Minstrels, Slaves and the Rebirth of Hip-hop's Soul

Minstrels, Slaves and the Rebirth of Hip-hop's Soul
This past June, I attended Hip-hop Is Dead! (or Is It?), an "editorial art exhibition" curated by Danilo McDowell-McCallum, aka Equinox 199 of Toronto's Pangea Project. It was an exploration of hip-hop culture through the fine arts: graffiti art crossing into cubism, murals animating rap icons as myths, and MCs spitting dissonant poetry in the spirit of jazz. At the centre of this energetic atmosphere was an installation by local artist, Matthew Bronson, displaying three microphones crucified to wooden crosses and then wired up to the carcass of a battered-up, graffiti-covered walkman. Though mute, minimal and morbid, the piece, like others in the exhibition, contributed to an affective scene of raw, hip-hop expression, and a real contrast to the over-hyped and over-optimistic "Hip-hop Summit" that took place in New York, just one week before. It featured no Farrakhan-ian rhetoric about making rap stars responsible to "the community" and no business tips on how to succeed in the industry. Here, a group of unknown artists invigorated viewers to think for themselves.

There just aren't enough MCs that are courageous enough to take heads to this next level. It's a common criticism, and admittedly, one that comes out of a generational anxiety for older fans like myself. Most of us came of age as hip-hop fans during the years from 1988 to ‘92, when rap took a radical turn and became the voice of black nationalism, Afro-centricity and social justice. Consciousness is the most common term of reference for that pivotal, and often romanticised, period; it's also the one that many of today's hip-hoppers are reluctant to reclaim. As Bahamadia notes, "a lot of the fans don't like to think. They just want to rock to the beat."

The Philadelphia MC made this observation five years ago, just after the release of Kollage. Despite the album's uniquely meditative balance of intelligent rhymes and atmospheric beats, it remained unheard beyond hip-hop's underground frequencies. She was probably ahead of her time, but for younger fans in '96, her vibe was conscious and therefore, old school. Other artists like the Roots and Talib Kweli have at one time or another been hit with the same excuse. The rejection arguably comes out of a cultural amnesia, rather than personal tastes.
"This is the only art-form," says Bahamadia, "that does not [properly] pay homage to the old school. Jazz, classical music — they all pay homage to the pioneers of the music. (But) people should really embrace the old school. It's like embracing your grandparents. They have so much valuable information, experience, views and visions that are just priceless and that you should want to know about."

She sounds corny, but her point is really about recognising the contributions of hip-hop history, and in a way that's more thoughtful than sampling retro hits or exalting classic MCs. It involves getting into the spirit of that era. For many late 20-something fans, it was about having a social conscience. Ice T was putting his past-life as a drug dealer into realistic, autobiographical rhymes. KRS-One was using the medium to break down the secret origins of Christ's African identity and other such "black holes" in Western history. The sharpest insights belonged to Public Enemy, with their angry polemics on slavery, white supremacy and the need for black militancy in contemporary Amerikkka.
A black, sonic-youth revolution was born. LL Cool J's gold rope chains went out of style and those huge clock-necklaces à la Public Enemy's Flavor Flav came in, to show that you knew what time it is — a time for change. Teenagers began writing graffiti on the sides of their heads by shaving anything from the P.E. insignia to symbols of Africa into their fade. And the colours of consciousness — red, black, and green — were patched, painted or beaded on the body of almost every person at a jam.

Sure, some of this was trendy, but none of it was meaningless. These and other signs of the time established hip-hop into what Chuck D once famously called "the black CNN" — a pre-internet provider of perspectives on the attitudes and concerns of streetwise, African-American culture. Surprisingly, it was white, suburban teens that were the most eager to tune in. The irony didn't make sense until after the police beating of Rodney King hit screens in ‘92. Riots followed from L.A. all the way up to Toronto's Yonge Street, taking the fiction of racial tension in films like Do The Right Thing and Boyz In The Hood into the streets. Of course, none of this came as a shock to the hip-hop nation; they had prophesied this crisis almost half a decade before. The rest of the world was just catching up.

The element of consciousness thus brought hip-hop its mainstream creditability. Rock journalists no longer passed it off as an inner city noise (a line that even a few black radio programmers used to keep their play lists "clean"). Instead, they respected rap as an expression of urban vitality that should not be ignored. As this rhetoric became commonplace, the music blew up, but strangely, its political urgency began to fade. By '93, the revolution was unofficially declared over, old school and passé. Gangsta rap was in, and shortly after, other slack devolutions took its place: jiggy R&B, East/West coast rivalries and the fratricide of Tupac Shakur and Biggie Smalls.

