Last week, Yoh wrote an op-ed which quoted a line from a piece I was commissioned to write for NPR commemorating the 40th anniversary of the inception of hip-hop culture, as well as a tweet from Freddie Foxxx stating the need for hip-hop to once again be exclusive.
Yoh, 26, added the disclosure that he never experienced any of the previous eras when hip-hop culture and rap weren’t already mainstream fixtures and emphasized that his perspective was shaped by growing up in a post-Telecom Act/post-rap apartheid world where two separate and unequal rap industries co-existed simultaneously.
Since Yoh never saw the events unfold in real time, nor did he witness the fallout over a full calendar year afterward, he's only known the rap scene as a thriving environment. Like many younger hip-hop fans who are currently under the age of 40, Yoh made the understandable mistake of conflating rap, the rap industry and all of its corporate byproducts as being included under the umbrella of "hip-hop."
When Freddie Foxxx was talking about making hip-hop exclusive again, I understood exactly where he was coming from. Hip-hop culture and rap possess a unique space in the continuum of American Black music due to several odd factors. First, early Black music forms such as gospel, blues, jazz, doo-wop, soul/R&B and rock & roll relied on someone with white skin privilege in order to get financed, recorded, distributed and/or get radio airplay. This was due to racism, economics and a lack of access. In turn, this led to a cycle of exploitation and inequality, which stemmed from a lack of ownership. Not only were these Black artists often stripped of their own creations and intellectual property but that meant they couldn’t receive any royalties or future compensation for their own innovations or pioneering. It did, however, make the children of label owners that signed these acts to recording deals rich, since they owned the rights to their back catalogs. Cue the theme song to “The Neverending Story”…
In the case of rap music, there were several Black-owned record labels that sought to benefit from the Bronx’s burgeoning hip-hop culture by recording the first big rap hit. Both Sylvia Robinson of Sugar Hill Records and Bobby Robinson of Enjoy Records saw the potential of rap music early on but rather than sign up an elite hip-hop crew, they scouted and gathered information on all the leading crews—and the scene as a whole—to better determine how to gain an advantage. They soon realized that the DJ—not the emcees—was the focal point of the hip-hop crew and sought to exploit that appeal.
The emcees would audition for the DJ in order to be in the crew and oftentimes after being paid, emcees were encouraged to kick down some of the money to help maintain the sound system and purchase better equipment. Both Sugar Hill and Enjoy sought out emcees and offered them, at one time, approximately 25 to 50 shows worth of pay to sign. They were then told they didn’t need to split the pot with the DJ. Also, they’d record over a live band so the DJ (the very backbone of hip-hop culture) wasn’t necessary. From its inception back in 1979 to today, the rap music industry has NEVER been "pure."
While early hip-hop crews and rap artists were being exploited, taken advantage of and suppressed by Black-owned labels like Sugar Hill, Enjoy and Winley, to make matters worse, rap wasn’t even regarded as “real” music by the Black music community at large. Black radio programmers mostly abhorred rap. At best, they tolerated it. Even crucial Black music advocates and gatekeepers like Frankie Crocker and Don Cornelius were resistant. Major labels eventually began to record rap acts—Tommy Boy, Profile, Jive/Zomba—but they were few and far between.
In time, Def Jam would set forth the blueprint for the fortification of a rap label, thanks in large part to label co-founder Russell Simmons who also owned Rush Artist Management, which oversaw the careers of rap’s biggest draws at the time. This is the kind of early ownership that no other form or subgenre of Black music had previously enjoyed.
Critically, it helped that rap was also directly attached to hip-hop culture. There’s a passage in Yoh’s article where he writes, “The hip-hop I know has saved the lives of all creeds and brought joy to every color. Exclusive art doesn’t change, help, or save lives.” The hip-hop culture I know of has done the very same—from the very beginning it changed, helped and saved lives, including my own—but only when it was a subculture far away from the prying eyes of the mainstream, Madison Avenue or Hollywood.
Hip-hop was always inclusive from the outset. Everyone brought influences from their ethnic backgrounds, countries of origin, neighborhoods and their own individuality into their chosen means of self-expression within hip-hop. Although there were few early on, white kids were among the legendary graf writers, b-boys and eventually even emcees and DJs alongside their Black and Latino peers.
