As Hip Hop music and culture have become a world wide phenomenon, the question of who's culture is it gets asked over and over again. This article is a series of emails that were echanged between myself and a reader named Necro. Hopefully it lends some insight into the discussion of

'Is Hip Hop Black Culture?'

Davey D
c 1999

Necro wrote:
Davey D,

Thank you for responding so quickly to my message. It is not often that I get a chance to have an intelligent discussion about the nature of Hip Hop. Let's say for a moment that Hip Hop (and I'm talking about all aspects of the culture, not just music) does have its origins in the black people of America. Simply put, one can no longer say that is the case. Nor can one say that was the case ten years ago or twenty years ago. Some of the innovators of Hip Hop were Latino (something I'm proud of considering I'm half Chileno), such as Lee, Lady Pink, DJ Capri and Charlie Chase.
Davey D responds:

When I say Black.. I am including my Latino Brothers and Sisters... They are and have always been a part of Hip Hop culture... To me Puerto Ricans in particular are akin to Black folks they just happen to speak speak Spanish. Yes, I do acknowledge their indeginous Taino Native American roots. But you can not deny the Africaness within Latinos. We live with each other. We share similar obstacles and have combatted oppresion together. There is some larger cultural differences with my Mexican Brothers and Sisters. But then again their whole approach to hip hop is different... Nevertheless on both coasts I fully acknowledge the contributions of Latinos. So again Latinos to me is Black. I don't make too much of a distinction..

The problem with defining hip hop, is that it often comes from whites who have media resources or have positions of media presentation. They then start highlighting what is in their interests and not what is in the collective interests of the masses who continuously create hip hop. The typical scenario unfolds as follows; Blacks create music and many other artistic things as a way to express their pain and frustration, whites who have economic resources look at this disregard the true meaning of expression, flip the script and commodify it. The end result is years down the line you got kids from the hood who feel in order to be succesful they got to celebrate, wallow in and eventually peddle their miserable conditions. In short mainstream society economically rewards people for singing, rapping about their oppression. They like to hear about the conditions but will only entertain these modes of expression which offer viable solutions to these problems for so long.

I recall listening to the classic Grandmaster Flash jam 'The Message' when it first dropped in '82. The first thing that ran through my head was at last someone was talking about the ghetto and providing a real life perspective. Mele-Mel was putting it down. I recall reading articles in papers like the Village Voice where white writers expressed the beauty in Mele's song. They seemed fascinated by this 'angry black man' who talked about ghetto strife. I was pissed because to me the response should've been. 'How dreadful' or 'what can we do to change these awful conditions Mele-Mel is rapping about'. It seems ironic that a white population through it's systematic oppression of Blacks and Latinos will then find enjoyment and artistic satisfaction when expressing their pain and suffering through song and dance. They completely overlook the fact that music has always been a central expression for African people. and for that matter Latinos..

Take a look at the struggle in South Africa. When the brothas and sistas there were combatting apartheid they were always shown dancing and singing. They weren't doing this because they were happy. It was the cultural form of expression. Our Native American, Puerto Rican, Mexican and Latino kin have similar modes of expressions There was a documentary that came on the other night that talked about the Latin Civil Rights struggle. The organizers of the movement spoke specifically about how it was important to incorporate song and dance in these planning meetings to combat oppression. It was a natural and cultural way of expressing and a way of returning to their roots.

Necro writes:

Hip Hop did originate as a statement against oppression, I never said it didn't. The majority of the people who truly feel it for what it is live in dire conditions and they relate to it because it is one of the few art forms in our century that openly and candidly deals with the harsh realities of life.

Davey D Responds:

To be more accurate, Hip Hop in the beginning started out as a form of expression which was a reaction to economic, social and political conditions. People didn't set out to make statements when particpating in activities related to Hip Hop culture. Nowadays, the majority of people who create see it as a business and a tool for getting out the ghetto. White influence into hip hop has caused it to become an escape hatch. The new business model being advocated to inner city youth is as follows; If you act 'ill' or foul enough or play up your oppression and pathological conditions you may find yourself being purchased by zealous white kids who like to live vicariously through your songs. Follow the formula and these inner city kids may find themselves reviewed in white owned hip hop magazines and shown on white owned video shows and played by white djs on hip hop radio shows across the country. The bottom line is that white people in the overwhelming majority of the cases control the final presentation of Hip Hop via the media. They start dictating the definitions that they see fit. So now you got white kids who will sit there in disregard the types of inclusive philosophies and values put forth by pioneers like Afrika Bambaataa, DJ Kool Herc and other founding fathers. These white kids will go out and make 'official' sounding proclaimations like Mobb Deep is true Hip Hop while Too Short is not. This will be said even though both jave similar lyrical content and both grew up in the hood.

