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Communicating with the ancestors

by William Bowles Wednesday, 12 September 2007
 

Hip-Hop forever
I’ve been a fan of hip-hop music ever since it broke out of the Bronx in the late 70s. In those days it is true to say that hip-hop was very much a New York thing reflecting its Black/Hispanic roots in uptown Manhattan and the Bronx. And then there was the street fashion thing which was also very much part of the hip-hop culture which was, perhaps for the first time in NYC, a downtown and uptown thing. And indeed, as hip-hop spread to become the world’s most popular musical genre, it’s cross-cultural roots have been maintained as well as its independent and anti-establishment character.

Inevitably however the corporate vampires got hold of the genre (especially when they realised how many hip-hop records were being sold), but this is nothing new, it happened to jazz and to rock n roll.

However, in spite the corporates, all the genres mentioned have flourished and evolved and as the world has shrunk, new musical forms have been added to the mix.

The thing is, corporates only want to make big bucks which naturally restricts the kind of market needed to rake in the kinds of dough to satisfy the appetites of those monsters. Let them get on with it, meanwhile …

Home studios, the Web, mp3 players, video phones, blah, blah came along at just the right time to create an entirely new environment within which the creative arts could flourish without the need of the corporates at all. Sure, they’ll piggy-back wherever they can and of course continue to rip off creative output but frankly there’s more of that out there than anybody dare imagine.

What’s interesting about hip-hop as a form is that in some respects it gives us an idea of what r n b might have become if the big business hadn’t appropriated it via Motown etc. Real hip-hop has thrived and developed outside of the corporate ‘embrace’ and without the financial backing corporate contracts give an artist or group, and in every respect stayed true to its roots.

Will the ‘real’ hip-hop please stand up
In some senses there’s no such thing as ‘hip-hop’ music, it encompasses so many musical forms as to defy any kind of traditional classification but it has a direct historical link to the Blues through its lyrical content. Lyrics are central to hip-hop, people actually listen to them and judge the music not only by its musical qualities but also by its lyrical power. Perhaps the griots of West Africa or wherever else oral culture has survived, are the only contemporary comparisons we have with hip-hop but even here, traditional musical forms are quite often formal by comparison with hip-hop which knows no musical boundaries.

The other important aspect of hip-hop is how it has spread to every corner of the planet but unlike its corporate imitations, the real hip-hop has adsorbed the local musical traditions but still remained uniquely hip-hop music.

The upshot is the emergence of a global hip-hop ‘culture’, linked via common ethics and a common worldview and of course a love of hip-hop music no matter where it comes from.

Dig-it-al
One direct result of the digital revolution is that it’s shattered the traditional capitalist conception of how the ‘market’ works, which is why of course they not only resisted like crazy the adoption of digital technologies, but once they realised they couldn’t fight it, they tried to grab hold of the entire thing (but so far with limited success).

The traditional capitalist market for things cultural has been segmented into a bunch of parallel, vertical niches that through demographics, the corporates can reach with their marketing campaigns and distribution network, for at the end of the day, that’s all ‘record’ companies really are, marketing and distribution.

Of course convergence of technologies coupled to the mergers and acquisitions that have taken place in the media/communications sector, have created corporate behemoths with tentacles into every conceivable niche of the economy and because of the ubiquity of the digital infrastructure they own, wherever the media giants go in the quest for profit, they end up by controlling the entire ‘supply chain’.

However, this ‘traditional market’ is being shattered. There are now so many avenues open to cultural output of one kind or another that the corporates can’t and don’t control and this is not likely to change but even accelerate as many kinds of new, wonderful and importantly, affordable, delivery tools become available, the most important of which is bandwidth (the amounts of data you can shove down a connection in the shortest possible time).

Sampling
The other important aspect of hip-hop is the role of sampling as a means of ‘communicating with the ancestors’. Sampling is intrinsic to hip-hop (and a bunch of related forms such as house, drum n bass etc) and although decried by many as a rip-off, the fact is when you look at what gets sampled the most, you find it’s artists like Billie Holiday, Lee Morgan, Marvin Gaye, James Brown, in other words all kinds of historical references and connections are being made, opening up today’s artists to music they may well never have heard otherwise.

What it does is create a seamless connection to our collective histories, a rediscovery of our heritage because sampling pays homage to those who have travelled the same road but seen and experienced things through different eyes in different times.

Once lyrics broke out of the straightjacket of ‘I love you, baby’ it unleashed a wave of creative ideas (much as ‘blogs’ have done for writing). It reflects a long term trend that has been underway ever since the term popular culture was invented.

Sampling has had one other important impact on the music and that’s its incredible variety; nothing is sacred, thus hip-hop is one minute closer to jazz and the next, r n b. Latin, African, if the riff fits, use it. (Excellent examples of this process can be found in the music of Courtney Pine and Brandford Marsalis’ incredibly inventive but short-lived group Buckshot LeFonque.)

Getting high off ‘low’ culture
What we are seeing is the slow dissolution of the gap between ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture, a process that is both embraced and resisted, embraced by people like me and resisted by the dominant culture even as it is forced to acknowledge its existence. We see a comparable process at work in the universe of the ‘blog’; first ignored, then decried, then patronisingly accepted, then finally coopted but only as a medium. To acknowledge our existence as an accepted means of communication is of course a step too far, unless we play by their rules.

Initially the creation of the capitalist market (but always totally dependent on the creative juices flowing up from ‘below’), what we call popular culture has its roots in all kinds of working class cultures, whether in Detroit or Manchester, Johannesburg or Rio.

By virtue of controlling the economy of ‘popular culture’ capitalism has until recently managed to control both the form but much more importantly, the content. Self-produced music has shattered this very profitable relationship between cultural producer and the owner of the means of distribution (accompanied by howls of anguish about intellectual property ‘rights’ from the big media conglomerates).

What was missing was a means of distribution but now that there is enough affordable bandwidth available for efficient distribution via the Web (as well as CDs and now DVDs), this fundamentally alters the relationship between producer and ‘consumer’.

Does it spell the end of class and ‘race’-based cultural hegemony? Taken collectively, hip-hop, the blog, digital video and such like are breaking up the comfortable relationship between the dominant culture and the consumer, and in doing so, it has the potential to challenge the control capital has over our understanding of ourselves, where we’ve come from and how we got here.

   
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