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Hip Hop is at the Heart of Me
I remember the day that she was formally introduced into my life. She came with her tracks burned onto the back of a sleek and shiny CD given to me by a friend on my fourteenth birthday. The bottom of the disc shimmered brilliantly like a diamond with the reflection of rainbows as he handed the personally made mix CD to me; no plastic case needed for protection, simply raw and bare and beautiful in its plainness. Little did I know about how momentous that mundane exchange of a birthday present would reveal itself to be; how the music inscribed onto that disc would end up molding the very essence of my identity.
That night, in the silence and solitude of my bedroom, I slipped the disc into my CD player, and the second I heard the click as my finger pushed down on the play button, my musical taste was taken. It started off at an easy pace with the smooth, creamy vibration of the double bass inching its way into my atmosphere at a surprisingly slow tempo, each pluck of the string snagging my audio interest. It sounded more like the intro to a jazz piece. I listened with a pinch of confusion, could this really be Hip Hop? The double bass tune began to speed up and added more plucks of string to create a more complicated melody. I felt my neck begin to rock forward and backward in small sways following the beat. I was already caught in the irresistible flow and tempo of the music. Suddenly a new layer of instrument introduced itself with the double bass beneath it – an electronic keyboard in high pitch sweetened the low, quiet boom of the strings. The heavenly ivory sound of piano keys joined in and a smile melted across my lips at the freshness of the entire ensemble. But it was only when the beat kicked in that my is-this-hip-hop speculations were defeated; the tickle of the high hat skipped in alongside the rhythmic bump of tom-toms being tapped in repetition. The steady boom-kah pattern, which my head was now nodding after with even greater fervor, gave the music its distinguishable Hip Hop flavor. The addition of violins lifted my soul to the heavens and completed my cherubic audio experience. With eyes closed and the sweet squeeze of a full cheek smile pained from the blissful rush of what beauty my ears had just witnessed, I listened to the rapper preach optimism through the chorus, “Never looking back, or too far in front of me, the present is a gift, and I just wanna be, be, be, be.” The song ended with nothing but the piano strings played in high octaves fluttering to a finish. In two minutes and twenty eight seconds, I had gone through track number one out of nineteen. With an indefinite smile now imprinted upon my heart, I had fallen irrevocably in love with this music. Hip Hop had claimed me.
Now, this was different than the crude ego-inflated, for-the-club created Hip Hop that was being played on the radio at the time, like with big time rapper 50 Cent rhyming about attracting females to take to his “candy shop” to “get a taste of what [he’s] got”. No, this specific mix of music had been my first portal into the kind of music that had not been contaminated by the three criteria of commercialized Hip Hop – broads, booze, and bling. Such music, I believe, was produced with the desire for dollars and heightened fame in mind, rather than a more noble foundation, like the need to express personal struggles, joys, and experiences beyond the journey from club to hotel bed. Such music would be perfectly fine being played at full blast in an environment such as a dance party where the bump and grind to a booty shaking beat was socially acceptable and even promoted. But this music, this Hip Hop, had unfortunately made it into the mainstream and became the definition for what typical Hip Hop was for the masses. For rappers such as 50 Cent, their lyrics display a sickening concentration of conceit, arrogance, and disrespect for females, slathered with heavy use of profanity that had me turning away in disdain.
The more I explored what underground Hip Hop had to offer me, the more I strayed from the overplayed hits on Kiis FMs Top 9 at 9. I had found a subculture of music that I could call my own; a vast new auditory world that guided me beyond plastic pop music and instead beneath into the streets and into the home studios of rap artists that had yet to sell themselves to the larger, puppeteer corporations. It became this Hip Hop verses that Hip Hop, until I developed the mentality that the trashy club-radio Hip Hop was simply not Hip Hop at all, by my own definition. Spending hours upon hours on the internet browsing through music blogs and videos as a means to discover the undiscovered became a hobby in which I relished; each track that I added to my library became a priceless and precious treasure, always sending me back into the euphoria I had experienced with that first mix CD on my fourteenth birthday.