What they often miss is the creative direction that is being taken by brotha and sistas who are in oppressive situations. The conditions haven't changed much just the end marketing results. Don't think for a minute that any of Hip Hop's pioneers would not have taken advantage of the economic opportunities afforded to today's rap artists. They would've signed record contracts, did videos etc.. In fact many of them did.. The rap artist in '78 just like the rap artist in '98 were and continue to try find ways to 'escape the ghetto'. Rap back in '78 allowed one to momentarily feel important because one could execute some rhyme skills or some other Hip Hop expression and get him props from his peers. Nowadays, a kid with rhyme skills can get paid for doing the same thing. Afterwards, he'll go out and feel important by purchasing all sorts of fancy gear and cars to escape those ghetto conditions he raps about.

Necro writes:

I would never want to take credit away from where credit was due, and I never said anything about not giving black people credit for their role in creating Hip Hop. But you have to keep things in perspective. It is an ignorant statement to make to claim that any one race created it because the areas that it came out of (Bronx or Queensbridge, depends on who you talk to) and the areas that it came out of are not populated only by black people.

Davey D Responds:

Here is the popular fallacy that must be rebuked. People in their attempts to make Hip Hop this multi-cultural melting pot like to paint false and inaccurate pictures. Everyone watches TV or goes to the movies and comes away marveling at the ethnic diversity of New York City. In downtown Manhatten and The Village which are often shown, there was diversity. There was intermingling. There was all this multicultural stuff going on. That was what made those areas attractive in the first place. Outside those neighborhoods in the other 4 boroughs and in uptown Manhatten from Harlem to Washington Heights it was extremely segregated.

In '76, '77 I was there in Hip Hop's birthplace The Bronx putting it down for a crew. I witnessed it myself, damn near all of the people participating and even going to the early parties were Black and Puerto Rican meaning 'Black'. The first break dancers were all Black and Puerto Rican. Zulu Nation was all Black and Puerto Rican. I never saw any white people putting it down for Hip Hop in those early days. People often cite pioneering graf artist Taki and point out his Greek heritage as proof that Hip Hop was multi-cultural. Wrong!

Just because you did grafitti didn't make you Hip Hop. When I lived in white neighborhoods like Riverdale, you had white kids doing grafitti. I would see tags on the walls of buildings that read 'Niggers Suck' or Niggers Go Home'. That wasn't Hip Hop. In fact these kids didn't listen to early b-boy, GM Flash or Bambaata tapes. They listened to Rock-N-Roll and had a healthy distain for Disco and any other form of Black music.

People didn't jump up and head on down to a Black party just to see some grafitti artist. This is not to say that there weren't graf artist who were into Hip Hop. This is not to say there weren't Hip Hoppers doing grafitti. I'm simply saying these white kids who were doing grafitti weren't at any of the early spots partaking in the day to day development of this culture. That was the bottom line.

Pioneering graf writer Lady Pink recently touched upon this subject while doing a Hip Hop panel at The Power Moves Conference held last May '99 at UCLA. She pointed out that while she had a love for graf she wasn't really into the early Hip Hop. In fact she said she didn't like it at all. She pointed out that she never listened to any of the early Hip Hop she was into other things. The point I'm making is that people looked at the fact that there were white kids writing on subways and automatically made the leap that they were down for Hip Hop. If so in what way? The econimic, political and social conditions that spurned Black folks to create Hip Hop were not the same conditions spurning white kids.. [The few that there were] from writing on subways. That's like saying that early b-boys I know smoked weed as did the white boys who hated us.. because both groups smoked weed, did it make everyone Hip Hoppers? Of course not.

The dividing line was that while there were white as well as Black and Puerto Rican kids who did grafitti during the early days of Hip Hop, you didn't have white kids trying to break dance, emcee, rock break beats on two turntables at a party or just be down with the whole scene. Heck, back in the early days there were white deejays. Many of them spun disco.. Because they had two turntables and a mic didn't make them Hip Hop because they weren't trying to roll with what was going on. They just happen to have the same tools as the early Hip Hoppers. To sum this up, young Black and Puerto Ricans often looked at what was being done around them and they took certain facets, tweaked them out and made them uniquely their own.

