Going Rock: What the Recent Rock & Roll Frenzy Says About Hip-Hop’s Future

“All things come to an end. … Now, the

spirit of Hip-hop will always be alive… as long as there’s inner cities,

there’s ghettoes, and there’s poor people.”

—Nas[1]

Last week BBC News featured a report couched in questioning: “Has hip-hop

grown up?”[2]

Besides the obvious condescension, we learned next to nothing (!) about what

musical maturity truly means or how it might relate to Hip-Hop. The scantily

clad article did very little to examine the dexterity and virtuosity that has sustained

Hip-Hop for three decades, and kept it in a permanent state of reinvention. 

Big

wheel keep on turning.

Maturity, it seemed BBC was trying to tell us, is achieved when privileged suburban students

(a la Yale) find an art-form valid

enough to study, and “think critically about,” it. Hip-Hop has indeed come of age because, now, “tourists

visit inner city ghettos and Ivy-league students study street culture.” No

mention of how this didactic experiment with Black artistry, of how this

fetishization, and trivialization, of Black culture is a practice as ancient as

colonialism. For, as Ralph Ellison wrote brilliantly a half-century ago, “it is

the crime of reducing the humanity of others to that of a mere convenience, a

counter in a barrel game which involves no apparent risk to ourselves. With us

Negroes it started with the appropriation of our freedom and our labor; then it

was our music, our speech, our dance.”[3]

Sara Baartman knew a thing or two about

that.[4]

To say I was surprised would be

disingenuous. The whiff of ignorance-infused elitism was pervasive from start

to finish, so it seemed only right that it would end with a slight nod to the

much-hyped, but discredited, generational division between the younger and

older Hip-Hop family. 

Somewhere in the shallow depths of my

mind, I can hear Toni Morrison reminding: “the subject of the dream is the

dreamer.”[5]

* * *

The recent wave of Rock-influenced

Hip-Hop is worth exploring.

It all seemed to start when Damon Dash,

a much underrated mind I should add, collaborated with Blues-Rock sensation The

Black Keys to formulate “a good business model… that kind of protects the

artistry, it’s lucrative, but where a lot of people can get [into] it without

compromising the brand.” Out of this, Blak

Roc sprung, and the rest, as is often said, is history.[6]

The project, recorded in 11 days and due November 27 (“Black Friday”), is to

feature Mos Def, Jim Jones, Billy Danze (M.O.P), Pharoahe Monch, Q-Tip, Raekwon,

ODB (R.I.P.), among others, lacing their vocals onto instrumentals built with

the signature sound of The Black Keys.[7]

Then surfaced a video promo clip late

last month in which Onyx, the ever-energized New York Hip-Hop group, expressed

displeasure about Blak Roc, as they

considered the concept essentially a rip-off of their soon-to-be released

album, The Black Rock. Group member

Fredro Starr described the instrumental feel to be expected on their album—“mad

guitars, hard drums.” Sticky Fingaz also promised to deliver “an hybrid album

of Hip-Hop and Rock & Roll.” 

They contend the potency of their idea

was so strong that, now, “everybody and they mother want to do a Rock &

Roll album!” In a stark-raving-mad interview on Sirius Radio, Fedro Starr and Sticky Fingaz went so far as leaving

open the option for violent confrontation with anyone involved in “biting” their concept.[8]

Besides the obviously exaggerated

outburst (meltdown?), they have every right to express righteous indignation at

the recent Rock & Roll frenzy brewing in the Hip-Hop community. Seeing as

Jay-Z now wants a Rock project of his own, they might have a point.[9]

And, of course, within the last 3 years, unexpected

artists like Lil’ Wayne and Shop Boyz have found the initiative

irresistible—even if they lack the artistic sophistication to do something

worthwhile with it.

But if would be wrong for Onyx to

assume, or ordain, themselves the originators of Rock-Hip-Hop mash-up. Run

DMC’s pioneering role with “Walk This Way” (Raising

Hell, 1986) should never be forgotten. And neither should the Beastie Boys’

unabashed maintenance, and development, of a Rock-reflected sound their whole

career.

