A few nights ago, I woke up to a boy’s yells cutting the air followed by three distinctive pops, crisp and disappearing almost as quickly as they came. The silence that followed was unusual – no voices, no sound of car tires hitting the dip in the pavement as they went by, no people, not even the sound of the breeze that was moving the trees in the distance. It was as if time stopped in that moment – like it was waiting for something.
What came next were the sounds of Nikes, Chucks, Timbs, hitting the pavement, and a jumble of words, “Let’s go!” and “Hurry the fuck up!” intermingled in the rhythm of feet stampeding the sidewalk. The sound of cars coming to life were only outmatched by the thunderous roar that followed as they sped off, leaving the same dank silence that now offered the question of whether or not a body lay at the opposite end of the street.
Last year, I stood at the gate that separated my apartment building’s driveway from that same street, and watched as hundreds of people marched in the direction of the police precinct. They waved picket signs like crosses, chanting the tune of an eighteen year old boy who, just a week earlier on the block behind mine, had been shot and killed in his bathroom by a police officer who chased him into his home. Allegations that the boy had a gun were deemed false.
My friends tell me about being stopped by cops for walking the streets at night, for looking suspicious, for having too much rhythm in their steps, or for driving a car that looks too luxurious to have Kendrick Lamar, Nas or Future ripping through it’s system. Tales of young men being shot because they’re unfamiliar faces in the wrong neighborhood are regularly told in our circles, around a campfire of speakers, iPhones, and Dre Beats, sparking the lyrics of Hip-Hop’s golden era classics, and those now carrying the flame.
I’ve often wondered if Hip-Hop is to blame.
Many times it has been the martyr for and messiah of every situation that I’ve mentioned, and many more, creating a rift that leaves people debating over what defines “real” Hip-Hop. However people describe it, it’s never exact. Sometimes it’s based on how socially conscious an artist is, or lyrical ability, or even how much boom-bap is found in an instrumental; how much it taps into that 90’s era nostalgia. Whatever the case, the explanation of real Hip-Hop usually comes from someone grasping at pieces of a whole, forming an abstract concept of what that person feels defines it in his own mind, but never something that is a truly satisfiable definition of what it actually means.
The truth: people no longer know exactly what Hip-Hop is, so they define it by what it’s not.
Real Hip-Hop is not radio, it’s not the glorification of money and violence, it’s not pop, it’s not rap, it’s not anything past the early 90’s or lacking that golden era influence, it’s not Soulja Boy, Chief Keef, Drake, or anything that we didn’t grow up on, and it’s not mainstream.
But in fact, Hip-Hop is all of those things, whether you personally like it or not.
There is no such thing as real Hip-Hop, because it can’t be put into one tangible, rigidly defined category. It’s not any one thing. At it’s core, Hip-Hop will always be a dichotomy because it is a culture; one that is a direct reflection of the people who created it, good and bad.
This yin & yang has always existed. Grand Master Flash dropped “The Message” only a few years after Sugar Hill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight.” Tupac made “Brenda’s Baby” and “I Get Around.” Big L made “Street Struck” and “All Black.” Even Rick Ross rapped on both “Oil Money Gang” and “Poor Decisions.” Kendrick Lamar’s Good Kid M.A.A.D City illustrated the effects and inner struggles that exist at both ends of the spectrum. Even he did “HiiiPower” and “Fuckin Problems.”
If the culture of the people is at odds with itself, then you can expect Hip-Hop to be just as unsure of what it should be. It can be revolutionary and powerful, and at the same time be violent and insecure; it can be uplifting and socially conscious, or it can be misogynistic and full of materialism. It can be a variety of things but it can’t be chopped up into pieces that are conveyed as something separate from the whole, no more than we can separate from the dichotomies that make us who we are. That’s why I believe that only penning certain things as “real Hip-Hop” is an illusion based on the ideal of what some people individually desire it to be. Hip-Hop is as real as the culture behind it, because it is a window into the hearts and minds of the people that developed and continue to invest in it’s name.
The protesters who marched down my street echoed the frustrations of a discrimination that would target people like Angela Davis and Assata Shakur to Sean Bell, Trayvon Martin, and countless others that go unreported and unmentioned in your news feed. They are every bit a part of Hip-Hop culture as the boy that would fire shots at another in the name of nothing but his ego; every bit as real to Hip-Hop as young men bragging about how much money and how many bitches they have, or someone like Chief Keef glorifying violence over Twitter. All of these incidents are rooted in the same emptiness that made Hip-Hop necessary in the first place. In fact, it has become a reflection of that emptiness which it attempts to alleviate through all of it’s conscious, humane, violent, and materialistic struggles.
To attach the label “real” onto Hip-Hop, then proceed to ignore the aspects of it that you don’t like, and then to separate it into categories so that anything undesirable is far removed from some idealistic pedestal, is both nostalgic and irresponsible. It ignores the fact that for Hip-Hop to be so dismembered, it means that there is something intrinsically broken in our culture. The misogyny, the violence, the materialism are just as relevant to Hip-Hop as the revolutionaries, the purveyors of the art form, and those who inspire us to uplift ourselves and others through the mic. This dichotomy shows Hip-Hop’s strengths, and exposes the wounds in our culture that have yet to heal; the void and the emptiness that still exists since it’s spark was first ignited in someone’s basement in the Bronx as an answer to the world’s indifference.
If Hip-Hop is flawed, it’s because we are. It doesn’t get any realer than that.
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