By Reginald C. Dennis
When the surviving members of Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five assembled in the grand ballroom of New York City’s Waldorf-Astoria Hotel and triumphantly accepted the honor of becoming the first hip-hop group ever inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, it was the ultimate endorsement of this unlikely and often maligned genre’s rugged march towards parity, respectability and acceptance.
It might have taken nearly 35 years for the hip-hop’s standard to navigate the nine or so miles from 1520 Sedgwick Avenue in the Bronx — the movement’s ancestral home and headquarters of DJ Kool Herc and his famed Herculoids sound system — to midtown Manhattan, but on that night in 2007, when it finally took its place alongside the others, the circle of rock and roll edged that much closer to completion.
Unfortunately, not everyone saw it that way. And in some circles, even after the 2009 induction of Run-D.M.C — the group credited with establishing the rap/rock hybrid as a genre of its own — questions regarding hip-hop’s overall merit and legitimacy still persisted.
Hip-Hop — a sub-culture created by and for a segment of the population that had little in the way of formal artistic training or access to the reigns of institutional power— might have blossomed from a local underground youth movement into a global lifestyle with enough street smarts to change the course of most aspects of entertainment, fashion, sports and commerce, but was it really rock and roll? Most would agree that hip-hop music was a state of mind held mostly aloft by endless tales of dangerous women, fast cars, narrow escapes, and the ongoing triumph of the outlaw, but was it truly art? Its seductive appeal might have fueled the international sales of hundreds of millions of records and introduced scores of devastatingly compelling sounds, tones and production techniques to the world at large, but was it truly music?
The answer to all of these questions and concerns is a resounding yes.
As its supporters have always known and understood, hip-hop is but the latest iteration of a conversation America has been having with itself for the past 400 years. It is a conversation that began with African slaves brought to toil on foreign shores, where traditions were lost and remembered and recreated. Languages were lost, but the drums remained. Banjos, soul claps and raw husking ditties informed joyful noises of praise, struggle and faraway triumph. And out of this hardship, a portion of American song was forged. The volume of this conversation — mostly one-sided but always passionate — escalated throughout the 20th century and with the advent of population migrations, new technologies and a restless desire to be heard, wondrous innovations like jazz and the blues soon accompanied a nation’s slow crawl to maturity.
Rock and Roll, what rough living blacks euphemistically called sex, was born during this modern struggle. World-weary badmen celebrated the improbable mythology of a people who would not be silenced or contained. Men and women who, though they dwelled in a world that was an arm’s length away from fairness and justice, still heroically fought to be counted.
Not long after helping to create a safe harbor where those charged with safeguarding America’s future could meet, influence and collaborate, did rock and roll change and evolve. The “Bo Diddley Beat” gave way to a British Invasion and the native sounds — often labeled “devil’s music”— of young America spun off into soul, folk, rock, funk and the early stages of an unfortunate self-segregation. Though infinitely enjoyable, the music of this new era seemed to lack something. Yes, there were grand theatrical displays and men and women still sang songs turbocharged with the hubris and swagger of entitlement, but where was the danger? Where was the shock of the new?
As it happens, it was already being created, forged and honed for the battle ahead.
By the mid-1970s, the generational alliance between black and white teenage America had eroded and broken apart. Institutions of learning, though desegregated, became hotbeds of racial conflict as students — emboldened by the strict formats of their local radio stations — refused to dance to each other’s music. Separate but equal proms became workable solutions and what little racial harmony there was could easily come undone around the question of whether or not disco sucked. Young black faces no longer felt welcome within the halls of rock and roll and young whites no longer sought blacks to guide them through their turbulent adolescences. Marginalized, disappointed and culturally estranged, the tastemakers of America needed a reason to come together.
Hip-hop and punk gave both tribes the opportunity to bring something to the table.
If “Rapper’s Delight” by the Sugar Hill Gang — the “Rock Around the Clock” of 1979 — spread the rap gospel to the world beyond the five boroughs of New York, then “Rapture” — Blondie’s unexpected 1980 homage to the still evolving genre — quickly made real the notion that young whites searching for new thrills might once again find something worthwhile on the bleeding edge of black culture. This cultural mingling worked both ways as men like as Afrika Bambaataa — long known for his eclectic musical tastes — incorporated the best parts of NYC’s other revolution — the outré sounds of punk, electronica and new wave — into his DJ sets and studio recordings. In fact, many of the kids who flocked to Bambaataa’s Bronx River parties did so to escape the increasingly formulaic, toothless and watered -down direction that black music had stumbled into and embraced a menu of breaks and beats that skated effortlessly through the funkiest moments of James Brown, Bob James, Sly Stone and the Meters. With the advent of the rhythmic scratch — courtesy of Grand Wizard DJ Theodore — hip-hop suddenly had its signature sound, a defiant corruption of technology that was strikingly innovative and undeniably urgent. And when the masters of ceremony took to the stage, audiences were treated to an endless barrage of cleverly rhymed boasts, intoxicated harmonies and outrageous volleys of shouted call and response. Topical, magnetic and capable of traveling at the speed of thought, this was the genesis of a new American dialog, one sorely needed and long overdue. And if rock and roll has a purpose, it is to get people in a position, either intellectually or geographically, to communicate with one another. Hip-Hop merely achieved that mandate on a grander scale and in half the time.
In 2010 cultural diversity is the fulcrum that turns the world of culture. Today’s generation has never known a world without the cross pollinating effects of BET and MTV. Their musical heroes are just as likely to rap as sing and many are proficient at both as a matter of course. Rappers perform with live bands and DJs often accompany rock groups. Samplers and drum machines are legitimate means to an end and the sales of turntables nearly equal those of guitars. The 21st century is the age of the cultural mash-up, a digital age where all things are welcome, equal and accepted. It’s what Afrika Bambaataa called “Planet Rock.”
To deny hip-hop an honored place in rock’s narrative is to take a tremendous leap backwards and disregard a near century’s worth of shared cultural markers. In the tradition of rock and roll hip-hop was born from the everyday struggles of black life. Locked away from upward mobility, its marginalized creators celebrated the earthy pleasures of the moment. Championed by influential DJs, its innovative sounds, topics and rhythms were propelled to national prominence. Imitated, maligned and feared, it quickly achieved supremacy over its era and became institution unto itself. And it is the enduring power of that institution that we recognize.