It would be just as wrong for Jasiri X,

the highly skilled Pittsburgh MC, to pronounce himself the first Hip-Hop artist

with an inextinguishable dedication to fusing intelligent rhyme schemes with

social advocacy. He might be the finest example of our time, but he’s a legatee

of the Gill Scott-Herons, Muhammad Alis, Fela Kutis, Miriam Makebaas, Public

Enemys, and X-Clans that laid the foundation upon which he has built a legacy

of his own.

Hip-Hop artists must always remember, no

matter how convenient—and oft times lucrative—it is to forget, that our musical tradition is but an

extension of that which came before us. From the West-African folklore, to the

North-American Plantation Gospel, to the Blues, to Rock & Roll, to Jazz, to

Reggae, to Afro-beat, to Latin Jazz, to Opera, to Funk, to Soul, to R&B,

the peculiarity of Hip-Hop is only overshadowed by its strict reinterpretation of those elements.

Through sampling, one of Hip-Hop’s greatest contributions to humanity, this

truth is set free.  

It’s much too easy to condemn modern-day

Hip-Hop production, and use it as proof positive of an innate defect Hip-Hop

artistry harbors, but anyone lucky enough to have been exposed to the eclectic

creations of Afrika Bambaataa, J Dilla, Outkast, Madlib, Questlove, Black Milk,

or 9th Wonder, can attest to the wide-ranging rhythms Hip-Hop is

capable of producing.

No other art-form in the history of modern

music is able to boast of exposing so extensively its younger demographic to

the sounds of old as Hip-Hop has demonstrated these last 30 years. The regeneration

of George Clinton and James Brown are two great examples of Hip-Hop’s

philanthropic possibilities.  

In The

New Beats, a slept-on classic written by Hip-Hop critic S.H. Fernando Jr.,

George Clinton applauds Hip-Hop for making his “job easier”—the job of

sustaining that critical creation of Funk that is both unique and unnerving.

“I never knew that I would be sampled,”

he said, referring to the rampant recycling of old P-Funk records which gave

rise to West Coast Hip-Hop—particularly the G-Funk genre. “But once it started

working, we wasn’t gonna get on the radio no other way. And when people started

bootlegging, I was glad. All of that was part of keeping the funk… alive.”

“Rap is that new, edgy sh**,” Clinton is

quoted saying. “It’s gonna be around and, like I said, the funk is gonna be in

it, the jazz is gonna be in it. It’s starting all over again.”[10]

Rebirth.

“No idea’s original, there’s nothing new

under the sun,” Nas once informed us. “It’s never what you do, but how it’s

done.”[11]

And The Teacher KRS-One instructs new, neophytic

artists to “Go online, look up Kraftwerk/ Everything we doing is past work/ We

already wore that hat, those pants, and that shirt/ So do you, man—if that

works/.”[12]

In “Rock is Black Music, Too,” an op-ed

posted on TheRoot.com, writer Rob

Fields declares: “Hip-Hop has run out of ideas.”[13]

Like the BBC piece, he provides

absolutely no critical insight to corroborate such blatantly misinformed

conjecture. The sole evidence cited

is that “[t]he best-selling rapper of 2008—Lil Wayne—is doing a rock

album.” 

“We need artists who have the courage to

explore new sounds and ideas,” he pompously proposes. In the next breadth,

though, condescension reigns supreme: “But there’s no way today’s artists can

do that if their grasp of music history only extends to the latest ‘80s record

Diddy sampled.”

Thus, Fields wants the Hip-Hop community

to examine critically his clarion call, even if the only valuable, however

unremarkable, revelation in his piece is that Rock & Roll, before the MTV takeover,

was as Black as night—and, in many ways, still is. 

But this isn’t Hip-Hop running out of

ideas or things to say. Rather, this is Hip-Hop reinventing itself, re-imagining

itself, recreating itself. This is Hip-Hop, like it or not, stepping into

destiny.

Journalists of all stripes have always

found desperate and unpleasant ways to describe Hip-Hop. Early as 1990, Newsweek had condemned it—“the thumping,

clattering, scratching assault of rap”—as “music so postindustrial it’s mostly

not even played, but pieced together out of pre-recorded soundbites.”

