Weekly Wire
The Boston Phoenix Rap Sessions

Why hip-hop's on top

By Franklin Soults

OCTOBER 11, 1999:  In September 1979, a quickly assembled crew of three young black men from Englewood, New Jersey, released a 12-inch single on a brand new indie label started up by a veteran soul singer named Sylvia Robinson. It was a disco spinoff, of sorts, and it scored pretty well as a novelty song -- the first widely marketed example of a style that until then had been confined to the upper boroughs of New York City and its immediate environs. The single rose to #4 on the R&B charts and broke the Top 40 at #36; in Canada it went all the way to #1 and in some European countries hit the Top Five. Impressive by any standard, but nothing in comparison to many other hits in that high-volume singles era -- think of the Knack's "My Sharona" and Chic's "Good Times," from earlier that same year. Of course, new wave and disco as we once knew them are no longer with us, but that endless 12-inch novelty single -- a song that stole the backing track from "Good Times" itself -- has become the unofficial grandfather of a culture that seems to have taken its name from the hit's nonsensical, trippy opening lines: "I said hip, hop, da hippie, da hippie-dippie hip hip hop ya don't stop rockin' . . . " Not only has hip-hop continued to rock, it's safe to say that in the past 20 years since the Sugarhill Gang's "Rapper's Delight," it has transformed the world.

Flash forward to a morning in mid September of this year. Standing at a podium in an elegant auditorium at Cleveland State University, renowned rapper, one-time hip-hop activist, and now major-label A&R executive KRS-One is giving a lecture. "We're here in a university, discussing hip-hop," he intones with professorial formality -- a tone he breaks in a beat. "Doesn't this look funny to you? There was once a time when what we did was illegal."

The mid-sized crowd laugh and applaud. They're a blend of hip-hop fans and artists, plus a sizable contingent of sympathetic students and journalists, and they represent all ages, races, and genders. If the "funniness" of hip-hop's move from the criminal streets to the higher halls of learning implies a joke, everyone is in on it. KRS-One is appearing in Cleveland as the opening keynote speaker for "Hip-Hop: A Cultural Expression," a weekend conference-cum-celebration organized by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum's education department and co-sponsored by Cleveland State's Black Studies Program. Nominally dedicated to celebrating the 20th anniversary of "Rapper's Delight," this elaborate, formal show of respect from this nationally prominent institution is not only impressive, it's right on the money -- a representation of hip-hop, by hip-hop, and for hip-hop, ranging from local unsigned rappers and fringe activists to big-name producers and high-power academics. It's further proof that the form is now not only a "cultural expression" but a rock-solid cultural establishment.

Although the conference was thought up by the powers-that-be at the Rock Hall as precursor for the exhibit "Roots, Rhymes & Rage: The Hip-Hop Story," which opens on November 11, it was organized by a committee of hip-hop movers and makers from Cleveland, New York, and LA. At the conference's heart were the keynote speeches by KRS-One and Public Enemy's Chuck D, figures central in the self-conscious radicalization of hip-hop that occurred at the end of the '80s, a period that marked the final closing of the open-enrollment old school. Sandwiched between those speeches were two and a half days of concurrent panel sessions exploring the "four elements" of that old school itself: MCing (rapping), DJing (scratching and mixing, but also producing), b-boying/b-girling (break dancing), and writing (graffiti art). And capping each day's session was a night of partying, Friday at the Rock Hall, Saturday at a local black nightclub. All that for only $25.

But is "all that" all that? As big as the event was, there was no way it could do real justice to the bigness of its subject matter. Beforehand, the Toronto Sun crowed that the conference was "set to go down as one of the most significant events in the genre's history," yet in fact the Rock Hall was just about the only place left that hadn't given props to this new king of global popular culture, and at this point, the Rock Hall needed hip-hop more than the other way around.

A look at the numbers proves it. The official 1998 music sales figures certified rap's reign with a stunning 31 percent increase in sales over the course of the year, an increase that finally made rap the #1 format in America, way beyond rock, and now finally beyond the former leader, country music. The fact is plain enough even without the figures -- just open your window and listen to the cars drive by, or turn on your TV and watch the stars go wild with their slammin' sodas (seen the new Sprite ads?). Rap has not only become a part of general youth culture, it has become institutionally sanctioned youth culture at a multinational corporate level, the magic bait with which unrelated entertainment industries lure their tender young prey around the globe. It can be assumed this status has been achieved through a bandwagon effect. As is the nature of capital in a mass-market economy, big investors have been putting their money in hip-hop because hip-hop is already big money.

