Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Hip Hop 101

Mos Def - Hip Hop
Common - I Used to Love H.E.R.
Dungeon Family - What is Rap?
Dead Prez - Hip Hop

I was puzzling over which tracks to select to post here, and I thought I'd pick a few that use hip hop to describe hip hop. They talk about the history and the future of it, the responsibility of rappers, and things they'd like to see change. (I tried to be very selective. If anybody else would like me to add to these, leave a message in the comments.)

These are extracts from a wonderful documentary that Ejaydee alerted me to, The Hip Hop Years. There's more on youTube, but if you can find the whole thing, it's worth seeing. It's British too! It was made by Channel 4, I think.

I didn't get permission from the author for this, but here's what May1366 had to say about Hip Hop...

Hip hop culture embraces four skills (or art forms, if we're being liberals, or skillz, if we're being especually guilty liberals, or demotic rituals, if we're being anthropologists), and at its essence it's rooted in a territorial competitiveness. The idea of a group on every street corner trying to outdo the neighbouring groups is, of course, only a re-booting of doo-wop and the tradition of vocal harmony groups.

The territorial thing is like this - you've got a space, it's defined physically by (1) your graffiti artists and is in itself a challenge to outsiders, as the graffiti either side of the wall in Belfast testifies; what takes place in the space is dancing, epitomised by (2) your breakdancers, attempting to outdo the other lot's with ever more outlandishly acrobatic moves; music, of course, comes from (3) the DJs and these were, in my opinion as a geeky RR-type, the geeky heroes of the old school hip hop scene - laying down a funky beat was one thing, scratching was all very well and a physical necessity of supplying repeated beats and phrases with two turntables at your disposal, but what marked out the best DJs was the selection of ideally diverse, preferably obscure but still crowd-pleasing tracks with which to build the sound. I'm sure steenbeck - despite her modesty about her hip hop expertise - could wax lyrical about Pete Rock's amazing squirreling of music from the past. Will Smith, for all his movie star status and future President schtick, still has musical credibility for me because of his association with Jazzy Jeff. The DJ kept their best cuts secret - the whole rare groove idea came out of this mentality: in the 90s, when I was a far more sedate club DJ, in a time when rare groove was a renewed commercial proposition so playing the tracks meant encouraging others to buy the records, we booked Norman Jay to guest one night and whenever I stood near him to have a squint at whatever he was playing that I didn't recognise (loads of it), he'd glare at me and lean even further over the decks, not even giving it up to a fellow Spurs fan. And I think that was the influence of ten or fifteen years of unique pioneers like Grandmaster Flash, Afrika Bambaataa, Lady B, Jam Master Jay, Scott La Rock, Marley Marl, Davy DMX, Terminator X, Eric B, Prince Paul...

OK, so that leaves (4) the MCs or rappers - two distinct concepts, if you like. There's the function of conducting the crowd, being the vocal expression of what's being expressed on the walls, the floor and the decks, and there's self-expression, often political, occasionally poetic. Either way, it tapped into the bragging-as-backtalk discussed earlier - we can bang on about the violence in the Rakim quotes in magicman's post as being the language suited to the ghetto mean streets, but it's also the language of John Wayne's America and it's also the language of the Cold War: it's poetry. As for the sexual element, do we think Sam Cooke or Gene Chandler or David Ruffin or Otis Redding (never mind Elvis the Pelvis) never threw out moves or improvised vocals, during bouts of soulful testifying within grabbing-hold distance of the front row, that left their screaming fans in no doubt as to their sexual prowess? And the beggar-your-neighbour competitiveness dates back at least as far as the old jazz instrumentalists' cutting contests (Clint Eastwood's Bird biopic makes much of an 18-year-old Charlie Parker, ideas racing too fast for his fingers to keep up, being gonged off-stage at just such an event).

