“Hip Hop, it started out in the park,” so details the G.O.A.T. Jay-Z on the Ludacris track “I Do It For Hip Hop.”
What may sound as a cheesy line written by someone who at the time was considered to be on the back 9 of his career, may actually be the most adept way of explaining the art’s origins.
In truth, to accurately pinpoint the genesis of hip hop is a bit too shaky of a task. We can assume that somewhere between block parties in Harlem, classic playground pick-up games, intense rounds of Skully, and general bullshitting at the projects, hip hop was born.
That is to say if you believe that it started in NYC.
But how can you not track it back to Southern Baptist gospel church music? Which ultimately come from Slave music (hymns, chants, and drum circles) in the 1800’s. Or how about the Jazz and the improvisational element that it cultivated. And if you want to go on a deep dive, get lost in the sounds of King Tubby (yes, this is a real man) and his Caribbean peers like I did for a very weird month during my Freshman year in college when I first discovered Spotify. I mean that shit is the foundation of hip-hop.
The truth is the first thing that we distinctly call hip hop may have started one night in the South Bronx, but it has been hovering and surrounding various cultures and time periods for a while now. In short, all we can really say about it, is that it probably started somewhere public with a group of people exchanging experience and music and views: like a park.
This is because hip hop is more of an expression than it is a specific sound. Don’t get me wrong, hip hop can be one of the most derivative music forms we have, with artists often far too interested in the monetary politics of the industry rather than the artistic work itself.
That being said, where else could you have mega-pop star Drake, artistic savant Kanye West, gospel child Chance the Rapper, social warrior and documentarian Kendrick Lamar, and professional cool guy Jay-Z all dominate an industry and art space at one time? All of which at the end of the day proudly represent the hip hop culture and aesthetic. And that doesn’t even begin to catalogue all of the thousand of other rappers who constantly pop in and fill in the margins.
The reason for this is that it is at its purest, the art of the individual. It is the artform where you take a beat and spit your rhymes, rap your bars, tell your story. And a Chance verse is fucking distinct. A Kanye verse can only be a Kanye verse. Even if you are not the best technical rapper of all time, that is what all great rappers can do at a certain point, spit something with originality.
And that park setting is where that all started.
A couple of months ago, I got a phone call from my mom of all people asking me what I thought of one of the art’s most distinctive voices, Eminem’s latest verse.
When I heard her ask this, I was pretty sure that one of us was having a stroke.
After a little bit of probing, I found out she was referencing the Eminem freestyle he performed on as part of the Cypher series for BET’s awards. He shocked the world with his angry and passionate anti-Trump lyrics.
For context, the cypher, is widely considered to be the purest form of hip hop. That’s at least how it is marketed by BET. A bunch of dudes in a circle with some sort of beat or not as they go back and forth exchanging bars and barbs.
That is uniquely hip hop. Jazz has after hours jam sessions in the clubs. Hip hop has the cypher.
Em’s cypher was not actually polished lyrically. It was disjointed and messy. That’s because it was a freestyle. He was coming up with it off the top of his head. Like a real cypher.
With that in mind, not a lot of other rappers could essentially improvise something as poignant, focused, and visual as he did in that freestyle.
To argue the skill level is a moot point.
After that freestyle came out though, it felt like everyone came out of the woodwork to congratulate Eminem and his Trump bashing.
Keith Olbermann tweeted that after being a rap doubter he is now a fan of Eminem.
The cynic in me at the time thought that the noise was only because he was attacking Trump. That these people who don’t love rap, all of a sudden care when a white rapper says something provocative. Like YG and “Fuck Donald Trump,” doesn’t exist.
That’s tongue and cheek.
It’s easy to pick it to pieces. The white rapper makes the white audience comfortable. I mean it did 43 million views in three months, that’s insane. I couldn’t remember the last time a hip-hop song or moment gained such traction. It was clearly because of its political motives.
But then, a few weeks ago, a freestyle by a rapper made rounds on the internet again. This time by Black Thought, another one of the greats, of The Roots on Funkmaster Flex’s radio/YouTube show.
Thought goes in hard for like 10 minutes straight. And it didn’t just blow up the hip-hop world, it was everything. The video of him spitting off the dome showed up in my Facebook feed and in snippets all throughout Instagram. It was trending on Twitter. Thought, whose band, The Roots, is the house band for Jimmy Fallon, was interviewed by giggling host a few days after. It did 3 million views in a month.