This laziness, this “biased and

uninformed reporting,” as S.H. Fernando puts it, would also be picked up by Time Magazine, which described Hip-Hop

lyrical content as “a raucous stew of street corner bravado and racial

boosterism… often salted with profanity, and sometimes… demeaning remarks about

whites, women, and gays.”[14]

Of course, not everyone lacked so

bitterly foresight. Princeton professor and renowned philosopher Cornel West

understood, as far back as 1982, that Hip-Hop’s core intention was to serve as

an extension of the great, rich, soulful musical traditions that had made its

rise possible—to begin with.

Part-time working as American

correspondent for the French journal Le

Monde Diplomatique, he wrote:

 [B]lack rap

music indeed Africanizes Afro-American popular music—accenting syncopated

polyrhythms, kinetic orality, and sensual energy in a refined form of raw

expressiveness—while its virtuosity lies not in technical facility but rather

street-talk quickness and linguistic versatility. In short, black rap music

recuperates and revises elements of black rhetorical style—some from our

preaching—and black rhythmic drumming. It combines the two major organic

artistic traditions in black America—black rhetoric and black music.[15]

What Dr. West was aware of, which so

many of his peers lacked the insight to see, was that Hip-Hop could have never

taken flesh without the existence of those great sources of musical depth that

collectively breathed the breadth of life into it.

E

pluribus unum—“Out

of many, one.”

Yes, it is true that “Hip-Hop has stood

the test of time as one of the only artistic developments, throughout the

history of humanity, to come to life without the help, supervision, or even

awareness of an adult population.”[16]

But it is also true that without a reference

point to which the culture was able to refer, this musical phenomenon might

have never come to be.

Without a Louis Armstrong to look up to,

or a John Coltrane to admire; without a Cab Calloway to imitate, or a Mahalia

Jackson to emulate; without a Bob Marley to draw strength from, or an Aretha

Franklin to respect; without a

Machito to be inspired by, or a Celia Cruz to take cues from; without a B.B.

King to learn life’s lessons from, or a Hector Lavoe to pay dues to; without a

James Brown to get down with, or a Teddy Pendergrass to uncover the art of

seduction through; without a Fela Kuti to develop political audacity from, or

a, yes, Gladys Knight to be moved

deeply through, Hip-Hop is less likely to have broken out the shell of misery

that enclosed the lives of many Black and Brown youth.

And though I would like to see Rap music

retain its organic, street-toned, unattenuated quality and sound, if a

Rock-inspired theme is the next turn of the wheel, then the selfishness of my

preferences would have to succumb to a greater desire—its preservation.

Tolu Olorunda is a cultural critic and a

columnist for BlackCommentator.com.

He can be reached at Tolu.Olorunda@gmail.com.

[1] http://www.mtv.com/videos/misc/338723/nas-with-cornel-west-hip-hop-is-dead-extened-interview.jhtml

[2] http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/8285383.stm

[3] Ellison, Ralph.

Shadow

and Act. New York: Random House, 1964, p. 124.

[4] http://www.southafrica.info/about/history/saartjie.htm

[5] Morrison, Toni.

Playing

in the Dark: Whiteness in the Literary Imagination. Cambridge: Harvard

University Press, 1992, p. 17.

[6] http://nahright.com/news/2009/09/18/video-dame-dash-presents-the-black-roc-project/

[7] http://www.blakroc.com/

[8] http://teamyee.tv/?p=1788

[9] http://www.vibe.com/mt/2009/10/jay-z-wants-a-collision-course-type-lp-with-brit-rock-band-oasis/

[10] Fernando Jr.,

S. H. The New

Beats: Exploring the Music, Culture, and Attitudes of Hip-Hop. New

York: Anchor Books/Doubleday, 1994, p. 71.

[11] Reference from:

Nas, “No Idea’s Original

The Lost Tapes, 2002.

[12] Reference from:

KRS-One & Buckshot, “Robot

Survival Skills, 2009.

[13] http://www.theroot.com/views/rock-black-music-too

[14] Ibid. The New Beats, p. xxii.

[15] West, Cornel. Brother

West: Living and Loving Out Loud, A Memoir. New York: Smiley Books,

2009, p. 149.

[16] https://allhiphop.com/stories/editorial/archive/2009/10/06/21967440.aspx

 

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