The Weekly Hip-Hop Word:

Is Hip Hop Culture Black Culture

written by Dave 'Davey D' Cook
This is rapidly becoming an age old argument within hip hop circles. A lot of it stems from people feeling that hip hop is being exploited, disrespected and misused. The obvious culprits in these activities are white businessmen who are out to make a quick book, while the obvious victims are hordes of young Black males who've are the one's writing and creating the raps. In between these two groups you have a world wide audience consisting of folks from all cultures who love and whole heartily support the music. Many claim to be down with the music and many claim to have a deep respect for the music. Some will aggressively point out prominent Black businessmen and say they too are guilty of exploiting hip hop and in fact they're not down with the culture. You have many Blacks who will vehemently assert that hip hop is inherently Black culture and thus no matter what they do..they should be able to unchallenged because hip hop is part of their culture or is it?

Before we answer this question, we have to put forth some sort of working definitions. The first thing that needs to be defined is Hip Hop. What is hip hop?. Depending on who you speak to, hip hop takes on many definitions..but is there one we can all agree upon? There are some who will note that hip hop is Busta Rhymes and Wu-Tang but not The 2 Live Crew or Mack 10. In fact it's those sort of accusations that have given rise to the question of hip hop's ethnic roots. In many instances you'll have a white writer, fan or some record industry type in the east coast who will go on record and state that Wu-Tang is real hip hop while the Geto Boys or E-40 who are from the South or West are not. "They're not hip hop, they're rap", will be the assertion.

The angry response will often be along the lines like this... "How can some white kid from a NY suburb tell me a Black kid from the Houston or California ghetto that what I do is not hip hop?. How can some white writer from a white owned magazine like the Source go around criticizing and defining music that is born out the Black community? It appears that as more and more people move into a position where they are able to present hip hop over various mediums, they start to define it. This later leads to others building off that information. Eventually this leads to a distortion of hip hop culture. Now granted this sort of phenomenon doesn't have to necessarily be one that falls upon ethnic lines, but it unfortunately does, because the primary outlets of information are controlled by whites.

And while we're pondering over that, consider the response from many white kids especially those from places like London or Sweden who will boldly assert they've been down with hip hop from the very 'get go'. They will note that they've never distorted or exploited the culture..and that hip hop is not a Black or white's an urban thing? Hip hop for people who respect and love the culture? But again.. what is hip hop culture? How do we define it?

For the most part, many of hip hop's pioneers ranging from Kool Herc to Afrika Bambaataa [please see what he has to say about this topic in the interview section of this site] to the Rock Steady Crew's outspoken pioneering break dancer Crazy Legs have defined hip hop culture as being a culmination of four main elements, break dancing, graffiti art, djaying and emceeing [rapping]. Public Enemy's Harry Allen, put it more succinctly by saying "Hip Hop is a set expressions in vocalization, instrumentation, dance and visual arts".. Folks like Bam and Crazy Legs will be the first to point out that in the beginning hip hop had lots of non-Black participants in particular from the Latin/Puerto Rican community.

The other thing that often gets brought up is the fact that out of the four main components to hip hop culture, the vocalization part..[rapping] was the last to emerge. In the ghettos of the Bronx, modern day hip hop's birth place, there were lots of kids from all races doing graffiti. The break dancing element was the next to emerge. First among the predominantly Black Zulu Nation, however, it wasn't long before kids from other races started strutting their stuff. Afterwards, the music set in. Anything with a funk drum break was fair game. This meant at a typical hip hop gig one could hear just about anything ranging from Black artists like James Brown to white artist like Queen or Aerosmith

It was this aspect that I believe caught the attention of folks outside the ghettos of the Bronx and Manhattan. What was going on at this time was everyone was experimenting with music, and lets face it hip hop was definitely taking music onto a whole different level. Music which is universal led to more then a few folks being interested and eventually gravitating toward it. This of course were the building blocks that lead to hip hop's current mass appeal.

The vocalization part of hip hop culture while being the last element to manifest itself within the structure of modern day hip hop did not appear out of a vacuum. In fact it may be the oldest aspect.. The vocalization executed by Black folks within hip hop was just another manifestation of what is known as the African Oral Tradition.

