I am not a professional writer, musicologist, journalist, etc. nor do I possess any other academic title that would make me an authority on this topic. There are definitely going to be type-o's and grammatical issues. Due to the recent reaction of Kendrick Lamar winning the Pulitzer Prize for Music for his album “Damn”, I felt obligated to voice some opinions on the topic, as I have many.
Who I am:
I am a composer and improvising pianist living in New York City. The majority of my work focuses on social injustices, psychology, worker’s rights, poverty rights, and anti-authoritarianism. I am a white, straight, cisgender man. I come from a lower middle class family from Ohio from a conservative part of the country. Most of my family and hometown friends identify as conservative. Politically, I identify as a libertarian socialist and social activist, though I try to vote as responsibly as possible for the greater good. Philosophically, I combine elements of Utilitarianism, Existentialism, and Secular Humanism to attempt to make the best decisions in life. I am a 9-year US ARMY veteran, though I have never seen combat. I am currently a full time student at Montclair State University studying Music Therapy, with a focus on veterans, incarcerated populations, and end of life care.
Now you have a basic idea of where my positions come from.
A Brief (Incomplete) History of Hip Hop:
Hip hop started as a social movement and art revolution in the Bronx in New York City during the late 1960s. The “Founder/Father of Hip-Hop” DJ Kool Herc (Clive Campbell) is notable for hosting peaceful block parties as a reaction to the violent gang culture taking place in the neighborhood. Using the two turntable framework of disco DJs, Herc would use two copies of the same record, often hard funk, to elongate sections of beats, enhancing the atmosphere of festivity and community building, while also creating a stimulating moment of ecstasy when he would change to new pieces of music. The artistry came from his ability to move from one record to the other with seemingly no tempo change and no deviation from the sound, as well as more experimental elements, such as scratching and ‘chopped and screwed’. Herc began exploring record shops to find more and more obscure albums to utilize in his performances. He also included toasting, an Jamaican tradition of boastfully speaking in rhythm about fables of fearlessness, at his parties, though Herc denies this connection to his Jamaican herritage. His style caught on to other early hip hop legends Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, Afrika Bambaataa and the Zulu Nation, The Sugarhill Gang, etc.
The 1980’s (Golden Age hip hop) saw a growth in popularity through radio play and television. It was an era of abundant diversity, quality, invention and impact after the genre's founding and development in the preceding two decades. Notable artists include (my favorites*) *Eric B. & Rakim, *KRS-One, *Public Enemy, A Tribe Called Quest, LL Cool J, Run-D.M.C., Beastie Boys, De La Soul, Big Daddy Kane, EPMD, Slick Rick, as well as Gangsta Rap pioneers Ice-T and N.W.A.
Tom Terrell of NPR called Eric B. and Rakim "the most influential DJ/MC combo in contemporary pop music period." Rakim’s rapping deviated from the simple rhythm patterns of his predecessors as he ignored the bar lines, earning him comparisons to pianist Thelonious Monk. Rakim innovated rapping by inventive use of internal rhymes and multisyllabic rhymes while Eric B. produced stark, dense beats, beginning the use substantial sampling in hip hop records.
KRS-One pioneered both gangsta rap and conscious rap, telling lifelike accounts of street life and providing spiritual guidance for spiritually burdened people, earning him the nickname “The Teacha”. He created The Temple of Hip Hops, a ministry, archive, School, and Society (M.A.S.S.) with the goal of preserving and fostering “Hiphop Kulture”. The Temple inspires DJs and MCs to educate people on the philosophy of Hiphop, to create socially conscious songs, and for media outlets to play more socially conscious hip hop. KRS-One started the Stop the Violence Movement and wrote the book The Gospel of Hip Hop.
KRS-ONE breaks down the 9 elements (with the first four being the 4 pillars) of Hip Hop as:
Public Enemy influenced the hip-hop sound through auditory innovation and experimentation, diplomatic political and cultural mindfulness, all pervaded with expert, poetic rhymes. Music journalist Stephen Thomas Erlewine wrote "Public Enemy brought in elements of free jazz, hard funk, even musique concrète, via their producing team the Bomb Squad, creating a dense, ferocious sound unlike anything that came before."
Gangsta rap is a subgenre of hip-hop, distinguished for its sagas of criminal life and deviant behavior. Gangsta Rap parallels other crime-oriented music like Outlaw Country (Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson) and Narcocorrido (Cartel Mariachi), though it has received much more controversy and has received many accusations of inspiring acts of violence. Initially known as “street hip hop”, this genre was pioneered by artists such as Ice-T and N.W.A.