Necro writes:

Black people cannot claim a monopoly on Hip Hop. Too many other people of different races have been there since the very beginning. Again, I would never say that black people do not have a vital role in its foundations and its maintenance, but to simply say that Hip Hop is a black thing, you introduce the sort of 'what is and is not Hip Hop' element that downplays the efforts of every other group in this country that is up on it.

Davey D Responds:

This is what I call revisionist thinking. This is one of the great myths of hip hop; All the races come together and got along perfectly. The other myth is .. there was no violence and people did Hip Hop with no aspirations of material gain. Such was not the case. As I mentioned earlier, Hip Hop was mostly Black and Puerto Rican. In fact one of the troubling things plaguing New York City around that time was racial beefs, especially in places like Queens, Brooklyn and certain sections of The Bronx. Blacks and whites were always beefing. Things were so bad I used to keep a map and on it I shaded all the Black and Puerto Rican neighborhoods just so I knew which areas to avoid and which areas to go into when traveling around the city. Black folks were dealing with white boys going off on everything from 'How much Disco music sucked' to Blacks moving into their once segregated neighborhoods. I recall seeing grafitti that was written on the walls in certain neighborhoods that would read; 'Disco Sucks','Niggers Suck' or Niggers Go Home' If you ventured into certain neighborhoods or even attended certain schools you were sure to have fights with angry, prejudiced white boys leading the charge.On more then a few occassions people losts their lives.

Within the Bronx the 'birthplace of Hip Hop the lines seperating the neighborhoods were very noticeable. In the Soundview and South Bronx section of the Bronx where early Hip Hop jumped off, one did not venture North of Zerega Avenue. That was the dividing line. It was near Castle Hill projects. To do so was to ask for major trouble. You didn't venture into places like Throgs Neck, Pelham Bay,Country Club Road, certain parts of Riverdale [West Bronx] and Van Cortland Park, and certain parts of Moshulu Parkway. Except for the mostly Black and Puerto Rican housing projects found in those areas there was no Hip Hop going on. There was no intermingling of the races.

Under these conditions of racial tension and segregation it was really difficult and damn near impossible for white kids to come venturing into Hip Hop's early hot spots and not be noticed. Lets look at the logistics. Back in the late '70s hardly any young people owned or drove cars. First the driving age in NYC was 18 and having a car was more of a liability then a convenience. That meant public transportation was the way to go. If you look at how The South Bronx and Harlem are laid out, you'll see that these are large expansive areas that were connected to each other. What white kid was getting on a train going through Harlem into the notorious crime ridden South bronx, getting off late at night and walking to one of the housing projects to attend a block party or a Hip Hop gig at a community center? Who were the early white emcees and deejays? What were their names? How did they impact the culture? How do we know all the other pioneers why not them? The reason is that it simply wasn't happening and did not happen? The closest I ever saw or heard was a kid named White Flash and I just heard about him. I never saw him. Even if you take this into account, did this individual go out and bring lots of white kids into the Hip Hop fold? Was he an icon and a spark plug within his community? I think not.

When you take sports pioneers like baseball great Jackie Robinson or golfer Tiger Woods you are looking at individuals who broke a color barrier, impacted the arena they entered and opened up the doors for many others to follow. Who were these early white kids before 1980 who had similar sucess? Who were these early white kids who helped create Hip Hop and raise it up? There should've been some mention. Someone should've noticed.

Whites didn't get hip until around 1980 or 1981 when groups like Afrika Bambaataa started performing downtown at places in the Village and at clubs like The Roxy. The whites who did get down were from the punk rock community. These were kids who were expressing themselves musically as a way to be seen and heard. There was that similarity between them and the early Hip Hoppers. These punk rock white kids were the ones who were most open to this new form of Black expression. These punk rock white kids were marginalized by mainstream society like their African American counterparts. Now if we really want to take all this a step further we can look at the impact that London had on American punk rockers. If we do some we go and check things out you will find that much of Punk Rock's cultural and musical expressions are rooted in the Black/African expression of the brothas and sistas who loive in London. Remember the first 'skin heads' were London born brothas. But lets not digress too much from the points I'm making about Hip Hop. The bottom line is during the late 70s when Hip Hop was in its infancy there was serious racial tension in New York City. White kids were not trying to break bread with Black kids nor do Hip Hop.