As Harry Allen pointed out that during our 500 year stay in America, Black people have managed to retain many features of African culture. The oral tradition is one of them. You see the way information was passed from one generation to the next in African society was via word of mouth. In west African villages where many Black Americans can trace their roots, their existed elder tribesmen known as griots. These individuals were revered because within there heads they carried the entire history of a nation, family or tribe. This history would be repeated through songs and narratives from the village griots. The rest of the tribe would build upon the information handed down. A good example of this, was shown in the series 'Roots'. Folks may recall when Alex Haley was researching his family background, he wound up talking with a griot. Haley sat there for a couple of days as this griot recited the entire village's history from ancient times up til modern times. During this exchange, Haley heard the stories about Kunta Kintee and some of his other family members before they were taken over as slaves. Word of mouth was the way in which brothers and sisters build upon a concept and passed down their heritage. If you stop to think about it, that is exactly what rap has done. Ten or even twenty years from now, folks will have a good understanding into many faces of Black culture because of what was spoken about in a hip hop song. It's no wonder Chuck D referred to rap as the Black People's version of CNN.

The other aspect that needs to be examined with respect to the importance of verbalization among Black people, is the concept of Nommo. This was a belief that basically stated that there is magical power in words. They believed that mastery over words gave you the ability to master the universe. So important was the word in West African culture that no activity or craftsmanship took place without being accompanied by speech or some sort of naming or verbal blessing. This emphasis on verbalization carried itself from Africa to the Americas where you could see it manifest itself from generation to generation. There have always been some form of verbal acrobatics or word jousting involving rhymes within the Black community.

At first there were field songs, by the slaves. Many of these songs spoke immediately to the feelings the slaves had...and they spoke immediately to the conditions at hand. Many of the early slave songs contained metaphors for the slave master. Most importantly, the field songs help the slaves past the time while at the same time getting some sort of relief from their harsh conditions. There were even 'gangsta' like field songs that spoke to the demise of the slave master. Just like today, Black folks have always used songs to speak out against oppressive conditions...If you ask me it sounds like what rap does today.

In later generations, word games like the signifying monkey, Stag O Lee, testifying, shining of the titanic, toasting, the dozens, school yard rhymes, prison 'jail house' rhymes, jump 'double dutch' rope rhymes, and the blues are just a few of the various forms in which rap manifested itself. All that was needed was someone or some condition to set off the new style of verbal wordplay.

Modern day rap as we know it, found it's immediate roots in the toasting and dub talkover elements of reggae music. Much of this attributed to hip hop pioneer, Kool Herc, a Jamaican born dj who moved to NY in the early '70s and attempted to incorporate his Jamaican style of deejaying, which involved reciting improvised rhymes over the dub versions of his reggae records. Unfortunately at that time, New Yorkers weren't feeling Herc and his music. Thus Herc adapted his style by chanting over the instrumentals or percussion sections of the days popular songs. Because these percussion breaks were relatively short, he learned to extend them indefinitely by using an audio mixer and two identical records in which he continuously replaced the desired segment. The rest is history.

The early rhymes that Herc sputtered over the mic and later Coke La Rock and Clark Kent, were nothing more then acknowledgments. Herc made folks feel special by announcing there names on the mic and telling everyone that were 'in the house'. This of course led to folks shouting back at Herc in a call and response type of routine. For example, Herc might've announced.. 'My man Davey D is in the house'... and I return may have shouted back from the floor 'Davey D is the house turning it out'. Such routines did not originate in NYC.. Black folks have always and continue to do such call and response routines. Geographically, the routines may vary. Out here in the West Coast, the routine might have the dj announcing 'Party over where' and someone from the floor responding back 'party over here'. This would continue on until the whole party was participating. In NY the call and response routine may have been different.

Nevertheless call and response is historically rooted in African culture. The early slave songs incorporated them, The Black church with it's fiery preachers incorporate them, and the early rap routines used them. The Herculoids were call and response, Chief Rocker Busy Bee another hip hop pioneer popularized such routines. Run DMC excelled in call and response except they did it amongst themselves as opposed to involving the audience.

