"Hip-hop was not in the dictionary before we went to the universities," the part-time Atlanta resident recalls. "I used to pull out the Oxford English Dictionary and say, 'Look, you know hip-hop exists; you see it all around you. Yet it's not in the academic world.'"
Then something changed -- and not just the frequency of college speaking engagements taken on by folks like KRS-One and Public Enemy's Chuck D as their record sales declined.
"Around 1998, hip-hop showed up in the Oxford English Dictionary," KRS-One recalls. "I have no idea what happened -- I can't take credit for influencing that -- but I do know it wasn't in there before."
And that's not all that changed. In the last half of the '90s, as hip-hop secured its place at the forefront of youth culture -- and, perhaps more significantly, as it approached its 20th birthday -- insiders and outsiders alike embraced a newfound self-consciousness. Colleges now hold events like the University of Wisconsin-Madison's annual Hip-Hop As a Movement conference. Ivy League brains such as Cornell West represent for the hip-hop-to-bow tie set. And new-jack intellectuals like Bakari Kitwana drop book-length treatises with titles like The Hip Hop Generation: Young Blacks and the Crisis in African American Culture.
But wait, there's more. Last summer, hip-hop's most distinguished and visible businessman, Def Jam Records founder Russell Simmons, began what looks to be the subculture's most sophisticated effort yet at harnessing its nascent political power. Simmons organized a Hip Hop Summit, which brought together artists, record executives, politicians, religious leaders and intellectuals to network and develop an agenda. From that came the Hip Hop Action Network, a political action committee that, among other initiatives, just last week helped bring 20,000 people to New York's City Hall to protest proposed budget cuts in education.
In case anyone missed it, hip-hop is no longer invisible -- it's ubiquitous. But, somewhat paradoxically, there's also a flipside to all this. As folks like KRS-One and Simmons live out a natural impulse to institutionalize and legitimize what is important to them, they may be hastening hip-hop's death by neutralizing its anarchic, youthful power. Are they killing the very thing for which they're trying to empower?
Beyond the academic and political coming of age, there's one more component -- call it hip-hop's spiritual blossoming. In that, KRS-One is the self-appointed majordomo and primary metaphysician -- hip-hop's Timothy Leary, Bob Dylan and Wavy Gravy all in one. After establishing himself as one of rap's best pioneering MCs in the '80s, KRS turned his attention to establishing recognition of what he calls Hiphop Kulture (capital H, no hyphen, as is his preference), "an inner-city movement that seeks victory over the oppressive routine of inner-city life." He's the founder and de facto high priest of the Temple of Hiphop, self-described as an organization aimed at "decriminalizing Hiphop's public image through concerts, lectures, articles and interviews."
"At the Temple of Hiphop," reads the group's website (www.templeofhiphop.org), "Hiphop is practiced as an alternative behavior capable of transforming subjects and objects in an attempt to manifest our collective consciousness. Hiphop is a state of mind."
There are actual "temples" -- meeting houses set up in a few cities, where discussion groups meet and courses are taught on hip-hop's nine elements (called "refinitions"): break dancing, rapping, graffiti art, DJing, beatboxing, street fashion, street language, street knowledge and street entrepreneurialism. One such temple existed in Atlanta for several months last year at 670 11th St., where KRS-One himself held weekly meetings.
But more than its physical presence, the Temple of Hiphop also claims to function as a "Hiphop preservation society that seeks to define and teach the accumulated wisdom of Hiphop." To that end, the temple has not only founded a Hiphop Appreciation Week -- most recently held May 13-20 in Atlanta, New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco -- it also has issued a "Hiphop Declaration of Peace," which outlines hip-hop culture's collective beliefs across 18 "overstandings." The 17th Overstanding, for example, reads like this: "Hiphop is shown the highest respect when Hiphoppas respect each other. Hiphop Kulture is preserved, nurtured and developed when Hiphoppas preserve, nurture and develop one another."
Lest you think that a large percentage of the billion or so hip-hop fans in the world are adherents to the Temple of Hiphop, the truth is they're not. There's a whole lot of folks who make, hear and live hip-hop who just ain't buying the kind of codified, highly important brand of hip-hop that KRS-One -- or Russell Simmons, or academia, for that matter -- is offering. There are, of course, lots of fans who see hip-hop as merely a form of entertainment, a genre of music. And quite a few promoter, manager and record exec types who treat it as just a business. And plenty of artists who view it as their ticket out of poverty, a quick ride to the good life, and maybe even an outlet for creativity.