Yet in the halls of institutional culture -- art museums, humanities departments, papers like the Phoenix -- interest in hip-hop has existed for at least 15 years, since long before the dominant segment of the rap buying public became white, cola-swilling suburban youth (according to Time, whites now account for 70 percent of rap purchases). The third and final keynote speaker of the conference, Nelson George, co-authored his first book on hip-hop way back in 1984.

To be fair: this high-art institutionalization has everything to do with honoring hip-hop's raw vitality. If KRS-One and others found it funny, nobody really found it criminal -- after all, the academics mostly just want to bestow their admiration, and props is what all hip-hop practitioners are after. Sure, the white grad student who read a paper illuminating the mystical numerology of the Five Percenters was politely challenged about her right to explicate a system designed specifically to exclude her (this offshoot of the Nation of Islam has traditionally classified all whites, especially white males, as the spawn of Satan). Yet the anti-intellectualism was kept at bay because, by and large, so were the outside intellectuals. Like so many Rock Hall events, the conference was poised between the commercial music world and academe, a no man's land in which the practitioners themselves are given the unique opportunity to grab the mike and get busy. Which made this something like a glamorous Smithsonian oral-history project for forgotten stars, or a more intelligent version of VH1's Behind the Music. As the museum's education director, Robert Santelli, told me, "The best educational service we could do was to make sure the early days and the mid part were very, very strong. . . . We wanted this conference to be for the serious student of hip-hop, for those people who have lived this culture and now have a chance to celebrate it, in an educational, academic setting."

So the most honored conference participant was none other than the long-overlooked DJ Kool Herc, who is widely thought to have invented hip-hop in the early '70s. Likewise, the majority of journalists on the panels were long-time correspondents from the trenches, like self-styled "hip-hop activist and media assassin" Harry Allen. Even most of the hot producers on hand, like the irrepressible Prince Paul, had deep old-school connections, as did the new "turntablists" who came out to speak and perform, like the X-ecutioners and Mix Master Mike. The resulting old-school/new-school mix was as bohemian and progressive -- anti-racist, anti-sexist, anti-gangsta -- as the New York underground scene catalogued on Rawkus Records' two Soundbombing compilations.

Even so, the only point of deep contention I witnessed over the weekend burst out on a panel that featured the newest of new artists, Southern producer and musician extraordinaire Mark Batson, who has worked with everyone from the Outkast to Puff Daddy, and DJ M. Singe (Beth Coleman) of New York's "Illbient" club scene. For different reasons, both Batson and Singe found themselves defending the commercial explosion and cultural warping of hip-hop, a defense that came down to Singe's simple formula that hip-hop is black music, but it isn't necessarily owned by blacks.

In the end, it was this raw issue of ownership, and not just institutionalization per se, that made this conference more electric than most cultural celebrations. Uncompromising self-definition has been the essence of hip-hop's radical new content from day one. Buried within that is the principle that rappers will not, can not "sell out," cannot give up who they are -- a condition that has always united disparate hip-hop branches, from old school to gangsta to the new-school underground. It's partly why FUBU sells so well ("For Us, By Us"); it's why "being real" has such an ineluctable pull; it's why the bootstrap entrepreneurship of Master P and Puff Daddy is admired by even those who deplore their gratuitous, exploitative violence; and it's why rap has been adopted as the sound of resistance by alienated Algerians in Paris, struggling workers in Havana, and snotty white kids in every single one of Boston's 783 colleges. Each member of these communities also wants to scream, "I am/Some-body!"

Together these disparate communities are on the brink of wrenching the music from the hands of its creators -- and the first takers, of course, will be those white kids. There's nothing new in this idea. Throughout this African-American century, the white majority has always found its passions reflected in the collective cultural genius of black music, so why should this culminating moment of black creativity (and perhaps white institutional hegemony) be any different? And yet hip-hop's creators continue to resist. At the root of that resistance is the truth that hip-hop isn't just black music, it's quintessential poor-black music. And in a society where poverty is color-coded and every passing year of rising stocks and sinking real wages sees the rift of economic inequality grow larger and starker, the music's originators are trying to defend their territory with a shield of insularity and a sword of deviance because of the sense it's all they've got to call their own.

For the culture to retain its vitality, however, there's no way that deviance and resistance can remain total. The answer to this dilemma is simply for the originators to get out there and create more culture, entering into a bigger fray of battle than any neighborhood throwdown. It's a challenge that the hip-hop nation is better suited to live up to than any other pop-culture contender, as was demonstrated by the various evening contests for MCs, DJs, and breakdancers. These events were a reminder that the culture is more DIY than even punk, thriving on the dialectical interplay between rampant individualism, as fostered on the economic and social margins, and that aforementioned tough, conservative communal spirit, as forged in resistance to white oppression over centuries. With this, the black and Latino and oddball white inventors of hip-hop created the most powerful and popular genre of music in the world, almost straight out of thin air. It's simply too late for them to give it up now.