"Many black rappers—including Ice-T and Sister Souljah—contend that they are being unfairly singled out because their music reflects deep changes in society not being addressed anywhere else in the public forum. The white politicians, the artists complain, neither understand the music nor desire to hear what's going on in the devastated communities that gave birth to the art form," wrote journalist Chuck Philips. "The reason why rap is under attack is because it exposes all the contradictions of American culture ...What started out as an underground art form has become a vehicle to expose a lot of critical issues that are not usually discussed in American politics. The problem here is that the White House and wanna-bes like Bill Clinton represent a political system that never intends to deal with inner city urban chaos," Sister Souljah told Philips.
My personal reaction to the phenomenon of gansta rap is this. The initial artists who came out were telling authentic stories of the hardships street life. Due to the success of N.W.A.’s “Straight Outta Compton” in white suburban communities (for shock value elements), the genre became one of the most lucrative forms of hip hop, causing more and more ‘gangsta’ rappers to emerge. Though some of the music is incredible and many of the artists are genuine, I think that this genre has caused much of the negativity directed at hip hop culture. Spike Lee criticized the genre as equivalent to black minstrel shows and blackface performances. This is yet another example of how the system, greedy for money, took advantage of disenfranchised people, and made money off of their misfortunes, while also creating a negative effect in the oppressed community.
To complete this portion of the article (as there is so much more to talk about), the genre/culture has continued to grow with many groundbreaking artists such as mainstream acts 2Pac, Biggie Smalls, Nas, Snoop Dogg, Wu-Tang Clan (my personal favorite), Lauryn Hill, Eminem, Dr. Dre, Jay-Z, Missy Elliott, Ice Cube, Queen Latifah, B-Real, Zack de la Rocha, etc., as well as underground innovators like MF Doom, Killer Mike, B. Dolan, Immortal Technique, Dead Prez, Brother Ali, El-P, Pumpkinhead, Mos Def, and Talib Kweli. It has even been recognized (FINALLY!) by the 2018 Pulitzer Prize for Music with Kendrick Lamar’s “Damn”.
Again, I am not a professional writer or scholar. I am simply an artist who is intensely passionate about this music and this culture. I am sure there are gigantic holes in this article.
Here is a short video describing the music theory behind rapping.
And here is a short video on Ice-T’s “The Art Of Rap".
My Personal History With Hip Hop:
In 2009, I secretly dropped out of school without telling my family or friends. I was attending Kent State University for Music Composition and felt overwhelmed by the academic environment. My grades were dropping, I was losing focus on my work, so without telling anyone, I lied that I had graduated and dropped out.
After this, I made two drastic decisions that changed my life forever. I joined the US Army National Guard to join the band, and I moved to New York City to pursue a career as a composer and pianist.
I had always been interested in a large variety of music, starting with Late Romantic works by Rachmanninov and Scriabin, to 20th Century repertoire by Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Cage, Reich, Ligeti, etc. I also was engrossed in metal music, whether it be Slayer, Meshuggah, Pantera, Rage Against the Machine, etc. In college at KSU, I was introduced to jazz music, and began going to sessions to improvise with fellow musicians, and learning each time something about the history, something about myself, and something about music communication. I have always had a decent amount of technique on the piano and I had strong ears, though my reading has never been very good. After some time at these sessions, I began to realize my playing, though technically okay, was not making the same impact as many of my African American friends, even though we were, theoretically, playing the same tunes and the same collection of notes. I asked one of my friends what I was doing wrong and he responded with “you don’t have any swag.”
No one had ever been this blunt with me before, so I continued to ask what I could do to improve this. He said “you need to listen to violent, violent ass hip hop. You’re trying to relate to a culture that’s 40 years old and you don’t even know what the culture is producing now.”
And that was it. I began to intensely listen to hip hop music.
I began by listening to Eminem, mostly because he was a well-respected artist by others in the hip-hop community, but he also spoke more closely to my vernacular than others (me being a white man from Canton, Ohio and him being a white man from Detroit, Michigan). I utilized his music to learn about the concepts of "content" (what is being said), "flow" (rhythm, rhyme), and "delivery" (cadence, tone). After I became familiar with these concepts, I began listening to more artists. I went through 2Pac, Biggie Smalls, Snoop Dogg, Dr. Dre, and eventually landed on the Wu-Tang Clan. This was the group ‘opened my eyes’. Not only was Wu-Tang musically gifted (I consider RZA and GZA to be musical and philosophical geniuses equivalent to Mozart, Beethoven, Russell, and Confucius), but also the message of the music began to stick with me. This was the first time I truly began to empathize with the life of African American people in the United States. I had never considered that being a different skin color or growing up in a different culture/location could have such drastically different results on ones life outcome.
