For a certain group, hip-hop's creation myth lay in a Bronx tenement building at 1520 Sedgwick Avenue, where DJ Kool Herc held his first youth parties in the summer of 1973. It evolved into four catalytic elements that formed the basis of a new urban culture: DJ'ing, break dancing, emceeing and graffiti. It spread to unlikely locales, first around the U.S., then Europe, and finally every corner of the globe, from Japan to South Africa to Cuba. It is the voice of the disenfranchised and the oppressed, and a vehicle for personal and political freedom. Rap music is only a part of it. As KRS-One once counseled, "Rap is something you do; hip-hop is something you live."
For another group, hip-hop is synonymous with rap music, and the dominion of bold-faced megastars such as Jay-Z, Lil Wayne and Kanye West. It has become synonymous with black American music, period, and it is not unusual for misinformed observers to call singers like Trey Songz and Chris Brown "rappers," especially if those artists are in legal trouble. It is the language of city life, whether it's a street corner or a suburban mall. It is an ethos of aspiring to fame and fortune by convincing customers to believe in a personal brand. It is hustling to get yours by any means necessary, whether legally or illegally. As the Notorious B.I.G. once observed, "The rap game is like the crack game."
Last April, The Onion posted a brilliant fake news piece titled, "There Are People in World Who Are Concerned About Current State of Hip-Hop." This perpetual handwringing is actually embedded in hip-hop history. Back in 1979, when New Jersey trio the The Sugarhill Gang scored the first crossover hit, "Rapper's Delight," the Bronx OGs worried that their creation had been prematurely destroyed by interlopers. Decades later, the hip-hop diaspora consists of nation-states uneasily jostled together. Some complain endlessly about how bad rap music has become, and unfavorably compare modern-day stars like 2 Chainz to a long-lost golden age of "real" hip-hop. Others just want to get wavy to 2 Chainz' "I'm Different" and his signature shout, "Two Chaaiinz!" They certainly can't be bothered with some wack-ass history lesson from the old school.
It's not easy navigating these secret societies. Hip-hop is a full-contact sport. The mere suggestion that Drake is equal to, say, Gucci Mane can lead to violent arguments. Gucci Mane is either a sick degenerate with a prison record or an impressively creative beacon of Dirty South idioms whose legal problems have overshadowed his considerable talents. Drake is either a wimpy pop singer or a smart hitmaker reinventing the use of vocal melody and hooks in the genre. There is no middle ground.
Even those of us who consider ourselves hip-hop experts can recoil at its occasional ugliness. In 2011, many critics staunchly defended Tyler, the Creator and Earl Sweatshirt for lyrics glorifying rape; this spring, some of those same critics attacked Rick Ross' alleged date-rape verse on Rocko's "U.O.E.N.O." Such vacillations aren't unusual, as conflagrations over broken taboos have erupted time and again. In 1988, it was Slick Rick's "Treat Her Like a Prostitute"; in 1989, it was N.W.A.'s "F**k tha Police"; in 1990, it was Geto Boys' "Mind of a Lunatic"; in 1991, it was Ice Cube's "Black Korea"; in 1992, it was Brand Nubian's "Punks Jump Up to Get Beat Down."
It depends on perspective. Eminem is either an expression of pure id, or a misogynist and a homophobe. Rick Ross is either symptomatic of a society that trivializes criminal activity and slut-shames women, or a wily musician playing a larger-than-life character. I've listened to a churchgoing activist explain how she interprets Rick Ross' "Hustlin'," where he lyrically brags about buying cocaine for distribution from Manuel Noriega, as a broad metaphor for scraping by to survive a merciless, predatory world. I've read essays calling Eminem a "genius" for using his Slim Shady character to explore the social mores of white lower-middle class America.
Just as it has the power to anger and scandalize us, hip-hop can inspire us and speak to our hearts and minds. It is such a vibrant culture that we often refer to hip-hop as if it were a person descended from a mountaintop. But as Mos Def once warned on "Hip Hop," "Hip-hop will simply amaze you, praise you, pay you, do whatever you say do, but black, it can't save you."
I've known B-boys to tear up when they hear Pete Rock and C.L. Smooth's "T.R.O.Y. (They Reminisce Over You)." I've seen concertgoers close their eyes and shape their fingers into a "W" symbol, as if in a reverie, when they hear the symphonic swells of Wu-Tang Clan's "Triumph." I've observed Facebook posters commenting on Kendrick Lamar's "She Needs Me" as if they were speaking to the man himself. I've seen aged jazzsters that absolutely hate rap, and want absolutely nothing to do with it, happily recite the lyrics to an old-school track like "Rapper's Delight" by heart, or at least its opening words: "I said a hip, hop, the hip it, the hip-a-to-da-hip-hip-hop, and ya don't stop …"
It can be as broad or as narrow as you want. It can stick to the '80s or the '90s, and to New Jack Swing, boom bap or G-funk. It can be a canon of classics like Nas' Illmatic, 2Pac's All Eyez on Me, Outkast's Stankonia, and Public Enemy's It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back. It can set course along a bleeding edge of sonic experiments, from the electro kingdom of Afrika Bambaataa and Dynamix II to the surreal rhymes of Rammelzee and Kool Keith to the electronic journeys of Flying Lotus and Prefuse 73. It can be an ever-changing wealth of obscurities excavated through blog posts, message boards and IRCs (Internet Relay Chats). It can be anything discovered via the airwaves of terrestrial, satellite and, yes, streaming radio.
For anyone that actually remembers hearing "Rapper's Delight" on the radio back in 1979, hip-hop's evolution into an international universe of artistic renaissance, corporate exploitation and teenage revolts must be an exhilarating and terrifying sight. It is impossible to shepherd all rap music into one big tent for easy consumption, much less sundry variations on poetry, modern dance, visual art, theater, video and fashion. So we have a choice. We can either shut ourselves off into whichever era best resembles our beloved youth, or we can take in as much as humanly possible, studying the culture's glorious past while participating in its uncertain future.
I, for one, choose the latter. Hip-hop is a beautiful thing, and I want to explore all of it.