Why did this happen? What happened to the ethics of consciousness, the calls for black militancy and the renaissance of urban Afro-centricity? P.E.-generation fans have been trying to figure this situation out for years, and to no avail. They're locked in an ongoing discussion that usually puts the blame on white-owned record companies, white-owned media, and even the white back-packer kids who come out to the shows.

"The problem," asserts KRS-One, "is that we never changed nothing. This is the way it always was. There was always a Jay-Z. There was always an MC Hammer. There was always a KRS-One. The only thing that has changed is the relationship between a rapper and a record company." And that is the revolution that never got televised.

When KRS, Chuck D and Ice T took knowledge to the masses, a wave of black A&R reps, promoters and other behind-the-scenes people followed by infiltrating the industry. Record companies hired them on the quality of their "ghetto pass" — their access to the pulse of the streets — and in time, they spawned an industry of their own: urban music. It's brought more rappers to the boardroom table, signing deals with major labels and getting their videos on television. Shows like Rap City are now a daily, rather than a weekly, feature on MuchMusic. And if you're a fan living in Thunder Bay, you no longer have to travel to Toronto to pick up the latest CD; they're stocking it at the mall under the culturally non-specific file-heading, "urban."

The biggest success stories of this biz belong to No Limit's Master P, Def Jam's Russell Simmons and the Bad Boy CEO formerly known as Puff Daddy. Over the last few years, they've become living proof of the African-American dream: they own their own businesses and they give back to the community — or at least, that's what they claim. Either way, word is that everyone's getting paid, and it's hard not to get cynical about it.

Hip-hop is at the peak of its commercial success, but the artistry of its once strictly underground culture is in poverty. Un-consciousness is in, and its base narrative of thugs, pimps, niggas, bitches, hos, blunts, glocks and the bling bling is what most MCs have to offer when they're in the spotlight. The underexposure of other views and voices makes this current phase a self-caricature that's so extreme, it may as well be stereotypical. And you can't blame Whitey for this one.

"I think the biggest traitor to the black people is the black executive," reveals Krs-One. "You know, black women used to say to rappers, ‘Why you calling me a bitch and a ho?' Then you go to the record company and you see a black woman telling another black woman, ‘Your skirt ain't short enough.' It's also educated black men, telling other black men, ‘Be a pimp, be a thug, be a coke dealer. Don't give your kids nothing to look up to.' (And) all these people were once revolutionaries themselves."

The Blastmaster's rant against the "black executive" isn't necessarily directed to the players above. It's an archetype that could apply to many working within urban music. But the figure that illustrates this hypocrisy the best is fictional — Damon Wayans' character Pierre Delacroix in Spike Lee's film Bamboozled. He's a black, Harvard-educated screenplay writer who is faced with the task of creating an urban-friendly show that will be "dope" enough to hit big with white-liberal audiences; he comes up with a minstrel revival that features African-American actors singing and dancing in blackface. Although rappers yet to start corkin' it up in real life, the concept isn't much different from the way they get paid to reclaim the n-word.

Other KRS piracy theories confirm the fictional relationship between Delacroix and his ebonics-talking, white boss. The legendary rapper spent two years working as an A&R rep at Time-Warner and discovered that despite the integration of African-Americans throughout the corporate sector, the legacies of slave-era race relations have not completely disappeared; they've simply evolved to a new configuration.

"[The black executive] sold everybody out," KRS exclaims, "and basically decided to change the whole mode of what was going to be cool on the streets. Because consciousness was cool on the street, and then all of the sudden it wasn't. The black executive got in power and convinced the white massa of the company: ‘These black negroes thinking about forming a union, massa. They got this Stop the Violence movement and the next thing, they going to want more money for their records massa. You don't need that conscious rhetoric. What I could do is get a dumb, black gangsta — a Cripp, a Blood, a somebody who just sold drugs — and I could convince him to come here...' And this is exactly what happened."
Ignorance, in any cultural industry, is always much more profitable than consciousness, and hip-hop is no exception. It's the reason why DMX, Dr. Dre and Jay-Z are the most well-paid MCs of our time. They're not dumb; they know that writing, recording and selling rhymes is just another form of minstrelsy. You get paid if you perform "the right way," and in 2001, "the right way" is through the escapism of thug-life, playa pleasures and other ghetto fantasies.