Hip Hop soon became more than another genre of music to me. It was not a recreational past time, but rather a passion that re-created me, a large puzzle piece that contributed significantly to my greater image. It was more than empty background music that came and went, humming into my ears like the static buzzing of a passing bee. No, Hip Hop was at the heart of me. There really was nothing better than that warm chill I felt when I was enraptured by a “sick” beat. Intoxicating had to be the best way to describe it. The melody was like thick, sweet air that got caught in my throat. And it squeezed through until it dripped into the empty hollows of my chest and became one with the bump, bump, bump of my heart. It was a connection characterized by the heavy, reverberating bass matching the beat of my blood pulse. Nothing could control the sway of my body like Hip Hop could. Her beats were contagious, almost infectious. They instigated a resonant rush that permeated my skin, infiltrated my limbs and spread through my system. And soon I was under her inescapable command – foot tapping, body swaying, head nodding.
The nature of her language caught onto my tongue as an accent does when emerging oneself into a foreign country. My world became colored with her beats, her flavor, her rhymes, her rhythms, her stories, her culture. I was engulfed beyond simple amusement and entertainment; instead it became more a mixture of awe and amazement at how this music could ignite such a swell of joy and curiosity within me. Her melody became like water surrounding me, like waves waxing and waning, pulling me this way and that. It was never a forceful sway, but absolutely involuntary, completely natural, an innate need to move along with her rhythm, allow her to hypnotize me to move to her will and follow along until the song was finished and the sway was discontinued. At the sound of her, I became putty. I had no choice to but to listen and hear what she had to say.
How could I express it? How could I possibly share this feeling of elation over such a brilliantly organized ensemble of bass, drums, and jazz samples layered over the sweet flow of vocalized poetry? I knew it was impossible. It was as instinctive as preferring vanilla over chocolate, red over blue, apples over bananas. It was merely my own preference backed by a inexplicable passion.
I wanted to defend the beauty of this music, my music, for no other genre – not rock, not country, not disco - could make me feel as blissful as her rhythms and rhymes. And so for every criticism against Hip Hop that I heard over the years reinforcing its carnal and covetous stereotype, I felt subtly insulted and most definitely saddened that this was the direction in which the mainstream face of the music was moving. I developed an indelible peeve towards the artists that did cultivate such a negative and mindless image for Hip Hop for the masses, such as Lil Wayne, with his diamond paved teeth and Soulja Boy with his abundance of gold chains hanging loosely about his neck, rapping about “young money millionaires” and teaching the public how to “crank dat”. But I held nothing but admiration and respect for those whom I considered to be the conscious rappers that were not spoiled by overrated exposure that lead them to produce music merely as material to be sold. Instead, my beloved rappers were much more concerned with the message packaged within their lyrics, the personal stories and struggles, the sense of identity that their music created for them. For example in his rap “A Dream”, Common, a rapper who worked his way up from the streets of Chicago, writes about the struggle of a growing up as a black boy in the degradation of his neighborhood:
In search of brighter days, I ride through the maze of the madness,
Struggle is my address, where pain and crack lives,
Gunshots comin' from sounds of Blackness,
Given this game with no time to practice,
Born on the Black list, told I'm below average.
But towards the end of the track, he then responds to the plight with a reflection of positivity:
Writin' dreams in the dark, they far but I can see 'em,
I believe in Heaven more than Hell,
Blessings more than jail,
In the ghetto let love prevail,
With a story to tell, my eyes see the glory and well,
The world waitin' for me to yell "I Have a Dream".
The lyrical content of this music beams with a story full of truth and meaning. Common sought to provide a song of hope to reach out to those with similar pains. As sensual as the music was for its instrumental qualities, it continued to claim my interest by providing a substance beyond the beat. This rap was conscious rap that broadened my intellect on the street history of America in a way that I actually took immeasurable pleasure in.
Over time I became more and more attentive to the clear window that Hip Hop provided into a reality that I failed to understand at the very beginning: the black truth. This truth was the truth of America that completely escaped my own reality.
In many ways, Hip Hop educated me. People often click best with music that expresses their moods, their experiences, their stories. In a typical audience to music situation, it is the lyrics that understands the plight of the listener; the singer that voices out the inner emotions that the audience already understands. But between Hip Hop and me, the situation was flipped – the more I listened to Hip Hop, the more I sought to understand her. I sought to comprehend the reasons behind the bitterness, the fear, the tribulations behind the voices of rappers who used Hip Hop as a means of escape and elevation. I realized that rap often times had a way of telling a story whether the audience felt comfortable with its strident edge or not. I realized that I could no longer shun the artists who rapped so explicitly about living in communities of drug abuse, theft, and violence. It was my mistake to claim that I knew and loved Hip Hop in its entirety when I understood nothing of the foundational soil from which it first took its roots and thrived.
