Published Sep 14, 2009While the fact hip-hop culture is a worldwide youth culture phenomenon is not a new revelation, Dalton Higgins' new book Hip Hop World takes this reality and interrogates it with provocative stances, interviews with prominent artist interviews and examinations of cultural contexts to come up with a fresh perspective. Higgins recently spoke to Exclaim! about the inspiration for the book project and his viewpoints on what hip-hop emanating from across the globe can tell us about our past, present and future.
It seems like with this book you were trying to address a number of things you thought were missing from hip-hop cultural analysis.
Well, essentially I wrote the book I wanted to read. And that sort of meant musing on hip-hop culture and not just rap music and how that plays out both in the West and in developing nations and Europe and Australasia, pretty much the world, and I tried to cover as much ground as I could. And also to get into some of the hard issues. I'm a long-time journalist, I like to report on issue-oriented things, or inconvenient truths so that meant. I'll tell you the story of why I even dug into the book and why I wanted to get it happening. I was at a music conference in Germany in a town in called Essen, a small industrial town and there's the kid working in the hotel lobby and he looks at me and he couldn't speak English very well and he must have assumed I was from the U.S. or Canada or somewhere so he made some sort of gesture to speak to me and I didn't understand it. Then he started beat boxing to me. So for him that was a way to reach out to me to this black guy from the West by performing one of the elements of hip-hop through beat boxing. So the synapses started firing off in my brain and I had an epiphany the next morning. It was like, OK, I've travelled quite extensively as far as a music programmer at Harbourfront Centre and on my own time and yeah, this thing is much bigger than my friends on the block than we'd like to think here in Toronto, New York, or wherever you reside in the West, much bigger. It's only when you go outside of the West that you really see the full embrace of the other tenets of the culture. So here in Toronto or in other major cosmopolitan places like New York and Chicago there are discussions surrounding the death of hip-hop culture. Go outside of the West and you're going to see a different picture ― the tenets of the culture are actually thriving elsewhere. So that's what the book is really all about. Also, I like to dig into the hard issues, the black elephant in the room so to speak. We talk about hip-hop sometimes to the exclusion of things, certainly the exclusion of sexuality and race and gender issues and act as if some of those things are on a different island. I wanted to dig into some of those issues as well you know. Like, what exactly is this gay rapper witchhunt all about every six months or so? People saying "Oh yeah, Rick Ross is gay," you know and a lot of fans rap pundits and critics go "Umm, what if he were? Does it matter and why does this thing keep cropping up all the time?" And why is it that rap music is maybe the lone music genre where there aren't any declared gay or bisexual or lesbian rappers that are doing well in the commercial realm, you know? So you are going to tell me in the history of hip-hop, out of all these success stories, multi-platinum selling artists that sort of run the gamut in terms of the different subgenres of rap have ever been gay or lesbian or LBGT? It's asking those types of questions. Totally the race question as well. So this book meant to me musing whether Asher Roth is as terrible as I think he is or is he a part of some misguided record company A&R wanting to cash in on some post-Eminem energies. Although Eminem, I think his 15 minutes might be up, you know? It's asking tough questions. That's what kind of what the book is about.
I noticed you accentuate the influence of the Jamaican sound system in your writing about hip-hop's origins more than an American writer might.
Absolutely. That's another thing being based in Toronto there's a large Caribbean cultural constituent that is into hip-hop and always a lot of the young folks that I mentor they are always looking for their place in this thing. They're like, OK, the Bronx, to the West coast to Snoop and to down South. But ok, there's the Kool Herc situation, the founding father of hip-hop [Note: DJ Kool Herc is of Jamaican ancestry]. We know a bit of that but there's another bunch of stories that need to be told. Pretty much most of the founding fathers y'know the first acknowledged MC he's from the Caribbean. [Also,] Notorious B.I.G., both his parents were Jamaican. He got a lot of his inspiration [when] he used to go to Jamaica for the first 16 years of his life to hang out with his sound system uncle DJ. So there's a bunch of things that I think need more discussion, just how crucial and important how the Caribbean and African retentions are in this thing we call hip-hop.
What do you think is lacking and missing in hip-hop today?
