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The Positive Side of Hip Hop

By Kevin Britton · May 26th, 2004 · The Ledge
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Woodrow J. Hinton



If the secret to meditation is found in the breath

Then speech is another form of meditativeness ...

­ KRS-One, "Ocean Within"

I wonder how many Hip Hop heads knew that May 16­23 was Hip Hop Appreciation Week?

To be honest, I didn't exactly "celebrate" during the week-long observance established by Hip Hop elder, lyricist and philosopher KRS-One. However I did take a moment to reflect on how far Hip Hop had come since its first emergence into American popular culture in the late '70s.

In 1998, the Hip Hop icon founded the Temple of Hip Hop (templeofhiphop.org), a nonprofit organization/collective that endeavored to "de-criminalize Hip Hop's public image" and to promote all facets of urban culture (or "kulture," as KRS-One would prefer, alluding to the Pan-African-inspired belief that indigenous African languages did not have an equivalent for the letter 'c' in their writing systems) so that people would have a greater appreciation for its relevance in today's society. Kris has since taken the sum total of Hip Hop culture and divided it into nine clearly distinct elements -- including emceeing, break-dancing, graffiti writing and deejaying -- and combined them with hints of Eastern metaphysics and practical life lessons about how to maintain longevity in an industry which, as we know, sucks the creative energy out of artists and casts them aside on a regular basis (has anyone seen Joe Budden lately?).

Kris sees Hip Hop as a way of life, not merely a genre of urban music. Like Zen and other spiritual paths where the ultimate goal is an elevated consciousness, he suggests that one doesn't merely "do" Hip Hop; rather that a person "is" Hip Hop. In a perfect world -- i.e., one with less emphasis on the sex, drugs, violence and the bling factor -- KRS would like for Hip Hop culture to be the foundation and impetus for positive social change.

Meanwhile, folks are asking Xzibit to "pimp their rides." Kris obviously has his work cut out for him.

One of the most notable efforts of KRS-One and the Temple of Hip Hop is their commitment to honoring Hip Hop pioneers and others who served as the grand architects of this cultural movement. During Hip Hop Appreciation Week I found myself wondering if the likes of DJ Kool Herc, Busy Bee, Afrika Bambaataa and Kool Moe Dee had put a little something away for their retirements as Diddy, 50, Dame Dash, Jigga, Eminem and others reap the massive financial rewards from the cultural phenomenon that the aforementioned helped to build.

And how many self-proclaimed Hip Hop fans know that the roots of this culture reach much further into our collective ancestral history than many of us could have imagined? For example, rapping, or "emceeing" harkens back to the African tribal tradition of the griot who was responsible for sharing news and passing down the community's history to younger members within the clan or tribe. Perhaps someday teens and young adults will speak reverently of the great Rakim, the griot/emcee who spit 99 bars of meticulously crafted lyrics on 1988's "Follow the Leader" and set the standard by which all other griot/emcees are measured.

And anyone who has seen the flowing, gravity-defying grace of the Afro-Brazilian martial art Capoeira will immediately recognize the similarity to its present-day urban offspring, break-dancing. It's likely that students of urban history will study the contributions that Richie "Crazy Legs" Colon of the legendary Rock Steady Crew made to this lasting element of Hip Hop culture.

DJ Kool Herc was a master at manipulating rhythm and finding the "breaks" (as in "break-dancing") in popular Disco and Soul recordings. Meanwhile, a young (Grand Wizard) Theodore Livingstone discovered scratching by stopping a record from spinning on a turntable platter long enough to hear his mother complain about his loud music while his mentor, Grandmaster Flash, perfected the technique of switching back and forth between two copies of the same song. The art of deejaying would never be the same.

What about the barely-legible writing on the sides of abandoned buildings and subway cars? The elusive Zephyr, Dondi White and Phase 2 knew that the ancient Egyptians were among the first to tag walls with graffiti, once again bridging the gap between the past and the present.

I can only think of a handful of commercially popular music videos where this type of nostalgia is significantly recognized or celebrated (the feature film Brown Sugar was a pleasantly surprising exception to this rule). The blatant neglect of this history is precisely why the Temple of Hip Hop and Hip Hop Appreciation Week were established. The good news is that those of us who know the ledge clearly understand that we must preserve this culture, honor its pioneers and hand the history down to those who come after us.

For everyone else, well, now you know.



KEVIN BRITTON writes about Hip Hop music and its impact on popular culture. His column appears monthly in CityBeat.
 
 
 
 

 

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