With a new reason to explore Hip Hop, I began to read books that detailed the stories of her origins. Fueled by curiosity, I pulled the textbook sized “Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation” by Jeff Chang off the shelf at a local library. As I perused its pages, I learned that it had all started off in the late 1960s in South Bronx, New York. South Bronx had originally been a place for working class families, but transformed into a poverty ridden slum due to three main factors: white flight, the construction of the Cross-Bronx Expressway, and landlord abandonment. At this time, a man named Robert Moses, an extremely powerful urban modern builder, had decided to build the Cross-Bronx Expressway – a highway that would connect Manhattan to the suburbs. This project would carve through the homes and businesses of 60,000 Bronx residents that stood in its path. In addition, during this post World War II era, whites began moving out of the inner-city and into suburbs where urban poverty was no longer an issue. As whites moved out of South Bronx and African American, Afro-Caribbean and Latino families moved into Jewish, Irish and Italian neighborhoods, where the youth experienced violent conflictions due to racial and territorial divisions. This emigration, called the “white flight”, combined with the plummeting property values due to proximity to the Cross Bronx Expressway, had contributed to an increased apartment vacancy rate in South Bronx, which created a financial struggle for landlords in the area. Unable to maintain their apartments or sell their property, landlords began hiring thugs to burn their buildings so that they could reap money off their insurance values. South Bronx, composed of little more than the hollows of charred and forsaken apartments which housed indigent drug addicts, had suffered the collapse of poverty.
Engrossed in the realities revealed in the ink of the black print before me, I began to piece together a picture of plight that blacks and Latinos in South Bronx sought to escape. Gangs of ostracized and afflicted youth began to form amidst the chaos as a means of protection and comfort from solitude in this impoverished and abusive environment. They turned the “wasteland into a playground” (Chang, 49) by creating families in the streets. Initially, aggressive tensions between distinguished gangs lead to unrestrained violence. But over time efforts toward unity pacified the anger and the angst that dominated the streets. Holding dance parties in South Bronx became a popular recreational past time which provided the youth with a place to enjoy clean entertainment while escaping gang and drug related hardships. One prominent party host, Clive Campbell, a Jamaican-born DJ and MC (Master of Ceremonies), brilliantly generated the idea to take two turntable set-ups, which held copies of the same record, and use them to elongate the instrumental break of a song by repeating it, one after another. MCs provided the next primary ingredient of Hip Hop by layering the tracks with personal rhymes, which became known as rap. And from the rhythm and rhymes of this repetition of breaks and recitation of raps, Hip Hop was born. And even going beyond the music, Hip Hop continued to cultivate and became an artistic culture composed of four key elements – MCing, DJing, break dancing, and graffiti.
I learned that Hip Hop is a culture of expression that stemmed from a time when both financial and familial ends failed to meet. She is a culture of creators that grew tired of nights filled with the echoes of battle cries and broken bottles held high in the hands of boys that had sadly grown too accustomed to the bittersweet smell of blood. She is a state of inventiveness for finding a means to vent the pent up steam in ways other than violence; a bricolage that sought to bind a broken and scattered community. She is the cacophonous crack of a bullet bursting from a .22 caliber burner when the youth pulled the trigger to a previous existence that found death as a daily option. She replaced fists with futures and filled the emptiness with eloquence. She broke the Laws of Silence by giving her people the audacity to reveal and revel in the crude beauty of an artistic brilliance tinged with the burnt flavor of abandon. She is the music that teaches her students how to tap together at unified tempos, yet still challenge them to explore personal flavors exuded through fresh rap lines and dance moves. And when the blast of that bass hits, she is the moment that every breathing being reverberates with the same beat pulsing through their veins –feet tapping, bodies swaying, heads nodding. With full acceptance of what she stood for and, more importantly, why she stood for in the first place, I came to realize that regardless of her flaws, her fears, her fury, Hip Hop, in both her brilliance of beats and battles of blood, will always be at the heart of me.