With hip hop, the cheesy, often bad taste, sometimes offensive, sometimes clownish party-starter still had to display the personality and mike skills to get the crowd on their side; and the likes of Melle Mel, Chuck D and KRS-One, who had more to say than a frantic beat might allow, had to be absolute masters of high-octane inventive politicised lyricism in order to stake a claim to the consciousness of the audience. And once people like them set the bar, no wonder so many resorted to shock, more ghetto-than-thou politics in order to compete. On the plus side, we've had a string of rappers who realised they were picking up the baton from the likes of The Last Poets and Gil Scott-Heron. But it remains gladitorial, as anyone who's been to a session featuring Grime MCs will tell you.

I thought I'd add a few thoughts of my own (she thinks!). I think the world of hip hop (like any genre) can be overwhelming at first, and it helped me to make sense of it to understand some connections. Hip hop is a very collaborative art, and you start seeing some of the same names popping up all over, and recognizing that people you like tend to work with each other, and it can create a kind of path to follow along in discovering the music. Hip hop is also very much about where a person is from (which is something I find a appealing about it) so you'll find people organizing themselves by whether they're from the East Coast, the West Coast, Atlanta, or Chicago. (I realize I'm generalizing about American Hip Hop here, but I think it's part of the history, and it does help to understand how everything unfolded). So, to make this very quick and insufficient -- If you like De La Soul and A Tribe Called Quest (like I do) you'll discover that they were part of the Native Tongues Posse, a collective of late 80s/early 90s artists, along with the Jungle Brothers, Queen Latifah, Black Sheep. They were tied to AfriKa Bambaataa's Universal Zulu Nation, and they were known for their socially conscious lyrics and their jazzy samples. They greatly influenced and frequently collaborated with the Soulquarians, who include Common, Talib Kweli, Mos Def, The Roots J. Dilla, and Erykah Badu. Of course the Wu Tang Clan is an empire of it's own. In the south, you have the Dungeon Family (track posted above), which contains members of Outkast, Goodie Mobb (Cee Lo!), and many others. On the West Coast, a similar collection of underground, conscious rappers is the hieroglyphics. Of course it's all very fluid, and I haven't begun to describe it, but I've found it thrilling to discover new music by following these connections.

Another way in is to follow the producers. There are many many wonderful producers who have worked with lots of different people. Q Tip, RZA, Pete Rock, DJ Premier, J Dilla, Hi Tek, Kanye West. If you hear a track you like, find out who produced it, and in seeing what else they've done, you're bound to discover new music that appeals to you.

Sorry this is so garbled and rushed. It's a dauntingly large topic.

For loads of good hip hop, check out the folders in Dropbox Hip Hop 101 and Tinhop. Tinhop, in particular is wonderfully varied and comprehensive.

RR Dropbox


If anybody wants to add anything, take anything away, or correct any inaccuracies, be sure to let me know.

**** Tell us about 5 (+/-) hip hop tracks that got you started listening to the music, or keep you listening to it now. If you don't like hip hop, is there one song you can think of that has appealed to you over the years? ****


steenbeck said...

I'm not actually sure how to link to the RR Dropbox, can somebody let me know if this works? Does it take you to MY dropbox?

May1366 said...

Good pointers, steen. Below, I've named some tracks (if you can add them, cool; if not, they're not too obscure for people to find, I hope) that say a lot to me about the music, its development, and my relationship with it, which has been going since the odd slice of what we now term old school hip hop used to crop up on John Peel's show in the early-mid 80s:

1] Grandmaster Flash & Melle Mel - The Message. This just stood out from everything around it when it came out. When we're discussing hip-hop, it's important, as steenbeck has done, to bring consciousness into the conversation. This was music and poetry created before the contexts of violence, black capitalism, media representation, mass commercial appeal, bling etc informed the opinion people have of hip hop - it offers social commentary, clever rhymes and an atmospheric musical backdrop you can dance to. This is what Louis Armstrong's trumpet or an Ellington number are to a jazz fan.

