My knowledge of hip-hop is limited to what can be seen from the twisting pathways happenstance and my interests have taken me on over the years. My particular areas of musical interest are not delineated by stylistic boundaries (I basically like everything), but more by an interest in creative autonomy, and in what people get up to between the cracks in mainstream culture: the underground, in other words.
At the moment I’m connected to a number of broad currents in underground music: progressive rock, of a kind that blends into the fringes of modern classical and experimental music; the whole arty beard-stroking free improvisation/ ambient/ field recording thing; avant-garde folk music; extreme noisy metal; hardcore punk; and underground hip-hop. Most of these categories enjoy quite a lot of crossover, but hip-hop is more clearly bounded, and seems more self-sufficient, perhaps because it is simply a part of a broader set of cultural and creative practices. It’s also a category that includes a broader range of artistic intentions, ranging from the out-there and uncompromisingly poetic, to the comedic, to the straightforwardly observational and autobiographical. Some of it is separated from the mainstream only by the question of sales figures, although there certainly seems to be a lingering preference for old school production techniques even in those parts of the underground.
At this point I should re-iterate that my impressions are always partial, and any observation I make about the ‘scene as a whole’ is just the view I get from my limited perspective; but before anyone accuses me of being ill informed, or not a ‘true fan’, I’d like to point out that the same is true of everyone. Although there are many people who know far more about hip-hop than me (the estimable Tom Clements to take an obvious example), I will defend to the grave my right to form my own canon, and to refuse the desire any mainstream (even the mainstream of an underground movement) to dictate to me what I should listen to and what I should discount. In fact, this is what I mean when I say ‘underground’; and although large parts of the hip-hop underground would love nothing more than to achieve mainstream success, those same parts understand clearly that any such success, any kind of viable hip-hop practice whatsoever, relies on just such a commitment to the truth of their own experience.
Authenticity is an important element in perceptions of any art form; although it is a very problematic term, from a theoretical or philosophical perspective, the fact remains that anything that doesn’t strike us as authentic, truthful or at least sincere, will strike us as fake. Authenticity is important in any underground music: free improvisation is valued for its truth to the moment, for its unmediated spontaneity; punk is valued for the intensity and commitment of the performance. But I think that hip-hop is unique in the centrality of the term to its creative endeavours, and in the way it is explicitly bandied about as a token of value. It’s very interesting that this should be the case in a music whose production conventions involve the appropriation and re-purposing of existing recordings, but that’s a theoretical investigation for another day; I’m particularly interested in the way that this relates to geography.
An emcee needs to keep their lyrics ‘real’, on a number of levels; they need to represent their life experience with a directness that is unique to this style of music. Songwriters in other genres are free to act like novelists, and adopt the voice of fictional characters, representing experiences quite distinct from their own. The narrative voice of hip-hop is almost always in the first person (yeah, I know, I instantly thought of a dozen exceptions as soon as I wrote that); hip-hop lyricists obviously do diverge from their own experience, but the conventions of the genre mean that this is always a divergence. Sometimes it is overtly signalled, perhaps with a humorous aside that draws attention to an exaggeration, and sometimes the emcee makes themselves out to be a stone-face gangsta draped with gold and bitches without a hint of irony, but this always leaves them open to being ‘found out’, and to their right to make such claims being questioned.
The baseline assumption then, is that the emcee is discussing what he or she knows, representing lived experience as seen from their own specific perspective, in their own social and economic circumstances, in the specific geographical location they inhabit. There’s a lot of history behind this, and to discuss the way this has informed the music over time, with its variable relationship to the actual experience of its proponents, is beyond the scope of this article; it is worthing noting, however, that Straight Outta Compton, one of the founding documents of this approach to rap, specifically proclaims its geographic allegiance as a token of its authenticity.
Among all the underground musical practices I mentioned at the outset, hip-hop is unique in its concern with place, and the part place plays in the construction of identity. Much underground music tends to elide any geography more specific than a country, perhaps because specialist interests appeal to a geographically distributed audience; but conversely, they often rely on local networks to find venues for live performance, with acts clustered in tiny micro-scenes around small towns. My politics (which I won’t waste too much time on here) lead me to favour the local as much as I favour the underground; the ideology, and the political economy, that has turned the vast majority of us into passive consumers of culture, is specifically anti-localist, in effect if not in stated intention. The mainstream is the antithesis of the local, just as much as it is the antithesis of the underground; its mechanisms of representation and reproduction are predicated on a focus on global products and stars. It is a world in which, by definition, the local has no place: if everyone on the planet buys a band’s records, they can hardly be either local or underground. For me the two things go hand in hand.
Hip-hop’s origins are decidedly underground; it is (or was) an inherently subversive form, which got its cultural materials by turning that which was offered for passive consumption to its own purposes. However, given its subsequent commercial dominance, the fundamentally altered circumstances of its production, and the themes that most people would associate with it, it might look an unlikely candidate for a champion of localism. If there is any truly global form in popular music, a form that is recognisable in music, dress, visual art and even body language, from Vladivostok to Rio de Janeiro, it’s hip-hop. But the interesting thing is that while rock bands all over the world have traditionally sung in English, with recognisable simulacra of American accents, people have always done hip-hop in their own languages, and produced beats by sampling the records with which they are familiar.
The British underground hip-hop that I’ve been joyfully discovering over the past years covers a wide range of creative, aesthetic, thematic and political concerns; but one powerful unifying factor is its passionate commitment to its places of origin. It’s not all the sort of thing I like, but even the most unreflecting spew of macho, misogynist clichés can contain a germ of localist specificity, a pride in the particular combination of bricks and people that is Widnes, or wherever the hell it might be. People are not putting on accents to rap any more; if anything they are emphasising their own dialects; not only do they proudly proclaim their origins, as American rappers have traditionally name-checked their neighbourhoods, but there is often a real sense that it is their job to represent their community to the world. And although one aspect of that focus might be a relatively narrow set of horizons, the other is a rootedness, a strength of identity that is very hard to find in an increasingly deterritorialised world.