When I first heard that line back in 2002, I did the perfect screw face Hip Hop head nod. Not only was Quality the debut album by one of my favorite emcees, Talib Kweli, but the track “Guerilla Monsoon Rap” (produced by an up-and-coming mostly unknown guy named Kanye West), featured some lyrical heavyweights: Black Thought and Pharoahe Monche. I’d been digging Pharoahe since he was a few pounds heavier and urging me to “Crush, Kill, Destroy Stress.” Now here he was invoking none other than Doctor Victor Von Doom, nemesis of the Fantastic Four, in a rap lyric. To top off my geek-o-meter, just a few lines earlier, Black Thought began his verse with, “Yo, I hit these emcees with the grip of death like I was a Vulcan.” Niiiiice! But not surprising. Speculative fiction in Hip Hop is common, and has been as long as I can remember. In an art form that prides itself on metaphor and simile to prove bravado, and relies on technological innovation to make beats, rhymes and life, delving into the fantastic, the imaginative, the futurist, the beyond-our-natural-world, seems both normal and inevitable. Call it Hip Hop’s Geeky-Cool chewy gooey center. I expect everyone knows that. Right? Err, Wrong. Because according to an article over at the gamers site Kotaku, Hip Hop–usually a home to “thug” acts and lyrics that don’t “go beyond what can be found between a woman’s legs or at the tip of a lighter”–has refreshingly given birth to a “growing subgenre” that “features nerds and geeks who perform songs about feelings.”
Hmmm. Someone maybe didn’t do their Hip Hop homework . . . ?
I have a rule on articles about Hip Hop that don’t come from reputable sites or blogs up to snuff on the culture–don’t read them. If the writer labels their deep insight “Rapper’s Delight:The First Rap Song,” and seems wholly unaware of names like Kool Herc or Cold Crush, I expect whatever they have to say isn’t worth my time. For reasons I can’t put a finger on (actually, come to think of it, I can put three fingers on it, but that’s a whole notha’ blog), writers of all stripes think they can write about Hip Hop. And they can do so without bothering to know too much about it or spending any time digging into its history. Hip Hop is often written with a sense of “presentism,” that denies it has any relevant history. Whatever moment that particular writer arrived at Hip Hop, is when, in their mind, any understanding of Hip Hop should begin. Not only that, but their version of Hip Hop has remained static and trapped like Han Solo in carbonite; it has never been any other way, and only now, with some new momentous spark of evolution, is it making a progressive leap. This leads to quite a bit of what I call “Hip Hop Christopher Columbus Syndrome,” whereby well-meaning writers often spout on about some “new” or “exciting” trend in Hip Hop they’ve “discovered,” all the while ignoring the indigenous headz who’ve been calling this spot home for a long time.
As Brother J once remarked, “Doing this forever, and you ask since when.”
So when I was tweeted an article from the gamer site Kotaku titled, Geeks and Gamers are Taking Over Hip-Hop, I should have known better. But the curious speculative fiction N.E.R.D. in me had to know. I was greeted with this kick off:
Some of the most well-known and successful rappers in hip hop right now aren’t the typical ‘thug’ act. These rappers—such as Lupe Fiasco, Childish Gambino and Frank Ocean—don’t just rap about money and fame.
Their lyrics go beyond what can be found between a woman’s legs or at the tip of a lighter, too. Instead, this growing subgenre features nerds and geeks who perform songs about feelings. Nerds and geeks who critique society alongside lyrics about love interests, money and yes, sometimes games.
Some would tell you this is ‘backpack rap.’ A ‘backpacker’ used to refer to graffiti artists carrying around spray cans and music in a backpack. Eventually it stopped identifying graffiti artists, and instead pointed toward their musical taste. Now “backpack rap” has become an underground subgenre of hip hop without (as much of) the glamor, Benjamins and flashing lights.
To quote the perpetually stalked kitty from those Peppy Le Pew cartoons, “Le Sigh.” I suppose I could point out that backpacking culture in Hip Hop is about 20 years old and dates back to Grand Puba, who wore it on an appearance of Arsenio Hall and made it a staple of the then called “backpack generation.” True enough, some of today’s self-proclaimed backpack rappers, and a few of their followers, make ahistorical claims, that they are somehow the first rappers of the genre and are unique because they didn’t grow up on the streets and went to higher ed. Obviously none of these guys ever saw videos by emcees like Lords of the Underground, shot on a college campus.