2. Whodini - Friends More old skool but also a reminder of just how nice hip hop could be. A rap about friendship - it's like When Harry Met Sally over beats. Public Enemy's activism raised the game and I'm glad it did, but it's good to remember how much fun this music could be (see also Run DMC).

More to come...

May1366 said...

3. Public Enemy - Revolutionary Generation. The 1987 Def Jam tour was the blue touch paper for hip hop in this country. By the time it reached Manchester's Apollo, the tabloids were re-hashing their old "The Filth and the Fury" stories. PE weren't the most high-profile of the acts - LL Cool J had a hit with I Need Love; Eric B & Rakim were the draw for jazzers like me and my mates; and we got there just as Public Enemy opened the show. And closed it. You couldn't follow them, and the rest of the night was just a pleasant afterglow. In 1990, Fear Of A Black Planet was their third album and I've never anticipated the release of any piece of music more eagerly. Let's start with what Terminator X and the Bomb Squad producers were doing with the sound. This was fast and as furious as Chuck D's rapping. The soul and funk samples were played like instruments in a big band so it wasn't just a thin groove complementing the vocals but a layered, nuanced musical statement that was also impossibly funky. The likes of the Native Tongues posse, mentioned by steen, made brilliant use of jazzy sounds and sounded like Slim Gaillard hipsters, but PE brought a different kind of funky jazz, closer to Hendrix and Coltrane (and indeed Kraftwerk, to whose "soul" Chuck D aspired) in its uncompromising attack. From a production point of view, this album paved the way for techno but it was so much more than that. PE's raps have always been didactic, but there's a light and shade in there that makes them even more interesting. A poet like Roger McGough, popular during the 80s, might come up with a clever word-play: a poem called Cutbacks read, "Mrs Thatcher has the whip/ We have the cut backs." Each of Public Enemy's songs had a dozen or more word-plays like that. By now, Professor Griff had been sidelined, following the anti-semitic nature of his commentaries, while 'Revolutionary Generation' remarked on the responsibility rappers have to choose their words with care. A partial revoking of their own 'Sophisticated Bitch', the line "Sisters to you, we should not be rude" sounds half-hearted, and in truth it didn't sound like Chuck had been studying with Andrea Dworkin, but it was a statement of engagement with a debate. With such an intense lyric sheet, a single comment like this was worth an hour's discussion in the outside world - on the mothership last week, gremlinfc mentioned how PE sountracked the political activism he was involved with, and I can relate to that.

I've rattled on long enough, so my last two recommendations are more recent, one from the States and one from the UK, showing that there's a way into the music through articulate socially conscious rap now, just as in the 80s and 90s:

4. Lupe Fiasco - Hurt Me Soul
5. Kano - This Is My Life

steenbeck said...

Thanks May - I'll add them later in the day. I don't have Kano or Whodini, but I can probably find them.

I was hoping to make this more interactive, and I'm glad you started us on that road.

Maybe I should have asked a question...I'll add one.

Japanther said...

nice post Steenbeck (and May).
I know very very little about Hip-Hop but i've got a handful of classic albums like NWA, PE, DrDre, De La Soul etc.
As you may have guessed by now, for me with any type of music it's about so much more than the music only; the history and the sociocultural context from which they emerge and operate in are just as important as is the whole aesthetic and all the peripherals,.
I'm off to have a poke around the interweb to see if I can find anymore of the documentary, it looks really interesting.

And my favourite hip-hop tune about hip-hop is Pete Rock & Black Ice "Truth Is" which i'm sure you already know, is all about how the record companies use the promise of a record deal to exploit young vulnerable black men.

tincanman said...

My entry into good hip hop beyond going uh huh uh huh uh huh along with the beat sometimes was Lupe Fiasco. Someone nommed The Instrumental for the watching TV theme and I hope it was my dond of the week because it really opened my eyes (ears) to what hip hop could be.

It brought me back to my teen OMG moment - hearing Gimme Shelter for the first time. After that, Minnie Riperton and the Starland Vocal Band on AM radio wasn't cutting it for me anymore.

steenbeck said...

