In this article, I put forward the view that hip-hop is, by definition, radical. In its essence, it stands for positive social change, for progress, against oppression and against racism. That is perhaps a controversial view in these days when the rap charts are full of ‘crack music’ and we see a little bit too much of Young Jeezy, 50 Cent, Snoop, Petey Pablo, Li’l Wayne and Ludacris.

Although arguably gangsta rap does have a legitimate place within hip-hop (reflecting as it does the conditions and mindset of many young people living in the ‘fourth world’ ghettoes of the west), I contend that the dominance of gangsta rappers within hip-hop represents an anomaly. Ultimately, a lot of what people think of as hip-hop is really just manufactured urban pop. It’s an MTV/BET-conducted circus; a 21st century minstrel show, portraying a ridiculous caricature of people of African descent that is designed to perpetuate racist prejudices.

We mustn’t let the major record labels define hip-hop for us. Hip-hop, as a major social and cultural movement, represents something very different to the Rick Ross’s lies about getting ‘rich off cocaine’.

As MK Asante Jr points out in his phenomenal book, ‘It’s Bigger Than Hip-hop’, the name ‘hip-hop’ itself gives some interesting clues as to hip-hop’s radical essence.

The word ‘hip’ comes out of the Wolof language, spoken by the Wolof people in Senegal, Gambia and Mauritania. In Wolof, there’s a verb, ‘hipi’, which means “to open one’s eyes and see.” So, hipi is a term of enlightenment.

So the ‘hip’ is all about knowledge and understanding. What about ‘hop’?

‘Hop’ is an Old English word that means “to spring into action.” So what [hip-hop is] about is enlightenment, then action.

Asante goes on to quote the classic KRS-1 lyric from ‘Hip-Hop Lives’:

Hip and hop is more than music
Hip is the knowledge / Hop is the movement
Hip and hop is intelligent movement

When hip-hop started in the 1970s, it was a party movement. Rappers didn’t talk about politics as such, but nonetheless the culture was *implicitly* political because it represented the unity and voice of oppressed people who weren’t supposed to be uniting, who weren’t supposed to be partying, who weren’t supposed to have a voice. As the Palestinians say: existence is resistance.

It was the South Bronx. There were no jobs; the housing was terrible; there were race wars; there were turf wars; there were gang wars. Hip-hop arose out of the different gangs and communities and ethnic groups putting their differences aside. These people were supposed to be fighting amongst each other for scraps; they were supposed to be barely surviving, whilst mainstream America forgot about them. Yet all of a sudden they get together and create the most creative, dynamic, innovative, powerful culture that anyone has seen for decades. Drawing on the rich legacy of African, Latino/a and Caribbean culture in the US, this new culture combined rapping with mutated disco beats, and added the innovations of scratching, breakdancing and graffiti. It was an amazing explosion of creativity.

The people in the forefront of this movement didn’t have newspapers or TV channels, but they created a loud, powerful voice. Soon they were putting that voice to very good effect, letting the world know about what was going on in the US ghetto – probably the most oppressed community in the ‘first world’. People like Public Enemy, Melle Mel, Rakim, KRS-1, Poor Righteous Teachers, Paris, Sister Souljah and the Jungle Brothers did a great job bringing this message.

Nowadays the voice still exists and is louder than ever, in the sense that hip-hop as an art form reaches hundreds of millions of people throughout the world. However, the sad fact is that this voice is increasingly not controlled by, or used in the interests of, working class and oppressed people.

In 1985 Melle Mel was rapping about the dangers of coke and crack:

My white lines go a long way
Either up your nose or through your vein
With nothin to gain except killin your brain

In the same song he makes an important point about comparative sentencing:

A street kid gets arrested, gonna do some time
He got out three years from now just to commit more crime
A businessman is caught with 24 kilos
He’s out on bail, and out of jail and that’s the way it goes

These days we’ve got Young Jeezy:

I’m knee-deep in the game
So when it’s time to re-up I’m knee-deep in the ‘caine.

Or Li’l Wayne, whose routine, apparently, is:

Wake up in the morning, take a sh**, shower, shave
Stand over the stove and whip it like a slave.

