In response to Naima's critique of the Rock the Bells festival, my own plea for new hip hop heroes, and our on-going discussions of the many problems with the hip hop we love so dearly, I want to take a second to think about some of the hip hop music that falls under the mainstream radar.
I came of hip hop age in high school within a diverse group of politically active kids in Chicago. The city's problems with racism, segregation, and corruption were our backdrop. We went to communist meetings, African American Culture Club, and open mics at a folk music school. We recorded CDs which we sold for $5 between classes, and did each other's cover art. Some of the graffiti writers went on to art school. Some of the emcee's built their own musical instruments when they couldn't find the sound they wanted otherwise. We read Bomb the Suburbs by hometown hero Upski and watched some of the better things about Chicago die around us. For a while I studied Ali Shaheed Muhammed's beats closer than anything in school, and pulled samples from dumpstered records and CDs from the library. And I took it really hard when I realized Rawkus Records was falling apart.
There's more to this than just waxing nostalgic. I've spent the past week revisiting old hip hop albums and thinking about music as a vehicle for social change. The hip hop I grew up on was pushed aside as "alternative" hip hop--hip hop at the time ordered you to back that azz up, and any other message was deemed alternative. Graf and breakdancing make only cameos in mainstream hip hop videos; instead, silent women in bikinis (apparently black women's year-round leisure wear) narrate thug story after thug story penned by rappers living in mansions. Remember how excited people got when Kanye West yelled, "George Bush doesn't care about black people" on national TV? Rappers should have been saying that all along, worrying about something a little bigger than how many pairs of Air Force Ones they have.
Political rap shouldn't be an obscure sub-genre. Black men: the stakes are high! You are many times more likely to go to jail than to go to college. You are constantly underestimated and racially profiled. But you know this already. So quit talking about grillz and tip drills, and speak out against the power structures in this country that try to put you down.
And all the rest of us who don't always find our spaces within hip hop: we've gotta keep pushing our way in. We're not "alternative."
I think this is the first BJB post to come with a soundtrack. Here are a few songs that push the boundaries of what hip hop is or what hip hop says:
Atmosphere, from Minnesota, writes songs about stealing food and suicide in grain silos. A few albums back they started emo-rap, for better or worse. Scapegoat, from Overcast!
J-Live is a former English teacher from Brooklyn. Them That's Not, from The Best Part is a rags to riches to rags story about rappers being arrogant and phony.
Hand Me Downs by Soul Position (Blueprint + RJD2) says what I wanted this post to say but far better (from Things Go Better with RJ and AL).
Kid Koala plays the turntables, bending notes to build jazz/funk songs. His first album came with a comic book he'd drawn on brown paper. Fender Bender, from Carpal Tunnel Syndrome
The Cold Vein by Cannibal Ox builds and builds until its ending, the hidden track Scream Phoenix, a song about rebirth.
If you listen to nothing else here, please check out Patriotism by Company Flow, from the compilation Soundbombing 2. Company Flow's earlier songs alternated between dystopic political sci-fi and early 90s b-boy anthems. Listening to them before bed once gave me nightmares of state violence.
And I know what the first critique of this is, so I'll beat you to it: there are no women listed here. I'll be honest, beyond my childhood crush on MC Lyte, I've only listened to a handful of female rappers in my life. I don't know that I've ever seen one live. Even in underground hip hop women are very marginalized, and if you don't seek them out you don't encounter them; I've had to admit recently that I didn't seek them out hard enough. So please, dear readers, if you've got a great female rapper in mind, please introduce us in the comments section.