Eminem has a place on this list as well, but the case of his career is a little more unusual. As most heads will admit, the early days of Marshall Mathers were of a cocky, politically incorrect battle MC. The media's obsession with his homophobic, misogynist and self-destructive lyrics culminated in his becoming a cliché of his own hyperbole. The intrigue has made Em one rich, white MC, but get it right, he's no Elvis. He's an exaggeration of the white trash myth and thus, a hip-hop minstrel, just like his African-American counterparts. He gets paid, and his performance keeps the audience enslaved.
A word like "slavery" might sound too extreme for this 21st century situation, except that the meaning here isn't restricted to plantation labour and whips. It describes a mental phenomenon as well: the captivation of the senses through the bling bling. The assault is penultimate in the frenzy of excess glamour depicted in the average Hype Williams videos, but neither he, nor any other member of the urban music media, deserve the blame. Materialism is the involuntary consequence of hip-hop's assimilation into corporate culture and just as with pop music, it's turned rappers into disposable commodities and consumers into naïve and cynical consumers.

"Materialism," says Spearhead's Michael Franti, "has taken over the imagination of the people. It's convinced us that if we buy a pair of Nikes it'll make us happy, if we buy this car it'll make us sexy, and that if we drink this cola we'll have a lot of friends. That's what the corporate world is all about. It's got black people, white people, poor people, all kinds of people, strung out on materialism. The end result is that people are unhappy. People are stepping all over each other instead of helping each other."

Apathy is nothing new to hip-hop, but in the past, the culture struggled with it forming communities like H.E.A.L., Native Tongues, Stop The Violence and the Zulu Nation. There's been a return to this spirit of collective organising on recent projects like Hip-Hop For Respect, Mumia 911, No More Prisons and the socialistic rhymes of groups like the Coup, Dead Prez and the Dope Poet Society. It's a healthy sign of political consciousness, but even old school fans admit that some of these MCs are too preachy. They represent real issues, but their agit-prop poetics aren't seductive enough to spark critical thought, let alone revolution.

In light of this crisis, Franti titled his most recent Spearhead release Stay Human. Unlike his previous work, which spoke from positions tinged with Marxist media-theory and Rastafarian philosophy, the latest album confronts the various social crises of our times from a lens of the soul. "We're living in a time," he says, "where corporate globalisation, environmental destruction, materialism and other things that are pushing our spirit out of us. How do we identify with our spirit, when first of all, how do we find it? It's hard to hold on to."

He is one of the few MCs who can take on the breadth of these topics, yet he rarely gets the respect he deserves from hip-hop DJs and audiences. When he was with Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy in ‘92, his tracks were often dissed as left-wing, "alternative rap." Perhaps it's because his audience was too white or his flow too intellectual. Over the years, he's made concerted efforts to cultivate an audience within his own community and although he has been successful, he's also aware that playing the race card isn't enough to make heads think.

"When hip-hop was all about the Afrocentric movement," recalls Franti, "I always knew it could never last. The reason is that it was so contradictory. It was all about ‘the system is fucked up' and ‘we're black' and ‘Africa this' and ‘Africa that' when none of the artists were going to Africa and reaching to those roots of spirituality."

But for the new generation of provocative lyricists like Bahamadia, Common, Mos Def, Mystic, the Pangea Project, the Roots and Talib Kweli among others, the concept of consciousness has shifted. It entails what Muslims call jihad — an internal struggle first, an external one second. In this sense, these conscious rappers are no longer interested in becoming revolutionaries, but as KRS envisions, revelationaries. The Teacher, who currently devotes as much of his time to studying metaphysics as he does to writing rhymes, explains: "You get to the point where you realise that you could get into the system and try to change it, but you are ultimately helping the system along by being a part of it. And suddenly that phrase, ‘be in the world but not of the world,' gets new light. It means that you have to be aware of something deeper within yourself that is more powerful than anything you will come up against. At that point, you fight no one. You are simply fighting yourself."

Most religious texts come to a similar conclusion: a struggle with the Self brings about the revelation of its inner light. Hip-hop, at this point of ultimate transformation, no longer regards itself as a mere adolescent pastime. It becomes a source of transcendence for the artists as well as the audience.

The Roots broke this down to streetwise terms when they debuted in ‘94 with their manifesto of self-inspiration: "I shall proceed/and continue/to rock the mic." The Philadelphia outfit hasn't stopped since, and their approach remains just as subtle and universal. It's also subversive, but like their peers, their effect lies in the form rather than the content. So instead of P.E.-style reportage, lead MC Black Thought does justice to his name and cuts teeth with a vocabulary that exudes confidence and intelligence. He name-checks freedom fighters like Mumia Abu-Jamal and the Dalai Lama, but the thrust of his angular flow is on what he too recognises as mental slavery.

