'Hip-Hop Nation' Is Exhibit A for America's Latest Cultural Revolution

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PETER WILLIAMS/CORBIS

The Roots

Whaasssuuuup?

That quirky Anheuser-Busch commercial may be simply an oblique way to sell more Bud, but its use of a salutation once confined to the black suburbs of Los Angeles is also a sign that all of America has been conquered by the hip-hop nation. And if nationhood is established by a community of territory, language, culture, economy and historic experience, then the hip-hop nation has truly come of age.

The shared historic experience of the hip-hop nation is rich, complex and storied, replete with triumphs and tragedies; heroes and villains; martyrs and charlatans; trials and tribulations (a lot more trials, actually), and even a civil war that threatened to destroy it. Charting the culture's ascent from those heady first days to its dominant place today is the focus of the Brooklyn Museum's ambitious "Hip-Hop Nation: Roots, Rhymes and Rage" exhibit.

Curated by hip-hop journalist Kevin Powell, the show marks the cultural phenomenon's first appearance on this scale in a major museum — on a par with the Met's recent rock 'n' roll exhibit — and it's necessarily, as its curator insists, an introductory tour rather than the last word.

 

BUT EVEN AS AN INTRODUCTION, it's a breathtaking journey. The exhibit charts the story of hip-hop's evolution from a party culture into a massive music phenomenon, starting when Kurtis Blow's "The Breaks" went all the way to No. 1 hard on the heels of "Rapper's Delight." Acts such as Eric B. and Rakim took the art of rhyming to a new level of profundity, their trickster lyrical gymnastics cutting up and reordering the world, while others, such as Public Enemy, used the format as a platform for social criticism and a revival of the nationalist politics of Malcolm X. De La Soul and Tribe Called Quest were among the leaders of an imaginative school of abstract poetics that stretched the envelope of the hip-hop form and sought to connect it with earlier musical traditions such as bebop, but elsewhere 2 Live Crew were appropriating the frenetic Miami drum-and-bass sound to weave lascivious sexual fantasies that got local authorities screaming to shut them down.

Where 2 Live Crew's potty-mouth lyrics may have sparked hip-hop's first sustained confrontation with the law, the rise of gangsta rap opened the floodgates. N.W.A. (Niggas With Attitude) pioneered the new form with an in-your-face contempt for authority in tales of murder and mayhem set on the streets of Compton, Calif. "F--- tha Police" shocked mainstream America, but it resonated with the youth of the hip-hop nation. And it proved frighteningly prophetic when L.A. erupted in riots that shocked the world two years later. N.W.A. spawned a new breed of rapper, styled as gun-toting hoodlum supposedly giving suburban America a frightening peek into ghetto life — the group knew from pretty early on that about 80 percent of the people buying their albums were white, middle-class kids. Although the industry was happy to cash in, pressure by conservative advocacy groups on major corporations such as Time Warner (parent company of TIME.com) resulted in the industry backing away from promoting gangsta rap. "Hip-Hop Nation" includes original correspondence detailing efforts by Ice-T to be released from his Warner Brothers contract after the corporation had sought to curb certain lyrics.

Gangsta rap, with its narrative tales and its cinematic funk-driven sound, offered a distinct alternative to the tricky bebop gymnastics of the freestyling East Coast. But hip-hop came close to destroying itself in the mid-'90s when that bicoastal rivalry almost turned into a shooting war, as Tupac Shakur — between surviving shootings and spells in prison — threatened the life of Brooklyn rapper the Notorious B.I.G. and both men, former friends, were by the end of 1997 dead in as-yet-unsolved drive-by shootings.

But while most hip-hop fans today may be well versed in the tale of Tupac and Biggie, the show transports them back to an era they may find hard to imagine. After all, the almost pharaonic fantasy world of a Puffy Combs video is light-years away from the hand-stenciled mimeographs with crude sketches advertising an around-the-way appearance of Kurtis Blow or a block party featuring Grandmaster Flash. This was a do-it yourself movement in the outer boroughs, a culture being built by hand, brick by brick — one to which the suits running the music industry in the glass towers across the river were mostly impervious for more than a decade.

