Don Cornelius inspired me to write this piece. Of course, when I heard of his passing I only wanted to have positive recollections of Don Cornelius. It wasn’t that difficult. Soul Train had been a dazzling, inspirational, and entertaining spectacle of my Childhood, up thru Adulthood in one context or another. Yet, there was this one looming thing… Don Cornelius wasn’t a big fan of Hip Hop. He had a fair share of Hip Hop artists on the show, but those times were often filled with awkward moments. The Public Enemy appearance of ’87 brought out a weird side of Don that I wasn’t familiar with. I remembered him as an infinitely cool, calm and reserved individual. Here, in this instance, he could barely contain himself. When he had Big Daddy Kane on, they both seemed to be trying to out-cool each other so much that it was nearly uncomfortable to watch. Mind you, I saw these clips many years after their original air-date. By the time the late 80s hit, and Hip Hop artists were invited on Soul Train more frequently, I was no longer watching the show. Of course, as this article details, Don Cornelius wasn’t alone in his assessment, lack of understand or non-appreciation of Hip Hop. Regardless, I still have much respect and appreciation for the time, effort, and unforgettable moments that Don Cornelius provided us all via Soul Train and that is what I shall remember him for! However, it just got me thinking about these early challenges of being a Hip Hop artist, Hip Hop label or even just a Fan...
The list of those who were opposed to Hip Hop was certainly far greater in number than it’s supporters for at least it’s first 15 years. There were multiple reasons; racism definitely reared its head, many of the older generation just didn’t get it, plus the further you traveled away from the Urban life, the less it was embraced. That’s not to say that all those in the confines of the inner city where Rap Fans. That definitely wasn’t the case. As The Fresh Prince put it, “Parents Just Don’t Understand”… Surely that wasn’t true for all parents, including mine who very supportive, but there were plenty who fit the profile. Even in the early 80s documentary Style Wars or the premise to movies like Wild Style, Beat Street and Breakin, you find parents and even siblings who are expressing non-approval of the Hip Hop lifestyle. That attitude wasn’t merely a resistance to Rap Music, it was reflective of certain people’s rebellion to the general idea of Hip Hop.
However, of all the challengers and would be rivals none bothered me more than the disapproval from musicians and ambassadors of other Genres. I would get heated and saddened whenever I heard stories of the Soul and Funk Icons that I looked up to, now looking down upon Hip Hop and referring to it as “not music” or “noise” or suggesting it didn’t take any “real talent” because it was “just talking” and that talking was being done over “stolen music”. Quite often these were artists who were inspirations to Hip Hop’s existence. It literally hurt that they couldn’t see that these Hip Hop artists had talent worthy of recognition and praise.
I didn’t choose to MC simply because I wasn’t good at playing any instrument. In fact, I never had an interest in playing any instrument. I loved music immensely since at least 4 years old. I listened to it, studied it, and cherished it, but I didn’t have a calling to try to create it. I did love to sing though. I remember getting the KC & The Sunshine Band Self Titled tape in ’75 and learning the word to every song and having regular sessions of belting it out at full volume given the opportunity. One such chance lead to embarrassment when my older sister, unbeknownst to me, had her best friend, who I had a serious crush on, over the house and she got to bear witness to my bedroom concert before I discovered I had an audience. That in mind, I don’t think that I loved to sing so much as I loved the songs that I sang. It was thru my falling in love with Hip Hop that naturally developed an intrigue with being an artist. More than likely, 1000s of other kids had a similar experience and when we did it was such a life-changing discovery. It was so empowering and exciting. Teaching ourselves to DJ, MC, Human Beat Box, or Make Beats became an integral part of our adolescence and, for many of us, our lives.
Knowing that, it felt like a kick in a face to hear all these other musicians chastising us for the type of music we chose to make or honestly in most case it was the music that chose US. I suppose initial issue to the specific critiques artist made was that most had a traces of hypocrisy. Besides the general “It’s not really music” or “It’s just a fad” nonsense, these were among the most common complaints; ”, “It all sounds the same”, “They are stealing our stuff” via Sampling and “The lyrics are too offensive”. I find much of that pretty contradictory.