Japanther, I do know Truth is, I nommed it for the truth theme just the other week. I'll add it above. I agree about the socio-political and historical background adding a lot to one's appreciation of a genre of music, and I find hip hop completely fascinating in that regard.

And Tin, I agree, the Instrumental is a great track.

tincanman said...

The whole album rocks.
Or hops, I guess.

Makinavaja said...

Thanks for this Steenbeck. Despite my love of Mala Rodriguez, Violadores del Verso and other Spanish Hip Hop artists, I am woefully ignorant of where this all comes from. I have a lot of listening to do. It's kind of cool to be getting into music in my mother tongue via the work of artists in my adopted country!
Have you listened to any of Mala's stuff yet? If there's anything that's caught your attention and you'd like some help with the lyrics, I'll do my best to help.

steenbeck said...

Thanks, Maki, I haven't listened yet. I haven't listened to much of anything the last 2 weeks. I've been out and about too much, and I gave my ears and my brain a vacation. Still planning on it, though.

I'm also curious about a comment you made about cooking over on another thread. I'm fascinated by Spanish cooking. It seems like the flavors stem from an interesting mix of cultures. And I got some smokey Spanish paprika a while back that changed my culinary world. But I'm a vegetarian, and we don't even eat fish, and it's hard to find a Spanish cookbook that has much in it for us. Do you have any staple sauces or...well anything...that you could share?

Makinavaja said...

That was quick, Steen! Vegetarianism is really not understood over here but there are some great meat and fish free dishes here. The typical cold soups such as gazpacho (tomatoes, mainly) and Ajoblanco (my favourite, which is almond based). There are also a lot of regional dishes using a variety of pulses which can be adapted to suit vegetarian requirements. If you get in touch at makinavajarr -at- gmail.com, I'll send you some recipes.

Shoegazer said...

Let's get listy:

DJ Shadow
DJ Bone
The Beasties
Buck 65 (cheers Shane)
Sage Francis
Q Tip
Ri Ra
Lee Perry

My problem with a lot of the genre, is figuring out what is being said, or when you do, wishing they hadn't bothered. Will always find time for those that are either sonically creative or have something interesting to say.

tincanman said...

What an amazing collection you've amassed. Thank you thank you thank you thank you

ejay said...

It's here! I'll get to it as soon as possible.

Proudfoot said...

Started off with rappy reggae (Dllinger, Nigger Kojak, Macca B)

Bambaata feat John Lydon (how underrated is that as a 'crossover' track?)

Then Fear of a Black Planet and PE in general, esp. the Flava tracks, which are dead funny.LL Cool J, De La Soul, Jungle Bros.....
There's no way I can claim any of it reflects my middle class lifestyle but it's damn fine music.
My Faves?
1. Can't do Nuttin' for ya man- PE
2. Retaliation - Ice T
3. Body Movin' - Beasties
4. World Destruction- Time Zone
5. Boom Biddy Bye Bye- Cypress Hill

nilpferd said...