And for kids grown accustomed to hip-hop as the bearer of grim tales of death and destruction, "Hip-Hop Nation" offers a glimpse of a reminder that the cultural roots were in joyous block parties and people having getting together to have a good time no matter how grim their circumstances. That much is summed up in the words of one pioneering DJ carried in a video installation: "If there was negativity and fights breaking out at your party, that means your DJ was whack."

 

IT WAS AT THOSE PARTIES in the "Boogie Down" South Bronx where hip-hop's founding fathers — Kool Herc, Afrika Bambaata and Grandmaster Flash — first began delivering spoken rhymes over the break beats on funk and disco records sometime in the mid-'70s. Today the signature beats-and-rhymes combination of the musical art form they created is as ubiquitous in America's tony suburbs as in its forgotten housing projects, and has kids in distant parts of the world whose first language may be French or Japanese or Wolof chanting choruses inviting their friends to "get at me, dawg."

Hip-hop's language — not simply its slang, which is as likely to be heard in Yale dorm rooms as on inner-city street corners, but its idiom, which involves combining the spoken (or screamed) word with a pastiche of musical elements drawn from previous songs and styles reassembled in new and unique combinations — is not only the preeminent musical genre of a generation, it's also a complex, ever-evolving organism that has spawned countless dialects that are constantly in conversation with one another.

 

HIP-HOP CULTURE may be difficult to define, but it is pervasive nonetheless. It began simply as a combination of four art forms — deejaying, rapping, break dancing and graffiti tagging — but it quickly evolved into a cultural revolution in which young African-Americans literally remade their America. In the spirit of Malcolm X and the Black Panthers, they didn't simply demand to be admitted as an equal in Whitey's world; they created their own popular culture grounded in the lived reality and aspirations of black life in America. Far from demanding to join the club, the hip-hop kids created their own. And once they'd built it, Whitey came, desperately seeking access to the "cool" that, as Norman Mailer famously noted, has in postwar urban America been inexorably associated with blackness. What had started out simply as a joyous culture of black self-expression for a new generation eventually came to dominate the American cultural landscape. Will Smith may today be one of Hollywood's most sought-after leading men, but a few short years ago he was simply Philadelphia's ranking rapper, aka The Fresh Prince. And could Chris Rock have emerged as America's preeminent standup comic — making audiences laugh nervously as he rants on about hating "niggers" — without two decades of hip-hop having passed under the bridge?

And the fortunes of the likes of Ralph Lauren, Tommy Hilfiger and Timberland over the past decade are testimony to the power of hip-hop as American taste-maker. Initially, the effect is achieved by unsolicited appropriation — Ralph Lauren's ads were full of white preppies, but that didn't stop the hip-hop generation from buying his wares. Lauren's ad agency acknowledged that much by inserting Tyson Beckwith into the preppy mix, launching the career of the first black male supermodel. Hip-hop's power to direct tastes in everything from malt liquor to SUVs is today assiduously courted by the advertising industry.

It is — not surprisingly given that this is America after all — in the sphere of its economy that the hip-hop nation is most evolved. Where hip-hop artists once built a following through word of mouth at block parties and tiny clubs in New York's outer boroughs, today they're part of a multibillion-dollar industry that invents new careers week after week and launches them in million-dollar videos. In terms of sales, hip-hop, together with the R&B genre that it counts as a cousin, is the largest and the fastest-growing musical format. When the Fugees swept five awards at the 1999 Grammys, it was simply confirmation of a trend with which the music industry's accountants are well acquainted.

 

CONTROVERSIES WITHIN HIP-HOP — the "civil war" between the coasts; the issues of corporate control and censorship; issues of gender and the struggle of women rappers to challenge the negative stereotypes of black women reinforced by some of their male colleagues — are alluded to in passing, but receive scant attention in "Hip-Hop Nation." Still other questions, such as the obvious tension between artists who still see themselves as community activists and those who simply head for the Hamptons are scarcely raised. But as the organizers emphasize, the show is an introduction rather than the last word, and the deeper questions can't be explored until a wider community is familiarized with the history. "Hopefully people will come away from this and realize that we need colleges to be teaching courses in hip-hop studies," says Powell. "Hopefully this show will stimulate a lot more people to do their own exploration of the culture." And for the single most important cultural phenomenon of the past quarter-century, such exploration is long overdue.