You mentioned the borough of Queens and Queenbridge in particular. Well that was even more segregated than the Bronx. In fact neighborhoods like Hollis, St Albans, Jamaica and Cambria Heights were almost all exclusively Black. During the late 70s there were articles in the local paers habout how there were no whites attending public high schools like Andrew Jackson High. Queensbridge had a little bit more of a mixture because that was an actual housing project surrounded by a somewhat mixed neighborhood. Again there was very little if any race mingling on the Hip Hop front.

Lastly let me add that it cheapens Hip Hop when white folks suddenly start writing themselves into our history. It overlooks the type of global impact young brothas and sistas have on this world. Because of young Black folks expressing themselves in the manner that they did, the whole world was inspired and followed suit. You now have kids rapping on the mic everywhere, from Aukland, New Zealand to Kalamazzoo, Michigan. Hip Hop is rapidly becoming a dominant form of expression. The music industry which was not so long ago faltering has had a major resurgence. Why? because of Hip Hop music and culture. Folks who once hated Black people and many may still, now partake in one form or anotheran activity that Black people invented-They do Hip Hop. The world has been impacted by this Black creation called Hip Hop.

At a day and time where Black folks are stereotyped as being unproductive, lazy and all sorts of negative things, when you aknowledge that we created Hip Hop, all those streotypes have to go on the back burner. Furthermore the impact of Hip Hop falls in line with several other Black creations most noteably Jazz, Blues and more recently Rock-N-Roll.

Necro writes:

What Hip Hop is, what it is becoming and what it was are three seperate things. We all know that it had its origins in New York City with the founding of the Zulu Nation by Afrikaa Bambataa, that he built up the party scene with Herc (and later Flash) to give kids something to do besides kill each other.

Davey D Responds:

Here we go with the non-violent myth of Hip Hop. The truth is, kids killed each other all the time during this time. Black on Black crime was rampant. In fact the worst homocide rate NY ever experienced was during this time.. '78, 79. 80. Now it's true Afrika Bambaataa had some consciousness and he did try to make positive changes. However, back in the days, Zulu Nation was a gang that was feared more then admired. They were more apt to stick you up and cause mayhem then be socially active. Many early Zulus were former gang members. They didn't just change their violent ways overnight. Bam gets much props for eventually stirring them in that direction. It wasn't until the early 80s that things that Zulu Nation really stepped into their own and became known as a positive organization. Much of this had to do with Bam traveling the world and establishing Zulu chapters in all sorts of countries...

DJ Kool Herc was actually a peace maker who specifically set out to do parties... But he was inspired by his love for Jamaican music that was not popular in NY until he came along.. Grandmaster Flash also did parties.. His security force the Casanova Crew were notoriously violent and if you ever went to a Flash Party you'd see that it was almost always Black and Puerto Rican

Necro wites:

What Hip Hop is now is one large identity crisis, with all the heads in the world struggling to reconcile differing views of the line that is drawn between real Hip Hop and 'sellout'. Everyone seems to be confused about that distinction and the worst part is everyone seems to want to blow it out of proportion.

Davey D Responds:

Yes indeed.. That identity crisis is due in part to a whole lot of white folks with money, magazines and media access trying to be revisionist by flipping the script and rewriting Hip Hop history. Oftetimes they are guilty of re-DEFINING hip hop without any regard or true understanding of culture. Oftentimes what happens is people have economic agendas that need to met and hence they play toward the types of material that will ensure that. Usually it's sex and violence. When this happens the tide is shifted as more and more upcoming artists will change up and attempt to do things that will garner that suceess. usually its done at the expense of Hip Hop culture integrity. The bottom line is before I blame an artist about doing a song about killing or materialism, I should blame that radio station, or video show for highlighting it. It's not like there isn't a ton of material sitting out there waiting to get exposed.

Necro writes:

I would never sit here and waste your and my time giving you my analysis about what is and is not real Hip Hop. I'm just speaking from the mindset of one who grew up in a Hip Hop environment, someone who has been rhyming for over ten years, someone who only stopped graffing cuz I have better things to do with my life then go to jail, someone who only stopped breakin cuz my knees gave out and someone who never stops making beats.

