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June 2003 Archives

June 1, 2003

Check Your Principles at the Door

I've done a little bit of freelance music writing over the years (in Vibe, The Source and XXL), and this column gives some idea why I never did more than a little bit. I think JR Taylor's tone is a little unfair to the subject, who is just being real about the world she works in, but the picture painted here isn't far from the truth. If anything, the reality is even worse than this, in the world of "Hip-Hop journalism" at least.

It doesn’t take much for a professional music journalist to tell the truth. About $65, in fact.

I’ve seen the future of rock ‘n roll, and it is Brooklyn’s Mink Lungs...

Caitlin Cary’s second album makes a perfect soundtrack for the sorts of days evoked on the languid, unhurried "Sleepin’ In on Sunday"...

Mix a half-cup of Jeremy Enigk’s Return of the Frog Queen, two tablespoons Ron Sexsmith and one quart Neutral Milk Hotel. Stir counterclockwise, and you have a serviceable description of Castaways and Cutouts...

Such is the state of modern music journalism. Such is the lack of inspiration and opinion. Even in the service of minor bands, writers desperately churn out meaningless hype, sad cliches and vapid non-opinion toward two goals: pleasing the publicists and allowing the writer to blather on about more useless acts in the future.

Though I offer this statement as fact, you needn’t accept my humble, free opinion. For $65, a successful music journalist named Shirley Halperin was willing to help aspiring hacks at her May 15 MediaBistro seminar, "Almost Famous: Breaking Into Freelance Music Journalism."

What's more, Halperin takes pride in knowing the truth about her profession...

..."Seventy to 80 percent of the time, you’ll be writing about artists you don’t like."

This could actually be construed as good news. Somebody, after all, has to note that N.E.R.D. is getting critical acclaim for ripping off bands like Styx and Slipknot. And why is Aimee Mann only now discovering that moths can get burned by a flame?

Sadly, Halperin doesn’t seem to understand that writers—even those with a "passion for music"—can express negative thoughts. We will find ourselves writing positive things about artists we don’t like, she informs us. For all intents and purposes, Halperin is warning that 70 to 80 percent of the time, we will be expected to tell lies...

..."How many of you," she then asks, "if you hated the band ethically and morally, wouldn’t write about the band?"

Two people raise their hands.

"You have to learn how to temper your reaction," she explains. "They don’t want to hear [deep sigh]. They want to hear ‘Cool!’ ‘Great!’ ‘Awesome!’"

Besides, Halperin adds, you can always express your disdain for the band "after the article’s been edited and published."

Halperin also warns us about all the trouble that comes with having an opinion. She cites Spin’s hard lesson after they put Creed on their cover, accompanied by an article that mainly goofed on the popular band. She wants us to consider the long months spent trying to placate the publicists afterwards: "Half of your year has been spent thinking and analyzing about how to get out of this mess with this band… It just becomes a mess that takes up half your life. So, that’s that."

As noted, Halperin’s seminar does some good. There’s some occasional useful advice, like her suggestion not to ask predictable questions. Halperin even suggests that it’s okay to sometimes print controversial news about a popular band—that is, once you’re sure that the band’s publicist represents so many bands that he or she "has to work with you."

Most importantly, Halperin does an excellent job of representing the banality of modern music journalism. She is the true face of pandering, and is completely honest about how well this serves her. It would take a lot less than three hours for her to convince anyone with integrity to walk away from the business, and I would’ve paid a lot more than $65 to be talked out of this business back when I was younger.

June 2, 2003

Regarding Hip-Hop Blasphemy

A post in this fresh young blog speaks of "Hip-Hop Blasphemy". He throws a bunch of different ideas out there, and I'm not going to touch most of them right now. But I will say that Hip-Hop's fundamentalist sect has been a concern of mine for quite a while. Some of us have been taught to enforce such a rigid orthodoxy that we risk stifling growth in the name of upholding traditions.

The most common example is the Gospel of the Four Elements. Personally I do not subscribe to this, partly because graffiti was a distinct culture of its own before Hip-Hop was born, so I wonder whether it is fair or accurate to classify it as a subset of Hip-Hop. On the other hand, I'm all in favor of celebrating the great contributions that writers and b-boys/girls have made to the culture, and ensuring they are not forgotten just because they couldn't be commodified as effectively as the music. So I suppose this bit of dogma is fairly benign. But it gets a little silly when folks come at you like "thou shalt love and cherish each of these four pillars with equal fervor, or be subject to stoning". If you have a passion for the music you should feel welcome to express that without fear of being chastised cuz you don't know Taki 183's birthday.

Other strains of Hip-Hop's fundamentalism may be more troublesome. My least favorite trend of recent years is how the term "freestyle" has been redefined as referring only to rhyming off-the-top, which has led to a vehement (and IMO irrational) disdain for performing written rhymes in any cypher or live venue. I believe this mindset is entirely misguided, and can be terribly unhealthy for the art form. I'm sure I'll get deeper into that in a future post.

I think this strict constructionism is often a product of insecurity, especially among younger heads who weren't around for Hip-Hop's early days or the Golden Age of '85 to '91 (or thereabouts). Without these credentials they need a concrete list of rules to which they can conform, and thus reassure themselves that they are "real" or "true". Which isn't necessarily a bad thing I suppose. There's nothing wrong with putting together a system that helps you maintain a sense of tradition.

But you've got to keep it in perspective. A system of law should serve to protect your freedom, rather than take it away.

Aww naw, hell naw..