For one, there's rapper Nelly, whose 2000 sing-songy megahit "Country Grammar" launched him into the multiplatinum stratosphere and put St. Louis on the hip-hop map. Like many young hip-hoppers, particularly provincial ones, Nelly never grew up with the subculture's so-called nine elements that emanated out of the South Bronx in the late '70s -- hip-hop came to him as a fully formed and packaged pop culture. His contribution to last fall's Training Day soundtrack album, "#1," contained this bit of self-justification: "I'm tired of people judging what's real hip-hop/Half the time you be them niggas whose fuckin' album flop."
While there was no direct mention of KRS-One in Nelly's rap, and Nelly's people have denied it was intended for anyone in particular, some started to read between the lines. KRS-One, after all, is the guy most associated with attempting to codify what is and isn't hip-hop, and his records no longer sell anywhere near what they once did.
At any rate, KRS-One never has been one to shrink from an old and revered hip-hop tradition: the verbal battle. This spring, "Clear Em Out," a KRS-One track from the forthcoming compilation, The Difference, began leaking out on the streets. "You tired of me saying what's real hip-hop," he raps at one point. "Well, I'm tired of you bitin' my shit to go pop." And elsewhere: "Sales don't make you the authority/It only means you sold out to the white majority" and "Grow up already, your album appeals to little second-graders."
While KRS claims the song was recorded before "#1" came out, and is not directed at Nelly, listeners were quick to hear "Clear Em Out" as a response to Nelly's implicit dis. Certainly Nelly took it that way, because he shows up on a recent remix of "Roc the Mic," a track by Beanie Sigel and Freeway, with a dis about as explicit as they come: "K, no one heard, even said your name/R, you really feeling guilty about something, man/S, sad to see you really just want just one more hit please, please/You the first old man should get a rapper's pension."
This, of course, spelled full-scale war. In May, KRS-One unveiled a new track, "The Real Hiphop Is Over Here," set for official release on a forthcoming album. First come the insults: "Yo Nelly, you ain't for real, and you ain't universal/Your whole style sounds like an 'N Sync commercial." Then KRS takes it a step higher, issuing the equivalent of a fatwah against the errant apprentice and his album, Nellyville, set for release later this month. "I think it's about time we stop these pop rappers/Hip-hop does matter to me, does it matter to you, my crew?/If it does, you know what the hell to do ... Let these punk-ass rappers know we in here/Go to the show, boo 'em off stage/Tell 'em KRS told you they at the end of their days/Let me tell you, let's give hip-hop a lift, and don't buy Nelly's album on June 25."
KRS also took his boycott campaign -- which even he isn't idealistic enough to believe will actually catch on -- to the airwaves, appearing on hip-hop radio station Power 106 in Los Angeles, where he's been living in recent months.
"These young cats don't know, we lost cultural continuity; we don't have history no more," he said. "But there's mad skills that come when you pay your dues. If you want to come up and not be a one-hit wonder, you got to know your history."
You won't find too many folks out there who'd argue against the value of history. But what's certainly underappreciated is the brilliance of utter ignorance. After all, would Nelly be attractive to the 12-year-olds who make him today's hot pop crossover if he was respectful enough to know he shouldn't dis someone widely acknowledged as a pioneer in his own field?
As important as history clearly is, it also can be oppressive -- particularly to the youth who drive youth culture. Once a subculture has been so codified with rules and tradition, draining it of the rebellious impulse and dynamism that first sparked it, partaking in it can start to feel a lot like school -- and that's when it's time to form a new subculture. No wonder jazz is in a constant struggle against completely flatlining -- it gets so freakishly lauded and paraded around PBS as America's classical music, people feel like they need a master's degree to listen to it. And when did rock music lose its cultural currency? Probably around the time the notion of "classic rock" created a canon that rendered everything after it simply commentary. Then the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame came along and sealed it safely behind glass.
Should the fact that at least four separate hip-hop halls of fame have popped up in recent years serve as an omen?