As he explained, while on tour for 1996's Illadelph Halflife: "People, especially of America have been de-sensitized and conditioned over the years to think a certain way. Like you've been conditioned to use only one portion of your brain or you've been conditioned to only reach so high. So it's time to uncondition ourselves."

For the Roots, this unconditioning isn't just lyrical; it's also made urgent through the band's eccentric arrangements. Using live instruments and traditional sounds, they awaken the collective unconscious of their audience and pull out hooks that reach back to forgotten traditions of funk, jazz, dub, West African and baroque European music. While not all of their contemporaries dig that deep, the desire to return to some form of an old school, and then revitalise its wisdom for the future, is shared by almost all next-wave, revelationary acts. Rather than going back to something as recent as the late ‘80s, they try to go back even further and reveal the essence of rap.

As Talib Kweli told Exclaim! earlier this year, "Hip-hop, at its root, is a celebration. It's a party music and we can also use it as a vehicle for social change, but we can't forget where hip-hop came from. Too often, with the types of crowds that are into the music, sometimes they forget that and they want it to be just too heavy."

As fans of any genre will agree, the didactic without the ecstatic is always banal. Hardcore hip-hoppers prefer a balance of both. It was never a problem if a DJ dropped something as incisive as "The Message" and then cross-faded over to a pop song like "Rapper's Delight." Conscious or not, it's always been about the mix.

"The era I came out of," recalls Bahamdia, "was when [Boogie Down Productions']Criminal Minded, [Ultramagnetic MCs'] Critical Beatdown, [Eric B and Rakim's] Paid In Full and even Salt & Pepa came out. They had so many [styles], it was like a buying a Michael Jackson album. They incorporated singing, hardcore stuff, dance stuff. You're going to do a complete album and you have a chance to share your thoughts and views and your whole self with the world. Why would you want to do just one style?"

It's a question that more rap stars should consider. The average album today is prolific with tracks that number into the 20s. You get one or two songs that are tight, and the rest is filler. Everyone from L'il Kim to Redman is a casualty of this, but then again, that's just "hip-pop" culture.

Underground cats like Black Eyed Peas, Brassmunk, Da Grassroots, Dilated Peoples, Jurassic 5, Monolith, Outkast and many, many others from both sides of the border come off as true artists by comparison. They go out of their way to tell stories, play with words and flirt with taboo genres like drum & bass; they also make conscious efforts to reintroduce elementary forms like turntablism, breakin' and graffiti-writing to younger audiences. First-rate edutainment.

The scene gets its highest praise though whenever heads are onstage and engaged in that ancient art of dissing better known as battlin'. They rip each other to pieces and pump their egos to the infinite degree, but the energy invested in this freestyle performance is a symbol for nothing else but spontaneous creativity. At the end of the day, such contradictions of profanity and pleasure are positive, making a phrase like "conscious" rap sound pretentious.

As Toronto-based freestyler Arcee points out, "There's almost a stigma associated with being called ‘conscious' rap." It's a dilutionary, rather than revolutionary, adjective that functions with the same impotency as "trip" did to hop and "acid" did to jazz. A devoted fan like Arcee (who has collaborated with Da Grassroots, Nautilus and DJ Serious) is quick to disdain it and reclaim: "I'm not ‘conscious' rap; I'm hip-hop! Hip-hop is a universal form, because it helped form my universe."
Regardless of what the Summit heads say, hip-hop was never made to be sold – that is, like a slave, minstrel or commodity. Like soul, jazz, reggae and other Afro-diasporic forms, it's an expression of freedom at its purest. That's why," says Krs-One, "I say I am more hip-hop than I am black." The culture gives heads of all races, genders and class to create their own space and identity. As it progresses into the 21st Century, be it as an assimilated member of pop culture or an expression of fine art, this struggle for freedom as a form of self-definition is the biggest challenge yet. For Pangea Project MC Kamau, it's the one that also brings hip-hop back to simple, human principles.

"Hip-hop," he says, "has so many rules and regulations [now]. There's a specific person that you expect a hip-hop person to be, act like, speak like, walk like, etc. And if you go outside of that then, are you hip-hop? You could be. I define it as hip-hop as long as you know where it comes from and you're involved with the culture. It doesn't matter how you dress or how you look. So long as you have a love for it."

With additional research by Del F. Cowie