After standing in line at Club Culture for what seemed like hours, on a cold California winter night in 1984, my B-boy crew – the Floor Jammers – and I finally made our way into the environs of the humid club. On an ordinary Saturday night, we wouldn’t have waited in line for so long; however, this wasn’t a typical Saturday. Because on this evening, the usually bangin’ club deejay, Bubba G. Scotch, was to be joined on the “wheels of steel” by none other than the “Godfather of Hiphop,” DJ Afrika Bambaataa. Breakers, deejays, emcees, and “graffiti” writers from miles around descended upon Club Culture – like the Hindu faithful who travel to the River Ganges for ritual purification – to witness Bam “bless” the two turntables and the mic. Although the members of my crew and I had been into Hiphop since 1982, this was the first time that we were able to experience a true cultural icon invoke the spirit of the Bronx circa 1973.
At that particular moment, I knew that Hiphop would remain an integral part of my life, however, I didn’t realize then how deeply it would influence my intellectual pursuits.
With the risk of sounding reductionist, it is important to articulate a clear definition of “Hiphop culture.” Even though hyper-capitalist expropriation and exploitation have succeeded in conflating the entire culture with so-called “rap music” in the popular imaginary, the true nature of Hiphop is much more complex and multifaceted. According to the “Refinitions,” which are the “cultural terms and codes designed [by KRS-One and the Temple of Hiphop] to protect, preserve, and establish Hiphop’s common spirit,” the culture is comprised of five core elements: Breakin, Emceein, Graffiti Art, Deejayin, and Beatboxin. In addition to these artistic expressions are the four equally important, albeit often overlooked, elements of street fashion, language, knowledge, and entrepreneurialism. At the same time, while these nine elements represent the foundation of Hiphop cultural performativity, KRS-One eloquently reminds us that “rap is something you do, Hiphop is something you live.”
Despite growing up on the West Coast, Hiphop circa 1984 had a transregionality that made it accessible to kids on my block and elsewhere. It is true that some people I knew argued that Hiphop was merely “East Coast bullshit” and decided to stick to pop-locking and funk music (two predominately West Coast cultural formations). However, I can state emphatically that the vast majority of the Black and Latina/o youths in my “hood” were performing and living some aspect of the culture. Today, that level of involvement in Hiphop seems like ancient history as most young people have become uninformed consumers of the culture rather than its producers/performers. Moreover, many mainstream “rappers” who are performing the music don’t pay homage (at least publicly) to the culture as a whole. This has resulted in the systematic erasure of Hiphop’s complexity, dynamism, and potentiality from the imaginaries of urban youths. In its place, a misogynistic and materialistic lust over clockin’ large amounts of “bling bling” and “money, hoes, and clothes” has become hegemonic.
I am not suggesting that “getting dough” hasn’t been a central trope in much of Hiphop culture, especially for emcees – whether we’re talking about Busy Bee’s exaltation of loot in the 1983 film Wild Style or Eric B and Rakim’s homage to cash on the album Paid in Full (1987), to cite two examples. However, with the nearly complete commodification of “rap music” by multinational record corporations (Sony/BMG and Universal Music Group), commercial television (Viacom) and radio conglomerates (Clear Channel and Radio One), the billions of dollars being made annually from Hiphop are primarily enriching forces outside and are even hostile to communities of color. While there may be a handful of Black and Latina/o artists and record executives “coppin’ mad chedda” in this corporate-driven industry, but for all the money that Jay-Z, Kanye West, and 50 Cent clocked last year, Universal Music Group, which owns their record labels (Roc-A-fella/Def Jam and Interscope) earned billions off them and other rap artists. As a result, with corporations, commercial radio stations, and formulaic “thug” rappers dominating the discourse of what constitutes Hiphop, those people who seek to express, define, and communicate the culture, in its entirety and complexity, are virtually marginalized and silenced. This is why, I argue, it is imperative that those of us, who appreciate and live Hiphop, must develop a Hiphop intelligentsia in order to articulate a counterhegemonic and progressive cultural politics of Hiphop that critiques and challenges the current state of corporate-sponsored rap which tends to promote violence, sexism, materialism, anti-intellectualism, and disrespect.
