The Language of Hip Hop

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The Language of Hip Hop
written for “The Tub” Magazine ~ Nov. 2007 Issue

As a child I never imagined that the scenes I saw growing up in Queens, New York, of block parties and ciphers in the parks, would redefine the world. Yet that’s exactly what’s happened. Hip hop has become a powerful part of today’s global entertainment culture, the part that introduced today’s USA to the world. Hip hop is so powerful, in fact, that it does everything from making social commentary to dishing insults, from creating new words to selling cell phones, beer, and burgers. It tells us what’s cool and at the same time, what’s hot.

One byproduct of all this expansion is that hip hop has become difficult to define and distinguish from other forms of popular culture. While no one doubts that hip hop began in the “break”-- that invisible place in the vinyl record that reflects all the invisible places filled with black and brown noise--it is not as easy to say what hip hop is now or figure out where it seems to be going. Yet that’s exactly what I’ve been asked to do…

It seems to me that the best place to start is by describing the language and look of hip hop as we see it today. For those most true to it, like KRS-ONE, hip hop remains a culture—a unique mix of emceein’ (rapping), deejayin’ (disc jockeying), graffiti art, breakin’ (break dancing), beatboxin’ (oral beat creation), fashion, street language and knowledge, and street entrepreneurship. For those most exposed to it, it is politics and economics, it is a way to define identity, it is hope for something better. For those most opposed to it, it’s rap. It’s noisy, it’s derogatory and stupid, and worse, an excuse for those who listen to it to become noisy, derogatory, and stupid.

So, what’s the difference? How can people hear the same thing and come to such different conclusions? I think the answer is found in the lyrics and beats themselves. The more I listen, the more I learn that hip hop is communication’s version of chemistry. It’s artful expression built on metaphor and sampling—two creative strategies that make something new out of things that seem old and oddly unrelated. It reveals that human beings can transcend the limits of their conditions by engaging their emotions and language. Its samples in verse, rhythm and tone transport us to another state of mind. The more I listen I learn that hip hop is a science as much as it is an art.

Hip hop is scientific because it is about experimentations, about interactions and reactions. It’s about techniques used to turn one group’s nullifying noise into another group’s affirming anthem. It’s about knowing who people are and how they will react in different situations. It’s a way of presenting a picture of the world with specific characters, actions, and settings that change over time. So, a good hip hop artist/chemist will have to know that some react better than others to fast or slow beats, that some respond to thugs and vixens, that some want to “F. tha police”, that some like “whips” and “chains”, and that some are looking for something more.

That’s why hip hop is also about a battle, and why that battle takes on many forms. For some, it’s the traditional hip hop battle represented in “8 Mile,” of two emcees who box verbally. For others, like Tupac Shakur, it’s the serious struggle of existing in a world that doesn’t care. About understanding, like Lauryn Hill, that “deep in my heart the answer it was in me // And I made up my mind to find my own destiny.” For others, like The Beastie Boys, it’s the “fight for your right to party.” For all, it’s about “fighting the powers” that compete for our minds—the wars waged against ways of thinking that imprison us in favor of those that can empower us--be it intellectually, politically or economically. In that way we’re all soldiers.

But let’s not forget that, in a way, we’re all players too because hip hop can be a game. It’s competitive recreation. It’s about making fun of those who have made fun of you. It’s about entertaining and being famous in a way that its pioneers never imagined, about Jay-Z selling more sneakers than Michael Jordan. It’s about how people play in and are played out within a multimillion-dollar business of major label-affiliated industry. The game that focuses mainly on cross-selling other commodities and transforming groups into teams that compete for the C.R.E.A.M.

Most of all, it’s about life and death…and that’s because we’re human. It’s about transforming an internal heartbeat into the soundtrack that transfixes the world. It’s about describing this “crazy, so-called” experience that brings meaning and purpose to the world. It’s about confronting ourselves and one other with the paradoxes of staying true and selling out, about emptiness and purpose, about going forward and staying stuck in the past. It’s also a way to confront our own mortality, a way to free ourselves of hopelessness and indignity.

That’s where, for me, hip hop becomes something best described as a love-and-hate relationship. I love it because it’s a mouthpiece to the world. I love it because it sends messages that register in my mind and heart. I love it because it tells me about myself and about who I won’t be. I love it because it’s so vibrant, innovative, and expressive.

I hate it because it’s so hard to love. I hate it because of what happens as it moves. I hate it because its chemical reactions have created something I never imagined, an “urban” way of thinking that gives others an impression of me I don’t always like…one that is more about conformity than difference. I hate it because even with all of this, it is still so captivating. It still has the power to transport me with wonder to a world other than my own.

So, I end where I began, in my own imagination. In my imagination, hip hop is slippery and sticky, overwhelming and astonishing—it is like looking directly at the sun. When it’s produced at the right moment, it tears everything up like a whirlwind, can be blinding, and exhibits the power of its creators with a single influential blow.