20 by 20
A personal list of hip-hop's best

This list of 20 favorite rap albums released over the past 20 years gives props to many standard texts and several that have been all but forgotten. Self-appointed guardians of the truth will surely take exception to a few and bemoan the exclusion of certain "greats" -- Boogie Down Productions' Criminal Minded, A Tribe Called Quest's Low End Theory, Dr. Dre's The Chronic, Lauryn Hill's The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, and on and on till the break-a-dawn. I'd just remind them that the hip-hop canon is living history that's still under construction, and that this version -- my version -- of the canon doesn't codify that history so much as stake a claim for some artists' place in it.

Within the confines of the format I've chosen -- I've stuck to album-length CDs (all but one in print), included each artist only once, and excluded all non-rap hip-hop derivatives no matter how enthralling (Tricky, DJ Shadow, Prince Paul's Psychoanalysis (What Is It?)) -- these discs still trace my biography as a committed fan with an outsider's perspective, one who has been less interested in truth telling (or "keepin' it real") than boundary busting ever since I started buying 12-inch rap singles back in 1983. So the oldest album on this list is Run-D.M.C.'s 1986 masterpiece Raising Hell, the first to cross over to a huge, album-buying, white audience; and the list's biggest cluster comes just two years later, when the possibilities of that breakthrough were busting out in all directions, before black nationalists, ghetto-centric gangstas, and Afrocentric preachers gained the upper hand and took turns turning the music inward, for better and for worse.

1) Public Enemy, It Takes a Nation of Millions To Hold Us Back (Def Jam, 1988). As brazenly raw, outrageous, and explosive as The Clash, yet achieving something no punk had ever managed in this country: true avant-garde populism. Hip-hop may have left behind the audacity of Chuck D's explicit racial politicking, but the Bomb Squad's brutally dense, gloriously funky beats raised the implicit aesthetic stakes forever, for everyone.

2) The Fugees, The Score (Ruffhouse, 1996). Where PE exploded on the scene like a perpetually detonating bomb, the Fugees grew and blossomed like some kind of miraculous tree of knowledge. Here they humanize even their most radio-ready cuts with loose soul, improvised jokes, gritty street truths, and dogma-dissing common sense -- cascading moments that seal their second disc as the most touching rap album of all time.

3) L.L. Cool J, Mama Said Knock You Out (Def Jam, 1990). Think of L.L. as hip-hop's Elvis, a personality so astoundingly charismatic he could transmute the subculture he perfectly embodied into genuine pop art for the masses. Like Elvis, he was eventually smothered by that achievement, but he was also able to return miraculously to life when he perceived his career was truly at stake.

4) The Beastie Boys, Paul's Boutique (Capitol, 1989). Time and place make this pastiche their best. It's a Joycean transformation of knowledge into form, E-Z Reader style -- or it's an Abbey Road (which it samples) that celebrates NYC as the capital of modern, polyphonous pop culture, where the Funky Four Plus One rap with Jack Kerouac.

5) De La Soul, Buhloone Mind State (Tommy Boy, 1993). Caught between "sell-out pop" and a rap mainstream taken over by "thugs dealing drugs," the Daisy Age founders hunker down with producer Prince Paul for the third and last time to expose their soul. Never before or since have they flowed so smoothly, and no one has ever probed the meaning of hip-hop's outskirts so relentlessly.

6) The Jungle Brothers, Done by the Forces of Nature (Warner Bros., 1989). Other Native Tongues crews scored bigger hits, and the JBs' own 1988 debut hit the pleasure centers more instantly. But this follow-up creates an urban jungle where the Daisy Age could bloom to its fullest, with camaraderie, sexiness, and joke after joke after funky scratch.

7) Hip Hop Greats: Classic Raps, (Rhino, 1990). This doesn't hold together the way some old vinyl collections (Sugarhill Greatest Rap Hits Vol. 2, y'all) do, but that's partly because the first five years of recorded rap didn't hold together, either: the form burst its own seams between "The Breaks" and "White Lines," busting out of inner-city boomboxes and into suburban dance caverns. After that, it was just about bringing it all back home.

8) Outkast, Aquemeni (La Face, 1988). Gangsta rap left such an indelible mark on hip-hop, it's no surprise these ex-hustlers stay strapped even as they invite you down to the Bar-B. In their case, though, the hard edge actually makes their rich, complex, tuneful portrait of Southern inner-city life more convincing.

