Hip-hop is an ecosystem…
I was born in 1989 at the end of hip-hop’s infancy. By the time I dropped into being, hip-hop had a Grammy and platinum records. Reagan had already wreaked his brand of havoc on the American underclasses and crack was well integrated into our communities. By the time I came of age, much of the cultural context for hip-hop was already in motion — drug war, mass incarceration, neoliberalism, post-Civil Rights respectability politics, urban divestment and subsequent repatriating gentrification, zero tolerance schooling and policing. I don’t have a particular moment when I “discovered” hip-hop or saw it take over the world. For folks of my age bracket (born in the late eighties to early nineties) hip-hop was a central part of the zeitgeist; the rapper was just as viable a musical star as the singer. I was a child when hip-hop surpassed country as America’s biggest selling music genre. The centrality of hip-hop to cultural identity isn’t an argument to me so much as it’s the up that is sky.
Hip-hop is an imperfect culture, reflective of an imperfect people. Hip-hop, like the dominant worldwide culture, is cis-male-hetero dominated. This is wack. This is a vital point to start with and one that I will return to later, one that we all must return to in every conversation.
Hip-hop music is an ecosystem. Hip-hop speaks to multiple artistic media and an entire shifting coda of language, dress, attitude, and political thought. Hip-hop music also falls at the intersection between musical form and political/poetic speech because much of the music is especially text heavy. Hip-hop is as much about what is being said as it is about how it sounds. In traditional poetry we express this spectrum as lyric versus narrative. While we recognize some rappers as important because of their sonic genius rather than deep content (Missy Elliot or Biz Markie), we recognize others as vital because of what they had to say despite a limited sonic or rhythmic range (Tupac or Chuck D). Each rapper carries elements of both properties but it is important to point this out for critics who might question the level of artistic value in some of hip-hop’s more textually simplistic figures.
But the central question of my work as an editor and poet remains: What does any of this hip-hop shit have to do with poetry? The answer is, quite simply, everything.