Physicist Nathan Myhrvold, Microsoft’s chief technology officer, once summarized his primary research focus as an inconceivably tiny sliver of time after the Big Bang, when the cosmos was but a mere trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second old, and the universe swiftly grew from about 10-33 of a centimeter in diameter—roughly a hundred billion billion times smaller than a proton—to “about the size of a grapefruit.” Casually dismissing everything that would follow this “epoch of inflation”—the formation of most matter and galaxies, and the entirety of the human record—he notes, “After that, it’s all sort of history as far as I’m concerned.”
Though bundled with less intellect by several orders of magnitude, I share Dr. Myhrvold’s search for the rudimentary, even if my gaze is neither so far-reaching nor quite so reductive. If this writer could study, with infinite resolution, any early time period, it would be the one dominated by hip-hop culture in New York City before September 1979 and “Rapper’s Delight.” Much the way scientists theorize that, prior to Myhrvold’s tiny epoch, nature’s four fundamental forces—gravity, electromagnetism, the strong force, and the weak force—were united in one, never-to-reappear “superforce,” pre-1979 hip-hop’s four fundamental forces—m.c.-ing, d.j.-ing, b-boying, and writing—were, they say, united in a way that, after that time, they would never be again.
Roughly a quarter century after hip-hop’s Big Bang, I’m watching Invisibl Skratch Piklz’ awesomely skilled D.J. QBert deftly mesmerize a characteristically white crowd at Symphony Space, for the Fourth Annual Battle Sounds Turntablist Festival. The event has been convened as a screening of, and fundraiser for, Brooklyn videomaker John Carluccio’s as yet uncompleted Battle Sounds Hip-Hop DJ Documentary. The producers also distribute copies of Turntablist Transcription Methodology Version 1.0, their proposal for a d.j.-ing notation system. Scattered throughout the gathering are such notables as d.j.s Barry B, Steve D, and Grandmixer DXT, whose turns on Herbie Hancock’s “Rockit” were like Plymouth Rock for many of the d.j.s who will line the stage. (As far as one can see, there’s not a major rapper on the premises.) When suddenly, I’m struck by an odd insight. I realize that I am not seeing a manifestation of “true” or “original” hip-hop—as many are wont to proclaim these days, particularly in the gamma-ray glare of that rare, very heavy, silvery-white metal, element 78 on the periodic table: platinum.
I realize, instead, that such demonstrations are just a slightly less false remapping of hip-hop’s original intent than that which the almost completely d.j.-less rhyming art form has become—due to the covalent greed of its practitioners and distributors, coupled with the lack of internal cohesion that, after art forms grow, makes them destabilize. “Turntablism” isn’t “real hip-hop” any more than, as it’s often said, “rap”—the commercialization of m.c.-ing into 4:30 arrangements of rhymes in pop song-structure for radio play—is “hip-hop.” “Turntablism” is a word that renames, for the objectives of its practitioners and distributors, what hip-hop has been doing since Kool Herc: using the turntable as an instrument. In truth, however, what Flash ‘n ’em had to do was some degree more ambitious: (a) be showy and devastating, (b) rock a partying, disinterested, or even partially drunk or violent crowd, and (c) set up the rhythmic bed with which skilled m.c.s would interact, so that they could also (a) and (b). When was the last time that you saw a “turntablism” demo with m.c.s? In some ways, “turntablism” reminds one of technical diving, where the goal is not to ogle clownfish in a warm coral reef, but to descend over 1000 feet below the ocean’s surface in under 12 minutes—not the 24 hours such a plunge usually takes—aided by $10,000-to-$15,000 clusters of “diving computers, heads-up displays, rebreathers, and portable recompression chambers” scrounged through the Internet, to quote a Wired article; swimming as pure math. As well, “turntablism” has begun to develop its own branched time line (oriented around the historical dates of widely heralded d.j. battles), geography (in turntablism terms, “West Coast” means the Bay Area, not Los Angeles), and mythology (in the sense of an indigenous narrative tradition). For example, the myth that Grand Wizard Theodore invented scratching in his bedroom, ably retold and demonstrated by the Wizard himself in the Battle Sounds doc. In the history of “turntablism,” this precious fact is almost a phylactery—knowledge that differentiates specialists from dilettantes. Yet like much of hip-hop culture, it has yet to bear the brunt of rigorous historical review, or even a few basic questions. For instance, does “inventing” a practice in one’s bedroom count, or do you have to do it in public to get the credit? Or the one with which this writer has been grappling: Why do we count writing (“graffiti”) as part of hip-hop culture, when its origins predate Kool Herc’s public performances of the music?
One of the holy grails of modern physics is a unifying, mathematical description of the universe’s four forces that, says theoretician Paul Davies, “you could wear on your T-shirt”—a formula ideally as compact, memorable, and all-encompassing as E=mc2. Hip-hop could also use such a binding formula or philosophy. In the time since its creation, its subtending parts have each gone off along their own vectors, some more or less prosperously, but all at great deficit to the potency of the others. The question, then, remains, much as it does in the study of the heavens, whether hip-hop is, in fact, a closed universe—bound to recollapse, ultimately, in a fireball akin to its birth—or an open one, destined to expand forever, until it is cold, dark, and dead.