How hip-hop lost the plot

From its origins as a uniting force, hip-hop has become debased as rappers have embraced violence and materialism, Jorge 'POP Master Fabel' Pabon will warn aficionados in a lecture tomorrow
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The Independent Culture

May the real hip-hop please rise! As we complete the third decade of what has been termed "hip-hop culture", much has yet to be explored regarding its roots, history, terminology and essence. Deciphering theories from facts is a gradual process since many resources are scattered, leaving missing links in the chains of history. Nevertheless, there are facts. These truths, unanimously agreed upon by the architects, legends and pioneers of the culture, should constitute the "hip-hop gospel", whereas the questionable theories should remain as footnotes until proven to be fact. Hip-hop culture continues to evolve as the most relevant renaissance of this time period. Those who recognise the original essence and spirit of the culture build on its strong foundation while others innocently or purposefully tear it apart.

During the 1970s, New York City was the canvas for an extremely complex society of urban warriors with social and cultural imperatives. In this vibrant mosaic of cultures flourished a diverse population with varying traditions, characteristics and attitudes. The fast pace and aggressive nature of the city warranted the average urbanites development of survival instincts, finding ways to exist against all odds. Certain neighbourhoods were truly concrete jungles laced with countless obstacles and an array of predators. Conscientious elders made an effort to educate their communities by sharing their history, wisdom and knowledge of self. These sages illuminated paths towards success by providing a strong foundation for the youth to build upon.

When "hip-hop" was just words in a rhyme, NYC's urban youth engaged in various forms of artistic self-expression. For the most part, these cultural components were recycled from previous creative movements. Music, speech, dance, art and fashion were among the elements either passed down by earlier generations or emulated by the next. Mentorship played a major role as skills were passed down to protégés. In certain cases, teachers referred to their students as sons/daughters. With this acquired knowledge came responsibility. The protégés were expected to carry on the reputation and expertise of the mentor since they were reflections of each other's dedication. Sons and daughters were also encouraged to respect their elders and take their skills to the next level in order to stay on top of the food chain. The most dedicated settled for nothing less than the best, representing to the fullest. We took great pride in our art, as it was an extension of our souls, marked our status and a source of self-empowerment. It was a means for achieving ghetto celebrity status. Getting there was half the battle; the other half was maintaining our rank in a highly competitive arena.

At the epicentre of this great renaissance there were the jams. Block parties became our pow-wows. These cultural gatherings served as a place to exhibit our skills, engage in artistic warfare and network. For the most part it was a celebration of life through art. These all age events were free and accessible to the community. They provided an alternative to the negative activities that plagued our neighbourhoods. Although violence still threatened our communities, artistic expression became tools of war as we battled for king and queenship. These cultural imperatives were obtained by any means necessary. Plazas and schoolyards were occupied without permits. Electricity was jacked from the lamppost giving power to the DJ's equipment. Subway cars and handball courts became galleries for outlaw artists. The spirit of revolution echoed into the dawn of a new era, the epoch of hip-hop culture. Outdoor jams and community events provided a platform for the unification of various art forms. DJs, MCs, dancers, and writers became identified as components of a common movement eventually labelled hip-hop.

The common pulse which gave life to all these elements is rhythm, clearly demonstrated by the beats the DJ selected, the dancers' movements, the MCs' rhyme patterns and the writer's name or message painted in a flowing, stylised fashion. The culture was identified in the early 1980s when DJ Afrika Bambaataa named the dynamic urban movement "hip-hop". The words "hip-hop" were originally used by MCs as part of a scat style of rhyming, for example: "Hip-hop ya'll and ya don't stop, rock on, till the break of dawn." At about the same time, certain slang words also became titles of the dance forms, such as "rockin'" and "breakin'", used generally, to describe actions with great intensity. Just as one could rock the mic (microphone) and rock the dance floor, one could rock a basketball game or rock some fly gear (dress impressively). The term "break" also had more than one use in the 1970s. It was often used as a response to an insult or reprimand, for example, "Why are you breakin' on me?" Break was also the section on a musical recording where the percussive rhythms were most aggressive and hard driving. The dancers anticipated and reacted to these breaks with their most impressive steps and moves.

In order to report properly the history of dance forms associated with hip-hop, one must journey both inside and outside of New York City. Although dance forms associated with hip-hop did develop in New York City, half of them (ie, popping and locking) originated and developed on the west coast of the US as part of a different cultural movement. Much of the media coverage in the 1980s grouped these dance forms together with New York's native dance forms (B-boying/girling and uprocking ), labelling them all "breakdancing." As a result, the West Coast "funk" culture and movement were overlooked and underrated as the public ignorantly credited "hip-hop" as the father of the funk dance forms. This is just one example of misinformation that undermines the intricacies of each dance form.