When you look at some of what makes music culture thrive. Certainly some of the evidence especially in the West is that rap music has taken a hit, right? Let's take a look at who people acknowledge as the greatest MCs of all time Notorious B.I.G., Tupac. Tupac's posthumous CDs sell more than new releases y'know and people spend a lot of time pining wanting to go back to the golden era and pining for [Biggie's] unreleased studio outtakes or for Rakim to come out. People are constantly from teenagers to 30-somethings ― they are always pining for things of the past. That to me tells me there's clearly something lacking or missing in the present day format in what's coming out of the West, right? But also to be honest some of the most interesting articulations of rap music are not coming from the West. It's M.I.A., a Sri Lankan Tamil. That to me is a lot more exciting than some of the East coast rap inspirations that I grew up on. The same thing would go for somebody like K'naan who is Somalian proud. He's a nomadic guy; he's lived in different places. Some of the most exciting so-called hip-hop projects that are out now, they're not necessarily about progressive politics, globalization or talking about youth culture and issue-oriented things. They are also fun and good to dance to. It's K'naan and M.I.A., things like that I'm getting more stimuli from, to be honest you know.
Do you feel there's an unspoken hierarchy when it comes to hip-hop?
As far as the future of rap music is it just me or are most of the best MCs we celebrate their aged. They are older now. They are in their late 30s or 40s. What is that telling you? If you were to do a poll amongst teenagers and 20-somethings on who was their favourite MC, a lot of them would probably say Jay-Z, who is in his late 30s, Nas who is in his late 30s, Common, Bun B., Andre 3000, y'know. You might get some Lil' Wayne in there and Drake certainly. And the Drake thing goes back to my point before. Drake is from Toronto. He's gonna debut number one on the Billboard charts. Everything is sort of headed in that direction. He's not from New York. He's not from L.A. He's not from Atlanta, he's from Toronto. So this is where some of most of the most interesting articulations of rap music people are interested in [is coming from]. They are not coming from the former epicenters or homes of rap. They are coming from elsewhere. If you were to do an informal poll I think people would be like yeah Jay-Z, Andre 3000. They are all rappers that are gonna hang up the mic .So my question to myself is Kid Sister and Asher Roth ― is that cutting it for large sections of rap humanity? The electro-rap thing is that a passing fancy? Is Kid Sister's Warholian 15 minutes up? Will Asher Roth have a sustainable rap career? Um, I don't think so. I don't think we will be caring about Asher Roth three years from now.
You do definitely take some stances and take stances on some things that people may not have done as strongly. For instance your stance on "the n word" is particularly striking. A lot of critics may have tried to contextualize or justify its use, why did you take the stance that you did?
Basically I think "the n word" should be removed from the logs of all rap. This is coming from being a student of history and also being African Canadian and having grown up and studied, having been weaned on Marcus Garvey, MLK, Rosa Parks and Angela Davis. Just so see the reactions that elders have. I believe in elder worship. To see the reactions our fore parents have to the widespread use of the word and to have it be used so casually by both black communities and non-black communities, I think that's where my position comes from which is to not for anybody to use the word if they can. And I like MCs that are like wordsmiths, so if there is an opportunity to come up with a rhyme and not use the word I think you are doing a good thing for hip-hop culture. I think y'know in rap there are profanities, vulgarities and epithets and all that. If there's some way to craft a potent three and a half minute rap song without using those things... it's about a rap song if we look at all measures. Also too, I am a father. I'm the father of two kids. For me to be playing music that is uttering disparaging remarks towards my community, epithets that are anti-black, anti-Latino, it's not the way to go. Part of my position now is that hip-hop has grown up and some aspects of it have left the hood. I am in my late 30s, I'm not 22 anymore. Much like Andre 3000, Bun B. and Snoop Dogg. And Snoop Dogg as you know is coaching his kids' football team. So with that there comes a bit of getting older and wiser around language and its effects on young people.
You still hold out hope for hip-hop culture despite your critiques. Why?
Because rap is intrinsically this kind of protest music... that's why I remain hopeful. Arguably, it is the most accessible music form out there. That excites me. You [just] need a laptop to produce the music. We're talking globally now ― if a kid in the favelas of Brazil or in what people call the ghettos of Jamaica want to create [and] want to make some jazz music, some interesting classical music [or] they want to play the blues, they want to partake and build a rock band, that comes with a lot more cost, which is not so great if you have no money. Whereas rap comes out of a griot tradition a spoken word tradition so you don't even need a damn microphone, right? [For example] beat boxing is mouth music. [Hip-hop] still remains to this day the most inventive and its core the most inventive and innovative form today it just is today hands down because of its sheer inventiveness. And that comes from history, creating something out of zero, nothing. Whereas to play Beethoven, Bach and Stravinsky out of nothing, I wish you luck [Laughs] I don't think you can quite do that. So that's why I'm hopeful. And I'm also hopeful too wanting it to embrace globalization more and I'm wanting hip-hop to embrace its global citizenry more and I am seeing that. M.I.A., K'naan, Drake, whatever. [These are] folks coming from different places, dominating some play lists racing up the Billboard charts and receiving critical acclaim. So that's what makes me hopeful to be honest.
Read our Front Five article on Hip Hop World here.