Hip Hop Disconnect 

Hip-hop may be the universal language, but its artists need to find something to say

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.

Granted, production and marketing cycles for hip-hop records now can take a year or more, so maybe I'm expecting too much too soon. But within two weeks of 9/11, a Mexican radio station in Los Angeles was playing two corridos (topical ballads) about the bombing, one by El As de la Sierra and the other by Imperio Nortena. Some critics have likened the corrido scene, which also purports to inform a specific community about relevant issues, to the so-called "reality rap" strain within hip-hop. For the number of diamond-encrusted emcees who have defended their graphic lyrics in the past as merely part of their job as "street reporters," there seems to have been a mass swapping of press credentials for television remotes.

Jeff Chang, an Oakland-based hip-hop journalist and author of the forthcoming book Can't Stop, Won't Stop (St. Martin's Press, 2003), a political history of the hip-hop generation, admits that he was "extremely disappointed" with the hip-hop community's lack of response to 9/11. But he points out that economic factors are at least partially responsible for the dearth of songs. "Just from the perspective of trying to put a record out -- it's the end of the year, nobody's going to pull their album back for a song about 9/11," he says. "Because it's all about trying to put shit out before December, for the Christmas season."

It's disheartening that what was once a spontaneous, immediate art form now acquiesces to the bottom-line-driven production cycles of its parent industry. When I called a record store in LA to purchase copies of the 9/11 corridos, I was told that they weren't yet commercially available, and probably never would be. The point for the corridistas was to get a song on the radio as quickly as possible, because corrido fans, who are mostly lower-class Mexicans and Mexican Americans, want to hear their musicians' take on the events. In this age of MP3 technology, hip-hoppers who reach large audiences could have put something out overnight if communicating with their public was truly the goal.

Chang also points out that in the first two weeks after the bombings, the only rap artists to even make statements were Michael Franti of Spearhead and Boots from the Coup, two longtime voices of protest in the hip-hop wilderness. The hush after the declaration of the war on Afghanistan has been even more deafening. "I think that a lot of people are trying to figure out where they stand on the issue, and it's complex for many rappers," Chang says. "I think there's a very weird dynamic that's going on. For instance, in the streets in Oakland, black and Latino kids are saying, 'We're not getting [racially] profiled anymore, and we're happy about it.' And you know, why not? The kids are not getting profiled, and the Arab storeowners who they are pissed off at for profiling them are being profiled. The situation's very complex on a very personal level, like how do you deal with this now that your whole personality is wrecked?"

The War on Terrorism and 9/11 are not the only timely subjects to go below rap's radar in recent years. This June, Russell Simmons organized the landmark Hip-Hop Summit, which hosted members of the Black Caucus, Minister Louis Farrakhan, the Reverend Al Sharpton, Martin Luther King III, and Cornel West, in addition to most of the big names in hip-hop. Five months later, the best way to learn what happened there is to read the commentary on KPFK DJ and hip-hop activist Davey D's Web site (www.daveyd.com), not to pick up a recording by any of the artists who were there. Rap also failed to detect the entire antiglobalization movement that burst aboveground with the Battle in Seattle in 1999. Admittedly, hip-hop has done better about the unchecked expansion of the prison-industrial complex and Mumia Abu Jamal's incarceration, but mostly this "reporting" has come in the form of underpromoted issue records and underground benefit concerts.

Admittedly, explicit commentary on politics and specific current events has never been a fundamental component of hip-hop. Outspoken groups like Public Enemy, Body Count, and the Coup stand out in people's minds because of the high-profile controversies that have surrounded their works, but in terms of quantity, record sales, and overall influence, acts with an identifiable agenda have always been a tiny minority. It has become a trope in hip-hop polemics to trot out the usual "conscious" suspects before ripping into the latest materialistic and misogynistic chart-toppers: "Now this doesn't apply to Talib Kweli, Common, dead prez, and Mos Def, of course," these arguments invariably begin, "but those damn platinum rappers...."

I for one am not convinced rap's frivolity and criminal-mindedness should be sworn off: The words that the Lao hip-hoppers made sure to translate for me were slang for "gun," "gangster," various kinds of marijuana and alcohol, and a few things they wouldn't explain in front of the females in attendance. These were the words that made us laugh and nod in recognition. Where dialogue failed, contraband and illegality kept communication lively.

It's important to remember that rap music has always been about the here and now first -- crew and neighborhood always come before nation and world. Except when handled by a select few emcees, abstract messages like the corporate hijacking of politics almost invariably sound strained and out of place over a pounding drum machine. The racist cop who recently started walking a beat through the neighborhood, on the other hand, has immediacy, and a rap on the situation fits perfectly over a beat unfolding in real time. The same principle explains why a rap song loses ninety percent of its effect when it's read on paper and taken out of the realm of the unexpected. Hip-hop, like blues and country & western, must always ground its wisdom in the everyday. The WTO as an abstraction doesn't hold the currency that the effects of its policies might have on the economy of the local street corner.

But this line of thinking quickly takes me back to hip-hop's baffling, frustrating lack of words on the tragedy at the World Trade Center, which, relatively speaking, is the local street corner for the very large community of New York rappers. I expected to see stacks of 9/11 and War on Terrorism-themed singles, expressing a full spectrum of viewpoints and antidotes. Of course, the tide might still come. On the less commercial tip, LA's Mikah 9 has a track called "Taliban Rap" floating around (which we can assume diverges from the party line significantly), and Sole, owner-operator of Oakland's Anticon label, delivers these verses on his forthcoming song "Numb": "Nothing lasts/ not even this/ next year don't vote/ beware of jingoism and bad sloganeering/ if you had to read the headlines to know the truth it's not happening."

Might a distinctly hip-hop-flavored resistance movement emerge? Or at least a period of critical reaction? It's too soon to tell, and the evidence so far suggests that the first attempts will come from very underground.

Unique among art forms, hip-hop insists that for a story to matter, it must change us in some tangible and concrete way. Indicative of this attitude are the words Sole wrote to me in an e-mail, "[Anticon] will be making songs about all of these things [i.e., 9/11, the War on Terrorism, resistance], but being political is tacky, we speak our truths on the things that affect our lives, which now is politics, and a war on American minds." But as far as I'm concerned, hip-hop better speak up quick, and it better have something to say. Otherwise, I might have to swap my record collection for a ticket to Laos, where the true heads are.

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