To avoid making the assumption that everybody knows the story of Hip Hop, I’ll provide a really brief history lesson to catch you up to speed. In the late 70’s, legendary DJ Kool Herc would bring his equipment out to the park in the South Bronx and literally just rock all day. The whole thing was improvisational, yet very intentional. But nobody knew that those block parties would be the beginning stages in the creation of a billion dollar industry. See, back then it was about bringing everybody together – grandkids to grandmothers. It was about the culture. It was about creativity. It was an art…an art that was rejected by mainstream society.
That rejection was where the mystique was. That rejection made it more sacred. It made it to where we had to do it. We had to get involved. We finally had something that really represented us. We finally had a way to express ourselves. Graffiti, break-dancing, DJing, and MCing. Those elements made up our new art form. The artists were our newscasters. Every song, every backspin, every tagged up train reported a story. We were finally being represented in ways that we could relate to. We saw people that looked like us all of a sudden become stars.
Regardless of how much they wanted to, they couldn’t stop it. Couldn’t deny this art form that was exploding and spreading like wildfire. It was growing beyond the confines of NY blocks. With Wildstyle and Krush Groove, Hip Hop was on the big screen now. There was nothing they could do to contain it. And as the saying goes, if you can’t beat them…join them.
By “join them”, I don’t mean grabbing a fresh can of Krylon and spraying up the nearest abandoned building. I don’t mean copping a new Adidas track suit with the matching shell toes (no strings, of course) and jumping in the closest cipher. The reality of it was that by joining this new, previously rejected art form, corporate America actually just figured out how to properly monetize it. Along with this monetization came stakeholders. And with stakeholders come structure. Structure that this free art form hadn’t seen before. Realistically, these stakeholders and their machine opened up a lot of doors for Hip Hop and in the process made a lot of people rich.
Fast forward 20+ years, and the phenomenon that is Hip Hop has turned into a whole new monster. It has grown to a point that most people that were around during it’s infancy don’t even recognize it anymore. It’s no longer a local treasure that represented a forgotten culture. It’s now an international giant that shows up everywhere from fashion to movie scripts to the pages of the dictionary. It went from being this obscure somewhat abstract thing, to being used as a noun, a verb, and an adjective. People who’ve never spoken a word of English are now rocking Hip Hop (adj.) fashion and carrying on like true American Hip Hoppers (n.).
Since its inception, Hip Hop has experienced the good, the bad, and the ugly. As a culture, we’ve taken it and transformed it into something very different. The stakeholders have made it to where they will only invest in what’s profitable and because of this, artists will only create what stakeholders will invest in. While this relationship has done some good in taking this art form all over the world, it has also created a mainstream pool of puppets. A rare form of puppets that have the power to become puppet-masters themselves after heavily influencing their audiences. It’s rare that a day goes by that you don’t see Hip Hop’s influence. Whether it’s hidden somewhere subtle in the music now known as “rap” or blatantly plastered across the TV via the latest McDonald’s commercial.
The question I pose to you is: Is Hip Hop still about culture or is it just the latest cash cow?