Or maybe I could address the part of the article that lauds artists like Lupe Fiasco for creating lyrics in this “underground subgenre of hip hop without (as much of) the glamor, Benjamins and flashing lights. Instead the focus is on the lyrics: sometimes political or rife with social commentary, but typically introspective.” Yes, I think Lupe is the one of the most talented and creative younger emcees out there right now, and enormously dig his social activism. Songs like “Little Weapon” and his dedication to the Palestinian cause is beyond commendable. But to insinuate that he is doing something brand new in Hip Hop by taking a political stance is whole slab of N-V-T-S nuts! Is the writer really blissfully unaware of the whole history of social activist Hip Hop from The Furious Five to Public Enemy to BDP? How about more recent artists like Mos Def (Yasin Bey), Common and Talib Kweli–figures in the underground who have also gone somewhat mainstream? The Hip Hop organizing around recent issues of injustice like the tragic Trayvon Martin shooting? I like Kanye as an artist, but one noteworthy video on conflict diamonds (which he learned about after a lengthy period of flashing diamonds) and a nervous (but both brave and hilarious) live-TV diss on George W. Bush, does not make him a “conscious” artist (I’ve heard this appellation before and am just not buying it), not in the same vein of those who have consistently created political, thought-provoking music.
Or maybe, I could tackle the writer’s claim that
rappers rap-singers like Drake are such an anamoly because they’re in touch with their feeeeeeelings. Uhh, Ghostface bawls and cries when he sings about his Moms. The man cries through his song. Cries!
The problem with the assertions made in this article, is that they betray a complete lack of understanding of Hip Hop, as well as some pre-conceived notions of the art form. The writer continually portrays the four or five artists she highlights as set apart from what is perceived to be the predominant face of Hip Hop–defined with such terms as “hard-core gangsters” or “thugs” with the modifier “typical.” Yes, if based on your narrow, limited exposure to the complexity of Hip Hop, you think that the genre, in the words of Big Rube, is mostly about “pimpin hoes and slammin cadillac doors,” then just about anything else is conscious, different and a breath of fresh air. But for the rest of us, it just makes you seem misinformed about the lengthy history and larger context into which these recent artists fit, and prone to making sweeping unsubstantiated generalizations. Hip Hop has always been diverse. A simple browsing of a site like Okayplayer will take you into an entire world that has been around *for-ever* and is continually being created every minute.
But no. I’m not going to focus on all that. Because this is a blog about speculative fiction. So what I’m going to address is a common misconception the writer makes, one that I’ve heard from various sectors–that Hip Hop is somehow averse or separate from speculative fiction. A key point of the article is that the artists mentioned are geeks, people who are different, much like the gamers of kotaku–it’s why the site posted the story to begin with. Frank Ocean is hailed for having songs with title tracks like Street Fighter, Goldeneye and Soul Calibur. Childish Gambino is hailed for mentioning “geeky things like ee cummings, Minority Report, and Batman,” or the games Tetris and Super Smash Bros. This supposedly now makes such artists relatable to gamers, what the writer calls, “‘one of us’” in that they are similarly alienated, in that their eyes might light up to beloved geeky and nerdy franchises.” This entire line of thought is wince-worthy on its face, as it seems to turn these artists into latter-day Jackie Robinsons, managing to prove their geeky worth and civility to a skeptical gaming community by defining themselves outside of “typical” Hip Hop. One tweet sarcastically summed up the undertone of the article: “black rappers are no longer scary to me.” For why this is problematic, see Tanner Higgin’s great article on the “Leroy Jenkins” phenom in the gaming world, and the ways in which the black presence in the subgenre is often depicted, often in coded ways, as alien or the other.
Still, I don’t want to pick on this writer solely. This notion that Hip Hop and things like science fiction exist at polar extremes, has been a sentiment I’ve seen expressed from a large cross-section of the speculative community. It speaks to the often insular world into which those of us in the speculative fiction community place ourselves, where we expect anyone into the things we like, to look or fit a certain “type.” This has its racial connotations of course, as I can’t tell you the amount of times I’ve encountered the genuine surprise of white fantasy fans, who just didn’t think the black guy with locs and large Audio-Technic headphones could hold a lengthy convo on things like Aes Sedai. Yet, with regards to Hip Hop, it’s something I’ve seen expressed by POC as well.
But once again, a trip through Hip Hop’s history says otherwise. Speculative fiction has been with Hip Hop since the genre’s turntablist Jamaican-born father Clive Campbell, donned the moniker Kool Herc, after the Greek mythic hero of strength, and dubbed his monstrous speakers The Herculoids—which incidentally is one in the same as Hanna Barbera’s World of Super Adventure’s favorite family. Another godfather of Hip Hop from the Bronx would take on the name Afrika Bambaataa, after a Zulu freedom fighter, and use an electro-funk style, with futuristic superhero fashion, to take the new art form into outer space–all the way to Planet Rock. In the coming years we’d see more electro-funk, like that by a crew named Newcleus, featuring a song with robotic-sounding futurist emcees getting into a battle with the Man of Steel–who it turns out owns speakers some “three stories high with woofers made of steel.” Keep in mind many of these early acts were re-wiring old speakers and turntables and beatmachines to create this new dynamic sound. Sci Fi. Futurist. Tech-saavy. If that’s not geekdom, I don’t know what is!
