The Lesson

The Positive Side of Hip Hop

Mar 29, 2006 at 2:06 pm
C. Matthew Hamby

"You get these boys calling to request Hendrix whose voices haven't changed yet."

— Steven Van Zandt, E Street Band guitarist and Garage Rock DJ

The year is 2106. Archaeologists have excavated an area known as the Five Boroughs and discover a golden microphone inscribed with the letters "R-A-K-I-M," a fossilized Adidas sneaker (no laces) and a large time keeping device attached to a necklace. The discovery leaves anthropologists and sociologists stumped. What do these artifacts represent? Is there a connection between them?

Or, perhaps they're meaningless objects representing an insignificant blip on the timeline of history.

Fortunately for us (in 2006) we have activists, historians and legends like Afrika Bambaataa doing what they can to ensure that Hip Hop culture is recognized as an integral part of American history. Bam's involvement with the Smithsonian Institution's "Hip Hop Won't Stop" project lends a degree of credibility similar efforts have lacked in the past, particularly given his outspoken criticisms of the commercialization of Hip Hop culture.

But even Hip Hop's inclusion in the Smithsonian will lack meaning if we do not take the time to raise the consciousness of our own children about the true origin and history of the art form.

Without this, kids' generations from now will operate under the flawed and unfortunate misconception that Hip Hop was this thing that was introduced at the 2006 Oscars (though, for some in the audience that might have been true) or that an evil Rap warlord named 50 Cent shot and killed all his rivals and took over the Hip Hop kingdom.

I certainly hope that last part never comes true.

As silly as it may sound, I began what I refer to as "The Lesson" with my nephews (now 20 and 22 years old) when they were pre-teens. I used to stuff them in the back of my sport hatchback in the early '90s and subject them to hours of homemade Run DMC, LL Cool J and Public Enemy mixtapes. Back then they listened because they might have thought it was cool to hang out with their uncle.

Besides, they didn't have much of a choice.

Today they listen to the same music other young adults their age listen to. I'm sure half of their favorite artists have either the words Lil, Young, Slim or Thug somewhere embedded in their Rap monikers.

And that's OK, because at least they know the difference.

Now I'm taking my daughter through The Lesson. How many 5-years-old girls immediately recognize the first few bars of Rakim's "Follow the Leader"? (Lately, she's been asking me to play the SOS Band. I give her credit for being well—rounded.)

Some years ago a good friend and local poet Antwan O'Neal took his young nephew through a similar process, borrowing classic Hip Hop CDs from his own older brother and passing them on. Now he's doing the same with his 5-year-old daughter so that she will someday have the knowledge necessary to filter through the commercial radio programming waiting to descend upon her.

If successful, Hip Hop's next generation would not be the first to embrace the "golden age." A recent Rolling Stone article entitled "Classic Rock, Forever Young" suggested that lack of originality and the absence of a "new, dominant sound" were behind a renewed interest in Classic Rock among young teens.

Imagine that.

And we've all seen the faux-vintage Rock & Roll t-shirts that kids are wearing. Images of Hendrix, AC/DC and Led Zeppelin are plastered across the chests of eighth graders at a mall near you.

But with Hip Hop, if it's more than 90 days old, it's damaged goods. Ask Joe Budden. (No disrespect, but he's the first name that came to mind).

Where are Hip Hop's equivalents to The Eagles, Journey or The Stones? Some would argue that groups such as Wu-Tang Clan and The Roots are legends in the making; yet if kids can't remember last month's hot Rap act, groups like these can forget about being remembered 20 years from now.

During Stanford University's recent, controversial "I Am Hip Hop" panel discussion, a cross section of artists, scholars and activists gathered to discuss the difference between Hip Hop and Rap as well as our responsibility to protect and preserve the culture.

Yet conspicuously missing were the kids, the very group that we struggle for. While most of us don't have access to Hip Hop's elite and Ivy League academicians, there might be an easier way: The next time you see a young one zoning out to Crunk or Trap music, let them hear a few bars of those classics we all love.

They probably won't like it and they might even laugh. But over time, they too will know the difference. Right now, that's all we can ask.

5 on theledge

· "The Message" by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five. While not the first socially conscious Rap record, certainly the one that most people remember. Funny how little has changed since then.

· "Don't Believe the Hype" by Public Enemy. Chuck D. is fiercely critical of mainstream media in this classic single from '88. That's why I play it twice on my way to work every day.

· "Sucker MC's" by Run-DMC. "Two years ago, a friend of mine/Asked me to say some MC rhymes ..." Don't front. You know the rest.

· "PSK (What Does it Mean?)" by Schooly D. For those of you who thought NWA created "Gangsta Rap," think again and check out Schooly D's heavily-sampled tale about Philly's Parkside Killer gang.

· "Ego Trippin" by Ultramagnetic MCs. This banger from '86 is an early example of the kind of lyrical acrobatics most present-day rappers can only dream about.