The FCC done up and done it:

Lawmakers Blast FCC Media Ownership Rule

Within minutes of the FCC decision Monday to let companies increase their media holdings in single markets, lawmakers began blasting the decision.

"The decision today by the [FCC] is a blow to diversity, competition and the public having access to multiple sources of information," Reps. Ciro Rodriguez, D-Texas, chairman of Congressional Hispanic Caucus, Elijah Cummings, D-Md., chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus and David Wu, D-Ore., chairman of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus, said in a written statement.

"We are extremely concerned that these new changes will significantly undermine current FCC rules that were intended to promote minority participation, and preserve multiple media voices and opinions in the electronic and print media industries," they said.

On the floor of the Senate, Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., called the decision "dumb and dangerous," and warned it will result in "an orgy" of mergers and acquisitions. He said the new rules will mean less diversity and will result in a system with many stations, but just "one ventriloquist."

The FCC voted 3-2 on party lines to update the rules on media ownership. The new rules allow the broadcast networks to own television stations that reach a combined 45 percent of the national audience, up from 35 percent, and lift a ban that prevents a company from owning both a newspaper and a television or radio station -- except in the smallest markets...

Interestingly, Clear Channel was also critical of the decision, which was not sufficiently evil to satisfy their demonic urges:

Clear Channel critical of FCC decision

...Clear Channel President and Chief Operating Officer Mark Mays charged the FCC with "missing the mark" in its efforts to act in the public interest.

"This FCC action will extinguish the substantial consumer benefits brought on by radio deregulation in 1996," Mays says. "Unfortunately, the FCC chose politics over the public interest, and American consumers will be the ultimate victims."

San Antonio-based Clear Channel, the nation's largest radio company which grew from about 40 radio stations in 1995 to more than 1,200 today, has argued that deregulation helped to save the struggling radio industry.

"Just 10 years ago, nearly 60 percent of the nation's radio stations were operating in the red, cutting news budgets and laying off employees," Mays says. "Deregulation changed all that. But instead of letting radio stations find better and more innovative ways to serve their listeners, the FCC is intent on turning the clock back to a time when the industry was incapable of providing consumers the variety of programming it does today..."

Don't you love the spin these guys put on it? And note this article's chilling last sentence:

Clear Channel operates eight radio stations in the Dayton market.

My high school English teacher would call that "foreshadowing".

June 3, 2003

Dead Prez Dropped by Columbia

In a solid new interview on allhiphop.com, Dead Prez reveal that they've been kicked to the curb by Columbia Records, who will not be releasing their completed sophomore album:

dead prez: Plantation Life

Fans have anxiously awaited an album release from internationally acclaimed rap duo, dead prez, for several, painful months. While it has already garnered stellar reviews sources at Columbia Records have revealed (off the record) that dead prez was no longer on its payroll. The group was allegedly dropped according to unofficial reports as a result of what was deemed “as poor projection of sales.”

The politically charged group's debut Let's Get Free, moved approximately 300,000 copies in the United States. Execs were apparently concerned about the upcoming project, despite already being completed.

In an interview prior to the disappointing, but not surprising news, M-1 likens industry life to plantation life and explains why they "stic" with it.

AllHipHop.com: when you and stic first started looking for a deal who did you reach out to and what was your experience?

M-1: We had a few friends that gave us some names and numbers because in the beginning we didn't know all the names and titles of those people at the labels. Then we started calling people and going up in the offices like you need to see us. We approached Russell a few times up in the elevator and his words to us were. ' Y'all need to stop cursing so much.' Cause he knew…he knew we was cursing at the government. He could get with DMX but he couldn't get with us cause he knew our intentions were different. We tried to get with this lady at Columbia but at the time she took a little too long so we went to Steve Rifkin's office at Loud Records. They had a good rep in the streets.

AllHipHop: What was your experience with Loud?

M-1: We were on Loud for 6 years. Four of those years were spent without releasing our first album, Let's Get Free even though it was ready to go. We saw Big Pun come, we saw Wu-Tang come with albums, we saw a lot happen while we was just sittin. Then, Loud started going through a lot of changes with its distributors we were caught in the middle. Every time they switched distributors, our release date was pushed back. Because once the distribution changed, the partners changed and the company began a new relationship in dealing with the money exchange. Those distributors were the beneficiaries who bankrolled what would happen to Loud Records, the backers. How the checks got cut, new deadlines were set, everything would change each time. That's why it took four years until we finally saw Sony.

AllHipHop: What happened when Loud finally folded?

M-1: Once Loud became unable to keep up with Sony's high standard to put out the kind of records that it sells for the 40 million dollar per year entity that it is. I mean you really have to do a lot of platinum to keep up with that and Loud Records was not a powerhouse platinum label like a Def Jam. For the most part their artists had a cult following but they needed that attention paid but they wanted Mariah Careys. Eventually, that worked to the detriment of Loud because eventually their departments became swallowed up as they couldn't produce. Loud itself fell into Sony companies, dissolved it and sold it to different parts. That's how we ended up on Columbia.

AllHipHop: Was that your choice? Did you have any say so?

M-1: Oh hell no. Hell no. I would have been free. We tried to run from the plantation. We saw the plantation was burning down we was trying to escape in the middle of the night. Ol' dude was standing in the corner and snatched us up when we were trying to sneak into the woods and took us to the next plantation.

AllHipHop: same shit different day, huh?

M-1: That's my total analogy. For anybody that can't understand that I don't know how to get it through any clearer than that. We were sold like slaves in the middle of the night...

