“ MF’s say that I’m foolish I only talk about jewels, but do you fools listen to music or do you just skim through it?” Jay-Z (Renegade, Blueprint album)
Think about this question Jay-Z asks. Do we listen to music? Or do we just skim through, hear what we want to hear, and receive only a partial message.
Hip Hop is a true Black American art form that has influenced music, style and economies all over the globe. However because it has been taken over as a corporate commodity, and used to drive sales, hyper-masculinity and huge profits have pushed artists to create a world that some say is filled with violence, misogyny and homophobia.
Tricia Rose writes in “Hip Hop Wars”
“Hip Hop is in a terrible crises. Although its overall fortunes have risen sharply, the most commercially promoted and financially successful hip hop–what has dominated mass-media outlets such as television, film, radio and recording industry for a dozen years or so- has increasingly become a playground for caricatures of black gangstas, pimps and hoes. Hyper-sexism has increased dramatically, homophobia along with distorted, anti-social, self destructive, and violent portraits of black masculinity have become raps calling cards. Relying on an ever-narrowing range of images and themes, this commercial juggernaut has played a central role in the near-depletion of what was once a vibrant, and complex popular genre, wringing it dry by pandering to America’s racist and sexist lowest common denominator.”
I agree with Dr. Rose, not just because I am nostalgic for the Hip Hop of my youth. I agree because if you have eyes and ears that are open you can hear and see that this culture has been swallowe by a corporate entity where lowest common denominator equates to more sales. So if you want to be signed, you portray these images, leaving all the messages and positivity for the underground rappers.
Dr. Rose uses the term lowest common denominator. I like the use of that term because in order to find the lowest common denominator in mathematics one must understand all of the steps it takes to reach the answer. You must know addition, subtraction, multiplication tables, know what a numerator and denominator are. You need to be able to factor and sometimes solve for numbers that are not present based on the given information. Finding the lowest common denominator can be difficult, and if you skip or mess up a step you are done. Finding the LCD and deciphering hip hop culture can be difficult if you don’t have all the tools to find the answers.
Is there beauty in Hip Hop? Yes Beauty. To me it’s like a private beach with a never ending horizon, but there is Hennessy in my Pina Colada and Slum Village bumping to relieve the stress.
Is there ugliness in Hip Hop? Yes, there is ugliness. The stories of people who have been systematically driven into second class citizenship for generations usually have some vulgar elements. T.I. Explains this perfectly on the Daily Show.
Trevor Noah (host)
In Hip Hop people are talking about guns, people are talking about shooting, saying F*** the police. Critics would say, how is this helping the dialogue.
Hip Hop has traditionally been a reflection of the environment the rapper was in before he made it. So if you want to change the content of hip hop music, try changing the environment of the artist and he won’t have so many negative things to say.
One of the crowning jewels of Hip Hop is it’s ability to juxtapose the beautiful with the crude and the brilliant with the boorish. The Pretty and Profane being weaved together to create a culture that fully represents the struggle and the beauty of Black and Brown Americans.
Knowing that Hip Hop employs the pretty and the profane is what makes it so appealing, and what makes it so complex. But as Jay-Z asked us, do we really listen, or do we just skim through it.? Do we know all the steps it takes to solve X? In some cases the question is can we get past the profane to enjoy the pretty?
In 1991 I went to the now defunct Randall Park Mall with my Dad. We walked Through J.C. Penny, past the video arcade (do those still exist b/c I love them) past foot locker and finally it appeared, Sam Goody or Coconuts I can’t remember.
We walked in and I perused the aisles of CD’s in long cardboard boxes that were more than twice as long as the CD itself. I saw posters of album covers for The New Jack City soundtrack (got that already), Bryan Adams (Nope) Paula Abdul, Boyz II Men, Marky Mark, Mariah Carey, and Whitney Houston.
I liked a lot of those artists and even had some of their albums. However today was my entry into another world. This is would be the first day I heard THE PRETTY AND THE PROFANE in one. This is day Hip Hop shocked me into a love affair. In this world virtuoso wordsmiths were help up by thick 808’s and 12 second of sample time. In this world violence and misogyny live right next door to conscious upliftment, pro-blackness and messages of hope. Filth and elegance top rocking around each other to classic breaks. Completely in tune and on time.
I picked up Apocalypse ‘91 by Public Enemy and O.G. (Original Gangster) by Ice-T.
At this point I was a Hip Hop newbie. I had Raising Hell by RUN DMC and “I’m the rapper he’s the DJ” by The Fresh Prince and DJ Jazzy Jeff”
Not hating on those records.They are both great albums in their own right. But Public Enemy and Ice-T contained two special elements that transformed me.
