Damn. My dad loved a lot of music. Thanks to him, all my Sundays still feel like George Benson’s “Breezin” or “Astral Weeks” by Van Morrison. He wouldn’t make a good party DJ though; his mix game was too wild. He could switch from classical, to the Beatles, to some traditional West African high life music within the span of three songs. Wild. One time, he played this track that sounded like all those things in one. I had to ask what it was. I was a 7-year-old kid growing up in Brooklyn, and the sound was a far cry from Jodeci and “Pop Goes the Weasel” that echoed between the tenement buildings in the evenings. The answer to my question was so familiar that it surprised me. “This,” he said, “this is the Rolling Stones.”
“I lifted every lick he’s ever played. This is the gentleman that started it all as far as I’m concerned.” (Keith Richards on Chuck Berry, 1986)
“Black music was my life, and still is. Of course, there is a lot of great white music these days. But it is still Black music, where it is at, man. Black music started the revolution in the world, the so-called youth revolution – this whole change of style, of attitude, was started by rock & roll, and rock & roll is Black…” John Lennon (Jet Magazine, Oct 26, 1972)
It has been four decades since the Rolling Stones’ record “Cherry Oh Baby” (a cover tune of Jamaican musician Eric Donaldson), and their subsequent collaborations with reggae megastar Peter Tosh. Since then, the canvas of culture and its exchange have dramatically changed, but an element of controversy still looms around the topics of ownership and identity. In an interview on Sway in the Morning in January, rapper Lupe Fiasco weighed in with his opinion:
“Hip-hop culture is hip-hop culture; it’s not black culture.”
I hit pause, and took a deep breath, to calm the opinionated wave that was building in me, threatening to drown any chance of objective thought. After all, I grew up seeing Run-DMC on Sesame Street, and purple-topped vials in the gutters on Flatbush Avenue—the same kind Raekwon and Ghost would talk about—and when they mentioned family reunions and cookouts, I would think of Prospect Park, a few blocks from my building. But this interview wasn’t about me, or my youthful PlaySkool radio demo tapes. I pressed play, and Fiasco continued.
“And then you have to be honest with yourself…if you had the choice to have or not have the cultural and economic and social conditions that created hip-hop, or hip-hop, which would you rather have? I’d rather not have the Bronx in the ’70s look like Beirut, and out of that you have to find some way to entertain yourself. Nah, I’d rather it look nice, and then we didn’t have hip-hop, ’cause I’d rather live in a nice house and not have to worry about police.…”
In recent years, Lupe’s antics have arguably overshadowed his musical contributions, at times even contradicted them. As I listened to him propose a hypothetical where we the people could choose between having hip-hop or living in a big house in a world without prejudice, I tried hard to block out the sheer ridiculousness and focus on the most logical portion: the contribution of all races to hip-hop culture.
On this issue, Lupe is on point. Certainly there is the Zen master Rick Rubin’s unquestionable ear, which has shepherded everyone to lush sonic pastures, from LL Cool J, Jay Z, and Run-DMC to Slayer, Johnny Cash, and Justin Bieber. The beloved Beastie Boys are nothing short of groundbreaking and iconic figures. And who can doubt the foresight of MC Serch? There is an infinite amount of reverence due to someone who was the amplifying force for legendary MCs like O.C. and Nasir Jones. (Serch was the executive producer of Illmatic.)
The great Richard “Crazy Legs” Colón is also an O.G. of hip-hop culture. The Puerto Rican Bronx native, along with the Rock Steady Crew, brought breakdancing from the linoleum to the podium at the dawn of hip-hop’s conception. He was an inspiration to then-b-boy Tony Touch, who went on to DJ, rap, and produce for the Beatnuts, the Wu-tang Clan, Big Pun, and many more household names.
In the early 1990s, Columbia University’s WKCR (89.5FM) was a hotbed for unsigned acts, many of whom would later graduate into luminary figures of hip-hop lore. Demo tapes and live freestyle sessions from Nas, Big L, Busta Rhymes and DMX made up the most popular programming of the station, as orchestrated by the hosts Bobbito and Stretch Armstrong. It was dope, period. The fact that the duo was Latino and white had no bearing on the show’s outcome; all involved were united by their passion for the music. Stretch described the experience in the documentary Jetlag: “We just try to be different. From the records we play, to our natural personalities, which I think are pretty out there.”
