Many current artistes have used history to distort what hip-hop was originally meant to “represent”, says Ashwin Achal.

Hip-hop music has now made its way into popular culture in India. Teenagers and young adults are fed the trending hits endlessly on all media. Earlier this year, teenage rapper Sean Kingston performed in Mumbai, following the footsteps of other big names like Flo-Rida, Ludacris and Akon who have toured here in an effort to widen their fan base.

As is the case when a formerly underground scene enters the mainstream, hip-hop attracts fans who may hold misconceptions about the subject. If a fan hears Sean Paul or Eminem everywhere he turns, he may believe them to be true hip-hop artistes. From here, it is a slippery slope riddled with misinformation. Many characteristics associated with these artistes — gang violence, cursing, vulgar portrayal of women — are thought to be the norm in hip-hop. A look at history of hip-hop explains how many current artistes have used history to distort what hip-hop was originally meant to “represent”.

The foundations of modern-day hip-hop date back to 1979, when North America was caught in Saturday Night Fever-induced “disco fever”. Denied entry to the “cool” clubs, poorer blacks formed their own neighbourhood “block parties” in the New York Bronx area.

DJ Kool Herc, a star at these block parties and recognised as the first hip-hop artiste, began by making rudimentary tracks. This consisted of drum beats extracted from a James Brown-inspired funk record, which were then combined with a similar drum sample from another song to make a loopy, yet fresh sound. Herc, with his short bursts with the mic during breaks in the song, became the first rapper.

Soon, hip-hop incorporated skilled dancers and graffiti artistes, eventually evolving into a way of life. To quote popular rap band KRS-One: “Rap is something you do, hip hop is something you live.” Hip-hop dictated how you live, a life where frustrated, often unemployed youth fought oppression through positive action.

Let’s take a look at a few artistes who symbolise an important quality, which is to “represent”. The term “represent” is often wrongly associated with gang affiliation, when it actually refers to a far simpler idea — to stand up without fear for an idea you strongly believe in.

Run-D.M.C. (Joseph “Run” Simmons, Darryl “D.M.C.” McDaniels, and the late Jason “Jam-Master Jay” Mizell)

This was the first hip-hop band to portray a boastful, proud attitude in their videos, backed by the phenomenal success of their early albums Run-D.M.C (1983) and King of Rock (1984). Its members sported a menacing look — arms folded, heads tilted slightly back, jaws clenched, standing upright with feet far apart. This aggressive attitude was designed to depict a new-found self-belief among hip-hop artistes, and indeed all African-American youth. The bold, socially conscious lyrics, meanwhile, were a welcome departure from the primarily riff/ beat/ loop tracks of earlier. “You should’ve gone to school, you could’ve learned a trade/ But you laid in the bed, where the bums have laid/ Now, all the time you’re crying that you’re underpaid/ It’s like that and that’s the way it is….” from It’s Like That (1983) captures the essence of Run-DMC. Violent action, however, was never the norm.

What this group represents: Times are tough, but don’t complain. Go on, work hard and grab success like we did.

Public Enemy (Chuck D and Flava Flav)

Run-D.M.C. did start the socially relevant lyrical theme and image, but their songs hardly qualified as political anthems. Public Enemy, however, took on the role of a professor. And like any good educator, they opened the eyes of the students by highlighting the racism against blacks at the time. (“People, people we are the same/ No, we’re not the same, cause we don’t know the game!” from 1989 hit Fight the Power). Drawing heavily from revolutionary civil rights leaders Malcolm X and the Black Panthers, Public Enemy’s powerful lyrics drove many of their community into positive action. Similar to the teachings of his idol Malcolm X, Chuck D advocated a clean lifestyle — no drugs and alcohol — simply to remove negative stereotypes associated with the race. Public Enemy also gained ill-deserved notoriety for allegedly exhibiting strong communist ideologies in their tracks (“I like Nike, but wait a minute/ The neighborhood supports, so put some money in it/ The corporations owe/ They gotta give up the dough/ To the town or else we gotta shut ’em down.” Shut ’em Down, 1991). This was a time when a paranoid North America came down heavily on any anti-capitalist sentiments. Chuck D then went on to defend their thoughts despite wild accusations from the public, who branded the band as anti-American and pro-communist-Russia.

