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October 7, 2013 | by  | in Features Homepage |
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It’s Hip to Hop

If you have even a cursory interest in the complex and multifaceted genre that is ‘hip-hop’, you will have heard tales of the ‘Golden Age’ of the ‘90s when hip-hop, or so the belief goes, was at its best. That established: if you’ve picked up a Rolling Stone mag, glanced at your Tumblr dashboard, or kept up to date with your YouTube sensations in recent times, you’d been forgiven for thinking that hip-hop has entered a golden age 2.0; not necessarily based on quality, but in terms of progressiveness. Rappers who support LGBTQ rights and women’s rights (see especially: Macklemore) are touted as being incendiaries in a genre that has, until now, been allowed to espouse its archaic homophobia and misogyny unchecked.

Except; it hasn’t. I don’t mean to rag on Macklemore here (although he’s not my cup of tea, if you like him I’ve got no beef), but rather what he stands for. There’s a strand of discourse (dominated, incidentally, by white people) that takes his popularity as proof that hip-hop has finally caught up with socially liberal ideology. Well, thanks for playing folks but you’re woefully, abjectly wrong. White culture is finally catching up with hip-hop, not vice-versa.

Queer rappers have been spittin’ their shit in the underground probably since hip-hop’s establishment. Notably, Lady B (who is emphatically not, as was once rumoured, Kingpin Skinny Pimp with a pitch shifter) was “licking [her] girlfriend’s pussy” in the mid-‘90s; Public Enemy have been fighting misogyny (“R-E-S-P-E-C-T, my sister’s not my enemy”) and rape culture (“They disrespected mama and treated her like dirt. America took her and shaped her, raped her—no! it never made the papers!”) for literally decades. Digable Planets wrote tracks dedicated to keepin’ it pro-choice; Missy Elliott, Lil’ Kim and Salt-n-Pepa had sex positivity and female empowerment down to a fine art.

The point of this laborious name-dropping is to show y’all the breadth of the hip-hop movement—if Macklemore is doing anything, he’s building on a movement with a strong, already-present foundation that he had no hand in creating. Shit, even in recent years there have been some waaay more progressive figures than what mainstream culture’s been lapping up—the underground-and-proud Brother Ali wrote a song voiced from the perspective of a queer teen before publicly apologising, in a gorgeous article written for The Huffington Post, for his use of the word ‘faggot’ in earlier material (“I was too ignorant, and probably too careless, to understand that using that word was co-signing the narrative that being gay means a person is weak and doesn’t deserve respect”). Meanwhile, Cakes Da Killa and Le1f have been doing their thing in the underground for years, only to break through, as best they can, now that mainstream culture is ready to accommodate them. It’s worth stressing too that they’re a far cry from the saccharine and palatable homosexuality presented by Macklemore—in the words of Cakes Da Killa, “take a course in rimmin’ / Eat my shit like a feast, don’t forget the trimmings”.

But, ladies, gentlemen and trans* folk, that’s not all. The problem with having new inductees into hip-hop who haven’t bothered to view the genre through a historicised lens is their infelicitous interpretations of hip-hop culture. Take the recent twerking furore. Miley Cyrus copped a huge backlash for her (in)famous VMA performance in which she shook her booty in a manner akin to ‘twerking’, which many saw as appropriation of ‘Black culture’ based on the assumption that twerking was a new movement endemic to Black communities. Correction: shaking one’s ass/bottom/derriere has been ubiquitous throughout hip-hop culture since time immemorial, actually, and ‘twerking’ is a name recently coined and disseminated to the kind of booty-shaking that was particularly prominent in the ghetto-house movement of the ‘80s and ‘90s. Do you seriously think DJ Funk gave a damn who was grindin’ to his ‘Bounce Dat Azz’? Hell no—‘twerking’ isn’t Black culture, not really. Twerking represents a delineation put upon Black culture by well-meaning white people who think they ‘get’ hip-hop because they’ve heard Azealia Banks and Nicki Minaj (if I hear the word ‘revolutionary’ being bandied about one more time), and this tacitly feeds into subjugating notions of Black sexuality (the sexually rapacious black male, the provocative and precocious and sassy black female and especially their use of ‘ghetto booties’, which is fucking ridiculous) and distinguishes white culture as, well, ‘cultured’. Fuck off. White girls shake their money-makerz too. Miley’s performance was problematic, definitely, but not because she gyrated her butt a couple of times—rather that she sidelined her Black performers and anonymised them for her gain. Self-congratulatory discourse that focusses on the twerkin’ obfuscates this, i.e. the real problem, all because you couldn’t be bothered typing ‘Booty House Anthems’ into YouTube.

Lest you think I’m finished, don’t even get me started on newbies to hip-hop who insist their hip-hop be ‘socially conscious’ rather than about that frequently voiced terror: ‘bitches, drugs and partying’ (staples of rock ‘n’ roll, incidentally!). For one thing, it’s not like the two are mutually exclusive—see how Ready to Die has the two disparate elements interplay with one another, or how Enter the Wu-Tang subtextualises it’s social critique beneath layers of bravado and excess. The two elements can even coexist peacefully within the same song. Consider N.O.D’s ‘Fugitives’: a bar dedicated to smoking weed (“it’s all good in my hood when I’m smoking that herb sucka”) here, and a bar to the trials of being Black in a low-income neighbourhood (“let me tell you how I became a n***a of destruction”) there. But even if a song doesn’t have anything approaching social commentary, the hip-hop artist has no obligation to pander to what you want in hip-hop. The conscientious aspect of hip-hop is important, sure, but so is the wordplay, the non sequiturs and bons mots, the lyricism, the beats, the sound collages, the flow and cadence, the energy. Forcing hip-hop into a socially conscious model in order to make it more palatable is disingenuous and, honestly, ignorant. And that word, ignorant, well—you might detect a recurring theme here.

Listen to more hip-hop before you cast judgments on it—know it, historically and contextually, before you go around espousing theories about it. In the words of Inspectah Deck: “Don’t talk the talk, if you can’t walk the walk / Phony n****s are outlined in chalk [metaphorically].”


Philip McSweeney is a chronically self-deprecating student of English (specialising in Postmodernism) with voluptuous, lion-like hair and a penchant for avant-garde music—as well as your Arts Editor for 2013. Trawl through his music taste at or follow him @neverdenudesz

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  1. Kepe says:

    Amen bruh.

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