9) Run-D.M.C., Raising Hell (Profile, 1986). A brazen fashion show of stripped-down, puffed-up, black male urban style. It's all about toned muscle and perfect rhythm, each successive cut kicking the excitement to a new level, with the rhymes just clever color commentary from the runway models themselves. Simple, but enough to change the world.

10) Ghostface Killah, Ironman (Razor Sharp/Epic Street, 1996). The most clearly lit portal into the Wu-Tang Clan's occult underworld is the new godsend The RZA Hits, which collects some of the most straightforward tracks from the members' most important albums. It logically culminates with Ghostface Killah's "All That I Got Is You," which confirms my impression that his solo project is the most crisply rendered and affecting of all those celebrated anti-masterpieces.

11) The Goats, Tricks of the Shade (Ruffhouse, Columbia, 1992, out of print). "I'm not your typical American!" boasts a leftist, interracial Philly crew of rappers and musicians who, as you might guess, also aren't your typical hip-hop heads. But the way they open up PE's lyrics of fury and tighten the Native Tongues' hippety-skippety soul is "Where It's At" in a way Beck could never be: boomin' with the bass, and down with the downtrodden.

12) Cypress Hill (Ruffhouse/Columbia, 1991). Only a handful of '90s records could induce humanists like me to cross gangsta's line of blood. "How I Could Kill a Man" and its accompanying album were the first. The resentment in B. Real's crafty lyrics and snide vocals engage the mind, the buzz of DJ Muggs's whining sound effects and warped beats seduces the ear, and the haze of slow-swirling hemp smoke blunts the reality of everything.

13) The Real Roxanne (Select, 1988). Sharp-tongued, sweet-voiced, and a looker to boot, this Puerto Rican speed-raps and slow-croons with the sassy enthusiasm of a minor-leaguer batting .500 and waiting for that call from the majors. Of course, it's her amateurism that makes her such a winning example of hip-hop's innocent pop ambitions back when conquering New York meant conquering the world.

14) Missy "Misdemeanor" Elliott, Supa Dupa Fly (The Gold Mind/EastWest, 1997). Timbaland's spacy but sharp-edged backing tracks and Missy's almost sultry street persona -- hard mostly by implication -- would have been news enough, but there's also her incredible ability to slip between song and rap as if she were just changing dance steps. It signaled the arrival of a talent as multifaceted (if not as elevated) as Lauryn Hill -- and twice the fun.

15) Eric B. & Rakim: Follow the Leader (Uni, 1988). Paid in Full set the stage and raised the ante for all hip-hop, with Rakim's stunning rhymes and perfect cadences, but this is where Eric B. earns his top billing -- here with ferocious beats, there with super-chilled funk, everywhere with spare, mysterious samples.

16) The Notorious B.I.G., Life After Death (Bad Boy, 1997). Biggie was so thoroughly street, many outside observers never noticed the genius of his unostentatious, thick-tongued raps, hidden as they were behind Puffy Combs's bright, R&B-flavored production. At times the contrast still feels like a contradiction, but this uneven tour de force also features some of the most resounding rap hits of the decade.

17) EPMD, Strictly Business (Fresh, 1988). Some complain that this duo are just mush-mouthed automatons vacantly rapping behind assembly-line slow funk. Well, so what? As their debut makes plain, the whole point is "You Gots To Chill." From here, they tightened the formula, but this catches them when their blubbery tone sounded like democracy in action, their dopest samples were still fresh, and their gats were only metaphorical excess.

18) Eminem, The Slim Shady LP (Aftermath/Interscope, 1999). Only by playing the recognizable character of a deprived, depraved Caucasian hanging at the margins of the black underclass did Eminem get props as the first "legitimate" white rapper. Still, he wouldn't have earned it without his mad skills. Forget "flow"-- his tone just drops an endless series of outrageous, brilliantly rhymed one-liners. Like so much great transgressive art, this comedy doesn't just risk being misunderstood, it demands it.

19) 2Pac, Me Against the World (Interscope 1995). This desperately constricted icon of bad karma always milked his allure of doom, but whereas the pathology is usually despicable, it's a disservice to Tupac Shakur's gangbanging fans to dismiss how accurately he represented their fucked-up straits. A long year before his murder, this melancholy, fucked-up document already made me want to add my wreath to his perpetual public mourning ritual.

20) P.M. Dawn: The Bliss Album . . . ? (Gee Street, 1993). Prince Be doesn't have a very commanding rap style or rhyme sense; he's just a consummate sampler and solid composer visionary enough to construct an alternate Paisley Park, one in which rap, pop, and R&B are equally valid shades in the sound of blackness. After this quiet storm, he never again tried to ally himself with the hip-hop nation. But the dream lives on.

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