White folks such as Henry Chalfant, Marty Cooper, Charlie Ahearn, Debbie Harry, Chris Stein, Tom Silverman, Arthur Baker, Bill Adler, Rick Rubin, Lyor Cohen, Ruza Blue and Sal Abbetiello, among others, were heavily involved in bringing local, national and then global attention to hip-hop culture, allowing it to spread like a wildfire. Even noted culture vultures, such as Malcolm McLaren, were allowed entrance in before the novelty wore off and the next trend to capitalize on became their priority.
Hip-hop also incorporated its travels into the Downtown scene, the modern art world and punk influences with little to no problem. At no point was hip-hop/rap something you had to seek out, put in real effort to participate in or log serious man-hours for in order to gain acceptance. Hip-hop's "exclusive feel" back then was never a deterrent to anyone who wanted to be a part of it.
Though no fault of his own, Yoh didn’t experience the stretches between 1981-84, 1986-89 or 1990-92, where rap—and by extension hip-hop culture—made inroads and breakthroughs to the mainstream. There was a time when, in order to be a rap fan, you were also by extension a supporter, participant or contributor to hip-hop culture as a whole. With the passage of time, rap became removed from the wider culture that birthed it, which has removed the need for participants and fans alike to learn its history or study it, unlike other art forms or disciplines where such an education would be required.
The staple breakbeats and records emcees and b-boys employed were from every musical genre imaginable. The artistic influences and references found in aerosol art on trains spanned from classic comic strips, cartoons and comic books to contemporary art found in galleries. B-boys drew inspiration and incorporated moves from kung-fu films, the salsa and merengue they danced to at home, as well as old film footage of tap dancers or whatever dance moves they saw in film or television.
The point is that hip-hop’s inclusivity was always one of its strengths. However, those within hip-hop had to learn and study their craft and respect the culture as they were the ones contributing to it. There was a built-in apprenticeship program with checks and balances installed in every single cultural discipline. With those who solely look to profit from the genre, that’s never been a concern.
“I only know hip-hop as a massive entity. An inclusive, embracive culture of many doors for easy entry. Before my time there were rules to participation that have vanished—now almost anyone with a functioning microphone can place their art underneath her umbrella,” Yoh wrote. This is part of the problem with rap now. Whereas before there were barriers to entry for an artist, a process he or she had to follow just to become nice enough to be considered ready to enter a studio and record a song, in the era of home studios, email and Pro Tools, anything goes. With the passage of time, coupled with advances in both production and communications technologies, this has only gotten worse.
Once an artist could record his or her own music on a laptop and upload it to their SoundClick page and then sell it on their MySpace’s SnoCap store, there was no chance rap's Pandora's Box would ever be closed. Based on the previous continuum, between 1979 and 1997, we should’ve had at least two more golden eras in rap, but there hasn't been one since thanks to major record labels scaling back A&R departments, outsourcing artist development and furthering the mainstream-underground industry divide.
Hip-hop has always been inclusive. If you spoke another language? Incorporate that into your music. If you came from a unique background? Rap about it or reference it in your art/music/production. Play an instrument? Do it. Can you sing? Find a way to work that into your output, too. Hip-hop, much like Jeet Kune Do, stresses expressing yourself honestly through your art and being original so that you could gain acceptance on your own terms rather than by copying others. However, rap was also about influence, inspiration and competition that led to innovation, style evolutions and the overall growth of the genre.
What Yoh recognizes as the “hip-hop” he loves and grew up with is to older cats like myself a watered down corporate byproduct far removed from the hip-hop we grew up listening to. The hip-hop WE grew up with was only played at night, hated by our elders, located all the way at the back of the record store and didn’t even have serious publications dedicated to it until well over a decade into its existence.
If participants were required to study the genre and the culture that birthed it before they could participate in it, the thinking is they’d realize they were part of a proud tradition that deserves to be respected, thus valuing the artform and elevating their voices even more.
When something is acquired for free, it cannot be fully appreciated and will almost always be taken for granted. For hip-hop, that's a recipe for disaster.