June 4, 2003

Roc-A-Fella vs. Rockefeller

Russell Simmons organized another rally against New York's atrocious Rockefeller drug laws today, and brought out a bunch of his a-list friends. I've got to give Russell credit where it's due, his forays into the political arena have sometimes struck me as self-serving but this one is certainly for a good cause.

With the powers that be claiming to be sympathetic but mysteriously failing to act upon this sentiment, maybe Russell's media savvy can help tip the scales and make something happen here...especially if we the people make our voices heard and show them this is not just the latest celebrity be-in. On that note, I should give a shoutout to The Kunstler Fund, who were on the front lines of this battle long before Russell brought it into the limelight.

Diddy, Jay-Z, Susan Sarandon Rally Against New York Drug Laws

Russell Simmons and friends such as Susan Sarandon, P. Diddy, Jay-Z, Mariah Carey, Fat Joe, Tim Robbins, Dead Prez and Dame Dash made their voices heard Wednesday (June 4) at City Hall, where they rallied against New York state's strict drug sentencing laws.

"When I was younger, I would see kids get caught with an ounce [of narcotics] and do 10, 15 years," Dash said. "I never understood that. I don't think they deserve 10, 15 years. There's a lot of other things that need to be addressed at that time to make the person a better individual and make them evolve as a better human being, rather than come out [of jail] bitter."

"The laws aren't fair," said Jay-Z as he made his way to the stage. "I personally know a lot of people that's locked up unjustly and unfairly. [The MCs] have got the streets, so we gotta come out here and show our support, our strong voice."

Diddy said rappers should pay especially close attention to the state's Rockefeller drug laws — enacted in 1973 when Nelson Rockefeller was governor — because of the enormous impact they've had on the hip-hop community.

"This law has affected hip-hop, our families, our friends, our future," Diddy said backstage. "Ninety-six percent of the people incarcerated by this law are minorities. It's one of the most unjust laws in history...

June 5, 2003

Maybe they had just rented the Belly DVD

This review of Tuesday's Summer Jam concert has a tasty tidbit at the end:

Some low points during the evening were Nelly and the St. Lunatics being booed during their performance of "Dilemma" and a chorus of boos when Nas performed a verse from his Jay-Z diss record "Ether."

The first part is certainly understandable, but why was Nas booed for doing Ether? Has public opinion swayed back towards Jay Z's corner? Or maybe people are just generally tired of beef?

June 6, 2003

Upcoming Hip-Hop Events in NY

Here are a couple of noteworthy events coming up this weekend..

On monday:

Cuban Hip Hop Groups Join The Roots In A Historic Concert At The Apollo Theater

The Fourth Annual Hip Hop Theater Festival, The International Hip Hop
Exchange, The Apollo Theater Foundation and OkayPlayer.com present:
Monday, June 9th, 2003 @ 8 pm

In its continuing effort to promote cultural exchange, The Hip Hop Theater Festival and The International Hip Hop Exchange will unite Cuba's leading Hip Hop groups, Doble Filo and Obsesion with America's leading politically and socially conscious Hip Hop artists: The Roots, Common, Tony Touch, Soul Live w/J-Live, Kanye West, El Meswy and Tomorrowz Weaponz with other special guests.

and coming up tomorrow:


12 Noon-8PM (DOORS OPEN AT 11:30AM)

490 Riverside Drive
between 120th and 122nd Streets
New York City

Moderated by DAVEY D



TONI BLACKMAN, Emcee, U.S. hiphop ambassador

SWAY CALLOWAY, MTV News reporter/veejay, radio personality

REBECCA FABIANO, Director of After-School in Lincoln Square at
Martin Luther King, Jr. High School Campus

BABA ISRAEL, Beatboxer, emcee, and educator at The Door and with Urban Word

DJ KAYSLAY, Legendary graffiti writer formerly known as "Dez," popuar mixtape deejay, Hot 97 radio personality, SONY recording artist

DJ KUTTIN KANDI, Turntablist, member of DJ team champions the 5th Platoon and all female hiphop group Anomolies, and the first female DJ to make it to the DMC USA Finals (1998)

JORGE "FABEL" PABON, Hiphop pioneer, Senior Vice-President, Rock Steady Crew, and hiphop historian

KEVIN POWELL, Community activist, writer, public speaker, and cofounder of Hiphop Speaks

FATIMA ROBINSON, Award-winning hiphop choreographer

ROKAFELLA, Bgirl, choreographer, cofounder of Full Circle Productions

Plus, a Conversation With The Elders....

AFRIKA BAMBAATAA, A founding father of hiphop, creator of the Universal Zulu Nation, and mastermind behind Hiphop History Month (November)

ERNIE PANICCIOLI, legendary hiphop photographer, historian, author of Who Shot Ya? Three Decades of Hiphop Photography (Amistad/HarperCollins)

CAMILLE YARBROUGH, Poetess, soul singer, actress/dancer, award-winning author of four children's books

Moderated by THEMBISA MSHAKA, SONY advertising executive, former Gavin Rap Editor, and author of the forthcoming book Handle Your (Music) Business (a resource guide for women in the music industry)

On the 1s and 2s: DJ DRAMA...www.djdrama.net

Admission is FREE and seating will be on a first-come first-serve basis.

If You Can't Shizzle, You Must Acquizzle

I've discussed in earlier posts how our court system may not understand the inner workings and the particular moral/ethical boundaries of Hip-Hop culture well enough to make a fair judgement in the many lawsuits filed within the industry.