This is what White Privilege is.
It was not that I had more financial gains than most people (believe me. I still am on the bottom of the economic scale in our country, maybe 2 points above total poverty), but it is that I literally can walk into a store and not worried about being followed by a store manager to make sure I’m not stealing anything. It is that I don’t have to worry about sitting on a park bench at night, minding my own business, and not have the police called on me.
White Privilege has nothing to do with hate towards another person. It has to do with systemic advantages. This is one of the many lessons I learned from the Wu-Tang Clan.
I joined the Army on January 29, 2009 and shipped off to Basic Combat Training (Boot Camp) on May 26, 2009. My bunkmate was a Mexican American man from San Antonio, Texas. He had been involved in street gang activities, mostly due to the influence of his cousins, before joining the military. Our first conversation was when the Drill Sergeant was at the other side of the room screaming at some people, he leaned in to me and said, “I’ve never been around this many white people before”, and I responded with “I’ve never NOT been around this many white people before.” We silently laughed and became immediate friends. Not only did I enjoy his company because of his sense of humor, but I during our bathroom cleaning sessions, I began to realize how intelligent he was. He was well read; he had vast knowledge about subjects from science and the cosmos, to various forms of philosophy, to stand up comedians, to musical taste, etc. The biggest eye-opener for me was the realization that if I had been in his exact circumstance, I would have easily joined a gang. It was protection, community, and family, as well as a money making endeavor. My white suburban Ohioan concept of a ‘gangbanger’ was forever destroyed.
Musically, when I had been immersed in hip-hop music for approximately three years, I began thinking of my piano solos as MC verses. I stopped concentrating on harmonic language and began imagining storytelling instead. The jam session scene definitely noticed the change. My piano playing grew in virtuosity and direction, eventually leading me to playing Buddy “The World’s Greatest Piano Player” in Trystero’s interpretation of Robert Ashley’s opera-for-television “Perfect Lives”. My life as a dance accompanist grew, as I began playing classes for the Martha Graham Dance Company, Doug Varone and Dancers, the Juilliard School, Barnard College of Columbia University, New York University, American Ballet Theatre, and many others. My compositions began to experience a different rhythmic vocabulary and a more focused comprehensive sociopolitical message.
Philosophically, I began feeling music as a universal practice. Lyrics and choreography were just as much a part of music as rhythm, harmony, melody, and timbre.
This all comes directly from hip hop music and culture.
In 1952, John Cage wrote 4’33”, what many consider, myself included, a masterpiece of innovation. The idea that any sound can be faced and that any idea is valid has had a profound effect on the composer community. The idea of the piece asks one fundamental question… What is music?
Kendrick Lamar won the 2018 Pulitzer Prize for Music. This is amazing. It is challenging people’s concepts on what is serious music vs what is pop music. It is bringing hip-hop to an acutely significant platform. To be 100% honest, I don’t consider “Damn” to be Lamar’s best work (see “To Pimp A Butterfly”), nor do I consider “Damn” to be the best example of hip-hop in 2017 (see Binary Star “Water World 3/anything by Killer Mike). However, I do consider Lamar to be a musical mastermind and completely deserving of an award like the Pulitzer. Check yourself. If you are mad about the results of this competition, ask yourself “why?”. This is the exact situation John Cage would have dreamed to witness; in addition to the importance of the social indications this is displaying to us. Please, don’t be the stereotypical response we all knew would take place when an artist like Kendrick would win an award like this. Celebrate that a 30-year-old African American artist is finally getting the recognition we should have bestowed on artists like Charles Mingus, Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, Billie Holiday, and Louis Armstrong, years ago. Look at how the country treated Jesse Owens after winning four Olympic gold medals in 1936 Berlin. Look at how African American soldiers were treated after fighting Nazis in WWII. Realize that you know people who, at one point in their lives, were not allowed to drink out of the same drinking fountain or use the same bathroom as people of a different skin color.
Grow up and get over your own ego. Times are changing for the better. Be a part of the solution, not the backwards ass problem.
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