KRS-One, "Hip Hop vs. Rap"
About a month ago, a reporter from our local ABC affiliate contacted me via e-mail and asked for supporting information for a story about Rap music and its impact on young girls. She also wanted to understand the difference between the terms "Hip Hop" and "Rap."
I gave her the standard (and widely accepted) spiel: that originally, "Hip Hop" referred to the culture that started in the Bronx and was comprised of at least four primary elements: rapping, break-dancing, graffiti art and DJing. I added that Rap, arguably the most successful and recognizable of the four elements, is often referred to as Hip Hop music.
But there's another, more complicated, explanation -- one that would be difficult to cover in a three-minute news segment.
I think of Hip Hop as a problem child with a really good heart and pure soul despite the fact that trouble seems to be constantly lurking nearby. By the time Hip Hop was in her early teens (the "awkward years"), she had grown well beyond our control. She had become violent, materialistic, self-hating and even dabbled in drugs. We (i.e., Hip Hop's parents) grew older, more responsible and kicked her out of our homes and our hearts.
That's when it happened. Rich, powerful men equipped with MBAs recognized Hip Hop's income-generating potential.
One is called Hip Hop; the other called Rap.
Now Hip Hop's pimped-out alter ego -- Rap -- is being used to peddle everything from breakfast cereals to household cleaners, automotive accessories, violent video games, adult DVDs, cell phone ring tones and Old Navy flip flops.
This is the same industry that sparked a national debate about Rap lyrics and violence in the early '90s.
The ultimate trick has been turned.
At the dawn of Hip Hop's existence, certain economic and cultural conditions made grassroots, underground music a necessity. Without these conditions, 1960s Soul and 1970s Disco may have easily segued into 1980s SynthPop without so much as a blip from this thing MC Busy Bee coined as "Hip Hop."
But once Hip Hop was born, we allowed the music to become separated from the culture, leaving us with the type of (c)Rap we hear on commercial radio all day long.
Now we know why it wasn't called Yo! MTV Hip Hops.
I tell this story to help people remember that Hip Hop was here long before Rap. There would be no Rap without the struggle for human dignity and equality that preceded the birth of Hip Hop in the '70s. Even today, there are a handful of talented MCs who "rap" about culture, knowledge and political activism, but when we hear radio stations advertise "blazin' Hip Hop and R&B," we know they're really referring to Hip Hop's evil twin, Rap.
In the marketing industry, salience is a way to measure the success of an ad campaign based upon what products consumers immediately think of when a product category is mentioned. Think facial tissue. If the name Kleenex came to mind, you understand the concept.
So what do people think when they hear the words "Hip Hop"? Thanks to the marketing gurus at MTV, BET and most major record labels who have taken our music, re-packaged it and sold it back to us, eight out of 10 people likely associate the phrase with gyrating, partially clothed (and cosmetically altered) women, pimped-out rides, platinum teeth and studio-gangsters.
Those of us who have not taken the time to study the history of Hip Hop music and culture passively accept these images as reality. The media moguls responsible for creating and transmitting these images are more concerned about the money generated by commercial Rap music than the impact it has on young people.
But I'll let you in on a secret: The people who took the music can never buy, take or own Hip Hop culture. True Hip Hop is dynamic, constantly changing, subterranean and nearly impossible to package or sell.
For years, I have advocated for the unification of underground and overground culture, hoping that one day there would be a healthy balance between party music and substantive, thought-provoking Hip Hop. That possibility went "up in smoke" when I heard that Snoop D-O-Double-G was developing a children's cartoon tentatively titled Tales of the Dogg.
The mainstream wins again.
In my mind, there is a distinct difference between Hip Hop and Rap. Perhaps many years from now when people finally figure it all out, Rap will be the thing that radio stations play, media-made gangsters perform and Billboard tracks. Hip Hop -- if we're lucky -- won't even be on the charts.
KEVIN BRITTON writes about Hip Hop music and its impact on popular culture. His column appears monthly in CityBeat.