Looks like this British judge had similar concerns, more or less:

Judge fails to unravel rap lyrics

A high court judge did his best to get to grips with the lyrics of a rap song - and came to the conclusion that he really couldn't understand a word of it.
Mr Justice Lewison was faced with the task of deciding whether the composer Andrew Alcee had suffered damage to his honour or reputation through the "derogatory" use of his UK garage No 1 hit Burnin.

Mr Alcee complained under the Copyright Act that Burnin, released as a single by the concept group Ant'ill Mob, had been distorted or mutilated by its use as backing for a rap by Heartless Crew, which contained references to drugs and violence.

The judge said the claim "led to the faintly surreal experience of three gentlemen in horsehair wigs [himself and the two barristers in the case] examining the meaning of such phrases as 'mish mish man' and 'shizzle my nizzle'."

In any event, the words, although in a form of English, were "for practical purposes a foreign language" and he had no expert evidence as to what they meant...

thanks to Hadiya for the link.

June 7, 2003

Stagolee (Re)Revisited

About a month ago I posted an excerpt from Cecil Brown's new book "Stagolee Shot Billy". Todd Boyd reviews the book in today's NY Times, and he's not too impressed.

I'm pasting in the entire article since the NY Times decided to start making links unavailable for free after 1 week. (Although given recent circumstances it's easier to understand why they want their older material hard to access).

Is Stagolee's Stetson Like a Rapper's Baggy Pants?


Stagolee has been immortalized in song for years by Ma Rainey, Duke Ellington, Bob Dylan, the Grateful Dead and the Clash. As the legend goes, Stag Lee Shelton shot a man in 1895 named Billy Lyons in a barroom brawl in St. Louis because Lyons touched Stagolee's immaculate Stetson hat.

To Cecil Brown, a novelist who heard the story while growing up on a tobacco farm in North Carolina in the late 1950's, "Stagolee is a metaphor that structures the life of black males from childhood through maturity." The very name, he writes, "is an in-group catchword conveying knowledge of what it means to be a black man."

In "Stagolee Shot Billy," Mr. Brown sets out to trace the Stagolee legend and explain how it still resonates today. In his eyes, Stagolee is the forefather for what in hip-hop is often referred to as an "O.G." or "original gangsta," a direct link for gangsta rappers with their gun-toting, womanizing and utterly nihilistic ways.

Yet if Stagolee is this important, why is it that no one born after the assassination of Malcolm X, much less someone born into the hip-hop generation, has much knowledge of this supposedly transcendent archetype?

Mr. Brown's personal passion for the legend comes through in the pages of his book, and his skills as a novelist shine most brightly when he relates the details of Stagolee's life. But that passion seems to have also clouded his judgment of the Stagolee character's importance, especially its significance to contemporary culture.

Sure, it is easy to say that all of black masculinity owes a debt to Stagolee in the same way that one could argue that contemporary Hollywood movies are really updated Greek tragedies. But Stagolee, a legend of oral culture, is about as relevant in today's mass-media-dominated digital age as a horse-and-carriage on a crowded Los Angeles freeway during rush hour.

It is interesting how both haters and defenders often try to link hip-hop — the prevailing popular-music form of the late 20th and early 21st century — to older black music. The haters make the link to minimize its cultural impact by portraying it as a copy, not an original, the defenders to argue for its acceptability as an updated African-American folklore with beats and rhymes.

Yet if anything, hip-hop is indebted to more recent cultural products. Tony Montana, the Cuban drug lord in the 1983 film "Scarface," in all his excesses, has much more impact on the mind-set of hip-hop gangstas than does a figure like Stagolee. So does Christopher Walken's living embodiment of Norman Mailer's "white Negro" in his portrayal of the character Frank White in the 1990 cult classic "The King of New York." Neither of these characters are African-American, but many hip-hop gangsta figures have been able to appropriate their imagery and make it specific to their own circumstances.

Alas, Mr. Brown's attempts to analyze contemporary culture often come across like Bill Cosby trying to do Chris Rock. This shortcoming is most apparent when Mr. Brown tries to equate Stagolee's life as a pimp with the use of the pimp metaphor in present day hip-hop culture. Relying on the work of the historian Robin D. G. Kelley, Mr. Brown writes, "It is difficult to understand the reason for recent glamorizations of the pimp's image without also looking at the origin of the pimp in the 1890's in cities like St. Louis."

What is missing here, though, is a discussion of the way the culture of pimping offered a certain power to those engaged in the practice. The pimp or mack functions like the Mafia don in Italian-American culture. This character is a cipher that helps critique mainstream capitalism while also affirming it in a most extreme fashion. One need only check out Iceberg Slim's novel "Pimp," the 1973 film "The Mack" or the Hughes brothers masterly documentary "American Pimp" (1999) to find a sustained counterargument to both Mr. Brown's and Mr. Kelley's weak analysis.

Mr. Brown also misunderstands the style of hip-hop, writing, "In the 1890's, the Stetson became a symbol of black male status; in the late 1990's, baggy pants became a signifier of status."

First of all, the baggy pants, or saggin, as it is called, originated with prisoners, who were not given belts, so their pants sagged. In addition, many hip-hop-inspired fashion labels, starting with Cross Colors and Karl Kani and now with Sean John and Rocawear, began making strides in the marketplace and culture by designing jeans cut specifically for blacks. (Other labels designed for whites were often too tight, so people bought them several sizes too big to fit better.) This style was never about status in the way a Stetson hat was or a Gucci hat is now. Instead, it could be read as hip-hop's ability to redefine the culture around it.

Blacks were not being manipulated by the culture, as Mr. Brown suggests, but rather transforming it.