*Warning- rambling post*
The first "raps" I heard were from the man who may have coined the phrase, Cannonball Adderley, for his intros on sixties and seventies soul-jazz albums.
But probably the first actual hip-hop track I heard was Dream Warriors/Gang Starr I've lost my ignorance.. on the Rebirth of Cool Vol. 1 sampler, 1992, which also got me into the british acid jazz rappers like IG Culture, Galliano, Young Disciples, then later the trip hoppers like Tricky, Massive Attack, etc. The Brand New Heavies Heavy Rhyme Experience also exposed me to Main Source, Pharcyde, and Grand Puba, though I didn't really delve into those artists much then.
US3's Cantaloop was a constant companion through my final design year in 1994 and got me into the whole sixties Blue Note scene. Not too fussed about the rest of that album though, along with the Miles Davis album Doo-wop I always found the banal and often misogynist lyrics off-putting.
Guru's Jazzmatazz was also important, a track like Le bien, le mal with MC Solaar has been a favourite for years.
A friend gave me The Roots' From the ground up EP in the late nineties, and I found this a revelation, Black Thought's raps, especially on Distortion to static, are breathtaking. Through this style of spoken poetry and also nu-jazz collaborations I also got into artists like Ursula Rucker.
Equally important for me are the Ninja Tunes/Big Dada artists like Roots Manuva, also US Ninja Tunes artists like Latyrx and Ammoncontact, Coldcut also collaborated with artists like Steinski.
8 pt. Agenda by Herbaliser/Latyrx probably the highlight for me among the Ninja Tunes albums.
The jazz connection also got me into Madlib and the Stones Throw artists like MF Doom, although from the latter I have mostly instrumentals.
RR-wise it was Steenbeck who first piqued my interest in "non-jazz" hip hop, specifically Pete Rock and C.L. Smooth's T.R.O.Y., which I'd somehow missed until then despite Dorian's patronage of it on the memorial songs thread.
Since then I've become a PR/CL Smooth fan, and through Steen also enjoy the RZA Ghost Dog soundtrack, though I'm not yet really into Wu-tang rapping.
Other things posted on RR which have hit home with me are the Blackalicious tracks (fantastic wordplay), Public Enemy(love Chuck D's rhythm and the no-nonsense backing), which I knew only from Spike Lee films, and Disposable Heroes of Hiphopracy, as well as a number of Ejay's French hip hop bands. I do also enjoy the early classic stuff by Eric B/Rakim and Grandmaster Flash, though not enough to actually buy any albums of it.
Basically if it has some connection with jazz, hard hitting/witty/rhythmically sophisticated raps, or is otherwise sonically innovative, I'll probably like it.

nilpferd said...

And I've gone and forgotten Gil Scott Heron's The revolution will not be televised, probably the most often recommended piece of hip-hop on RR, which I got on an obscure Flying Dutchman compilation from a friend years ago.
Equally the whole ATCQ and De la soul back catalogue, which I'm exploring thanks to Steen- I was aware of some of it but never really listened that carefully.

Steen, maybe you could put up something by Ursula Rucker- I put What? in Hip hop 101- it might help to slightly tip the gender imbalance.. alternatively QMS by T-Love, another nice rap from a woman's perspective. Or equally something I don't know from Queen Latifah or Erykah Badu.

May1366 said...

Ladies First by Queen Latifah with the Sarf London member of the Native Tongues, Monie Love, would be a good shout - explicitly putting forward a woman's perspective with some terrific wordplay and humour.

Even earlier, MC Lyte's I Am Woman is a rapid-fire dose of the old school.

steenbeck said...

Oh, good idea Nilpferd. I'll add some women. I have some MC Lyte, no Queen Latifah though. I'll put the Ursula Rucker in. I was hoping to add some tracks to the post that people have recommended, but it might take a little while, I've got to get Isaac out of the house

ejaydee said...

Before I add my 2 cents, more video evidence here:
There's the rest of the Hip Hop Years, but also Style Wars, Wild Style, Beat Street, and more. Ch-ch-check it out!

steenbeck said...

It has been suggested in the back rooms of the hip hop and jazz department, that this is such a huge and daunting task it might be better as a series, for which this could serve as a sort of introduction.

One way of organizing it would be in a loosely chronological fashion, and each part could be hosted by a different 'Spiller, according to knowledge and interest.

So we could start with possibly a little pre-history--GSH and the Last Poets, perhaps. Then move onto an old school origins of B-boy post, then proceed from there as anybody sees fit.

Anybody have any interest in this?

nilpferd said...

Sounds good! Put me down for a joint acid jazz hip hop post with May, or a Ninja Tunes summary with Shane.

ejaydee said...

I'm down, probably a post-Golden Age, mid-90s one.

Blimpy said...

here's some new scottish hip-hop for you (yes, you are reading that correctly) from Edinburgh:


steenbeck said...

I liked that Scottish hip hop! Thanks.