Hip Hop Galore
Lauryn Hill's Project
Title: Music Makes the Bourgeoisie and the Rebel Come Together
The title of my dispatch, as any self-respecting music fan should know, comes from one of Madonna's latest songs. The lyric conveys the awesome power of music to bring people together and unite them. Music is a central part of our lives, and I can't imagine mine without it. And it's often been the case that innovation in music comes from those who feel left out of the system and are dying to create a form of expression that they can relate to. In the 1970s and '80s, young people found their outlet in three very distinct types of music: punk, hip-hop and disco. Not only was it a chance to get down and funky, it was a chance for young people to save the world.
Neda and I arrived in Washington, D.C. ready to discover the world of punk. Neither of us had much experience with it. I thought of it as angry, white male music whose listeners had piercings everywhere and either a Mohawk or some colored, spiky hairstyle. But punk, I learned, offered people a lot more than that. I spoke with Mark Andersen, the author of a new book called Dance of Days: Two Decades of Punk in the Nation's Capital. He convinced me that punk, far from simply being a lot of mind-numbing noise, could be a force for revolutionary change.
Mark grew up in rural Montana and credits punk for saving and transforming his life. Punk first flourished in London with such acts as the Sex Pistols and the Clash in the late '70s. Mark remembers hearing the Sex Pistols sing:
Don't be told what you want
Don't be told what you need
There's no future for you.
"Even though I was a small-town boy in Montana, I related to that," he said. "I felt I had no future, that I was being forced into a path that made me bow before the idols of church and state. I was a cog in a machine, judged by how I fit in and by material success. Punk was in your face, and defied the system. It helped me find my way out of a dead-end working-class life."
Punk is officially defined by the dictionary as "a type of rock 'n' roll characterized by loud, insistent music, abusive and violent protest lyrics and followers with extremes of dress and socially defiant behavior." The "we hate everything" motto "captured my sense of being at war with the world," remembered Mark. "Pretty much only idealists or lunatics gravitated to punk [in Montana], and it is fair to say that I was something of both."
Mark said that punk led him on the search for what's true and meaningful in life. I find this interesting since after listening to some punk, I believe a lot of the anger and hate in the music could lead you on a really nihilistic path where you just want to destroy everything around you. Indeed, there are many neo-Nazis here and in Europe who have their own punk bands spewing racist venom. But for Mark, "It's actually the opposite of that. You start wanting to do something positive to change all the things that are screwed up in the world instead of just talking about it." To do this, Mark helped found a local chapter of a group called Positive Force in D.C. in the mid-'80s. To him, it was a way of passing on the energy and inspiration he had derived from punk to fuel the younger generation.
To that end, Positive Force holds benefit punk concerts to raise money for local causes like a self-defense center for women, homeless shelters and food kitchens. Much of Positive Force was aimed at the abuses of the Reagan administration, which they believed were contributing to D.C.'s sky-high murder and crime rates and rampant homelessness in the 1980s. Positive Force also helps deliver food to needy inner-city seniors, and has organized various protest actions over the past decade, denouncing South African apartheid, the Persian Gulf War and other, more local issues.
Washington, D.C. was also a major player in two of the most significant developments in punk music in the 1990s. The Riot Grrrl movement was about letting girls have a piece of the action, and challenged the sexist and exclusive nature of punk. Bikini Kill's "Revolution Girl Style Now" was what announced the coming of the Riot Grrrl. I remember hearing about Riot Grrrlz in my high school days, and being inspired that girls could take on such an aggressive, kick-ass and overwhelmingly male-dominated genre of music.
D.C. also played a role in the explosion of punk into the mainstream consciousness, when MTV began to air a video called "Smells Like Teen Spirit" by Nirvana, a group now labeled as "grunge" instead of punk by the media. Dave Grohl, the bassist for Nirvana, was from D.C. Suddenly, the ultimate rebel, anti-establishment music was being co-opted by Corporate America. It caused much anguish within the punk community and, Mark believes, contributed to Nirvana singer Kurt Cobain's suicide.