Stagolee and the more mainstream character of Uncle Remus are often part of nostalgia for the kind of Southern existence that can be found in guided tours of former slave plantations, and they have become quite popular. It is this nostalgia that seems to drive Cecil Brown and his attempt to resurrect a long dead icon from a forgotten era. But while the history of Stagolee, both real and imagined, is useful, the application of his aura falls short when trying to ascertain the meaning of someone like 50 Cent and his restoration of the gangsta aesthetic in the present.

And Don't Forget the Brother on "Designing Women"

The Washington Post weighs in on Hollywood's undying love for the Magic Negro:

Too Too Divine

Movies' 'Magic Negro' Saves the Day, but at The Cost of His Soul

Morgan Freeman plays God in "Bruce Almighty;" Laurence Fishburne a demigod in "The Matrix Reloaded," and Queen Latifah a ghetto goddess in "Bringing Down the House."

What's the deal with the holy roles?

Every one of the actors has to help a white guy find his soul or there won't be a happy ending. Bruce (Jim Carrey) won't get the girl. Neo (Keanu Reeves) won't become the next Messiah. And klutzy guy Peter (Steve Martin) won't get his groove on.

In movie circles, this figure is known as a "magic Negro," a term that dates back to the late 1950s, around the time Sidney Poitier sacrifices himself to save Tony Curtis in "The Defiant Ones." Spike Lee, who satirizes the stereotype in 2000's "Bamboozled," goes even further and denounces the stereotype as the "super-duper magical Negro"

"[Filmmakers] give the black character special powers and underlying mysticism," says Todd Boyd, author of "Am I Black Enough for You?" and co-writer of the 1999 film "The Wood." "This goes all the way back to 'Gone with the Wind.' Hattie McDaniel is the emotional center, but she is just a pawn. Pawns help white people figure out what's going wrong and fix it, like Whoopi Goldberg's psychic in 'Ghost.' "

It isn't that the actors or the roles aren't likable, valuable or redemptive, but they are without interior lives. For the most part, they materialize only to rescue the better-drawn white characters....

There goes Todd Boyd again, I guess he's the latest it-boy of Black cultural punditry. There are also choice quotes from Ariel Dorfman and others.

EDIT: Those of you with masochistic tendencies may enjoy the predictably boneheaded reactions to this article at fark.com.

June 9, 2003

Cuban Hip-Hop Comes to Harlem

This week we were greatly honored to have two of Cuba's foremost hip-hop groups represented on the radio show, Doble Filo and Obsesion. It was sweet meeting these young guys with such a great energy, representing a hip-Hop subculture that thrives despite the many obstacles in its path, lack of resources, and little chance of fame or fortune. In other words, a place where people live hip-hop for the love of it, like it used to be over here.

I'm on my way to see those guys perform at the Apollo tonite, with the Roots backing them up. I'll make a more complete post with pictures and audio later, but for now you can check out Jon's comments at hiphopanonymous.net, since he was also in the house on Saturday.

June 10, 2003

What is Hip-Hop Activism?

Politicians and media folks love to play with our heads by making up new slang. The government will concoct a certain word or phrase and then repeat it again and again, every time they get in front of a microphone. They never really explain where it came from, or what exactly it means, but by sheer power of repetition they get the media to pick it up and join in the chorus, beating it into our heads every time we watch tv or read (surf) the paper. Pretty soon we are all swallowing their slang and regurgitating without a second thought.

Like when America decided Manuel Noriega was no longer a useful partner in crime, we started calling him a "strongman" every night on the news. Pretty soon whenever reporters talked about him he was Panamanian Strongman Manuel Noriega, and it seemed like none of us ever thought to ask "wait, what the hell is a 'strongman' anyway? And how come nobody called him that until 4 months ago?"

They do this because they know that by controlling the language used to discuss an issue they can shape the way that issue is delivered to the public, shape the direction and the boundaries of debate on that issue.

So I always try to pay close attention to language, and I'm always concerned when people start repeating a phrase over and over without establishing a definition for it, and confirming that what it describes is something that actually exists.

Lately I've been seeing the phrase "Hip-Hop Activism" thrown around a quite a bit, but I'm never clear on what exactly it's supposed to mean, and if there really is such a thing. It certainly sounds nice, but I don't want to slack on my critical thinking just cuz the propaganda is coming from our side and I'm sympathetic to the cause.

So when I see pieces like this one below, I always wind up yelling at the screen "But what the hell is Hip-Hop Activism?" ..does this describe any action carried out by the "Hip-Hop Generation"? Does it mean activities led by actual Hip-Hop artists or industry figures? Are there certain Hip-Hop tactics that must be employed for an activity to qualify as Hip-Hop Activism, just as Hip-Hop fashion requires wearing certain clothes, and Hip-Hop music requires certain musical elements? Just what are we talking about exactly?

Hip Hop Activism Buds Beautifully

Harry Belafonte stated to me in an interview that entertainers have the responsibility to speak out on issues concerning the community. He also said that entertainers are so often used to take people's minds off real issues and that entertainers who do not act are part of the problem. In a recent Wall Street Journal article entitled, "Mean Street Theater," written by John McWhorter, he called social and political contributions to the community made by rapper's "sideline donations." About the recently slain rap artist Camoflauge, McWhorter writes, "Despite his searingly profane, violent lyrics, [he] was regularly invited to speak at Savannah high schools." This article could have been more appropriately titled, "Mean Muggin' Hip Hop."