It wasn’t about Trump either, it was just about pure hip-hop.
Again, to be clear, Em’s cypher did like 43 million, so my point I’m going to make might not be valid because that is wild. That’s like 2010 Cat Video numbers.
But I think there is something we are missing collectively as a hip hop fans.
The internet has saturated this genre and artform to such a crazy degree. Nas was giving it an eulogy in 2006, and while it has progressed in some amazing ways since, it does get bogged down in the noise and radio.
Is it hot if the kid finds a cool sound of Fruity Loops and play it back like 44 times while reciting a different variation on the same line? And I love Migos, but I know I am not prepared for the thousands of variations I have enabled by streaming “T-Shirt,” as often as I did this last year. And for someone as dope Thought, why do we have to wait for him to do mental gymnastics in order for us to finally give him some love.
It is hard to sift through the it all and actually find the artistry.
My new favorite genre of YouTube video will solve this issue I am having with hip hop.
You see it started with Mass Appeal’s series Rhythm Roulette, where they blindfold different producers and have them pick out random records from a store. They take them back into the studio and they have to make a beat from the samples they find on the vinyl.
It is such a creative and compelling way to see someone’s talent and skill on hand. Not only that, but you can truly isolate the masters as they can easily operate the sounds and tools in front of them.
My favorite to date is Big K.R.I.T. as he not only churns out an amazing atmospheric soulful beat, he throws a verse and hook on it. Not too shabby for an afternoon’s work.
From there, as you progress your way through the ultimate time sync of YouTube, clicking one thumbnail to the next, you eventually get to rapper’s Freestyles.
There’s a lot of these videos. And most don’t deserve much merit. Battles that look like they are filmed on Razor Phones. Rappers sitting with Sway clearly fumbling their way through previously written verses. And then the occasional video of some actor who apparently decided it would be a good PR move to freestyle for the Internet, which has always been known to be supportive of people trying new endeavors.
“Hip Hop, it started out in the park.”
Sometimes you have to turn back to Jay-Z to cut through the noise.
And if you follow this rabbit hole deep enough, he will.
What I just dug up, was seven part video series from 2001 of the entire Roc-A-Fella records family crowded in the Funkmaster Flex studio, with Jay running point as they murdered their way through instrumental after instrumental. And every single part of it is amazing.
I never though “Oochie Wally Wally” could be so hot.
At first, while watching it, I was hit with waves of nostalgia. Of an era that we will never get back, when the Roc was running the industry, and when crews where what hip hop was all about. Competition and rivalry has since faded in the industry, and with everyone capable of getting famous or that smash hit on their own, it makes a lot more sense for the next Drake to go out on his own than stay under Lil Wayne for the Cash Money family.
It is kind of a dated system in that regard.
But it did get the wheels turning. As I was marinating on this, I watched an episode of Puffy’s new show “The Four,” and was astonished by the fact that they had rappers competing in this American Idol/The Voice-esque show. And while I was racing down the YouTube slalom of hip hop freestyle videos, I realized it is time we standardize this shit.
Put Flex at the helm, or even better make it a battle between Flex and Sway. Throughout the season we see rappers square off against each other, bring in beatmakers and DJ’s to help give them exposure too, and then have them compete. Get the hype men in the studio we always get to see, and let’s make this shit into a competition. Flex’s team of five versus Sway’s.
The best part of 8 Mile is the end battle, when the great rapper Eminem spits hot lines seemingly off the dome. If dumb celebrities can rap battle each other on TV, why are professional rappers not getting in on this?
It may be corny, but this much is true. Rappers are getting lost in their own noise. Every week a new one hit wonder comes out; the industry is cannibalizing itself, letting crazy sounds and bizarre production dominate what actually matters for hip-hop heads, pure technical flow and lyrics. Remember Desiigner and Panda? It feels like 10 years since we have last heard from that dude. It moves so fast.
Watching these videos from that great Jay era of hip hop, you get reminded of not just the skill, but also the personality that could be shown in rap. Watching these guys sip on Gin and Juice bullshitting in the studio is so much more captivating than anything I have seen in years.
Let’s get back to that.
Let’s embrace the cypher. Maybe it’s telling that the two most important hip hop moments this year happened in the Freestyle.
After all, it’s on par with the brand of the genre and its humble beginnings. “It started out in the park.”