-“It all sounds the same”: I don’t know how many times I’ve went to listen to an album, particularly a earlier album, by a Blues, Jazz, Soul, Rock, Punk, or just about any Genre and noticed great similarities in the songs on a given album. I think it’s pretty safe to say that the similarities in Hip Hop at no time were that much more significantly similar than in other genres*. What’s most interesting about this is in those other genres I'm talking about the same artists songs sounding very similar on the same albums, but what these musicians were critiquing in Hip Hop was different artists sounding the same on different songs. We can assume this to be true because this was a time when no one was really paying attention to Rap Albums. Rap was a singles driving business and it was brand new to the commercial market, so there wasn’t a whole lot to compare it to. I’m pretty confident that if you go to the Roots of any musical artform you are going to find a lot of similar sound palettes in the early stages as it grows to better define itself.
Secondly, I found it interesting that these same artists, who have flooded the history books with complaints about shady record label business tactics, were in this case blind to the fact that Rap fared no different. 9 times out of 10 you had some Label Rep promising young kids a life away from poverty and into fame and riches if they just followed their advice, so quite often it was Label Reps putting their influence on the musical choices to this Rap 12" singles. It’s like these older musicians forgot there wasn’t some Label Exec who told them that they needed to sound more like Motown or whatever was hot at even given moment…ha. I don’t know how many times I’ve read in Wax Poetics interviews with so many of these artists explaining one of their hit songs and how the idea, riff, bassline, lyrical concept, initial spark or whatever came from some other popular song on the radio. Honestly, music has a history of cannibalism, it’s the influence of others that allows a new thing to grow into something great. Which takes us to the next thing….Sampling. We'll tackle that and the "Offensive Lyrics" angle tomorrow!
THE HIP HOP MICROSCOPE SERIES: For years one of the most famous questions to pop up in interview swas "Define Hip Hop". I always dreaded that question. Hip Hop is just to vast, organic and complex a thing to define into whatever answer they are going to paraphrase it into. It's like being asked to define "Life"... No matter how little or much information you give, you are never going to explain it entirely. I started to provided different answers at different times that fit the context. The idea of the "Hip Hop Microscope" is one of the favorite ones I came up with, as it was totally spontaneous and I think it is so relevant. The concept of the "Hip Hop Microscope" is that Hip Hop has long been a perfectly vivid means to view the world. However, it's not always perfectly scaled, it exaggerates, accentuates and intensifies the content quite often, providing a means of taking a very up close, personal and detailed look at any given situation. Some of the biggest critiques about Hip Hop are its use of misogyny**, prejudice, homophobia, violence, etc... Certainly none of those are exclusive to Hip Hop and it is highly unlikely Hip Hop is where they are most prominent. These are all huge issues deeply entangled in our society, Hip Hop just takes them and throws it back in our faces unapologetically and forces us not to ignore it. Definitely it is not always because the artists are trying to make a point or educate us, quite often they have been affected by these social diseases the same as anyone else. Hip Hop just is quite often the loudest voice communicating these things or at least the easiest target, competing strongly with Religious and/or Republican extremist...how ironic is that...ha. Anyway, I want to continue to discuss these things so we can open the lines of thinking and communication and hopefully continue to be the "Hip Hop Microscope", but use those findings for the improvement of the Culture, the People, and eventually the Society around it.
*Spoke to soon...ha. Actually, if you only listen to the radio, Hip Hop sounds the same more than ever now, but then again so does Pop, Rock, Smooth Jazz and just about everything else so I suppose my statement still stands; Hip Hop isn't alone in sounding the same...
**Case in point, when I went to google "misogyny" to verify the spelling, the related searches that immediately fell below were related to the different tenses of the word, definition, etc... The only two "topics" that appeared were "misogyny in Hip Hop" and "misogyny in the Bible"...suggesting Hip Hop is considered among the most likely places to found misogyny in this world...I highly doubt that. Try looking in a bar, a r&b song, corporate America, etc....