There's more. The article went on to run off other artists, i.e. Tupac, Biggie, and Jam Master Jay as products of the genre. Never mind the failings of law enforcement who have yet to find the killers of any of these men. But, they could find any small-time hustlers in the hood and lock them up for years and years for a nonviolent offense, i.e. drug possession.

This brings me to the most appealing part of the piece. While the author gave credit to Russell Simmons' Hip Hop Action Network for setting a goal to register millions of hip hop voters for the 2004 elections, he asked a poignant question. "What does the organization want the hip-hop generation to vote for?" If for nothing else, his article should have been printed for this query.

It is true that Hip Hop has to have a political issue or issues to mobilize around. And we got issues; no doubt about that. Well, Russell Simmons, P Diddy, Jay Z and many other hip hoppers are right on point in their effort to address what should be the number one issue to focus hip hop activism – fighting against the failed war on drugs. These celebrities are doing exactly what Mr. Belafonte says is expected of them.

This is a perfect issue for hip hop activism because the lives affected the greatest are in the same communities that Hip Hop most represents. In addition, the unchecked drug war is now devastating lives in white communities as well. But what makes this an even greater issue for the hip hop generation is the fact that it is The Issue of our time...

...Hip Hop is coming into political maturity and can work to change some of the realities that are reported so vividly in rap lyrics. It is so fascinating how music has always been a part of social action in the black community. During slavery, coded songs were used to take persons to freedom. In the civil rights movement, marchers sang songs like, "Ain't Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Round." Now, there is an entire genre that is budding into full political awareness. How beautiful. And, it does not look like a mere "sideline donation" to me.

I'm sympathetic to where this guy's coming from, and all in favor of organizing against America's bonehead drug policies. But I'm not sold on this assumption that there exists a particular entity or tradition we can accurately label Hip-hop Activism. And I'm damn sure not sold on the assumptions drawn about it here, based mostly on the Russell Simmons Celebrity Be-In: "Hip Hop is coming into political maturity" ..is it really? "Now, there is an entire genre that is budding into full political awareness" ..is there? What does that even mean?

Clyde's Hip-Hop Theater Festival

Today's Newsday profiles Clyde Valentin, a cool brother who accompanied the Cuban emcees up to my show on Saturday, and also runs the Hip-Hop Theater Festival, taking place here in New York for the rest of the week. I'm gonna do my best to catch some of it and I encourage y'all to do the same.

Of Hip-Hop, Doo-Rags and Free Expression

"...What we're doing here is reclaiming what is the truest, most ancient form of cultural expression. And that is the inherent magical combination of the audience and the storyteller," said Clyde Valentin, co-founder of the 3-year-old Hip-Hop Theater Festival, whose Manhattan run extends through Saturday at P.S. 122 Theater (First Avenue at Ninth Street) and the Nuyorican Poets Cafe (236 E. Third St.). The collection of 30 performances includes instrumentation, rap, song and dance, performance poetry, plays, public dialogue on topical issues, some street theater moved indoors, B-boy choreography from a guy whose movement is based on primal instinct and bits of his more formal training.

Valentin has produced, marketed and, with the others who round out the festival's staff, provided context for the days' events. He is 31 and, on the second day of the festival, had a bandana draped around his head. He was weaned on hip-hop, he said, disavowed drugs when he was real young because his mother and father delivered the finest, up-close examples of why one should never touch the murderous stuff.

He left his native Brooklyn to study literature/rhetoric and sociology at Binghamton University, returning home to spend a few years publishing a magazine devoted to hip-hop thought. Somewhere along the line, his father died from AIDS. "My uncle and half of his friends, too," Valentin said.

That pain informs his work. And the broadest work of hip-hop cannot be constrained by those unfamiliar with what is at hip-hop's core, Valentin intimated. It is more than the gangland, sex-obsessed, name-calling stylings that keep a handful in the record business, raking in more money than they've rightly earned, and brings suburban kids, at the sight of idolized 50 Cent, to tears. He has been shot, stabbed, done some dirty-dealing, too, and bankrolls his rapper's account of that life.

"Rise up!" "Resist!" "Build." Those words are pasted across the poster advertising the current festival. Valentin hesitates to call it an underground endeavor. The lineup of its Unity Concert last night uptown at the Apollo was, after all, to feature The Roots, a politicized crew with enough notoriety to be recognized by one completely unqualified to claim hip-hop membership. One for whom the mere sight of a doo-rag elicits an adverse and visceral reaction, something akin to fear and loathing.

Valentin does not seize the chance to enumerate some in the wealth of wrongs inherent in the strain of hip-hop that so dominates the commercial markets. He will agree that it is, in part, angry and uninspiring, a bottomless rehashing of ghetto tales that never call upon people behaving badly to simply cut it out.

"This is an alternative but it's not a reaction to what exists. It's being proactive," Valentin said. "This space exists. That space exists. It's about creating more spaces like this."

I wouldn't agree that popular emcees with negative messages are getting "more money than they've rightly earned".. if people want to spend money on the art you created, you deserve to get that money. But anyway, I'm glad Clyde and his festival are getting some love.

June 11, 2003

Activists Warn Russell Not to Rush

In my previous posts that gave props to Russell Simmons for his recent protests against the Rockefeller drug laws, I've made a point to acknowledge the other folks who were fighting this fight long before Russell joined in, such as Drop the Rock and the Kunstler Fund. Well it turns out there is some tension between those groups and Russell's people, disagreement over who should speak for this movement and what path it should take, according to the Village Voice:

Movement Hijacked by Hiphop?

