It’s Like This Y’all
January 19, 1988
Where will rap end up? Where most postmodern American products end up: highly packaged, regulated, distributed, circulated and consumed. Upper–middle-class white students at Yale consume a lot of Run-D.M.C.
Fuck hiphop. I don’t define that shit. I define this, man: It’s music. Let’s not call it hiphop no more, Fred. We ain’t writing graffiti on walls, we’re trying to get paid.
—L.L. COOL J
Radio stations I question their blackness/They call themselves black/But we’ll see if they’ll play this.
—PUBLIC ENEMY, “Bring the Noise”
We begin this benediction by sending out a message of love to the ancestors Kool Herc, Taki 183, and the Nigger Twins.
We know from her secretary that the Billie Holiday first wore gardenias to mask a bald spot made by an overzealous hot comb. Tell us, old muse, about the beauties bred from black disgrace. Had there never been discos, B-boys might have never become so engaged in class struggle, fashion rebels risen up to defy the Saturday night dress code, economically shamed into aggression. But hiphop in its manifold forms — rapping, scratch DJing, break dancing, graffiti — also emerges, in the twilight of ’70s gang warfare, as a nonfratricidal channel for the B-boy’s competitive, creative, and martial urges. All the aforementioned expressions flowered, like swing-era saxophone playing, specifically, in the hothouse of the cutting contest.
Hiphop is the most modern example, after capoeira and basketball, of African culture’s bent towards aesthetic combat — what the graffiti movement itself long ago defined as “style wars.” We are reminded of an exchange between Rammellzee and Nicolas A. Moufarrege.
Moufarrege: Do you call your work total realism. Is this poster total realism? [Note: the images in Rammellzee’s drawings do not resemble what is habitually referred to in art as realism; the drawing is cartoon, comic strip, pop, and science fiction related.]
Rammellzee: There’s about 50,000 kids walking out the street who look just like that: Pumas, bell-bottom jeans — they have their pants hanging off their ass showing their underwear — shades and doo-rags.
What are doo-rags?… You say that this is real and that Picasso is abstract?
Yes.… The human body is abstracted; why do you want to abstract it even further?… Man, on the street they’ll burn it, they’ll break it down. They’ll say what is this shit? Are we your future too? No!
The battle flows in two directions — against the technique of rival virtuosos and against the city. The city fathers strike back, like that’s their job. Ghetto blasters and bombed trains, might, as Jean Baudrillard proclaims, territorialize the urban bush, but they also invoke noise ordinances, razored barbed wire, and the patrolling of train yards by guard dogs. Rammellzee speaks of this as a war of symbols, but the execution of Michael Stewart was no symbolic gesture. His death was status quo: another marginal man pushed into the marginality of the grave by the powerful for crimes surreal or imagined. Were Goetz’s victims B-fashion victims too? Do clothes make the black man a target?
When the black-on-black crime that occurs before, during, and after (often blocks away) rap concerts is reported as “rap violence,” the aging pontificators forget that hiphop is the flipside of being young, black, and urban-situated: the fun side, the funkyfresh side. Take out rap and one could go crying for a belly laugh in modern black pop. If drum sound is this music’s heartthrob, humor is its blood vessels. The urge to snap, crack, jone, boast, toast, to stay forever anal, adolescent, and absurdist — to talk much shit, in other words, and create new slanguage in the process — is what keeps the oral tradition’s chuckle juices flowing through the rap pipeline. (If we have to, we can invoke holy tradition; the preacher goes “Huh!,” James Brown goes “Unnhh!,” George Clinton goes “Ho!,” Bob Marley goes “Oh-oh-wo-oh-oh,” and the DJs scratch their ecstatic ejaculations.)
Rap keeps alive the lineage of jukejoint jive novelty records that began with the first recorded black music — so-called classic blues. Here, too, we’re talking your citified country Negro’s mongrel sound, part jazz, part coonfoolery, part bawdy response to the man-woman question. Black vaudeville tent-show entertainment was best put to wax by heavy-duty womanists Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith. Bringing us to the position of the sistuhs in rap. No, Stokely, not prone, but coming into their own, going beyond the first flurry of lubricated lip answer records to go stone careerist. Roxanne Shante’s jockin’ and clockin’.
