Is Hip Hop’s Bling Confined to the U.S.?
This topic is far beyond our normal editorial scope, but I am going to make some brief comments about it because it involves music (which we do cover), and it resonates with me.
The BBC reported Saturday about the Trinity International Hip-Hop Festival, which occurred last weekend in (of all places) Hartford, CT. The article touches on a number of interesting themes, including the continuing internationalization of hip hop. This is something one rarely hears about in the United States. The core theme of the article, however, discusses how hip hop is a verbal protest vehicle in virtually every place it is heard except in the United States.
A recent international hip-hop festival which brought together rap artists from around the world has raised the question of why non-US rap is so political — whereas mainstream American rap appears frivolous.
Many of the performers at the three-day Trinity International Hip-Hop Festival in Hartford, Connecticut, were critical of the way that U.S. rap — which is by far the best-selling — appears concerned mostly with money, drugs and sex, and has little to do with its roots in the angry political expression of groups like Public Enemy or KRS One. …
But Jacqueline Springer, of the BBC’s urban music station 1Xtra, pointed out that the age of the average rap fan has decreased, which has transformed what rap artists produce. “They don’t really want to hear about your opposition to George Bush — they’d much rather hear about what you want to do with George Bush’s wife,” she said.
American hip hop always has had a symbiotic relationship with bling. (Several aspects of the historical relationship between bling and beats is addressed in Minya Oh’s book Bling Bling: Hip Hop’s Crown Jewels; 2005, Wenner Books) Still, the balance between materialism and music seems to swing inordinately in favor of materialism in today’s domestic hip hop.
At its core, hip hop is about “playing the dozens” — you make jokes about me, my clothes, and my mother, and I retaliate in jest. And to some degree, hip hop’s bling culture is just a contemporary extension of “the dozens”: I have cash (and the trinkets that go with having cash), you don’t (so you’re walking to the party instead of rolling up in the fly whip), and this means that I’ll get the girl and you won’t. (The purchasability of feminine attention always has been a standard theme in hip hop music.)
By the way, if you’ve ever watched an episode of MTV’s Yo Momma, then you’ve witnessed a perfect example of the pollination between hip hop and “the dozens.”
Even beyond the women and the snaps, hip hop artists always have been fascinated with their ability (real or imagined) to monetize with authority. Run-DMC launched its career talking about how Larry “put [us] inside his Cadillac; the chauffeur drove off and we never came back.” True heads always grin when they recall Slick Rick putting his Ballys on with six minutes remaining before showtime. Few can forget the leather and gold chains — although I’d live peacefully if I never saw a “dookie” chain again — and Jay-Z has said (accurately) “I’m not a businessman, I’m a business, man.”
Taking things a step further, since bling equals attention, bling often has been the primary way hip hop artists have chosen to call attention to themselves. To riff off the late Ralph Wiley, bling has been the way this generation of black people has tended to shout. The difference between the bling orientation today and hip hop’s early days 30 years ago — that’s right, 30 years ago — is that back then, blingology usually was tempered with some minimal, yet clear acknowledgment that the world in which we live has some problems.
For example, “The Message” by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five opens
Broken glass everywhere
People pissing on the stairs, you know they just
I can’t take the smell, I can’t take the noise
Got no money to move out, I guess I got no choice
Rats in the front room, roaches in the back
Junkies in the alley with a baseball bat
I tried to get away, but I couldn’t get far
Cause the man with the tow-truck repossessed my car
With very little changes, those lyrics could appear in a blues or country song because they’re about pain, protest, edge, and survival — all universal issues. My father liked “The Message” when it was released; hell, it remains one of the few rap songs he continues to appreciate today. In the eighties, radio stations regularly played “The Message,” kids bought the record, and teenagers danced to it. In other words, in hip hop’s formative years, the protest or issue song was as much a part of the culture as the bling.
In comparison, today’s hip hop features lots of bullets, bling, and booty, but very little of the perspective that manifests itself in tracks like “The Message.” Protest and commentary songs are not played on the radio and do not get aired as music videos. Further, sexuality is much more prominent now that the dominant form of promotion is visual than aural. It is potentially far more lucrative for Bubba Sparxxx to talk about Ms. New Booty than it is for him to talk about the conditions that lead to the objectification of young women.
Underlying this entire change in hip hop ethos is money. When Melle Mel discussed conditions in the South Bronx, hip hop wasn’t a billion dollar industry. It is now, cutting across fashion (Phat Farm, RocaWear, and Sean John), broadcasting, distilled spirits (Armadale vodka), film (Warner Bros.’ ATL), journalism (The Source), literature (authors Toure and Nelson George), and sports (much of the NBA). And I’d posit the main reason protest and commentary remain part of hip hop outside the U.S. is because ridiculous amounts of money haven’t infected the culture abroad to the degree that it has here. Yet.
It will be interesting to see 10 years from now, whether international hip hop retains its protest and commentary roots once money arrives and the music associates itself with bling, drugs, guns, violence, and female posteriors. I’m betting it won’t, and we’ll get another article from the BBC, this one aghast at what one MC has verbalized doing with Queen Elizabeth.
BBC News. World Hip-Hop Questions U.S. Rap. April 29, 2006.
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