Beats by the Bomb Squad and the lyrical Shock Value of Chuck D and Ice-T
Beats by the Bomb Squad- The Bomb Squad were a group super producers from Long Island. Hank and Keith Shocklee, Chuck D, Gary “G wiz”, Eric Sadler and Bill Stephney revolutionized the technique of sampling. Before the Bomb Squad Hip Hop producers would use 2-5 samples per song on average. But the Bomb Squad could easily rock out 15-20 samples in one song. Consistently hitting your ears with bits of classic music collaged into a magnificent piece. Bomb Squad beats are a consistent sonic assault. They all employed all the dope melodic and rhythmic elements of black music, right on top of screeches and squeals, sirens and funky scratches- creating a sound palette that forced me to press rewind because they blew my mind. (Redman)
I was in front of my Fischer boombox with the CD player on top. Mouth open, eyes wide, unable to move or fully comprehend what I was hearing. Beats hit so hard, and moved with merciless momentum. So many different sounds and bits of songs I recognized totally reinvented to create something sonically pleasing and dissonant at once. I’m 36 now and still find new things to hear in beats by the Bomb Squad each time I listen. I can’t forget to mention Chuck D dropping the knowledge of the middle passage and cointelpro on me as an 11 year old. A booming voice that demands your full attention. You can listen to beauty of the beats to the lesson or just enjoy the power and grace of the voice over “murderous” beats.
Check out how Chuck helps us visualize the middle passage and slavery. Families being ripped apart, laying in your own feces, being branded, these are all profane actions laid seamlessly with a knocking beat and a powerful delivery. Pretty and Profane.
After I was blown away by the beats next came the Code of the Streets. Ice-T fresh off New Jack City fame gives a brutally honest look at the life of a gangster in Los Angeles. He commits murder, robbery, and kidnapping all within the first 2 songs. On top of Afrika Islam beats that rival the ruggedness of the Bomb Squad. I admired the beauty of the beats and the Lushness of the dark storytelling. The exquisite, trading spaces with the truly offensive. Throughout the album Ice-T delivers hard hitting rhymes about the truth of gang life, while laying the foundations of social constructs that created this reality.
New Jack Hustler verse 3- Ice T – Over a sample of Jasper Country Man by Bobbi Humphrey (Lyrics below)
“I had nothing, and I wanted it,You had everything, and you flaunted it. Turned the needy into the greedy, with cocaine, my success came speedy. Got me twisted, jammed into a paradox. Every dollar I get, another brother drops. Maybe that’s the plan, and I don’t understand,God damn—-you got me sinkin in quicksand. But since I don’t know, and I ain’t never learned, I gotta get paid, I got money to earn. With my posse, out on the ave, Bump my sounds, crack a forty and laugh. Cool out and watch my new Benz gleam, Is this a nightmare? Or the American dream? So think twice if you’re coming down my block, You want to journey through hell? Well shit gets hot. Pregnant teens, children’s screams. Life is weighed on the scales of a triple beam. You don’t come here much, and ya better not. Wrong move (bang), ambulance cot. I gotta get more money than you got, So what, if some muthafucka gets shot? That’s how the game is played, Another brother slayed, the wound is deep BUT they’re givin us a Band Aid. My education’s low but I got long dough, Raised like a pit bull, my heart pumps nitro.Sleep on silk, lie like a politician, My Uzi’s my best friend, cold as a mortician. Lock me up, it’s genocidal catastrophe,
There’ll be another one after me…….a hustler.
In one verse he discusses government involvement in the drug trade, how it has affected the Black community, the “band aids” that don’t fix the problems, materialism and teen pregnancy. We also hear of scared children dealing with the ruthlessness of a place where life is weighed on the scales of triple beam (device used for weighing drugs).
He asks us, is this a nightmare or the American Dream? A valid question since every dollar he make another brother drops.
On the surface this verse contains profanity, murder without regret, and a promotion of gangster lifestyle. However if we listen to the entirety of the verse we see that he is really discussing American social injustice and a fixed system specifically the cycle of poverty leading to crime, and crime to prison. He shows us how even prison doesn’t end the game. “There’ll be another one after me…… a hustler” No matter what, lock up one drug dealer, someone will take their place the next day. A magnificent beat underpinning a lyric that is both polished and polluted. The pretty and profane.
I can’t not give you the original sample. It’s one of my favorites.