If last month's local Hiphop Appreciation Week was any indication, it doesn't seem there's much threat of the worst happening just yet. While record sales and MTV viewership clearly indicates that, at least in some sense, plenty of people out there are appreciating hip-hop every day, only 13 people showed up at Atlanta's Hiphop Town Hall Meeting held as one of the week's organized events.
Professor Griff led the Saturday afternoon discussion. He isn't actually a professor. He's an Atlanta-based member of Public Enemy who's best known for making an anti-Jewish comment (which he says was taken out of context) in 1989 that set a low in hip-hop's race discourse (see sidebar). Despite the sparse turnout, those who did show up -- all young and black, mostly students -- had something intelligent to lend to the talk. Griff addressed a series of issues facing hip-hop: Should we support artists who appear in ads for tobacco or alcohol? Should we support artists who disrespect women? Is the "N" word acceptable in hip-hop?
When the conversation turned, as it always does, to the issue of rappers staying true to their beliefs (even if it means losing out on sales) vs. giving the people what they want (even if it's not necessarily good for the larger community), there's no question which side of the fence Griff stands on. At least one fearless young woman wondered, though, if he would've felt differently had his hate-filled rhetoric not derailed his career, making the question moot. She asked Griff whether he's jealous of rappers who make money without regard for the messages they deliver.
No, he answers. But before the talk is over, Griff also has offered this insight into his life since 1989: "Let's get this clear right now," he says. "I'm poor. I'm lonely. I'm a revolutionary without a revolution. And I'm four months behind on a car payment."
To KRS-One's credit, he knows what he's up against in his hip-hop crusade -- and his ability to flip a liability into an asset is perhaps his greatest asset. "Nelly and those who think like him, their general premise is that KRS is old, bitter -- 'Get out of here, who are you to always be running around talking about that fake hip-hop, real hip-hop? Stop talking that cultural bullshit and put a hit record out. Why can't we just keep this music going, get your money, and stop playa hating?' There's a natural tension -- the older generation saying, 'Pay your dues,' the younger generation saying, 'You old and washed up.' That tension is what creates opinion, which then creates tradition, which then creates culture. So KRS and Nelly, that whole argument of old versus young, it's a friction that's very healthy. It's like burning down a forest. The youth are stupid, but out of that ignorance comes new ideas. That's what battling is all about."
And so KRS-One remains undeterred, as he takes refuge in a house on the outskirts of Los Angeles to put the finishing touches on his long-in-the-works book, The Gospel of Hiphop. Once the word is out among the people -- that hip-hop can be more than entertainment, that it can be a savior culture to restore that which was stolen from us by America, whether by the slave trade or capitalism's ravages -- he's got much bigger ideas in store.
"I had a great revelation that came to me back in '95 of a hip-hop city. If we are a culture, we need a city, and my response is to act upon the vision that I've been given. So I see going to a small town that we could run up on real quick and hooking up with a tourism board. We run for office, we speak to the community and say, 'Listen, we want to build a hip-hop city.' And those who want to build up this will receive the residuals of it. Sort of like Las Vegas, but with a little less blood. It's a simple thing, especially with all the money that rap music makes."
Part of KRS-One knows full well he's talking crazy -- like the wild-eyed Utopian hucksters that have popped up on these shores for centuries. "It's not for the people of today, they're going to dis it -- say KRS-One is crazy," he admits. "But the future are the ones who are going to say this is very interesting and I think we should follow this."
But the other part of him just can't help himself -- he's a true Hiphop believer. While he rails against American traditions of injustice and brutality that led to the hip-hop generation's creation, his vision is nothing less than a demand that the United States live up to his end of the deal: life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Or, he notes, as hip-hop godfathers Afrika Bambaataa and James Brown put it back in 1984: "Peace! Unity! Love! And having fun!"
"If hip-hop was to end today -- no more records, videos -- there would be still a 30-year history about a specific group of people that called themselves hip-hoppers. That's already part of world history, no matter what we do," says KRS-One. "Now, what image do we want to project of ourselves in world history? It may not mean anything to anyone else, but to me it's my life. We are dealing with a very unique and magnificent opportunity. We can actually set the precedent for a new civilization in world culture. Why wouldn't we do it for the sake of our children?"
Now, if he could only get Eminem, Lil' Kim and Master P to join him.
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