...There is a sense that the momentum gained by ties to the hiphop community has eclipsed the activists who were the movement's catalysts. More importantly, activists are worried that lawmakers will just offer the new negotiators the same compromise deals that have been rejected in the past. The assembly has already presented the same legislation offered last year; Gangi called it old wine in a new bottle.

"I think that there is a concern," said Gangi, "that out of this momentum could come a 'deal' or 'compromise' that is very limited and that would be worse than no deal at all; that the governor and the legislative leaders will use the cover of Simmons's intervention to come up with a half-baked compromise that doesn't really advance the cause."

Simmons says that he is not alone in the negotiations, and progress is being made: "Deborah Small is doing negotiation. She's been working on this for many years. She's committed to closing. I'm committed to closing. We have a draft of something that we are going to circulate from the governor," said Simmons. "A lot of people are calling it a jailbreak or saying what they want to say about it, and there are other people who are saying that it's too much of a compromise, but I'm a deal maker and I want to make a deal."

But it is just this rush on Simmons's part to make a deal that has activists fearful. "There's a mixed message out there," said Credico. "Someone says that he'll take any deal. He's a deal maker. Well, you got to talk to the people you are making that deal for."

Simmons reacted strongly to the tensions that have arisen since the rally. "I've heard a lot about that. I don't give a f**k about them. All I care is that I appreciate their hard work and they are the true heroes," said Simmons. "I love Randy Credico's work. He's been excellent. But to criticize somebody for coming and adding to your effort, creating awareness of your effort— I'm not saying he's done that, but anybody who does that is missing the point. I don't give a f**k. I want to get people out of jail. That's my only objective. Get people out of jail and make the laws more fair..."

June 22, 2003

Kingsley Shacklebolt

I'm sorry but I just have to mention this. I'm about 50 pages into "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix", and lo and behold, there is a Black wizard in this one! I'm glad to see JK Rowling make a little effort to diversify Harry's world.. he just better not get killed, that's all I have to say.

June 23, 2003

The Beatnuts Hit Toronto

This profile from Toronto has a rather annoying headline but gets a little better from there, fleshing out the sordid details of J-Lo's hijack of "Hi-Jack".

People probably think they are joking about that "polish jazz" thing, but DJ Spinna has told me several times about his pursuits of polish jazz, it seems to be a goldmine of undiscovered beatmaking material.


..."The stuff we do ain't for everybody. If you want to hear some socially conscious joints, pick up a record by Dead Prez, Common or the Roots. But if you wanna wild out with some funky beats, then you need to come to us."

The Track Masters writing/production team appears to be making a career of doing just that. Back in 97, when Will Smith's Men In Black theme needed to be funked up, they sampled the same Patrice Rushen jazzy disco tune, Forget Me Nots, that the Beatnuts flipped for their righteously raunchy Give Me Tha Ass, released just a few months before.

A coincidence? Perhaps.

But then came Jenny From The Block. The chart-topper the Track Masters produced for Jennifer Lopez was built around a catchy flute loop and beat structure strangely similar to that used by the Beatnuts for Watch Out Now. Yet the Beatnuts aren't credited as writers or arrangers on Lopez's This Is Me... Then album...

...The sample at the centre of the controversy is taken from the song Hi-Jack, originally recorded by the 70s jazz-rock group Barrabas and popularized by Herbie Mann. So some have argued that since anyone could've grabbed a copy of Herbie Mann's HiJack and chopped it, the Beatnuts have no beef.

Only the Beatnuts didn't use the Herbie Mann version or even the Barrabas take. Psycho Les and JuJu take far too much pride in uncovering obscure breaks to use something as obvious as a Herbie Mann disco joint...

"...People like Q-Tip and some others have been saying we flipped the Herbie Mann track, but that shit we used wasn't Herbie Mann's Hi-Jack; it was some other jazzy Project 3 shit. If you listen to Herbie Mann's version you can barely even hear the flute part. It ain't even close.

"We'll have our lawyers sort this out, believe me..."

guest blogger Kari Orr: On Russell Simmons and Hip-Hop Activism

Note from the founder: Since it is hard for me to keep the site updated as often as I'd like, I've been scouring the earth for worthy guest bloggers who can help keep things flowing. Today I'm honored to introduce our first recruit, okayplayer.com's notorious iconoclast Kari Orr.

-jay smooth


Much has been said about Russell Simmons involvement in the repeal of the Rockefeller laws.

Some have suggested that his involvement borders on negligent leadership. If he doesn't do it right it could wreck the whole movement. He's using money, starpower, and hip hop to take over important activism. (what's really behind his reparations now?)

Others are glad to see that, despite not having a PE/Dead prez/Coup under his label, he's using the profits of drug war stories to combat mandatory sentencing. (I just through that in there, cause it's a claim folks used to use against the Hughes Bros, and Cormega used against Nas in Thun and Kicko)


I'm vex because people are hi-jacking hip hop in order to push their political causes.

To be accurate, Russ ain't really using hip hop, he's just using hip hop's name in vain.

There is this thing called, "hip hop activism". Yet you ask anyone to describe it, let alone describe it, and you find yourself listening to bootleg version of "Stupid White Men".

The politics of hip hop activism
- anti-capitalist
- pro-choice
- pro-education
- anti-war
- pro-labor
- anti prison-industrial complex
- meat is murder
- pro-affirmative action
- pro multi-culturalism
- pro-conspiracy/pseudoscience

et cetera. In essence, if you go to your local university's history and english departments, and look at what issues they are concerned with, you can pretty much be sure that's what "hip hop" activists are concerned with.

I see you getting heated...but lemme ask you dis

What do any of those things have to do with hip hop?