Another interesting aspect of Kool Herc and his Jamaican music roots was that their musical style was a spin off and influenced by the Black radio djs of the 50s and 60s who used to rhyme over records when introducing a song. People like Daddy O, Jocko Henderson and Jack The Rapper immediately come to mind. These rhyming Black radio djs were influenced by the bebob era in which many singers would scat.. and make funny percussion noises with their mouth. It is kind of similar to someone like Doug E Fresh or Biz Markie doing the human beat box thing. On a side note, the term hip hop was coined by DJ Hollywood a hip hop pioneer who used to scat while rhyming at discos in the late 70s. His rhymes would read like "Hip Hop she bob a dop..hip hip hop and ya don't stop".

I had mentioned blues being a cultural influence to rap. This can not be downplayed. In fact I would go so far to say that hip hop is the modern day blues. Rap like blues was easily accessible. Anyone and everyone could sing the blues could it was an expression of one's feelings. It spoke out and offered relief to some harsh economic and troubling social conditions for Black people. One did not need any sort of formal training to sing the blues. And as for instrumentation, there were some accomplished musicians who could play the blues with traditional instruments, but heck if one only had a spoon or a stick and a bucket..or even just their hand rhythmically hitting the body [handbone], they could create the blues. The accessibility factor is what gave rap its popularity. So in short long before Coke La Rock and Clark Kent grabbed a microphone and helped put Kool Herc and the Herculoids on the map by reciting customized street versions of Mother Goose nursery rhymes, there were Black folks in the hood rapping..they just didn't call it rap. However, it has been a part of African culture since the beginning of time.

So is Hip Hop culture Black culture? Historically, yes..One may ask about the cultural and historical origins of Hip Hop's other elements like break dancing, graffiti and deejaying. Well if you look at break dancing, you'll find it's direct lineage in capoeta which is an African form of martial arts...The African slaves that were brought to Brazil successfully used these elaborate wind mills and side swipes in what appeared to be a dance to revolt against the slave masters. The fighting techniques of this art form were camouflaged by the slaves in what eventually evolved into modern day break dancing.

What gave rise to break dancing here in the states during hip hop's infancy were two things. First were the very popular Bruce Lee movies that were being shown in the mid 70s. Every urban kid in NY checked for Bruce and tried to mimic him on the streets. The second factor were the Brazilian dance troupes that used to regularly come to Harlem and perform. The capoeta dance styles they exhibited coupled with Bruce Lee action flicks, helped give birth to hip hop's early breakers. Speaking of which, let it be known the early break dancers were the original members of Africa Bambaataa's Zulu Nation.

These former gang members, most of whom were Black, began doing what Black folks have always done, battling each other in dance competitions. Dancing, like verbal word play traces its roots to ancient Africa. Many of the movements you see in hip hop dance you'll see in West African dance.

The scratching technique in the deejaying aspect of hip hop may also find its roots in African culture. No, I'm not saying that there were turn tables in ancient Africa, however, the manipulation of the turntables to create complex polyrhythmic patterns..[scratching] are definitely a retention of African culture. Public Enemy's 'media assassin', Harry Allen spoke extensively about the retaining and focus of rhythm amongst Black people in an article he penned several years ago for Essence Magazine. He wrote about a type of instrument that was used by some West African tribes that sounded very similar to someone scratching a record. The emphasis here as Allen pointed out was the focus on rhythm and the relationship the tribe had with it.... Scratching manifesting itself initially via dj Grand Wizard Theodore in the late 70s. It was yet another way in which Black folks focused on polyrhythmic patterns. If it wasn't records scratching, it may have been the tambourine, the extra drum or some other device that would added the extra rhythm patterns to linear beats being played on the turntables.

As for the grafitti aspect of hip hop. I haven't familiarized myself with its history. I do know that when coming up in NY around that time, that all sorts of folks were tagging up...Black white Latino and others. If you looked at it on one hand tagging was definitely a cry for a group of overlooked, underplayed and excluded folks to be recognized. Someone's tag or ppiece was the ultimate signature in the urban jungle. But trhen again man since the beginning of time has been tagging on walls.