Jasper Country Man- Bobbi Humphrey
Now how do we break this down. The pretty and the profane, the gorgeous and the grimey. I remember listening to The Chronic and Doggystyle on my yellow Sony CD player up in my room, on headphones trying to hide it from my parents. Think about Ready to Die. Easy Moe Bee beats bumping, Biggie ripping the track open with so many different rhythmic inflections, adlibs and cadences. Although the album is riddled with profanity, violence and even suicide, I you have the ability to take on the project as a whole , the artistry of the album cannot be denied.
Listen to the opening verse of Unbelievable. Lyrics by Biggie beat by DJ Premier
“Live from Bedford-Stuyvesant, the livest one
Representing BK to the fullest
Gats I pull it, bastards ducking when Big be bucking
Chickenheads be clucking in my bathroom fucking
It ain’t nothing, they know Big be handling
With the mac in the Ac’ door paneling
Damagin MC’s, oxygen they can’t breathe
Mad tricks up the sleeve, wear boxers so my dick can breathe
Breeze through in the Q-45 by my side, lyrical high
And those that rushes my clutches get put on crutches
Get smoked like dutches from the master
Hate to blast you, but I have to, you see I smoke a lot
Your life is played out like Kwame, and them fucking polka dots
Who rock the spot? Biggie
You know how the weed go, unbelievable.
In this verse Biggie beautifully weaves in and out of pulling guns on people, bathroom sex, Smoking weed, crippling someone and dissing an old school emcee. That is what it seems like on the surface, but when you read along and listen simultaneously to his delivery and the word play, there is a lot more to take in. Biggie masterfully uses the english language to makes it seem like he is just taking part in violent acts and getting high. In reality it’s all metaphor for his UNBELIEVABLE rhyme style. Pretty and profane.
These lyrics are spit over top a super hot beat the the legendary DJ Premier. His rhythmic scratches bring Biggies voice in an out letting us know who is the illest. Not to mention the genius sample of R. Kelly’s “Your body’s calling” Which birthed the title of this track. Speaking of pretty and profane R. Kelly is whole other article. Primo always makes the rawness sound so damn lovely.
So why did I have to hide this music. In retrospect I do not think Ice-T or Biggie would even be considered hardcore today. The lyrics were smart, based in reality, it’s excellent story telling filled with expert use literary device. Why would my parents not want me to hear this? Why would they not want me to hear Snoop or Dre, or Nas, or Jay-Z or Wu- Tang.
Was it the cursing? I don’t think so. I watched movies with cursing in them all time from a young age. Also our parents are the same generation who listened to Richard Pryor records, and Redd Foxx. Talk about saying something foul…. They were the kings.
Was it the Violence? I don’t think so. I saw Robocop when I was 7 years old. Should I have, I don’t know, but I turned out Ok. However it seemed like they were fine with me viewing the material.
Was it the sexual themes and misogyny? Ok even I can admit I didn’t need to hear Biggie have sex in between One more Chance and The What. I just didn’t need to hear that. It was absolutely vulgar, and offensive to many. But the track that follows up the profane interlude (The What feat. Method Man) is so damn pretty. Here we are met with Jay-Z’s question again, do we listen to music or just skim through it. Do we take on projects as a whole, or do we take one part and say this whole album or this whole genre is just trash. Pulp Fiction is one of my favorite movies. However if I only saw the rape and murder scenes, without the rest of the movie would I really be qualified to judge it?
The reason I think I hid it was because of a generational gap. When I was growing up Hip Hop had a bad media image. My own family publicly came out in the media against Hip Hop and it’s lyrical content. In the end most of the critics heard one or two songs and labeled an entire genre as “evil” without ever listening to a full album or inquiring about the diverse group of artists Hip Hop had to offer. There used to be all kinds of Hip Hop music, with many different messages and foci. Now ” However in all honesty ask yourself could your mother make it through the entire Chronic album? Most of the Mom’s of that era I know could not.
Here’s an example. I was at my friend’s house back in highschool. We were listening to “Sucka Nigga” from A Tribe Called Quests Album Midnight Marauders. This song delves into the historical roots of the term “nigger”. A word used to cause pain, and how Hip Hop has taken control of the word, using it as term of endearment. However we got in trouble for listening to Tribe because all her Mom heard was Nigga, Nigga, Nigga, Nigga,Nigga. If we would have sat with her mom, broke down the Freddie Hubbard sample used, and deconstructed the lyrical content to bring the pretty and the profane to the surface, she would have gotten it. But these conversations do not happen.