Italian Communist Antonio Gramsci wrote extensively on the importance of “intellectuals” in transforming the fragmented and disparate “thoughts” of those who exist at a particular class location – in this case urban youths – into a lucid and consistent oppositional world-view. Although the notion of a Hiphop intellectual may strike some as oxymoronic or counterintuitive, there are nevertheless numerous performers and activist-scholars who dedicate their lives to producing, articulating, and analyzing Hiphop culture. For the purposes of this essay, therefore, I will identify two groups of Hiphop intellectuals. First and foremost is the “organic-performer intellectual” who in addition to being a producer of the culture, she/he also articulates its historicity and cultural formation in order to educate and organize others. A clear illustration of this is Kris Parker, a.k.a. KRS-One, who in addition to being one of the dopest emcees in the “business,” he has also helped define, direct, and propagate Hiphop culture through the development of the Temple of Hiphop. Other examples of organic-performer intellectuals include Afrika Bambaataa and his Universal Zulu Nation and Chuck D from Public Enemy.
I find the second category of Hiphop intellectual a little more difficult to define, however. They are usually “activist-scholars” that came of age during the “Hiphop generation” (urban youths born from 1965-1984, to cite Bakari Kitwana), who analyze and elucidate the culture from an insider-participant perspective. Examples of this type of intellectual are Rosa Clemente, Bakari Kitwana, Raquel Rivera, Jeff Chang, Jeffrey Ogbar, Joan Morgan and numerous others at the grassroots level, including myself.
For example, in a course that I teach entitled “The Cultural History of Hiphop,” we spend the first half of the semester historicizing the various elements of the culture. Through this process, the students are able to ascertain the richness and nuances of Hiphop, thereby challenging the narrow way in which it’s portrayed by the commercial media. From there, we are able to begin analyzing and critiquing the literary, poetic, aesthetic, and performative elements of the culture, as well as investigate how notions of race, gender, and class inform and problematize Hiphop. Ironically, although all the students in the course proclaim that they liked Hiphop; very few have any prior knowledge of its history and complexity.
Here it is important to distinguish between Hiphop intellectuals and intellectuals who study Hiphop. Even though they both do a “service” in examining the culture, the latter group of scholars does so from an outsider-observer positionality, rather than having been insider-participants. What this often results in is the creation of highly theoretical postulations about Hiphop that aren’t based on experiential knowledge. Furthermore, I argue that Hiphop intellectuals must ground any theory, book, or course dealing with the culture in the thoughts and feelings of the people who produce it. An example of good intentions going somewhat awry is Mark Anthony Neal and Murray Freeman’s new text That’s the Joint!: the Hip-Hop Studies Reader (2005). Although these two scholars have edited a useful and significant study, of the forty-one entries that comprise the text, none are written by actual Hiphop cultural producers.
On the other hand, there are many people both inside the “rap game” and out who may question the existence or importance of Hiphop intellectuals. Besides the general anti-intellectualism that permeates much of mainstream commercial rap, there are older Black folks like Reverend Calvin Butts, C. Dolores Tucker, and Dr. Martin Kilson (Professor Emeritus of Harvard University) that see no intellectual or artistic value in Hiphop whatsoever. For instance, Dr. Kilson’s 2003 article, “The Pretense of Hip-Hop Black Leadership,” in The Black Commentator argues that “the ‘hip-hop worldview’ is nothing other than an updated face on the old-hat, crude anti-humanistic values of hedonism and materialism.” He then excoriates the notion of Hiphop intellectualism by suggesting that scholars such as Todd Boyd, Michael Eric Dyson, “and their hip-hop intellectual colleagues have become advocates of anti-human and Negro-minstrel skewed dynamics in contemporary African-American entertainment.” While I would consider Boyd and Dyson intellectuals who study Hiphop, rather than Hiphop intellectuals, Kilson’s complete negation of the culture and his suggestion that nothing intellectually worthy has or will come from those who produce it, is myopic. Then again, it illustrates the crisis that Hiphop intellectuals – especially the organic-performers – must confront in order to subvert the contemporary hegemony of corporate-driven rap music.
It is clear that most people today envision mainstream rappers and the corporate media as the primary purveyors of Hiphop culture. Thinking back to the self-defining moment I experienced witnessing Afrika Bambaataa, I would have never fathomed the level of appropriation and abuse that corporations and irresponsible recording artists and executives have wrought on Hiphop. At the same time, I realize that all forms of cultural production are fluid and subject to reinterpretation and transformation. Although the status quo may truly be hegemonic, the dynamism of cultural change that brought the “bling bling era” into prominence can also assist those of us who would like to see a progressive cultural politics of Hiphop empower communities of color. What’s needed for this to occur, however, is the coalescence of a grassroots campaign of Hiphop artists who respect the culture, independent writers that have some connection to the movement, and Hiphop intellectuals who’ve experienced the culture first-hand, whether as emcees, deejays, b-girls/boys, or graf writers. Until such time that this three pronged approach occurs to fully define, articulate, and propagate Hiphop cultural politics, those individuals who profit at the expense of the culture will continue misrepresenting corporate-driven and misogynistic rap music as the only “game” in town.