Puff Daddy Isn’t the Last Word on Hip Hop

How the musical genre was created and corrupted (and why there’s still hope)

As a university professor of Hip Hop, specifically of a course titled “Hip Hop: A Race, Class, and Gender Perspective,” I’m in the process this week of preparing the fall semester’s final exam. And while doing so, I again was impressed with how intellectual the unadulterated form of Hip Hop really is. By the way, I write Hip Hop with upper-case H’s because the term, to me, is a proper noun, just as any religion is. And since Hip Hop is like a religion, meaning a way of life, it grammatically and substantively should be capitalized.

When it comes to Hip Hop, I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking that Hip Hop is nothing but some young black thugs wearing oversized white t-shirts, baggy jeans and Timberlands, screaming profanities into a microphone while remixed classic R&B beats play in the background. Well, you’re wrong. The act of poseur posturing and gratuitous cursing while backed by a deejay has no more to do with Hip Hop than blowing soullessly and passionlessly (and satanically even) into a saxophone has to do with jazz. Just ask Kenny G who is no more jazz than Puff Daddy is Hip Hop.

Hip Hop involves—actually requires—thoughtful lyricism, effective writing, rhythmic flows, oral dexterity, quick-witted improvisation, and frequent cultural consciousness. It includes allegory, alliteration, assonance, breath control, cadence, delivery, flow, graphic imagery, proper use of metaphor and simile, punch lines, and syllabic manipulation. Like literature, poetry and grammar, it’s not easy. In the words of Long Island rapper Keith Murray, “Now when I’m on the microphone, I roam through zones. But don’t be tryin’ this shit at home.”

And to those of you who are absolutely shocked by the recurrent use of words that you contend should be banned, i.e., so-called bad words used by these allegedly uneducated rappers, you might need an education yourself. First of all, there’s no such thing as bad words. Words are simply expressions of thought. Therefore, if words are banned, then thoughts are banned. That would be the worst possible thing to ever happen to any person (and certainly to any civilized society) because thoughts are what define a person as an individual. Stated differently, a person is much more than his or her name, income, religion, gender and race. Thoughts truly make the person who he or she is. When people refer to words as “bad” words, they’re actually talking about cursing, profanity, obscenity and swearing. But cursing merely means the placing of a hex on someone, and profanity only means non-religious. Obscenity just means that which has no serious artist value as determined by any community standard, and swearing simply means the taking of an oath.

Did you know that the “f” word comes from the Old Germanic words “ficken” and “fucken,” which means to strike or penetrate, and that before the “f” word came into English usage in the late 17th century, the word “swyve” was used? Did you know that the “m-f” word was created by enslaved (and unarmed) black men to express their suppressed rage toward the so-called slave “master” who regularly raped black mothers, and that the word now describes any person who engages in horrific behavior? Did you know that the word “bitch” comes from the Old English word “biccu,” which means a female dog and that it was not until the 17th century that it was first used to describe a woman? And did you know that the word “shit” comes from the Indo-European word “skei,” meaning “to divide or separate” and that it led to the Old English word “scitan,” which means “to defecate” or “to divide or separate solid waste from the body?” I’ve got more bad words to share with you, but not enough time or space here to do it. Accordingly, I’ll curse all you bastards out some other time.

Before wrapping this up, I should define what Hip Hop actually is, since most people who talk against—or even for—it don’t really know what it is. Hip Hop is an Afrocentric-based subculture manifested primarily in four elements: the emcee or rapper (from the West African griot), the deejay (from the African djembe or drum player), the breaker (from the Afro-Brazilian martial arts called capoeria), and the graf writer (from North African hieroglyphics called medu neter).

Although there is legitimate debate about how the term Hip Hop was created, there are at least two solid theories. One of those theories is that Cowboy of Grand Master Flash and The Furious Five invented it in 1976 in New York. It is said that when he, Melle Mel, Flash and Kid Creole did their first house party, they noticed that one of their friends, namely Cocoa Mo, had arrived. Cowboy, who was on the microphone at the time, remembered that Cocoa was scheduled to leave to join the Army within the next few days. And when he saw Cocoa dancing, Cowboy began teasing him by chanting in military style, “one, two, three, four, one, two, three, four.” Then, with slurred speech, that chant transformed into “hup, two, three, four, hup, two, three, four,” which later blurred into “hip, two, three, four, hip, two, three, four.” He then began joking about the way Cocoa was moving and hopping around on the dance floor. Finally, Cowboy turned that into the chant “hip hop, hip hop, hip hop.” The other theory is that in the 1960s and ’70s, people who were considered cool were often referred to as “hip” (apparently having something to do with the hips being stylishly seductive and fashionably attractive). And it was those “hip” people who would hang out at the trendiest clubs and dance or “hop” around on the dance floor doing the latest moves. As a result, some years later, cool or “hip” persons came to be known as “hip hoppers.”

Hip Hop—the musical art form and the subculture as we know it today—was born in the Bronx in 1973. And it was gritty. It was grimy. It was unadulterated. But just as nothing fails like success, radio, TV and the recording industry killed the purity of Hip Hop. They turned the natural, raw brown sugar into an unnatural processed white sugar. And I don’t mean in a racial way. Remember that Puffy, the anti-Christ of Hip Hop, is black and Eminem, one of the saviors of Hip Hop, is white. Hip Hop, to a large extent, has been commodified by the likes of Puffy and his species. It has been turned into a product. It has been appropriated instead of appreciated. But there’s still hope. And that’s because of little-known, but big-talent artists like Black Ice, Chino XL, Cory Gunz, Immortal Technique, Jasiri X, Jedi Mind Tricks, Little Brother, N Y Oil, Pharoahe Monch, The Coup, The Last Emperor (from West Philly) and many others. And there are well-known highly skilled artists too, including Canibus, Common, Jay Electronica, Jay-Z, KRS, Mos Def, Nas, Outkast, Public Enemy (my all-time favorite), Rakim, Talib Kweli, The Roots/Black Thought (the greatest Hip Hop band of all time!), and Wu-Tang, just to name a few. If you really want to understand what unadulterated and brainy—but very cool and very rhythmic and very hip Hip Hop is—listen (repeatedly) to “Act Too” by The Roots featuring Common and “The Manifesto” by Talib Kweli with Reflection Eternal. Those songs epitomize what genuine Hip Hop is all about.

In conclusion, an anonymous rapper said it best: “To be a Philly Post writer, you gotta have a live wit. And if you ain’t feelin this column that you read, then sywve it.”