in defense of hip-hop

Hip hop act Greenhouse (Blueprint +Illogic) (Photo credit: Enrico Fuente)

When I did DJ work for the Barefoot Boogie, we sought to get feedback from our sets from attendees.  We had a form that people could fill out so that people could provide constructive criticism.  One night, I was surprised to discover two forms sharply critical of the hip hop songs that were in my set.  One person, when asked whether I played music s/he could dance to, checked “strongly disagree” and in the comment section wrote “Hip f-ing hop.”  Another person said they didn’t think hip-hop should be played at all.

The funny thing is that I played only two hip-hop songs the entire night.  While each DJ at the Barefoot Boogie had their own style, we all knew that variety was what our crowd sought.  The two hip-hop songs, which I played back to back, were T-L.A. Rock and Jazzy J’s “It’s Yours,” and Neneh Cherry’s “Sassy.”  “It’s Yours,” is an 80′s old-school anthem that talks about what was then a relatively new hip-hop phenomenon.  I carefully selected it because it was tasteful and positive, even if it wasn’t necessarily socially concious.  I did sense that some people weren’t connecting with it, so I selected the Neneh Cherry selection because it was still hip-hop, but it included a lot of jazz samples which made it feel like a smooth selection.  I have her CD “Homebrew,” and I think she has a very positive message.  I probably couldn’t have gotten much more “Rated G” in the hip hop genre than those two selections.

But it’s also true that a lot of people have a visceral reaction to hip-hop, particularly here in Madison, and I feel like I need to say something about that.  A lot of people view hip-hop as a negative force in our society–as if all of it celebrated misogyny, violence, gang life, and the like.

I’m no expert on hip-hop, but one thing I do know is that there are as many definitions of hip-hop as there are hip-hop fans.  A lot of fans define hip-hop not only by its music, but also certain fashions and attitudes.  But since there are so many definitions out there, I think that it’s best to just focus on the music itself, so my definition of hip-hop is simply this:  spoken-word rhyming lyrics over a beat, frequently consisting of music sampled from other records.  That’s all.

As for what people do with hip-hop, the message that people deliver, yes, criticism can be called for.  People should always speak out against lyrics that celebrate misogyny and violence.  Frankly, I think people should speak out more about these things.  I also agree that such things are too prominent in the hip-hop genre.  But stick to the issues–criticize the artists and lyrics, not the whole genre.  If you condemn a whole genre, you also condemn the people who are doing positive things with the genre.

I’ve seen a lot of articles and letters to the editor that complain about the hip-hop scene in Madison because there have been occasional problems at hip-hop concerts.  While problems should be addressed, I believe a double standard definitely exists.  I had UW students as my neighbors for 5 1/2 years when I lived in downtown Madison.  I lived two blocks from where they held the annual Mifflin Street Block Party–a party that never is allowed a permit, but which is tolerated, at a cost of tens of thousands of dollars to the city.  I watched as Wisconsin’s “best and brightest” got hammered, urinated on our property, smashed beer bottles,  tore down our “No Parking” signs and vandalized our compost pile.  Some of this also happened during Badger football game weekends, to the point where everytime someone said “Get Your Red On,” I wanted to hold up a giant bottle of Visine (which “gets the red out.”)   Can someone in Madison seriously tell me that the same thing would be tolerated by the police in neighborhoods with large numbers of people of color?  Can someone really tell me that and keep a straight face?

Hip hop was and is a genuine grass roots movement from the streets providing a voice to people often marginalized in our society.  Sure, there are hip hop artists that will show off their mansions on MTV’s “The Crib” that they bought with the millions they made off of lyrics glorifying violence and misogyny.  But there’s also a lot of good hip hop out there.

Indeed there is a whole subgenre referred to as “underground hip hop” that is often quite intelligent and socially conscious.  Below, I have posted a couple of examples.

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