By Lucy McKeon
Rap is not pop, if you call it that, then stop.
—A Tribe Called Quest, “Check the Rhime” (1991)
When hip hop was born in the ’70s South Bronx, it was the DJ, not the MC, who dominated the scene. Of the Zulu Nation originator Afrika Bambaataa’s five pillars of hip hop—DJing, MC-ing, B-boying (breakdancing), graffiti, and knowledge—the DJ was the foundation. He was the life and soul of the party.
DJ Kool Herc, considered the father of hip hop, mixed samples of old favorites on his record players, looping breaks—excerpts of songs showcasing a percussive pattern—to make the block party crowds move. Grandmaster Flash is credited with inventing the crossfade, by which two or more sources of audio blend seamlessly into one another. Over that, the M.C. rapped and engaged the audience, gradually assuming the most well-known position of hip hop artistry. Melle Mel, a lyricist of The Furious Five, is said to have been the first to describe himself as an MC. Only in the late ’80s did musicians like LL Cool J begin to popularize the solo act.
As an argument for rap as art, the project begins on the defensive—but in response to whom and of what charge is not exactly clear.
Today, the term MC sounds slightly dated. The title “rapper”—as in the first widely popular hip hop record, The Sugarhill Gang’s 1979 Rapper’s Delight—is more common. To describe the now mainstream genre, the words “hip hop” and “rap” are sometimes used interchangeably. But the different associations elicited by the two words underline questions relevant to rap’s current self-conception: Does rap refer to the mainstream and hip hop to the underground? Is rap “capitalist” and hip hop “socially conscious”? Is there still a somewhat unified artistic movement driving rap and hip hop as there was thought to be in the ’80s and ’90s? Or is hip hop, as the title of Nas’s 2006 record claims, dead?
The new documentary Something from Nothing: The Art of Rap does little to answer these questions (though Ice-T offers definitions: the rapper is one who rhymes and the MC is a rapper who also rocks the party). The film is interested, instead, in showing that the work of the MC is poetry. As an argument for rap as art, the project begins on the defensive—but in response to whom and of what charge is not exactly clear.
While hip hop itself originated in the block parties of the South Bronx, its mainstreaming was created through, and cannot be considered apart from, corporate-influence.
Narrated, produced, and directed by Ice-T, best known to most for songs like “6 in the Morning,” and to others for his role in Law & Order: SVU as Detective “Fin,” the film argues for the hip hop artist’s distinct skill. Using the simple tools of the record player and the human voice, the early masters created “something from nothing.” The movie explores the varieties of formal technique, oral and written, through interviews with an impressive range of greats who have contributed to the history of rap from the ’70s onward, with an emphasis on older school, male voices. (In two hours only Salt of Salt’n’Pepa and first solo female rapper M.C. Lyte bring a female perspective). It begins in New York, from the South Bronx to Harlem, and then moves to Detroit, L.A. and South Central.
As a movie about rhyming, boasting, battling, and reminiscing, the documentary is entertaining and heartwarming. It’s fun to sit in on old friendships: to share laughs as if in Grandmaster Caz’s studio while he writes a rhyme in twenty minutes, or to muse poolside about the role of the hip hop producer at Dr. Dre’s luxurious estate. Some of the artists give fascinating accounts of technical method: like Rakim, half of golden age duo Eric B. and Rakim, starting with “16 dots” on paper that signify a mental graph for a 16-bar rhyme, within which he can insert as many words and syllables as he sees fit; or the ways that M.C. Lyte or B-Real of Cypress Hill purposefully molded their voices to get their signature pitches. In the realm of personal history, KRS-One describes how he first began rapping when, minding his own business listening to an M.C. cypher (a circular rap battle), he was called out for his wack jeans. He explains how battling developed from the slave tradition of The Dozens—also called Signifying, its roots even earlier in Africa—a contest of wit and verbal tenacity.
But as a study of an art form that deserves more respect than it’s given, The Art of Rap misses an important part of the conversation. Ice-T asks many of his interviewees why they think hip hop doesn’t get the respect accorded other black American musical genres, like jazz and the blues, and gets a variety of plausible answers. DJ Premier observes that it’s a language you have to learn how to listen to. Nas sharpens this observation, explaining that rap is perceived as threatening, broken English, unsuitable for the mainstream, and ends ventriloquizing the voice of a “they” who don’t understand the streets. His crescendo, “I don’t like you,” comes from an unnamed “they,” who seem to speak not only about hip hop but about black culture or Blackness in general.
Is Nas’s “they” the same as Ice-T’s? Those who disrespect hip hop? Who are they, exactly? Are we talking about anxious white Middle American parents? Or is it “Hip Hop Is Dead” undergroundists who wouldn’t deign to turn on a radio today? Is it a moralistic Cosby culture that scolds a “hip hop generation” in the name of racial uplift?
Lack of respect could be code for criticism coming from feminist listeners like Lonnae O’Neal Parker. Of her decision to end her love affair with hip hop she writes, “After I could no longer nod my head to the misogyny or keep time to the vapid materialism of another rap song. After I could no longer sacrifice my self-esteem or that of my two daughters on an altar of dope beats and tight rhymes … I still love hip hop. It’s just that our relationship has gotten very complicated.”