Do any of those platforms reflect the lyrics pumped out for the past 25+ years in hip hop? When you talk about hip hop that people really listen to, most of the time the issues are not addressed, or when addressed they go opposite of what hip hop activists want.

Do many of these ideas run with, or run against the values and beliefs held in the "community"?

What portion of that community? If you think C.Delores Tucker, Dionne Warwick, and Rev. Calvin Butts were right, maybe hip hop activism reflects their views.

I cram to understand where these people get off labeling hip hop this way.

Still, what bothers me more, is do our "activists" really listen to us? Or are they just deciding that they know best what we want, what we need, and what we have asked for?

It's very clear to me, on most issues, hip hop activists are neither N'sync with the art nor the audience.

But let's be clear on these particular facts?

How does hip hop feel about mandatory sentencing?

More specifically, how do NYC rappers, who for some reason which I don't understand represent the community at large, feel about mandatory sentencing in drug cases?

You having a hard time coming up with something?

Me too.

I can think of one cat, but seeing that I don't think he counts cause only NagChampions bang his record, I dare not mention his name.

Plenty of mc's talk about
- catching a case
- dodging a case
- people that snitch and get lighter sentences
- how much time they're facing if they get caught/convicted
- crooked judges and prosecutors
- crooked lawyers

At the end of the day, you can describe the "hustle" raps as either endorsements for that lifestyle or cautionary tales.

But you can't make the argument that NYC Hip Hop wants to end mandatory sentencing.

So I'm just troubled by this whole turn of events.

-k. orr

Affirmative Action Reaffirmed?

You've surely read by now that the Supreme Court delivered a split decision today on Affirmative Action. So is this cup half-full or half-empty? Atrios isn't feeling very positive:

...Yes, the Supremes upheld race-based criteria in college admissions in Grutter v. Bollinger, but just as with the relentless whittling away at Roe v. Wade, this is a strategy of death by a thousand cuts. With Gratz, Rehnquist continues his life's work hamstringing minority advancement, and validates all over again Chris Rock's mordant observation: "There ain't a white person in this room who would trade places with me--and I'm rich."

June 24, 2003

If Wackness Was a Crime..

As this goes to show, the only thing worse than rocking a tired cliche in your rhymes is rocking it and then acting it out too. He must be damn embarrassed that he left such a corny rhyme around to be discovered.. like getting in an accident and while you're in the ambulance you realize you're not wearing clean drawers.


A man accused of shooting a rookie cop at point-blank range after writing a rap lyric about wanting "to shoot a cop" went on trial for attempted murder in Brooklyn yesterday.

Trevor Johnson, 26, fled when police raided his East Flatbush chop shop in April 2002, but returned with a gun and fired seven shots at Officer Michael Kreiman, Assistant DA Edward Boyar told jurors.

One bullet pierced Kreiman's abdomen, but he survived.

After Johnson was nabbed, a search of stolen cars he allegedly was cutting up yielded a notebook containing a rap verse about "popping shots and shooting cops," Boyar said.

Defense lawyer Gregory Watts told jurors that Johnson's prints were not found in the notebook.

If the next line of that rhyme contained "glock", "on the block", and/or "selling rocks", he should get life without parole.

June 26, 2003

KRS-One is Brimming With Anger (and Acronyms)

KRS is always such an entertaining read, there's really nothing for me to add here:

Angry At 'Devious' Record Label, KRS-One Halts Sales Of New LP

"...This is insane, this is insane, this is so egregious, this is so devious," KRS-One fumed on Monday, angry at Koch Records' plan to release an album by him called Kristyles. The Bronx battle king, alleging that the record Koch was putting out not only did a disservice to him as an artist and a businessman, but that it was an affront to hip-hop culture as a whole, won a court injunction on Monday to stop its release.

"They don't have the full album," KRS explained. "They have stuff that I wasn't even putting on the album. I have no idea what's on the album [Koch put together]. I don't know what the artwork looks like, I don't know what the album credits look like, I don't know nothing. What they did was go behind my back and release the album. I got word just in the nick of time last week. I got my legal team together and we slapped them with a court order to cease the distribution and the pressing and manufacturing of this album..."

...KRS-One said he's still working on his album, which he plans on calling The Kristyle, and trying to secure appearances from Dirt McGirt and Wesley Snipes. But ODB and Snipes aren't the only things missing from the version Koch has assembled; the disc also lacks KRS' tribute to Jam Master Jay.

"Do they care about the death of Jam Master Jay?" he continued. "Oh, you mean to tell me that the fake album you're putting out right now, you omitted KRS-One's tribute to Jam Master Jay? Oh no, no, no. That's ridiculous. That's wack. This is a problem. This ain't about no money, this ain't about me not selling a record, this is about principle. We cannot allow these record companies to dictate to us how we are going to present hip-hop to the world."

KRS-One also said he's upset about Koch's naming the disc Kristyles rather than The Kristyle, which he explained is an acronym for "To have everything, keep radiating in spirit through your love everyday..."

June 27, 2003

Sorry.. Is All That You Can Say...

I just need them to make one of these in Portuquese for when I go to Brazil:

American Traveler International Apology Shirt

I was preparing for an international trip, and I thought, "what can I do tell as many people as possible in other countries that many Americans vehemently disagree with the policies of our own government?" So I made this shirt, and various wonderful people translated it into all of the official UN languages, Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Spanish, and Russian...

About June 2003

This page contains all entries posted to hiphopmusic.com: in June 2003. They are listed from oldest to newest.

May 2003 is the previous archive.

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