The minds behind the music’s muscle are its DJs and producers — Russell Simmons, Eric B., Larry Smith, Teddy Riley, Rick Rubin, Dennis Bell, Hank Shocklee, Hurby Azor, Mantronik, Marley Marl, Terminator X. We continually marvel at this fraternal order of rhythm tacticians, this consortium of beat boppers, megamix researchers, sound-collage technicians, and rare-groove clerics. They think about electronic percussion orchestrally — voicings and shit — like any jazz drummer worth his African roots. We understand that analogies between hiphop and jazz rankle the jazz police who believe harmonic improvisation on Western concert instruments is the measure of black genius. Partly because the beatboppers’ axes (save the wheels of steel) originate in the digital age — drum machines, sequencers, and samplers — the ears of the jazz police fly off the handle.
The suckers have yet to figure out the prototype — Miles Davis’s 1972 On the Corner — so we can’t expect them to listen to Eric B. & Rakim as Wynton Marsalis listens to Ornette Coleman, for his finesse with rhythmic changes. And it goes without saying that New Music America-type festivals don’t consider these percussive melodists composers. Probably because the beatboppers audience dances to the music.
The coordinated chaos of hiphop’s dance component holds clues to the origin of the universe. You want to understand why the subatomic realm is so full of strange behavior? Look to the body language of the black teens. Their culturally acquired fluidity are new dance forms waiting to happen. Who can lament break dancing’s faddish decline knowing such energy is never destroyed but transformed, in this case, into the Wopp, the Snake, the Cabbage Patch, and other spasms yet to be named.
For some, hiphop will always be “that chain-snatching music.” We are reminded of a buppie party in Brooklyn where the hostess denied a request for Run-D.M.C. “This isn’t a Run-D.M.C. kind of party.” A Doritos and disco dipshit party is what it was. What can we expect from Philistines? Hiphop, Russell Simmons informs us, is an artform. To which we add, it’s the only avant-garde around, still delivering the shock of the new (over recycled James Brown compost modern-ism like a bitch), and it’s got a shockable bourgeoisie, to boot. Hiphop is not just Def Jam shipping platinum, but the attraction/repulsion of commodification to the black working class and po’-ass class. The music that makes like a saccharine pop ditty with a dopebeat today could be the soundtrack to a Five Per Cent Nation jihad tomorrow. Hiphop might be bought and sold like gold, but the miners of its rich ore still represent a sleeping-giant constituency. Hiphop locates their market potential and their potential militancy.
Public Enemy pointman Chuckie D wants to raise consciousness though his manifesto serves dreamers and schemers alike: “This jam may hit or miss the charts/But the style gets wild as state of the art/Dazzling in science/Bold in nerve/But giving my house what it deserves.” Later for the revolution. For the here and now, hiphop’s stance of populist-futurism is progressive enough. Is there any creative endeavor outside of recombinant gene technology whose shape to come is more unpredictable? Latter-day prophets predicting hiphop’s imminent demise have already become extinct. Afrika Bambaataa sez rap will be around as long as people keep talking. You think we’re gonna let ’em shut us up now? Sheee.
Hurby Azor & Hank Shocklee: The Ballot or the Bullet
The success of supa def dope produsa Hurby Azor is based primarily in the effortlessness with which he produces a new music unencumbered by its own newness. In his world view — one most clearly exemplified by his work with Salt ’n Pepa, Kid ’n Play, and Dana Dane — hiphop is not new music, but simply pop music. He’s the first producer in the new school to regularly make hip-hop records that you can not only hum, but that you want to hum. It’s top 40 rap, in every sense of the word, and answers directly to nothing — race, class, sex. The irony of this, however, is how the work hotbeds as easily under Dana Dane’s ugly black creaturisms, as it does under Salt ’n Pepa’s parafeminism. In the context of hip-hop, both remain strangely correct, expedient, and political.
On the 180 degree tip, Hank Shocklee’s work, especially as refracted through the telescopic sights of Public Enemy, takes those same subjects (the role of Blackfrican off-pissedness as the fulcrum between white gimme-gimme and First World gate-crashing; the B-boy, not as creature feature, but as hyperresonant icon; sex and the single white liberal music critic) but, as opposed to dismissing or diminishing them, correctly rereads them as overriding concerns and concepts, letting the bodies fall where they may in the best bum-rush hiphop’s ever seen. As part of the madness behind P.E.’s (rhythm) method, hip-hop’s Clintonmeister puts the Thin-Line Theory in effect, raising the roof, the marquee, the sound levels, and the ante, not always in that order. This ain’t the future of hip-hop — this is just a nagging reminder of a past imperfect. ‘Tawana, get Uruzi, and, when you do, don’t forget to bring some noise. —Harry Allen
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on April 2, 2019