Hip-hop offers a new message

The aggressive image hides an intelligent aspect, says Ian Burrell

Not all hip-hop icons die young. Grandmaster Flash, who turned 50 in January, dropped into Britain over Easter to rotate some turntables alongside the veteran spinner Jazzy Jeff, 43. And last month, Big Daddy Kane, the epitome of the gold-chain-wearing Eighties rapper, exercised his forty-something larynx in the classy environs of London's Jazz Café. Not everyone goes out in a hail of bullets like Tupac and Biggie.

That doesn't mean this is a music genre that has finally been allowed to come in from the street corner. More than ever it is derided as the voice of a crude braggadocio that incites violence and misogyny. Rap has a terrible rep. But it doesn't have to be like that, as Q-Tip, one of the finest rappers, recently demonstrated. The former member of Nineties rap act A Tribe Called Quest departed London's Roundhouse stage singing "Life is Better", an unlikely sentiment from a genre often derided for its negativity. The lyric, the title of a track made with folk singer Norah Jones, was all the more powerful for Q-Tip having earlier climbed a barrier and entered the crowd, urging them to sing those words back to him.

There has always been a smart side to hip-hop, from Philadelphia's The Roots and New York's De La Soul, through to late Nineties acts such as Slum Village, and more recently Lupe Fiasco and The Cool Kids. In Britain we have the likes of Sway and Akala, who is quick to alert his peers to the delights of Shakespeare. It's not a theme that has much interested politicians alarmed by drug-related violence, and looking to find something to blame. You can see why. When stabbings take place at the Urban Music Awards in London, as last November, hip-hop is hurt, though the incident was not specific to that music.

Without wishing to take the edge off a genre that has a tradition of challenging authority, I suggest that it won't be so long before hip-hop stakes a claim for a place in the schedules of BBC Radio 2. The lasting qualities of the music are beyond question and there is much on offer here for thinking people.

Big Daddy Kane is at the Jazz Café, London, on 23 April

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