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.
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? ****