Sucka Nigga – A Tribe Called Quest
My wife Pilar and I bump classic Hip Hop as a “Daily Operation” (Gangstarr) Loud in the house, sub woofer pumping. Should we be hiding it?
We have two daughters Aaliyah (5) Lola (3) They are incredible in every way. I want to be able to share my love of Hip Hop with them. I want to play the albums I grew up listening to for them. Some of my greatest memories are listening to Motown tapes in my Dad’s car. I know every lyric, every drop, and every key change Motown ever wrote from those car rides and talking about music with my Dad.
Will I be able to impart that kind of history on Aaliyah and Lola?
I think it’s my duty to help Aaliyah and Lola understand the social constructs that created all these stories of violence, and misogyny that glorify the dark parts of this life. It is also my duty to help them see music and art as entire pieces. The ability to understand the project as a whole, not just a bunch of curses and violent acts. It is mine and the duty of other Hip Hop parents to nurture a mature listener.
So how do we raise kids who can understand the social constructs that created these very explicit narratives? Kids who can separate art from reality.
- Choose the right artists- May not want to jump right in with rawness. Start off with something like
“The Message by Grand- Master Flash and Furious Five
Paid in Full by Eric B & Rakim
Work your way up to N.W.A, Biggie and Kendrick Lamar
N.W.A – Fuck the Police – A blistering take on police violence
Kendrick Lamar- Blacker the Berry- Ingenious look at how America loves Black culture but hates Black people
If sharing your love of Hip Hop with your kids is important to you I don’t have to tell you that there are a lot of differences between say, Biggie, Common, The Roots, School- Boy Q, Nicki Minaj, Drake, Jungle Brothers, and Kendrick Lamar. You can pick songs and albums that you feel comfortable with. If they start to ask questions, look for the teachable moments. They can understand more than we think.
I want my kids to listen to Things Fall Apart, Wu-Tang Forever and Aquemini with fond memories. To love these albums and use them to ask just as many questions as I did.
- Approach the topic of sexism and misogyny with care.
“Raps stars and the corporations that distribute their songs get away with and have profited handsomely from highly vulgar and explicit forms of sexism specifically targeting black women. A fact that only encourages other up and coming artists to follow in their misogynist footsteps to get famous and rich. For all the recent and past outcry against the ways that hip hop generally depicts black women, this state of affairs has, for the most part (with just a few major challenges here and there), been allowed to expand and diversify mostly unchecked.” Rose (Hip Hop Wars)
Pilar and I are raising two black girls in 2017 America. This country is not really a forward thinking place anymore. Aaliyah and Lola will undoubtedly face challenges as women of color.
I mean look at this twitter feed to see how Black women are treated in the workplace.
They will have some advantages too, but being a woman of color in America is an uphill battle against, racism, sexism, cronyism, nepotism, and many other isms.
How can I make sure that Aaliyah and Lola know that they are not a rented prop for some man? How can I make sure they know to never accept disrespect, and know they can be in control, powerful, creative and influential, without playing into the stereotypical roles of black women in hip hop. How can I show them this when something I love shows so much of the opposite?
Well, I will choose the right artists to share. I will break down MC Lyte, and Queen Latifah. I will bump that Jean Grae and Bahamadia. Lauryn Hill stays on repeat.
It’s my job to show them the Hip Hop I love, and find modern artists that share the values and aesthetics I want to foster. To show that Hip Hop is a culture with its own, art, music, dance, fashion, speech, and customs.
Andre 3000 raps on Humble Mumble (Stankonia)
“ I met a critic, I made her sh** her drawers. She thought hip hip was only guns and alcohol. I said oh hell naw, but yet it’s that too. You can’t discrimihate cause you done read a book or two. What if I looked at you through a microscope, saw all the dirty organisms living in your closet would I pause it.”
Andre is saying hip hop is bigger than the stereotypes and negativity. And no need to hit pause on just the dirty parts we are so complex.
I am talking about creating responsible active listeners who do not just skim through. Listeners who can break the music down analytically, but also just chill, vibe and enjoy it as helps them grow. They will be able to hear and enjoy the Pretty and the Profane as one. The Bomb Squad will bring them as much pleasure as Mozart, Duke Ellington and Baldwin.
Why is this important? Because Hip Hop is a music that named an entire generation of people. It was a driving force in our formative years, and helped to shape who we are as people. I truly believe that sharing Hip Hop and Hip Hop culture will help my kids know me better, creating lifelong memories.
The beat will always go on, life will bring joy and pain, but hip hop can help you appreciate the pretty and the profane.