This year, I heard hip-hop in Laos. That's right -- that little landlocked, mountainous country wedged between Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, China, and Myanmar. One of the poorest nations on earth, Laos is deeply Buddhist; until the wars in former Yugoslavia, it was the most heavily bombed country per capita in the history of warfare. And yet ... rap music. Delivered in the Lao language.I was in the ancient city of Luang Prabang, the cultural capital of the Lao People's Democratic Republic, weary from weeks spent on the surprisingly well-trod Southeast Asian backpacker trail. Having just stepped off a fourteen-hour bus ride with tinny, electrified Lao folk music as the piped-in soundtrack, I was wandering around town shell-shocked and looking very much the falang (whiteboy). While searching for a piece of silence down by the Mekong River where I could regroup, I heard something even more welcome -- a breakbeat.
The owner of the stereo emitting the familiar sounds waved me over with a wide smile after seeing me stop dead in my tracks. He was sitting in front of his house enjoying the evening, sharing rice whiskey with some friends. They were all in their late twenties and having a good chuckle at the American pointing at the radio with his mouth hanging open.
"Hip-hop?" I managed. "Lao hip-hop?"
"Yes! Now sit down and have a drink!" one commanded.
Between multiple rounds of fiery moonshine, I pieced together that the artist was Mr. Lai, a Lao emigrant living in San Jose whose tapes somehow made it back across the Pacific (I still can't find anyone in the States who knows who he is). Mr. Lai's producer had sampled extensively from the same '70s grab bag that the West Coast G-funksters had repopularized in the mid-'90s. The tempos were slow, the bass frequencies low, and the last word in each line rhymed. Every now and then Mr. Lai quoted a famous line from N.W.A. in English.
In short, it was street music, from and about inner cities -- or at least that's how the accepted cultural assumptions have it. I looked around. The road we were sitting next to was unpaved, there were saffron-robed monks strolling by, and geckos clung to every wall in sight. When people mentioned the local drug problem, they weren't talking crack dealers but opium growers, Golden Triangle style. Random violence here meant stepping on an unexploded cluster bomb in the countryside. Yet my new Lao friends were nodding their heads right along as they translated key phrases for me, an American who had been absorbing hip-hop culture for fifteen years.
Coming of age almost concurrently, hip-hop has now spread further afield than the Internet. Nobody in this circle of new friends had been online, but each knew exactly what "gat" and "player hater" meant. There, in one of the most rural and overlooked countries in the world, hip-hop was not only relevant but real. And between us -- me, who couldn't believe their stories of getting free steaks whenever a water buffalo stepped on a landmine, and them, who couldn't fathom Costco -- it was the only thing that didn't need explaining. Hip-hop was the only language we all understood completely.
Yet in six short months, I would find myself nodding along with journalist Oliver Wang's words on HipHopSite.Com: "You realize that, in the big scheme of things, hip-hop doesn't mean shit." Wang's September 20 essay, "A Rant on Hip-Hop's Relevancy," served as a touchstone for many of my own feelings about hip-hop, and also about the point of a career devoted to its documentation. This became the crux of my own post-9/11 existential dilemma. "I know this all sounds very cynical," Wang wrote, "but I'm just pissed off at how remarkably irrelevant hip-hop is to the nation's (let alone world's) affairs."
Public Enemy's Chuck D once described rap as the "black CNN." But it's been two months since the bombings, and if hip-hop songs were your only window onto the world, you wouldn't know anything had even happened. If it were a cable station, hip-hop's recent motto would be something like: "All egomaniacal banter, all the time." Sure, many high-profile artists have given benefit concerts for this or that relief fund; but on wax, where it really matters to the hip-hop community, we're still living in silence.
Rumors have been circulating that the forthcoming De La Soul album will have a reaction to 9/11. And Jay-Z and Dr. Dre, two of the most prominent figureheads of corporate rap, are said to be working on antiterrorism and anti-bin Laden songs respectively. (For yet another reminder of the bizarre times upon us, recall that Dre produced "Fuck the Police" for N.W.A. back in 1988. His track is allegedly titled "Kill bin Laden.") But for the confused young hip-hop head looking for an alternative read on the graphic-splashy official media version, guidance is not coming from his favorite artists.
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