While there is no lack of possible candidates for Nas’s “they,” it seems most likely that he is referring to something like the first—a white Middle America. The only time Whiteness is explicitly mentioned in the film is when Ice-T features Eminem with the surprising declaration, “Who would’ve ever thought one of the greatest rappers of all time would be a white cat?” But this leaves an unmentioned elephant at the block party. Since the ’90s, an enormous and devoted audience of white suburban youth has rocketed hip hop to formerly undreamt-of popularity. Mostly white corporate ownership has seized on this demographic and invested accordingly. The discussion Ice-T leads seems somewhat dishonest in not acknowledging that hip hop has developed and changed from a marginalized Bronx-born community movement to a globalized, commercialized mainstream genre.
Is this success evidence of respect for hip hop? Or does this newer commercial popularity deny hip hop the respect Ice-T and others seek?
The Telecommunications Act of 1996, part of a national trend in deregulation, allowed ownership of radio stations and record labels to be consolidated into the hands of fewer and fewer mass media corporations, while independent labels, shows and channels all but disappeared. The industry’s choice of products to place in high rotation was based on data from new sales measurement technology that reported the growing popularity of “gansta rap” among white suburban preteens. In other words, while hip hop itself originated in the block parties of the South Bronx, its mainstreaming was created through, and cannot be considered apart from, corporate-influence. Today, online music sharing offers a hopeful outlet for independent production and circulation. But what money there is to be made (and the stage on which any mass reputation is made today) is still in radio and music video networks and large corporate-backed performances.
Without these facts acknowledged, the documentary’s narrative is anachronistic. You can’t discuss hip hop’s 21st century reputation in a 20th century cultural landscape.
Professor and cultural critic Tricia Rose’s 2008 The Hip Hop Wars: What We Talk About When We Talk About Hip Hop And Why It Matters explores the distance between the origins of hip hop and its most visible mainstreamification. There’s an underground, Rose allows, but Ice-T’s musing about respect presupposes a genre in the public eye. As Rose samples the familiar debates between hip hop’s critics and its defenders (whether or not the genre celebrates violence, misrepresents the black community, demeans women and LBGT people) she points out that the terms of debate may distract us from the deeper issues: “It became clear to me that the public hostility toward hip hop—matched only by the self-destructive terms of embrace—were disabling progressive critique of this latest incarnation of commercial hip hop.” It’s not that race isn’t central to what America makes of hip hop. It’s that once mainstreamed, hip hop becomes a crude and cruel parody of itself, something like a response to the desire of white audiences to buy a consolidated and simplified image of black experience in the form of a Rick Ross video.
Because there’s a paucity of images in the public sphere of people of color, the endless repetition of gangstas and video vixens has something to do with their profitability. When these now-mainstream images are sold through majority white corporate ownership, they are no longer reflecting a reality of life on the streets. We can call this the artistry of poetic license, but it’s also the point where art bleeds into advertising, relentlessly simplifying the intricacies of experience, oppression, and celebration within communities of color. Complexity threatens sales.
In the afterward to The Anthology of Rap (Yale University Press, 2010) Chuck D of Public Enemy writes, “For decades, hip hop has been bought, sold, followed, loved, hated, praised, and blamed. History has shown that other cultural U.S. music forms have been just as misunderstood and held up to public scrutiny.” By acknowledging that time has passed since b-boys and fly girls crowded Kool Herc’s parties, we may discover what Chuck D hints at: one requirement for any new art form to gain respect is the passage of time.
Anxiety about hip hop’s commercialization continues. Killer Mike—the Atlanta M.C. lauded for reviving triple-threat political, intellectual, and party-worthy rhymes—claims on R.A.P. Music (2012), “I don’t make dance music, this is R.A.P. Opposite of the sucker shit they play on T.V.” Many agree with him—even while, perhaps, busting an understated move.
Rap has become the lingua franca of global youth culture. Not only has geography mediated sound, as Yasiin Bey (formerly known as Mos Def) points out: so too has the corporate pursuit of the most marketable hip hop influenced the dominant examples of the form. Sasha Frere-Jones argues that Drake’s simultaneous popular success and acceptance in an authenticity-obsessed genre signifies a transition period in hip hop and in popular music more generally. He writes, “How do you even know whether something is hip hop? Its characteristic rhythms and sounds can be found everywhere in pop these days. We may finally have reached the moment when breaking popular music into genres is pointless.” As each day more suburban grandmothers learn Drake’s name, and the debates between Underground vs. Mainstream and Hip Hop Critics vs. Hip Hop Defenders rage on, we need an appreciation of rap as art that is as willing to confront the external changes that affect the form as it is nostalgic for its foundational phase.
“Truth can’t be found in the voice of any one rapper but in the juxtaposition of many” writes Joan Morgan, feminist author of When Chickenheads Come Home To Roost. The Art of Rap knew this much, which is a lot. But to ignore rap as pop turns a blind eye to the market’s stifling of a whole spectrum of voices.
Lucy McKeon is a freelance writer and photographer, and a graduate student at NYU’s Cultural Reporting and Criticism program.