While punk was a way for many white youths to articulate their rage and disenchantment with society, black America pioneered hip-hop and rap as their creative outlet. I believe hip-hop is one of the most significant cultural phenomena of the past two decades. From being played in basements and high school gyms in the Bronx in the early '70s, hip-hop is now an inescapable part of American society. The original hit that sent hip-hop into mainstream America was the 1979 single, "Rapper's Delight," by Sugar Hill Gang. Adam Sandler's movie, "The Wedding Singer," had a white grandma rapping the lyrics, showing that hip-hop is now truly a multigenerational, multiracial force. It's the best-selling musical genre in the U.S., surpassing country.
Hip-hop started in neighborhoods that were becoming afflicted with unemployment, the growth of prisons, the deterioration of public schools, the devastation of the drug trade, and increasing violence and mayhem. Black youths, in the tradition of making "something out of nothing," started playing around with "two turntables and a microphone," as the legend goes. "MCing" and DJing involved sampling beats from the worlds of funk, soul, reggae and salsa, mixed with lyrics reflecting the social reality of alienated urban youth. Since then, hip-hop and its counterpart, rap, have gone through several metamorphoses. The classic old-school hip-hop was just fun stuff to groove to. The '80s saw the rise of gangsta rap, as exemplified by NWA, and white suburban males began eating up the albums. Toward the end of the '80s there were some positive Afrocentric groups, but the '90s and present-day hip-hop has become increasingly commercialized and focused on "getting the benjamins," and using half-naked grinding women in videos.
But there are many grassroots organizations springing up to use hip-hop as a force for social change. Seeing that many young blacks are alienated from the institutions that waged the Civil Rights Movements, such as the black church and organizations like the NAACP, activists see hip-hop as a way of instilling social consciousness in young people about police brutality, prison growth and the "war on drugs." Groups like the Roots, the Fugees and Mos Def have set up organizations for this purpose. My friend Naomi Printz says she loves hip-hop because of its potential for social change. She credits it for exposing her to a different culture at her high school in Atlanta, Georgia, which, because of white flight, went from being 80 percent white to 70 percent black.
"Hip-hop brought flavors I hadn't experienced before," Naomi said. "I love the positive, intelligent, conscious hip-hop, like KRS-One. I just went to one of his concerts and it's like going to church. He restores your faith in humanity. I don't have any use for the gangsta rap, the 'bitches and ho,' going for the money, smoking joints - stuff like Dr. Dre and Snoop." She added that "Hip-hop has the power to educate people and unify people so that rich, poor, whites, blacks, Latinos, Asians can come together. I think that's its ultimate appeal."
Then there was that genre of music in the '70s that had nothing to do with being political or making a statement. Sometimes music can just be about groovin,' dancing and having a good time. That's what disco was in the late '70s. Born from the soul and funk of the '60s and early '70s, disco inspired a generation to go out and shake their groove thing.
John Travolta brought disco dancing to the mainstream in the 1977 movie, "Saturday Night Fever." Its soundtrack sold 23 million copies, making it the biggest selling movie soundtrack of the time. The Bee Gees and Donna Summer blared from tape players and record players (remember this was before anyone had even thought of a CD!). And don't forget the fashion. Bell bottoms, wide collars and Halston dresses glided across the dance floor as thousands of Americans did the Hustle!
"I can't believe it's all back in style!" laughs Trekker Jen. Being a kid in the '70s, disco was a big part of her growing up. "My best friend and I would watch the television show Dance Fever and then make up our own routines." She claims that she still remembers the moves and just can't help but get up and dance when she hears K.C. and the Sunshine Band. If only we had that C.D. with us on the trek!
The world of disco didn't last long, though. On July 12, 1979, Chicago disc jockeys held a "Disco Demolition" between baseball games. As the disc jockeys smashed records, die-hard disco fans rushed the field and started a riot. Soon there were posters claiming that "Disco sucks" - the Bee Gees were no longer in style. Trekker Jen sighs, "I remember getting in a fight with my best friend because she was no longer into disco. I guess all good things must come to an end."
So what type of music will this decade be known for? As only five corporations account for something like 80 to 90 percent of the stuff we hear on the radio, and radio itself becomes increasingly corporatized, I'm rather despondent that we'll get anything as good as punk or hip-hop (I refuse to lump disco in there). I hope that the first decade of the new century will be known for more than inane Boy Bands and annoying teen pop. Perhaps one of you reading this will be responsible for the next great thing in music that raises our spirits, lifts our souls and makes the "bourgeoisie and the rebels come together."
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