Can you imagine living in a world where no one liked hip hop music? I don’t mean a world where everyone hated hip hop. I mean a world where it barely existed – where there was no interest because nobody knew about it. Like, imagine being really into Indonesian music from the ’60’s… You’ve discovered this music that has blown your mind and you want to share your excitement about it but no one cares because they can’t understand it and they’re more interested in something else…
I know it’s hard to imagine, but that’s how it was for me growing up. Honestly, there was nobody living in my town or who went to my school who knew about the music or was interested at all – not even curious. This was in the early to mid ’80’s. I was listening to Run DMC and The Fat Boys and UTFO and Whodini and LL and Kurtis Blow and Doug E. Fresh. It was so exciting! I would play the stuff for my friends and they would feign interest for a few minutes. They’d say, “cool!”, but they were just being nice because they were my friends. Most of them were more into Iron Maiden at the time.
It wasn’t until I got to high school that I met a few other people who were into hip hop. And then, it was literally 3 or 4 guys. Thane Upshaw was really into Too Short and Ice-T. We both really liked that MC E-Z song “Get Retarded” and The Skinny Boys. I remember once he gave me a tape with “What’s My Name” by Steady B. on one side and “In Full Effect” by Mantronix on the other. These were the days when it wasn’t uncommon to find King-T, Shy-D, Just-Ice and Newcleus all on one mixtape. In those days, I don’t remember having debates with my friends about who was the best rapper (or DJ!). We talked about our favorites. During the bridge wars, I really liked Criminal Minded and Down By Law.
All through my youth I was more than just a hip hop fan. I was a defender. A crusader. A champion. I fought for it. I had big hopes for it. I believed in it so strongly and it was frustrating to me that it was a gutter music. In those days, people were still saying it was just a fad. No one took it seriously. I just wanted respect for this music that I thought was so interesting and even important. Right around the end of high school – desperate for a sense of community and solidarity – I became a member of Afrika Bambaataa’s Zulu Nation.
In ’88, people in society at large started to talk about hip hop. Mostly because groups like Public Enemy and NWA were impossible to ignore. I was somewhat excited that there was some interest being taken in the culture, but I was also a bit concerned that the interest was for the wrong reasons. People weren’t talking about how great and exciting the production of Dr. Dre or the Bomb Squad was, they were talking about how scary and dangerous the message was (especially the mainstream press).
Then, in ’90 or so, there were the first few hip hop pop hits from acts like Hammer and Vanilla Ice and The Fresh Prince. Again, part of me was happy that the music was finding a wider audience, but the other part of me was not so psyched because I knew that these songs weren’t the best representation of what the genre was all about (that didn’t mean I wanted to assassinate M.C. Hammer).
Soon hip hop had it’s first platinum records and Grammy’s and stuff. But I was a disciple of Chuck D. in those days and subscribed to a strict “who gives a fuck about a goddamn Grammy” credo. A watered down version of hip hop was blowing up and so my excitement only went so far. Besides, these victories were about music business politics and commerce, not art or meaningful culture.
Somewhere along the line in the 90’s is when I got my first glimpse of what I saw as a major victory and a great success for the culture I had devoted my life to: hip hop had become global. I was beginning to find really interesting underground hip hop scenes all over the world! Hip hop from Japan! Hip hop from the Netherlands! Hip Hop from Brazil! Hip Hop from Zimbabwe! It was becoming so diverse and so interesting and so rich! I imagined Afrika Bambaataa and the other founding fathers to be so proud! It wasn’t a money thing. It wasn’t a fame thing. It was all about changing the culture of the planet! What could be a greater accomplishment than that?!
Naturally, I didn’t love all the music I heard. I couldn’t relate to all of it. But that wasn’t the point. Even if I couldn’t relate to Chinese hip hop, there was a scene in Beijing that kids were excited about! And it was amazing to me to imagine kids on the other side of the world coming together, rocking mics and turntables, and getting involved with all aspects of the culture.
It was always so exciting to me to watch the old DMC DJ battles and to see really dope DJ’s from Egypt and Denmark and Korea because it was still pretty fresh in my memory that few people outside New York cared at all – only 6 or 7 years before.
But now… Now there is a poison. We have lost perspective altogether. The internet has made it easy to lose sight. The internet has made it easy for a kid born in 1990 to become an “expert”. Experience and perspective doesn’t count for much anymore. We attack each other with vicious and brutal hatred when our opinions and tastes differ. Rather than supporting and defending the culture as a whole, we choose a handful of artists, or a scene, and seek to destroy everything outside it. In recent years I’ve seen things get very threatening, at times flat-out racist, and even violent.
How did this happen? What is it about hip hop that opinions are no longer welcome? Why are we not allowed to choose our own favorites? Why do we feel so goddamned threatened by people who look a little different, who have had experiences different from our own, or who have ideas different from ours, using hip hop as a way to express themselves? I just don’t get it. What’s wrong with just saying, “it’s not my cup of tea”? Why is it that if I named a specific rapper by name and said “I don’t like him” or said I preferred another rapper more, I’d get attacked by a thousand commenters? Why is my personal taste such a threat to anyone else?
I hate to say it, but there’s a word – a very ugly word – for this kind of thing: fascism. Here’s the definition –
“A governmental system led by a dictator having complete power, forcibly suppressing opposition and criticism, regimenting all industry, commerce, etc., and emphasizing an aggressive nationalism and often racism.”
In our opinions, we become that dictator and “hip hop nationalists”. We’ve all seen how racist things can get in comments and various on-line discussions. Ideas, opposition and criticism is suppressed.
I don’t love every hip hop record that’s ever been made and I don’t know anyone who does. But I love the diversity that exists. I marvel at it. It’s the same with any other kind of art. Two of my favorite painters are Basquiat and Manet – they couldn’t be more different from each other. Films – I love Buster Keaton and Jodorowsky. That’s ok, right? I can’t decide what I like more – Indian or Italian food. Thank goodness, I don’t have to choose.
Does a kid from Japan, who looks different, who’s had very different experiences have the right to make a hip hop record? Honestly. Come on. Do I have to answer that question?
I know I’m not the best rapper in the world. I’m not famous and I don’t want to be. I’m far from rich. I work a regular job for Christ’s sake! But I keep getting forced into a competition I’m not willing to participate in. I just want to do my thing in peace for my own satisfaction and that of the handful of people who are interested. If that’s not ok, then why don’t you kill me?