So in a single chorus he is both trivialising the history of slavery and the African holocaust, and at the same time glamourising the sale of crack cocaine, the spread of which has been another (state-engineered) disaster for Black and Latino communities. (Incidentally, given that Wayne is a platinum-selling artist, it is extremely unlikely that his daily routine has anything to do with cooking up crack; therefore instead of “keeping it real”, he’s making himself rich off a self-destructive ghetto discourse that promotes maximum personal wealth at the expense of the community’s wellbeing).

Dead Prez break down the current state of hip-hop very clearly:

Hip-hop today is programmed by the ruling class. It is not the voice of African or Latino or oppressed youth. It is a puppet voice for the ruling class that tells us to act like those people who are oppressing us. The schools, the media, capitalism and colonialism are totally responsible for what hip-hop is and what it has become.

How did we get to this point?

It’s simple really. Like with any powerful cultural movement, big corporations wanted to get their piece of the pie. They jumped on hip-hop, and made a whole load of money off acts like Melle Mel, Kurtis Blow, Public Enemy and Rakim. But the music industry became keenly aware of the fact that it was promoting music that pretty clearly wasn’t in the long-term interests of Big Money. So it came up with the perfect solution: carry on milking the cash cow, but put an end to the politics. The strategy: only bring out the monster marketing machine for rappers that talk nonsense and that promote negative, sexist, racist, exploitative images.

The record labels had the power to do that. ‘The Big Four’ – Universal Music Group, Sony BMG, EMI Group and Warner Music Group – account for over 80% of the US music market. Within a couple of years – 1990 to 1992 – it went from Public Enemy being the number one act in hip-hop to political rappers not being able to get the promotion or financial backing they needed to get serious sales.

In Byron Hurt’s excellent documentary ‘Hip Hop Beyond Beats and Rhymes’ there’s a great quote from the former Def Jam president Carmen Ashhurst-Watson:

At the time where we switched to gangster music was the same time the majors brought up all the labels and I don’t think that’s a coincidence. At the time we were able to get a place in the record store and a bigger presence because of this major marketing capacity, the music became less and less conscious. We went to Columbia, and the next thing I know we went from Public Enemy to pushing a group called Bitches With Problems.

Where do we go from here?

The fact of the matter is that we’re not going to win the battle against the MTV/BET-conducted circus any time soon. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t things we can do to improve the situation and to get back to the real ethic of hip-hop.

The first thing is that, obviously, we’ve got to support the people that are making the type of music we want to hear. People like Akala, Lowkey, Immortal Technique, Jasiri X, Dead Prez, Skinnyman, Ms Dynamite, Black the Ripper, Logic, Shadia Mansour, Genesis Elijah, Mos Def, Talib Kweli, Gazateam, Ty, Rodney P, Stormtrap and many others are doing an incredible job and we are extremely lucky to have them. We need to do our bit in terms of pushing them, encouraging them and promoting them, because they don’t have massive corporate machines behind them. Their support base is grassroots, and it relies on word of mouth (and of course the internet).

Also, there are quite a few artists out there who you could characterise as ‘semi-conscious’. They have progressive, anti-racist, anti-exploitation ideas, but they have been led to believe that they can only succeed if they keep those ideas as quiet as possible. Those artists need to be pushed in the right direction; they need to know that there’s a market for conscious, militant music.

In terms of ‘reclaiming the real’, the second thing to remember is that, very simply, we need to fight for our rights, regardless of music. Music by itself is not a movement. It can be part of a movement; it can massively help a movement, but some beautiful lyrics don’t mean a thing if we’re not in the streets demanding our human rights. When James Brown sang ‘Say it Loud, I’m black and I’m proud’, it really resonated because out on the streets there was a massive movement for black people’s rights in the US. By fighting for our rights, we make our music truly relevant.

There are real social, economic, political, cultural problems that the system is not doing anything useful about. Who’s doing anything about unemployment, the lack of good facilities, postcode wars, police harassment of youth, disappearing higher education places, irrelevant and bad quality education, high cost of living, rising prison numbers, the danger of walking from A to B, benefit cutbacks and so on? If we don’t do anything about these things ourselves, we can’t expect anyone else to!

We need to demand that our musicians say something about these issues, but it’s up to all of us to do something about them.

NB. The above article is based on a talk I gave at the excellent Hip-hop History event organised by the Octavia Foundation in August 2010.