My Hip Hop

I moved to New York 12 years ago to see the world described by rap music – a loud concrete maze of crime, corner ciphers, eternal winters, army fatigues, Timberlands and fast talk. And tonight after dinner with fellow Asian American-from-California curator Aimee Chan, I set out to write about hip hop from my own perspective, but what more can you say, and how better could you say it, than what Jeff Chang wrote in Can’t Stop Won’t Stop, or Tricia Rose with Black Noise, or Nelson George with Hip Hop America, or Hua Hsu with a body of articles and reviews revolving around hip hop. Chang wrote a defining piece of the hip hop generation, tracing the beginnings of the culture from Jamaica’s political strife to the street gangs and peace deals of the Bronx in the 60s and 70s. Rose rightfully asserted the role of women into hip hop history while also juggling a narrative about stylistic advances and the technological revolution that hip hop exemplified. George made that history personal in his book which I still haven’t read, while Hsu uses hip hop as a backdrop to pick apart the nature of cultural identity in a globalized, connected world. Other thinkers have done major work on the subject and big props must go to them.

I can get with all of the scholarship but I still identify hip hop with the ‘realism’ version of New York City, emanating like steam out of a manhole from the beats of DJ Premier, the tortured impassioned crooning of Mary J. Blige, and the street Shakespeare of Ghostface and Raekwon. Listening to the revolutionary funk of The Coup and Paris shakes me back to an angry, politicized Bay Area intellectualism. The Hieroglyphics and DJ Q-Bert brought the defiant nerd intensity of the Bay’s subcultural scene to hip hop. In Houston, Scarface and The Geto Boys laced soupy, languid beats and hooks with extreme, Gothic tales from their hood. They set the stage for the experimentation of Organized Noize and Outkast, whose lyrics described the desires and realities of a struggling class in Atlanta.

Hip hop for me is winter in New York, when the subways turn medieval, as artist Daragh Reeves pointed out years ago. Bums mumble jovially, dark stares from the tired eyes of rich and poor alike, the screeching, the rats, the garbage, the smells, the foulness…is hip hop to me. On street level, it’s the black Escalade with tinted windows at night, the cops, the new Nikes, the Black culture, the Puerto Rican side of things, Canal Street, Jamaica Ave.

When I got into it, rap described a specific place to me, one I didn’t know, and because of that the music I gravitate towards delivers various local angles to me. But the world has changed a lot since hip hop’s golden age to the point where cities across the world have become more alike than different. This is globalization, in which the world traveler can comfortably navigate a foreign land as much as his or her own. And I understand that this traveler demands a different, less threatening kind of music. Something that can be a walking-around soundtrack in Brussels as well as driving music in Port Charlotte, Florida. But I’m still looking for more lyrics and beats that can define me, where I’m from, and where I might want to go next.

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One Comment on “My Hip Hop”

  1. Rita says:

    Herb..you mention that hip hop is winter in NY..I dare say, hip hop is winter in America..his majesty Gil Scott Heron..the great precurser. Thanks for the piece.


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