Lynne d Johnson



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10.12.02 03:11 AM

hip-hop and me

As previously stated, when I went to the Brown Sugar premiere the other night, I began contemplating all sorts of things in regard to my relationship with hip-hop music and culture. These thoughts reminded me of an essay I once wrote that was slated to appear in Oneworld several years ago, but somehow never made it in. I wish to share it with you now. Remember, it was written some years back, similarly to Flesh For Femme, so it isn't as up-to-date as it could be. Yet I tried to remedy that somewhat.

Blurred Lines: Somewhere Between Hip-Hop and Alternative
by Lynne d Johnson

Sistah grew up in the Boogie Down Bronx, so hip-hop is woven into the fabric of her existence. Many summer nights her black soul ran cross the bridge from Co-op City to The Valley (Haffen Park located on Hammersley Ave. in the North East Bronx served as breeding ground for many '70s hip-hop crews, most notably DJ Breakout and The Funky Four). There she Patty Duked and Smurfed to whatever the DJ scratched scientific, while the MC waxed poetic. Yet, sistah also surfed the radio waves for college or underground punkdafiednewavism.

While digging the party message and male posturing of Flash and the Furious Five and The Treacherous Three, she developed a strong craving for the Euro-imported rhythms of bands like Berlin and the Divinyls
. And while she, that's I, has often taken shots from my African-American kinfolk for it, I am proud to understand, no, love both. How could you not love both? Alternative and hip-hop both make heads nod while speaking for your young soul, both offer an outlet to party and manifest struggle; both prove there are only two types of music — good and bad.

Back in the late '70s and early '80s when I lived in the Bronx, both musics were still mainly underground as a major label deal was almost unheard of for artists from either camp. Alternative was not played in conventional rock or pop circuits, nor was hip-hop played regularly during R&B formats, as mainstream radio had not yet latched onto either as motives of profit.

And from those underground roots came a shared attraction to political struggle and pioneering technology. Back then, the Furious Five represented the hardcore streets of New York, just like U2, the straight-up ghetto. Life for a black man in the inner city is a constant struggle, but do you think life in Dublin, Ireland — after years of violent religious conflict — is pretty? When
belted out, "Broken bottles under children's feet/Bodies strewn across a dead end street/But I won't heed the battle call/It puts my back up, puts my back up against the wall," in " Sunday Bloody Sunday" from 1983, he meant just what Melle Mel did in "The Message," written only a year earlier — "Broken glass everywhere/People pissing on the stairs/You know they just don't care/...Don't push me 'cause I'm close to the edge/ I'm trying not to lose my head/Ah huh huh huh huh/It's like a jungle sometimes, it make me wonder/How I keep from going under."

In America and Europe, gang wars and religious wars, drug-induced annihilation and bombings, racism and terrorism, created deep youthful angst, which was unleashed through song. I idolized Melle Mel from the Furious Five and Bono of U2 for the very same reason.

Meanwhile the sounds of hip-hop and alternative pulled from the technological frontier. Afrika Bambaataa, Depeche Mode, and others developed electro funk and techno rock from synthesized disco beats fused with eclectic sounds. At the Bronx River Projects, Bam's turf, I witnessed the same frenetic and kinetic audience energy that I would later experience at Private Eyes in Chelsea, where DJs spun the industrial sounds of Bronski Beat, Nitzer Ebb and, of course, Depeche Mode.

In time the musics' cultural similarities led to mulattos: artists who creatively walk down the center of the genres, fusing styles while rising on the Billboard charts. Think of the Beastie Boys who mix their roots in hardcore punk with rap, and Onyx, who mix hardcore rap with punk. Both appeal to "real" alternative listeners and "real" hip-hop fans. Both challenge the assertion that the musics are different.

And then there are those hip-hop groups the media labels alternative rap, because they blur genres, fusing funk and pop, rock, jazz, soul, reggae and even folk. Nor do they fall into stereotypical hip-hop classifications — gangsta,
, or hardcore. The Native Tongue FamilyJungle Brothers
, A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul, Black Sheep, Chi Ali, and The Beatnuts — is credited with setting this style off. In time more artists followed in the Native Tongue tradition including Leaders of the New School, Brand Nubian, Arrested Development, Digable Planets, Digital Underground, The Pharcyde, The Roots, and The Fugees, among several others. These groups are also set apart by their huge alternative rock fan base, as opposed to a straight-up hip-hop following.

There are also those rap metal artists such as Rage Against the Machine, Limp Bizkit and Insane Clown Passe who take their cues from hardcore rap, infusing their rhythms with metal's heavy guitar riffs and hip-hop beats. The band's vocalists rap — instead of sing — hypermacho, rage-fueled lyrics. Further, white folk's fascination with "authentic" black culture as portrayed in hardcore, horrorcore, and gangsta rap spawned
Vanilla Ice
(more of a pop sensation in the tradition of Hammer, yet a fictitious gangster-related background was utilized to boost his street cred) and Eminem and their commercial successes.

By the time the '90s kicked in, both musics, that's alternative and hip-hop, rose from the underground abyss, and moved onto the Billboard
Pop charts. Alternative witnessed the success of Nirvana and Pearl Jam, while West Coast rap blew up through NWA offspring Ice Cube and Dr. Dre. But the sounds changed: through leaders like Nine Inch Nails' Trent Reznor and Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder and Raekwon and Mobb Deep, we heard more violence, self-loathing, alienation, suicidal despair and homicidal tendencies than ever. While both musics penetrated the mainstream and their makers got richer than ever, the artists sounded more depressed and angry than ever.

Nas responds to his people turning to heroin, crack, and weed, by stating, "Life's a bitch and then you die/that's why we get high/because you never know/when you gonna go." Courtney Love looks at her drug-fueled relationship with Kurt Cobain and sings, "Somebody kill me/give me pills/If you live through this with me/I swear I will die for you." Beck asks, "I'm a loser baby, so why don't you kill me?" Biggie Smalls says, "I'm ready to die and nobody can save me." Is it really that different?

Eventually life imitated art. On April 5, 1994 Kurt Cobain put a gun to his head. He was found dead on April 7 and left a suicide note. Tupac Shakur died September 13, 1996 from gunshot wounds inflicted on his way to a party after the Mike Tyson-Bruce Seldon fight in Las Vegas on September 7. On March 9, 1997 The Notorious B.I.G. (a.k.a. Biggie Smalls) was gunned down after leaving the Vibe magazine party after the Soul Train Music Awards. And Michael Hutchence of Inxs was found hanging in his hotel room at the Ritz Carlton Hotel, Double Bay, Sydney, Australia. His death was ruled a suicide.

As I sit here in Boerum Hill, Brooklyn, nearly two decades from whence alternative and hip-hop first became intermingled in my consciousness and my Walkman, I sort of lament their rise to status. Commercial success has taken away from message-based, party music and led to promoting gangsterism and angst, which is selling very lovely.

Still, the musics have come to express hopelessness and despair and an overwhelming need for freedom and autonomy. These two cultures are bonding musically and culturally, creating music through similar pathways that express similar feelings in order to represent overlapping constituencies. By extension, they're proving that all of us are really not so different.

Related sites:
The History of Hip-Hop
A History of Punk
'80s Genres: Wave Hello
The New Wave '80s
A History of Techno
Rap Meets Techno, with a short History of Electro
A Pre History of Industrial Music
A Prehistory of Alternative Rock
Lectro-Slue: Generic Origins
Universal Zulu Nation
History of B-Boying
Depeche Mode
Electro Empire-Home of Electric Funk
Soul Patrol

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