With respect to writing styles, I can't really say for sure what came from where...My guess is that it has been this aspect of hip hop culture that has allowed to significantly expand upon its ethnic boundaries.
Building off that point, one may also want to bear in mind that musically speaking hip hop has borrowed from all music genres. In fact some of the phattest beats that folks have flowed over have come from rock beats.. ie Billy Squire's "I Got The Big Beat". Technically speaking there are many that will accurately point out the origins of rock come from blues and later race music...both which were Black music genres. However, there is no denying that many folks, Black white brown and yellow have brought their musical tastes and heritage to the hip hop roundtable. Hip Hop has always been such that it has always been inclusive in what it allowed to its proverbial mix. And while hip hop has always been accepting its ultimate lead and growth has always been as a result of Black lifestyles..both good and bad. If you wanna see the direction where hip hop is headed check out what's going on the Black community...especially among young people.

Oh yeah, there will be some dynamic acts from other ethnic groups like the Beasty Boys, 3rd Base or Stereo MCs. Executing dope hip hop is not limited to Blacks, however, as an overall art form its shift will really be a reflection of the economic and social factors effecting the youth in the Black community... What has gone on over the years is that a lot of folks who live outside that community have attempted to define it. It goes back to this whole east/west coast battle where some kid who writes for a magazine in NY feels he can tell a kid who comes from the hood in Oakland that what he does and what he's created is not hip hop.It most certainly is...without a doubt... The conditions that gave rise to hip hop culture in NY, gave rise to hip hop culture out west and other parts of the country and world...

Call it hip hop or Black self expression.. Call it hip hop or modern day blues. Some kid rapping on a mic and doing some sort of elaborate dance was going to happen in these communities, because it was a continuation of what was always happening.

When NY had the Last Poets, Cali had the Watts Prophets, When NY had Superfly, Cali had The Mack, When NY had break dancing, Cali was pop locking, When NY had early rappers and hip hop culture, brothers was deep into p-funk... In fact hip hop in NY was a result of funk being absent in the lives of NY's young people. But as form of expression, and as young brothers and sisters saw a need for immediate, easily accessible forms of expression, Cali took to rapping immediately. Thus when Sugar Hill was bumping, Too Short, Freddy B, Egyptian Lover, Uncle Jamms Army and even Sir Mix A Lot was flowing.

The point I'm making here is that oppressive conditions will usually result in folks creating a form of self expression. It's human nature. Oftentimes the dominant culture will find these forms of expression as something to be sold and brought...In other words commodified. Black folks have a particular way of expressing themselves during troubling times. Hip Hop culture is the latest manifestation. Other cultures have exhibited similar traits.. For example, keep in mind while hip hop was rising in NY, House music was being birthed in Chicago for similar reasons, While hip hop was being birthed the punk rock movement was blowing up among white kids in England and later here in America. While hip hop was blowing upfunk was finding a home here in the West.. GoGo was emerging in Washington DC and the South had their music based forms of expression.

So is hip hop culture Black culture? Yes it is... It's influenced and often defined by the dominant culture in terms of what is presented and what we see. When white folks started rewarding Black kids with recording contracts to say 'bitch' and 'ho' on records a whole lot of folks started moving in that direction. Are they selling out? Not really, you gotta keep in mind that initially hip hop came about because young people wanted to get some props. If the early rappers knew in 1979 they could get paid the way Snoop Dogg is now in 1996, they too would've headed down that path. In 79 the pay check was '96 its 'CREAM'...[cash] Most folks from the hood figure wants they have some loot in their pocket they'll get respect...They'll get it cause they 'll buy the things that 'll net it. If that wasn't the case so many rap artists wouldn't be entering into business ventures that require them to have a sizable return for their dollar. I don't care what anyone says, almost ever artist I know who has rolled through the station and that's literally all of trying to get paid.. and has been trying to get paid. Were talking from Too Short To Wu-Tang.

Even back in the days, no matter how much people say they were trying to be creative.. many artists adapted a style that similar to the top prop getters. Oh they may have tweaked it to make it sound original, but there were a lot of crews trying to be like Flash, Theodore, Bam and others...But now that I think about it...perhaps I'm off base. In African culture folks really wanted to express themselves through song and dance... There were rich cultural and spiritual meanings behind every gesture and every word. Here in western society folks are trying to get paid... There trying to collect The CREAM.. or women or fame... Its all the same. That's an American/ European capitalistic phenomenon's I guess.. Hip Hop is multicultural at this stage in the game... .. So lets enjoy the music and get paid in the process.

written by Davey D c 1996
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