It is imperative that we acknowledge hip-hop culture as a transcending force which belongs to those who create it, live it, support it, protect it, and promote it, regardless of their race, religion, nation, tribe, crew or organisation. We might fly different colours, which represent our individuality and commitment to various parties or beliefs, but in truth, we all produce one collective mosaic.

Although hip-hop culture was, for the most part, initially celebrated by African and Caribbean descendants in the 1970s, it was also embraced by various other ethnicities during this period, especially after it found its place above ground. For the true hip-hoppers, our standards have never changed regarding who is "down by law" and who isn't. One's skills for speak for themselves, regardless of one's skin tone or background. To us, it's about being original and bringing something new to the elements while preserving the foundation set by the pioneers.

Hip-hop culture continues to unite people of various religions, nations, and cultures through the universal languages of dance, art, music, fashion and many other tools. The fact that hip-hop is not a religion, philosophy or belief system gives us a neutral platform to unite upon. It is inclusive and has always consisted of various influences.

Peace can be achieved by respecting each other's differences, uniting in our commonalities, and agreeing to disagree with each other's opinions and views. Hip-hop culture has not only given us a vehicle of expression, but when used positively, it has given us an opportunity to explore the world and change the lives of many. It has helped many of us understand ourselves as well as others. It has helped to educate us and challenge our views. It has given many the opportunity to become self-empowered. It has given us many ways to communicate with our youth and has helped us to exercise and stimulate their senses. The outcome of these efforts often brings about a strong conscious generation of individuals who have found peaceful ways to settle differences and who stand for the upliftment of their community.

Unfortunately, hip-hop culture has been misrepresented by the media and those who are either ignorant or have a hidden agenda. In this quest for peace, we shouldn't depend solely on the media for information about hip-hop culture, since there have been many cases where the media has helped to promote division and corruption within the culture. We should not rely on sources that have no authority, knowledge or understanding regarding hip-hop culture's origins and evolution. We should make it our business to research, cross-reference and fact check all of the pieces to this great puzzle. With this we can become students of the culture. Ultimately I have found that the most honourable teachers continue to be great students.

The inspiration for developing a lecture entitled "The Great Hip-Hop Swindle" is an attempt to address the misrepresentation and exploitation of this culture by the industry, media, educational institutions and in some cases even its own practitioners. For the most part the media became the gatekeepers of information and dictate what is or isn't "hip-hop". Irresponsible journalists distort history by not fact checking information and have been known to fill in the blanks with conjecture. So-called "hip-hop" magazines and radio stations claim to be "the home of hip-hop" meanwhile they only represent one component of the culture, rap. Radio station's programmers tend to rotate the same half dozen artists all day long excluding a wide variety of flavours within the rap genre. Corporations invest in a culture they hardly understand with no regard to preserving its integrity and authenticity. Once the recording industry convinced MCs/rappers they could stand alone without a DJ, hip-hop dancers or the element of aerosol art, the culture was stripped apart. This along with the death of the jams, also known as block parties, was the beginning of the end of hip-hop in its original state. In short, the recording industry hijacked the term "hip-hop" and made it synonymous only with rap. Artistic and educational institutions offer "hip-hop" courses often taught by individuals who are not only unqualified but never lived a hip-hop day in their life. Many of these academics do not support the hip-hop communities and are seldom seen at events. As the blind lead the blind, younger generations have few reliable sources.

Unaware of hip-hop's magnificent legacy, some of our youth use the rap element to perpetuate and glorify many of the social ills our hip-hop forefathers were trying to overcome. The majority of pioneers were using this culture progressively while today many of our youth have reversed the order by promoting destructive lifestyles via rap. This is precisely one of the reasons why "The Great Hip-Hop Swindle" lecture was conceived. In order to embrace the essence of the culture one must know its history and purpose. The lecture is accompanied by an audio/video presentation that helps illustrate many key points and provides evidence regarding the true identity of hip-hop culture. Potential solutions are suggested including some that have had positive results. "The Great Hip-Hop Swindle" takes us on a journey through the rise, fall and resurrection of this era's most influential movement.

© Pabon 2006

The Great Hip-Hop Swindle Lecture is part of Robert Hylton Urban Classicism at the Purcell Room, London SE1 (0870 380 0400) 12.30pm tomorrow. Fabel performs a short dance piece today