Bobbito added, “Basically, the vision is to present the alternative. Progressive, album-oriented music. Just like we’ve always been extremely progressive.”
Let’s step out of nostalgia and fast-forward to now. Is it just me? Toward the sunset of their careers, I am noticing the phenomenon of hip-hop veterans becoming more lax in their cultural views, avoiding polarizing opinions; resembling shrewd politicians more than street poets as their chances of cashing checks start to come more from endorsement than recording. Maybe it’s just the natural selection of the rap habitat; when they can no longer go against the current (pun intended), they resign to stay ashore. Or, like Lupe, they hop amphibiously from the role of “agitator” to “pacifist,” buoyed by the Internet’s short-term memory. A ’90s Ghostface would have probably battled Action Bronson. Busta Rhymes in his prime would have no love for the coco. Questlove in 2015, though nonetheless eloquent, seems far removed from the “What They Do” era of the Roots, where Black Thought went in on the ills of the industry over Quest’s steady percussion. The rhythm shifted: The tune is now “I will say that ‘Fancy,’ above any song that I've ever heard or dealt with, is a game-changer in that fact that we're truly going to have to come to grips with the fact that hip-hop has spread its wings.”
The making of something profound out of seemingly nothing: That alchemy is the original spirit of hip-hop.
Not all has been abandoned however, and hip-hop royalty Q-Tip proved that with his no-holds-barred Twitter crash course in hip-hop history, for the controversial Iggy Azalea and whoever else was willing to read.
“Coming off the heels of the CIVIL RIGHTS MOVEMENT and approaching the end of the Vietnam War it was a crossroads 4 America [especially] for blacks in the US our neighborhoods were PROLIFERATED w/a rush of HEROINE.” He continued, “We weren't at the time skilled musicians as kids. We had records, turntables, ideas and INGENUITY.”
Q-Tip’s 140-character gems cut through the dialog as level and non-confrontational as his voice would IRL, commanding respect from those wise enough to acknowledge his tenure, and dismissal from the n00bz too far removed or unaffected to “get it.” Let me add on: To summarize the origin of hip-hop as black expression does not discount the contributors from other ethnic groups, but zeros in on the point of impact where hip-hop was hewn, and its diasporic context. It is the vilified heroes, the resilient spirit of a people centuries displaced; finding themselves in dire financial and sociopolitical straits of the late ’70s, still reinventing themselves. The making of something profound out of seemingly nothing: That alchemy is the original spirit of hip-hop. Maybe it’s not controversial enough to click, or glamorously inane enough for a snappy headline but hey, that’s the real. Cold, hard, verifiable fact. It’s truth you can bob your head to.
Consider this: There are non-Japanese senseis, and dojos of dedicated people all over the world. Is karate no longer Japanese just because there are people worldwide dedicated to mastering that discipline? Growing up in Flatbush, my dear Trinidadian mother would make pasta as my sister and I watched PBS in the living room. Pasta is a staple in people's diets globally. Is it no longer Italian? How is it that the contributions of these cultures are acknowledged, but no...no, those poor impoverished ghetto kids, their phoenix of a culture? No, that's "everybody's."
For every Iggy there is a Lupe, oddly dedicated to assimilation to the point of overselling it, dulling the very edge of cultural nuance that makes art so texturally rich when opposites attract. I for one don’t want to lose that. “Cherry Oh Baby” is my joint; I tip my hat to Jagger and the Stones. Eminem’s lyrical ability and wildcard appeal were undeniable. His background as a white kid in the hood felt legit and unforced. Kanye’s European high art/high fashion aesthetic sits seemingly unbothered next to his rhythmic takedowns of consumerist culture, domestic violence, and race. (See “All Of The Lights.”) I love these blends, because they are proof that great things happen when we celebrate our differences, not ignore them in attempts to rewrite history. It leads me to wonder, if these cats can publicly acknowledge the roots of their music, why can’t Lupe Fiasco?
Jonathan "Suede Jury" Fouabi is a graphic designer/producer/MC who loves words & the letters that make them. Follow him @suedejury.