By reducing the culture of Hip Hop to money and sex, it is inevitable that its greatest powers will be lost in analysis. Basing the American Dream on the same two notions is bound to result in misinterpretation.
Published the same year in which the Empire State Building‘s ribbon was cut, 1931’s The Epic of America, by Brooklyn-born writer James Truslow Adam’s, established a monument that looms larger over American life than any Art Deco construction of plate glass and steel ever could. Even the constructions themselves fall under its shadow.
The shadow, that is, of the American dream:
“a dream of a social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and recognised by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position”.James Truslow Adams
Importantly, Adams begins the above description with a disclaimer: his conception of the ideal American life is “not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely”. Far too often is the American Dream warped, by a cold conception of existence, into a distorted pyramid where material goods alone occupy the base, face, and apex. Four wheels and a picket fence are merely goals. Money and sex are shiny jewels that rest on the pit of America’s neck. They are not the Dream itself. Instead, it is the realisation of potential, it is the freedom to pursue that potential, it is opportunity.
Leaving Adam’s study, stepping forty-two years through time, and hopping on the northbound Subway from Brooklyn to The Bronx, we arrive at Hip Hop’s manager. The year is 1973, the day is Saturday, August 11th. From 9:00 pm to 04:00 am DJ Kool Herc’s Back to School Jam flows in the “Rec Room” of 1520 Sedgwick Avenue. Street artists spraying on the walls, B-Girls and B-Boys breaking on the floor, and Herc mixing on the decks.
All at once together, and so, Hip Hop is born. Kool Herc, alongside Afrika Bambaataa and Grandmaster Flash, is known today as Hip Hop’s ‘Holy Trinity. All three were revolutionary, not only musically, but also socio-politically. From studio to street corner, partygoers to gang members, to everything and everyone between and beyond, Hip Hop’s ‘Holy Trinity’ changed life and music at a time when it was desperately needed.
While Downtown revelled in the lavishes of Disco, The Bronx was burning. Herc offered a place to escape. Like a real-life Cyrus, who in The Warriors (1979) attempts to unite New York City’s warring street gangs, Bambaataa used music to foster peace on the bloody streets of The Bronx. Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five, after years of success performing party songs, released a culture-defining portrait of inner-city life.
1982’s The Message guides a tour of American living that strays closer to a nightmare than a dream. Amongst the many anecdotes is that of a son telling his father, “Daddy, I don’t want to go to school”.
More attractive, it seems, is dropping out and getting a job as a “street sweeper” – a flipped coin that may land either on an easily accessible profession in waste management or on joining a street gang (‘street sweeper‘ being a slang term for automatic weapons).
Four decades on from The Message, reactionaries are waging a war of censorship in U.S. schools, attempting to prevent teachings about racism and sexism. In doing so, the words quoted in The Message will continue to be uttered by disenfranchised youth. Educational alienation arises not from a lack of enthusiasm, but rather from suppression of opportunity. For those living outside the embrace of the American Dream, its outstretched arms are conspicuously stubby.
It is this denial of the American Dream that has inspired so much of Hip Hop’s music. Just as the denial comes in various forms, so too does the response. Inner-city poverty, police brutality, misogyny, drug addiction, gang violence and other social issues are stirred into a cultural cauldron that serves musical subgenres of ‘conscious rap’, ‘gangsta rap’, ‘mumble rap’, and more. In the jungle of Hip Hop, what sprouts through the concrete is far from uniform.
“Did you hear about the rose”, asks Tupac Shakur, “that grew from a crack in the concrete”. Recognised as a symbol of beauty, the rose carries with it a darker side. One may be gifted in love, its petals scattered on a romantic mattress. A second’s thorny stem might prick the fingers of the ignorant. Another may fall on a casket.
All three scenarios apply to Hip Hop, perhaps at once together, or else one by one, track by track. And so, the American Dream is reflected. At first glance, the bright, red petals are seductive. Moving down the stem, the thorns appear. One does not exist without the other, and the “fortuitous circumstances of birth” that Truslow Adams mentioned in 1931 dictate whether you land on the rosy petals or not.
Hip Hop is for those who land on the thorns, and flower nonetheless. Music is its champion, and so, it shall do the talking.