What this group represents: Study black history to understand where you come from.

Gangsta Rap

This is without doubt the most controversial genre of hip-hop, giving rise to many negative stereotypes which exist today. The inspiration for this genre came from the crime-ridden slums or ghettos in the US. In the late 1980s and early 90s, Ice-T, NWA (DJ Yella, Dr. Dre, Eazy-E, Ice Cube, and MC Ren) and others brought the dark side of black life to the mainstream through graphic music videos and expletive-laden lyrics. The murder of two rap stalwarts — Tupac and Notorious B.I.G. — in the 1990s as a consequence of their alleged gang-affiliation shocked the world, though many of gangsta-rap’s controversial elements continue to be in use.

A look at some of the key characteristics:

Gang affiliation and violence: Gangsta rap stars emphasised the fact that they only took on the role of actors playing gang members, and were never involved in these gangs themselves. However, after these groups achieved huge commercial success, the industry and fans soon expected all hip-hop artistes to have a violent streak in them. The fans then went on to reject any new artiste who emerged with a clean record. Fitting in with this new image, for example, today’s superstar 50 Cent says that he has been shot at four times when he was younger. Even a veteran like Snoop Dogg felt it necessary to depart from his casual, relaxed tracks to make a “hardcore” song like “Vato” (Spanish slang for gang member) in 2006. Ironically, gangsta rap godfather Ice Cube now seems to have rejected this need to appear “hardcore”, saying: “Scary b**** with a gun, that ain’t a man to me/ That’s an animal, a f***** cannibal/ Nigga, hell on earth is being stuck in the 80s…” (Why Me, 2008).

Portrayal of women: Here again, feeling the need to play the role of a pimp, gangsta rap artistes started using misogynist lyrics in their songs (“You can tell a girl that’s out for the money/She look good and the b**** walk funny/ She ain’t no dummy, she’s rather conniving/ Yo b****, f*** what I’m driving.” A bitch is a bitch). They also used pretty women in their videos to symbolise rewards earned. The current superstars are still struggling to walk the fine line between appealing to younger male fans by featuring attractive women dancing to the music, and using them in an outright exploitative way.

Cursing: The usage of foul language goes back to the desire to appear “hardcore”, and quickly became the norm thereafter. Now, the urge to use foul language doesn’t even fit with the light theme of recent songs.

Gangsta rap has been around for more than 20 years now, but the sub-genre continues to evolve. The ideas of NWA and Ice-T are incorporated by current artistes, though many of them would not have seen any gang-related activity at any point in their lives.

What gangsta rap represents:  Don’t hold back if you are honest, even if it ruffles feathers.

Current artistes

While all the pioneers of the past “represent” an idea, controversial or otherwise, current and upcoming musicians are in it with a simple goal to hit No.1 on the charts. Gorgeous women, guns and cursing in videos are all part of a careful marketing strategy — which unfortunately almost always works — to appeal to the key demographic of teenagers and young adults. Social and political issues which can be incorporated in songs today are available in plenty, but it remains to be seen if popular stars will be willing to stop using the high-decibel commercial marketing campaigns to sell more records.

What current artistes represent: Top the charts, by any means necessary.

In the end, if scantily clad women accompanied by foul-mouthed rappers is all we see, it is only a reflection on what our society (read consumers) demand. Sex and violence always appeals, and to that end, the fans have only themselves to blame for the messages that hip-hop convey. A club-hopping fan base produces icons who are of a similar mindset. Packing a weapon while cruising to a club in a Ferrari, with a lovely lady in tow no doubt makes a night worthwhile, but hip-hop and its fans deserve a deeper purpose.