If we bring it up to just the last two decades, speculative fiction is all over Hip Hop. In lyrics, dress, videos and persona, very popular artists like Busta Rhymes and groups like Outkast were making continual allusions to influences from sci-fi, fantasy and the supernatural. Outkast’s entire second album involved space aliens and pyramids, and to this day remain as quirky and full of geekdom as ever. Jeru the Damaja in his comic book drawn video “Can’t Stop the Prophet,” was a hero who “one day . . . struck by knowledge of self” that gave him “super scientifical powers,” ran through the hood battling his archnemesis Mr. Ignorance, whose evil lair was the Brooklyn Lie-brary–”the big one, on Grand Army Plaz.” Gang Starr made a dystopian futurist video, “You Know My Steez,” based entirely on George Lucas’s THX-138. The Beastie Boys “Ch-Check It Out” and the Grammy-winning “Intergalactic” videos were sci-fi spoofs that let the trio’s geek flag fly! The Last Emperor not only filled his early albums with allusions to speculative fiction, but created an entire song where he re-imagines Marvel’s Secret Wars as a set of battles between Hip Hop’s emcees and comic book heroes and villains. Professor Xavier fights KRS-ONE mentally and Nas takes on Spidey, while Boot Camp and GI Joe have a battle royale. Crazy!
Yet probably no one exemplified this trend more, than the 9 emcees from Shaolin–Wu Tang. Taking their name and style from Saturday kung fu flicks, with members who sport superhero comic book alter egos like Tony Starks (Ghostface) or Johnny Blaze (Method Man), the group is immersed in speculative fiction. On their first album, they even described themselves using sci-fi: “we form like voltron and the Gza just happens to be the head.” The group’s creative father figure, Rza, would create his own super hero persona, Bobby Digital. Meth rocked silver vampire fangs, chain mail and a broadsword in a post-Apocalyptic video for his track “Judgment Day,” that looked like Mad Max meets Thundarr the Barbarian. At one point Wu had a series from Image Comics called Nine Rings of Wu-Tang and even–wait for it–a video game! Rza even headed a spin-off group of Wu that can best be described as “horror-rap,” called Gravediggaz—who spit lyrics that could be the soundtrack to SAW. On the second album Triumph, Rza hit the geekdom trifecta, spitting he’s “a Spaceknight like Rom, consumes planets like Unicron, Blasting photon bombs from the arm like Galvatron.” Two allusions to Transformers and one to an old-school Marvel cosmic super hero in one verse! Who does that?!? No wonder Rza would be chosen to create the score to such films as Kill Bill, as well as the classic anime futurist fantasy joint, Afro-Samurai.
What’s amazing about Wu, and clashes with simplistic interpretations of “typical” Hip Hop, is that they are self-professed thugs–part of the gritty, urban street culture of NYC. They rap about guns and drugs with the storytelling grace of Scorcese, and a level of depth that emcee Jay Electronica compares to Theodor Dostoyevsky. Yet they are full-out GEEKS–science fiction, fantasy, comic book NERDS! Only thing is, they make it look damn cool. At their height Wu were quite mainstream, defied simplistic stereotypes, and showed that the same dudes who could coolly spit about crime, women and a party lifestyle (Cherchez La Ghost remains a *classic*), were geeked-out gamers, comic book and sci-fi heads–and never had to create a whole sub-sub-genre of disaffected white guys (mostly) called Nerdcore. An old issue of XXL once gave a fitting image of Wu: a photo shoot of all 9 members aboard the Starship Enterprise, their combadges refashioned as the iconic Wu symbol with the Rza in the captain’s seat seeming to say “Engage!” That’s a legacy of speculative fiction cool that can’t, and shouldn’t, be ignored.
Today, there’s enough geekdom still alive and well in Hip Hop, with a lot more depth than the few artists mentioned in the article. MF Doom wears an iron mask like the supervillain he’s named for, even when he’s on the mic. Jay Electronica creates thought-provoking lyrics mixed in with popular sci-fi references, with titles like “Anakin’s Prayer” and “Attack of the Clones.” Pharaoh Monche makes videos like “Black Hand Side,” combining alternate history with John Carpenter’s They Live to make profound social statements. 88 Keys makes a song called “Baggage Claim,” which basically retells the entire plotline to the ABC series Lost. Cee Lo Green goes through great pains to show that he’s definitely not of this world, and when he teams up with the cartoon-moniker DJ Danger Mouse, the two form Gnarls Barkley and create videos in which they are time-traveling tourists or where Jamaican youths find inter-dimensional doorways between worlds. Two of the best female emcees of this era, have taken their names from popular women in speculative fiction–Jean Grae and Medusa. While the very popular Nicki Minaj is a rapping manga character given life.
And it ain’t nothing new.
As one commenter with the handle DJAwkwardSilence reminded the folks at kotaku, “Hip hop has always been a refuge for creative minded outsiders (dorky or otherwise) to find a refuge and release for their ideas.”