I’ve listened to hip-hop for many years now. At the tender age of nine, I remember picking up a beat-up copy of Onyx’s ‘Bacdafucup’ from my local Oxfam shop for £5 and ever since then, I have been completely besotted by the art of putting rhyme to rhythm.
Over the years, I’ve amassed a pretty substantial collection of hip-hop music, not just from the UK and America, but from all corners of the globe. In 2002 on a street corner in Berlin, I met EOW champion Chefket (in my opinion, one of the best all-round emcees on planet earth), while in France I took part in a drunken cypher with Parisian rapper Amalgam. Even in Hong Kong, I procured a rare mixtape from the then obscure Cantonese alt.rap outfit LMF (a group which has since gone double-platinum in South China).
In recent years, I’ve written pretty extensively about the underground UK hip-hop scene for sites such as Certified Banger (the most respected and longest-running UK hip-hop blog in existence), Rhythm Circus (one of the best indie/alternative music sites out there) and this blog (a blog which has garnered a little over 100,000 hits in less than two years).
That said, a few people have insinuated that despite my relentless enthusiasm for the art form, I’m actually nothing more than a curious interloper in the world of hip-hop. In fact in a recent email for example, I was vilified by some internet troll for being “too posh and stuck-up to write about hip-hop” and labelled “a disgrace to the art.” The tone of the email clearly suggested that this person (who I don’t wish to embarrass by naming), was genuinely vexed by someone who is perhaps at times overly wordy, sensitive and even effeminate in the way he writes about hip-hop. In many ways, his words were symptomatic of the trite macho mentality which has long been associated with the genre, and so I was inclined to just ignore them and move on. Still, it got me thinking about whether or not I am too posh for hip-hop, and whether or not there is still this imaginary fault-line which defines who can be part of the culture.
To start with, I would never try to pitch myself firmly into the category of being working class for the sake of fitting in to the hip-hop scene, because I know quite simply, that it would be a lie. In fact, I’m much happier being entirely open about being a nerdy, middle-class white kid from the home counties. I grew up in a leafy suburban town and was encouraged by my parents from an early age to focus my energies into getting a good education. I went on to university and obtained a BA in Modern Languages, and now I’m a professional interpreter. So there you go.
In my opinion, being middle-class is so irrelevant; it is surely the love and appreciation of the art form that transcends everything. However, many apologists seem to still want to crow about their salt-of-the-earth credentials and how this somehow makes them more credible exponents of hip-hop. As far as I’m concerned, I can’t really see why they get so invested in it. I mean in this day and age, aren’t most of us simply past that stage of caring? I mean, the old notion that hip-hop is a voice solely of oppressed, marginalized minority cultures is not only archaic, but also moot. Take a Don’t Flop event for example; do you see a room full of blinged-up, screw-faced gangsta rap caricatures? Of course not. In fact, I’d say Don’t Flop events tend to attract a pretty motley group of individuals from pretty much every imaginable walk-of-life. That to me is the essence of real hip-hop; building bridges, not borders, and positively welcoming a spirit of diversity and innovation. Groups like the Beastie Boys for example, who’ve had such a seminal influence on hip-hop music, are respected first and foremost for their craft and innovation – the fact that they are all upper-middle class Jews from midtown Manhattan is immaterial. And how about if we look at more recent rappers: Is college-educated Kanye West too posh for hip-hop? Is Drake, who grew up in an upper-middle class Jewish family in leafy suburbia, too posh for hip-hop? And is UK hip-hop legend Yungun, who was educated at Eton and King’s Canterbury respectively, too posh for hip-hop? Unless they have a real chip on their shoulder, I doubt a credible fan of hip-hop would say “yes” to any of the above.
Of course, I realise that some of the grittier elements of hip-hop culture are inescapable, and have to be adopted by awkward middle-class interlopers like myself. Much of the original Africanized vernacular for example, is integral to the art form and still helps codify a culture that was spawned by ghetto minorities (namely, African-Americans and Hispanics) in the South Bronx. Also, the widely stigmatized fashion elements (the fitted caps, the hoodies and the neck tattoos), are also part and parcel of an art form which is, and probably always will be, intrinsically anti-establishment. To be truly considered part of the hip-hop culture, I think you do have to conform to some extent, if only marginally – whether it’d be wearing your cap at a jaunty angle, or peppering your sentences with the odd “yo” or “homie”. But to pretend to be working-class is, for me at least, a step too far, as though I were hiding away my inner-self.
Hip-hop has long been, and continues to be a voice of the urban working-classes, but as an art form it has no real parameters or restriction as to who can take part. Anyone is open to contribute, and listeners can choose for themselves what they want to hear. Although many purists would rather it remained an inner-city art from, the fact is, the genre has evolved to accommodate those from stereotypically uncool backgrounds like myself. Like rock or punk, hip-hop is only truly realised in its ability to move a crowd as a collective; not in its ability to define class boundaries.