Last year over winter break, a friend invited me to attend a break-dance competition for which he was playing live music. My friend, a distinguished jazz musician where I live on the Monterey Peninsula had joined a hip-hop group for which he played keyboards. At first I was hesitant – I had been to see him play gigs before – and they were always expensive. I also had doubts about a break-dance competition really being something worth my time. True, I have been impressed with shows on TV like America’s Best Dance Crew, but when he informed me that the competition would be held at the community center in my small suburb town of Monterey – Marina – I couldn’t help but think of a handful of spiky-haired teens doing flimsy cartwheels to the Black Eyed Peas. I told my friend of my concerns, but he urged me to reconsider. Since I lived less than a mile away I figured if I wasn’t satisfied I could be back home in a jiffy, plus the event was free. When I arrived at the event the opposite of what I expected happened.
My friend’s band served as the house band for the evening, and while on their breaks a DJ spun classic hip-hop songs from Eric B & Rakim, Kurtis Blow, and Grandmaster Flash. There were also MCs who performed their rhymes, poetry, and monologues, while graffiti artists painted on canvases to the music. There were booths of people selling clothing, jewelry, mix tapes, and food during the competition. There were dozens of break-dancers that were there to compete, ages five to forty-five. Everyone gathered in a circle while each age group competed. The MC from my friend’s band, e. Sik, yelled with excitement as the dancers expressed themselves through amazing levels of flexibility, style, and grace. e. Sik urged the spectators to give their support to everyone who participated and the competition left me astonished that people living in my community were able to put on an event like this. I left the competition feeling inspired. For the 18 years that I had lived in Marina I had never seen a community event quite like this one. It made me think about the origins of hip-hop and how block parties, similar to the event my friend had helped to put on, were frequent in the communities of New York City in the 70s.
These days, with commercialized rap that exploits the materialistic aspects of what was once a sub-genre of hip-hop, “Gangsta Rap,” it is hard to remember that the art form of hip-hop was cultivated not through sex, violence, or drugs, but through communities. Jon Getzschman, a hip-hop artist (Jonathan Toth From Hoth) and Prin alum, who did his history capstone on the history of hip-hop, feels that the record industry is partly to blame for the confusion.
“‘Commercialized radio rap,’” says Getzschman, “is the negative stereotype of how the larger record companies have systematically sought out only hip-hop which will make them money.”
Unfortunately, this mainstream projection of hip-hop has led many to make stereotypes about the art form itself. Although hip-hop emerged from certain areas in New York’s five boroughs where crime was pervasive, hip-hop was a solid foundation for building a sense of community in many neighborhoods. People would gather to listen to DJs spin their favorite songs and the MCs hosting the events began to create their own personalities, delivering limericks, monologues, and onomatopoetic words, similar to scatting in jazz. The development of ego in hip-hop came out of friendly competition and the desire to provide the audience with a quality experience – one that was packed with lyrical wit and dramatics. Despite the strong animosity and disregard for community in a song by 50 Cent – a commercial artist -, Getzschman sees the Internet as a solution to bring back the essence of hip-hop, and further sees it as a means to promote unity among listeners.
“The Internet is curbing the negative traits of the bigger record companies,” says Getzschman. “When the World Wide Web can get (artists) everywhere, it leads to a new breed of fans who sniff out commercialism – the chaff – to seek and find sustenance in heartfelt art – the grain.”
He continues: “I don’t see it so much as a ‘hip-hop verses rap’ thing. It’s more like ‘pop music verses the underground.’”
Besides contributing to the public community, hip-hop has served as a sort of focal point, or a community of musical genres. Through sampling, or borrowing sounds, rhythms, or melodies from older records, hip-hop has brilliantly appropriated many different musical styles into one art form. Sampling has allowed some artists, popular or not, new life. For example, Eric B. and Rakim’s 1988 classic song, “Microphone Fiend,” is driven by a rhythm sampled from the 1975 hit, “School Boy Crush,” by the Scottish Funk group, Average White Band. This sampling aspect of hip-hop has preserved and celebrated many styles of music, and has spawned a sub-culture of record collecting, or “digging,” which is another whole community itself.
Hip-hop has also helped develop a bridge between music style and genre that was traditionally divided into “white” and “black” music categories. These categories have become more unified over the past three decades, and there is less of a divide between the expectations we might have of a white artist or a black artist in the pop music realm. From Debbie Harry rapping in Blondie’s “Rapture” to Run DMC collaborating with Aerosmith on the remake of “Walk This Way” to the Beastie Boys to Eminem to Damon Alburn’s whimsical cartoon pop pastiche, Gorillaz – hip-hop has been crucial to the creation of an artistic community where there aren’t racial boundaries.
Most importantly when one looks at any form of musical expression – hip-hop aside – it takes a community of people to create something really inspiring. It takes a songwriter to arrange the notes, vocals, and harmonies. It takes at least one person to vocalize and/or play these musical notes. It takes a producer and/or engineer to make sure the sound levels are correct in order for the piece to be pleasant for the listener. And it takes an audience to receive and interpret the melodies and message from the performance. If I learned anything from my experience with hip-hop and attending that break-dance competition last winter break, it’s that an individual always has something to give for a greater good. All music is a community of expression.