind to issues of intersectionality. Some of the groups I’ve mentioned have used language and produced messages that I don’t agree with or that I consider to reproduce inequality. So, there are undeniably unpleasant and oppressive lyrics and sentiments expressed in hip hop but the case being made here is that there was, and is, an equally important positive movement and expression of positive sentiments within the music. I believe that the groups I have mentioned lay far more claim to the origins and meaning of hip hop than the more materially-obsessed and unpleasantly oppressive artists who have often been taken to represent hip hop culture. As with any musical genre or wider cultural movement there are varied people and groups (who are, each, varied in what they choose to express at different times) contributing to hip hop and they have different perspectives, messages, and styles. So, to focus on only one negative part of that cultural movement when there are equally or more important positive parts is to do it a grave disservice. For the artists I have mentioned hip hop music was often or always about keeping great old music alive and updating it, it was about expressing black identity and opposition to oppression, and it was about conveying positive messages about how to behave and what is important in life (9). As such, and as the title of this post states, the hip hop music of the Golden Age can be seen as political poetry that is by turn powerful, funny, and ingenious.
1. I focus on the musical elements of hip hop culture here, which are manifested in DJing and rapping and are complimented by the non-musical elements of the culture manifested in break dancing and graffiti.
2. Though, of course, some great hip hop has been produced by white or mixed hip hop groups such as Beastie Boys (my favourite being Sure Shot) and Ugly Duckling (see Eye on the Gold Chain, which draws on Gang Starr’s Just to Get a Rep, referenced later).
4. If you ever want to find out what the sample in a track is, check out this website.
5. The track also samples Arnold Schwarzenegger in the film of the same name.
7. Also check out volumes I and II of his Jazzmatazz project, both of which are great.
9. Whilst also, at times, recognising its own limitations as in A Tribe Called Quest’s Keep It Moving, which contains the lyrics “Hip hop can never be a way of life / It doesn’t tell you how to raise a child or treat a wife”.)