Now, what I'm curious about is how you think that I fit into your views of what Hip Hop culture is. If you feel that it is only a black thing, then where does someone like me reside in the world of Beats and Rhymes? Do I fall into a category of a 'wigger'? I personally don't think so because I've never pretended to be anything other than what I am, a half latino white boy from a working class background.

Davey D Responds:

The term wigger is an offensive term. It's the name given to a white kid who some how 'acts Black'. Hence we are calling him a white nigger which is wigger for short. In addition what constitutes acting Black is often some stereotypical behavior like committing crime, acting unintelligent or wearing funny style clothes etc.

How would I describe you.. As a kid who grew up at a time where Black creativity had merged and became a primary influence for mainstream culture. Instead of saying this is Black culture. White people keep trying to paint this picture and says its 'All American or Multi-cultural. This is not to say that you are guilty of it. But you are a product of your environment-the hip hop environment which by historical definition is a Black environment. It cheapens Hip Hop and the enormous contributions Black folks have made when you all of a sudden try and rewrite history and insert white folks into it. First it down plays the creative brilliance of young Black and Puerto Rican youth who came out of nothing created something that has influenced pop culture all over the world. It's like nowadays you have mainstream culture having a hard time admitting the Black roots of Rock-N-Roll, The Blues and Jazz. Once again America is profitting off the backs of an oppressed people.

By inaccurately inserting white people into Hip Hop history you down play the type of exploitation that now exists where you have an oppressed community that through its natural forms of expression have created a multi-billion dollar a year business in which very few on the creative side get to have economic parity. Oh sure we can point to some sucess stories like Russell Simmons, Puff Daddy and Master P to name a few. But when you look at the total number of Black and Puerto Rican Hip Hoppers and then compare that number with the overall number of folks from that community who can show eveidence of an economic windfall, you see things don't add up. In other words Black kids create and white folks reap the economic benefits. By suddenly inserting white folks into Hip Hop's early history you in effect down play that imbalance and and the social-economic-political conditions that lead to such one sided conditions. Basically you erase that exploitive picture. Under this scenario of Hip Hop revisionism how can one seriously makes the argument about exploitation when someone can come back and say 'No, Hip Hop wasn't just a Black culture-It was multi-cultural.. It was everyone's culture? Hence if Black folks ain't having their fair share of the pie the implication is it's only because they chose not to prosper from Hip Hop or simply were incapable. We never stop and look at who is cutting the pie, distributing the pie nor do we bother to ask how is it that a group of people who can be so creative are not in a position to control what they have created? ' Under Hip Hop revisionism we suddenly stop looking at the unyielding influence and overall impact of institutionalized racism.

Look it all boils down to this.. I speak French, I can write French.. I can cook French foods.. I even have some of my own recipes that I merged with traditionally French recipes.. I even have my own French slang.. With all that under the belt, it does not make me French at the end of the day. Nor do I have right to start redefining what is French culture because I can speak it or write it. Even if I was born in France does not mean I can suddenly start rewriting French history unless there was some sort of inaccuracies that I know of that need to brought out in the open. At that point, my information would have to based upon more then just hersay..

Necro writes:

In closing, I'd like to say, again, that it is time for heads to stop putting categories on this art form. Every person, regardless of race, that comes up brings something new to the table. Hip Hop in any of its forms is but one thing, a statement of your personal expression. The future of Hip Hop is dependent on what comes out of dialogues such as these.

Davey D responds:

Hip Hop culture has many people who enjoy and partake in it. Many people add their own flava to it. Just like I do in French. But it's still a Black thing. It's born out of that cultural and historical legacy of Black people. I fully acknowledge the contributions that others have made to Hip Hop. There may be spin off forms of expressions as a result of hip hop.. ie. Latin Freestyle, drum & bass etc.. But again to truly understand the full essence you have to look closely at the musical and cultural response of young Black folks to economic, political and social conditions that impact them on a daily basis. In far too many instances the cultural expression and reaction they have to these conditions is what the rest of the country tends to commodify, repackage and redifine.It happened with Jazz. It Happened with Blues. It happened with Rock-N-Roll and now it's happening with Hip Hop

written by
Davey D

Go To Hip Hop Article's Directory

Go Back To Davey D Homepage

[home] [chat] [conferencing] [updates] [what it is]
[politics] [contests] [opinion] [links/photos] [media]

this site is produced by Davey D in association with eLine Productions