Planet Rock

The World's Most Local Pop Music Goes International

Paradoxically, or maybe not, hip-hop is at once the fastest spreading and most local pop music in the world. The media-saturated, electronically hooked up world, anyway. Ethnomusicologists mourn the indigenous idioms that mutate or fall into disuse once their practitioners get a load of Bucharest or Bangui, and in a sense, hip-hop reverses this process, not musicologically but emotionally. From 'hood to city to coast, what other pop genre makes so much of geography? Early rock and roll lived off a dynamic in which the local went national, usually from a base of local radio; now, local radio barely exists, and even in the Internet-surfing, CD-scarfing indie/college realm, local scenes rarely generate local sounds or more than a smattering of local references. In hip-hop, styles are regionally distinct, although they certainly crossbreed, and representing where you're from is the rule, especially when you're coming up. Hip-hop speaks so loudly to rebellious kids from Greenland to New Zealand not because they identify with young American blacks, although they may, but because it's custom-made to combat the anomie that preys on adolescents wherever nobody knows their name.

The aforementioned antipodes weren't picked out of thin air; I got them from a book and a CD. The book is a recommended anthology from Wesleyan called Global Noise: Rap and Hip-Hop Outside the USA, edited by Australian cultural studies lecturer Tony Mitchell, whose own chapters concern Italy and, yes, New Zealand, home to a Maori hip-hop subculture spearheaded by the long-running Upper Hutt Posse. The CD is a recommended compilation on Hip-O called The Best of International Hip-Hop, whose single best track originated in, I wouldn't believe it either, Greenland: the even longer-running Nuuk Posse's "Uteqqippugut," a/k/a "Back in Business." Since hearing most of the acts referenced in the book is next to impossible in America, it's good to have the record despite its awful notes ("The land of Aristotle and Socrates found its 21st century hip-hop philosophers in Terror X Crew"). But there's little overlap. France, Japan, and Australia are the only countries that make both, with Canada, the U.K., Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Bulgaria, Korea, and New Zealand (plus Basque nationalists and Muslims) described in Global Noise and Portugal, Switzerland, Austria, Romania, Croatia, Greece, Israel, Greenland, Argentina, Algeria, and South Africa represented on The Best of International Hip-Hop.

Assuming the book is accurate (only the Canadian chapter seems inept, but selective reporting is a temptation of such projects), hip-hop is different wherever you find it. In Germany its pop breakthrough dates to 1993, as does a familiar schism: "old school" purists, an Italian-Ghanaian-Haitian immigrant trio rapping "in clear German" about racism, versus white schlagermeisters from the south sprechstimming romantically over "highly polished breakbeat stylings" and insisting that rap doesn't equal hip-hop—which is linked by both sides to not just freestyling but breaking and graffiti. In Japan, having rhymed to the best of their abilities in an unaccented language whose sentences all close on the same handful of verb endings, rappers divide up "underground" (focus of a huge and intense late-night club scene) and "party" (pop in the extreme Japanese Tastee-Cake sense); at consecutive outdoor concerts, the audience for the former was 80 percent male, for the latter 80 percent female. Elsewhere the music is far more rudimentary—a techno-flavored symbol of American wealth and worse in Bulgaria, a stylistic trapping in Korea, where the big star is a lower-middle-class surrogate rebel who got large protesting an educational grind more joyless and authoritarian than Japan's. Most telling is the Australian chapter, centered on Def Wish Cast, "westies" from the underclass suburbs 30 miles on the inland side of Sydney, who since the 1980s have given their all to a hip-hop culture open to anyone who gives his or her (usually his, natch) all to it. It opens with headman Ser Reck laying down the hip-hop law to author Ian Maxwell: "They'll tell you it's a black thing, man, but it isn't. It's our thing."

Rapping French girl-magnet MC Solaar
photo: Phillippe Bordas
Rapping French girl-magnet MC Solaar

And with the obvious reservations, he's got a right. Ser Reck isn't dissing the African American originators of the music he's made his life—he reveres them. But he's not them, and good for him for knowing it. Instead he's constructed the identity and authenticity he craves on a model learned from hip-hop—a model that however arbitrary its specific rituals (graffiti and break dancing again) reconceives community at least as explicitly as the hippies did 35 years ago. Ser Reck works, commits, represents. Hip-hop is his. But unless you're Australian—and probably not then unless you're also young, alienated, rebellious, male, etc.—his hip-hop is unlikely to be yours even if you're in the market for rocked-up Public Enemy on a definitive 1992 CD that'll run you 35 smackers shipped. Although Maxwell devotes a rapturous paragraph to the fondly remembered funk spell of "White Lines," his only musical description of the local stuff contrasts Ser Reck's "ragged, guttural, barking," Australian delivery against "the smooth, mellifluous flow of a NAS or a Dr. Dre."

Ah yes, music. Long before rock and roll, the local-goes-national dynamic went global with Italian opera and fake ragtime, but that kind of move is rare. Which is why The Best of International Hip-Hop stood quietly on my not-bad shelf for a year before Global Noise opened me up. Turns out it's a fun record, and a revealing one, full of catchy beats and local flavors. If you want deep funk, Timbaland or Organized Noize or RZA or Mannie Fresh, listen elsewhere. What prevails instead is remarkably consistent despite its all-over-the-place provenance, maybe even the real world-beat—a generally uptempo electro groove with universal hooks, insistent basslines, off-and-on scratching, and such sound effects as oud from Algeria, balalaika from Greece, and whale from Greenland, plus no doubt a few folk melodies. Far from disrupting music that might otherwise go down queasily lite, the language shifts texture it, with the coughed-up consonants of Greenlandic, Croatian, and Hebrew especially welcome.

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