Adam Mansbach 2008

Adam Mansbach  books  events  bio  music  interviews  other writing 


50 Cent's "In The Club" has been the number one record in America for two straight months. Eminem's 8 Mile set an opening week record for an R-rated movie last winter, hip hop mogul Russell Simmons' Def Poetry show is the hottest thing on Broadway and a British comedian named Ali G is ruling American cable.

In ever-evolving forms, hip hop rules planet earth, or at least the global entertainment economy from Japan to Cuba. But is there something deeper going on than the flash of 50 Cent's platinum chains and Eminem's silver tongue? Where is hip hop's artistic vanguard, its intelligencia? Wasn't this 1.6 billion dollar industry once rooted in resistance?

It was, and if you know where to look, it still is. Many of today's most vibrant young artists -- from Jay-Z to Sarah Jones, Baktari Kitwana to Zadie Smith, can best be understood through the matrix of hip hop Just as the jazz aesthetic birthed non-musicians like novelist Ralph Ellison, poet Amiri Baraka, photographer Roy Decarava and painter Romare Bearden, hip hop has produced its own school of thinkers and artists. Call them Hip Hop Intellectuals: folks who derive their basic artistic, intellectual and political strategies from the tenets of hip hop itself -- collage, reclamation of public space, the repurposing of technology -- even if they're not kicking rhymes or scratching records.

Hip hop was born in the Bronx from the margins to which people of color had been relegated in early seventies. Graffiti, rap music and breakdancing were assembled from spare parts, ingeniously and in public. Paint cans refitted with oven-cleaner nozzles transformed the subway trains into moving art galleries. Playgrounds and parks became nightclubs, turntables and records became instruments. Scraps of linoleum and cardboard were made into dancefloors. Verbal and manual dexterity turned kids into stars, and today's stars grew up listening.

Today’s 25-35 set is hip hop's second generation -- not the pioneers who invented it, but the crew who shepherded the culture into global prominence, political importance, artistic fullness. They were the first to study its history, to strive to "keep it real." This group got involved before hip hop was a fully mass-mediated form, back when rap radio shows aired at two in the morning and Yo! MTV Raps was a thing of the future, not the past.

"Our generation is a different breed, intellectually," says Jeff Chang, 34, author of Can't Stop, Won't Stop, a political history of hip hop due out from St. Martin’s Press in 2004. "We've grown up with multiculturalism, grown up in a world where pop culture has always mediated how we analyze the world. We're not afraid of the media anymore; there's a constant dialogue in hip hop about the gaps between our reality and the ways we're represented. We're naturally interdisciplinary; we mix signifiers, we break everything down to bits and bytes and rebuild something new."

Stitching It All Together

Collage, as Chang suggests, is fundamental to hip hop, and has been since the beginning. The DJ was the central figure in the culture's early days; his job was to rock the crowd with whatever worked, which meant digging for sonic snippets anywhere and everywhere and recontextualizing them with seamless spontaneity into a danceable mix. The very sound system on which he played was a pastiche of homemade, self-modified and repurposed equipment. The DJ was a circuit board, receiving, reviewing and cataloging information and retransmitting only the best of the best.

Today’s hip hop intellectual collages ideas with the same democratic, genre-crossing, do-it-yourself attitude. In any poem by Paul Beatty, for example, (now primarily a novelist), one of the first poets to be dubbed 'hip hop' after winning the 1993 Nuyorican Poets' Cafe Slam and still regarded as a leading voice -- one finds a field of reference that obliterates high culture-low culture distinctions: he rhymes Jomo Kenyatta with Jack Lamotta, moves seamlessly from Martin Luther King to Saturday morning cartoons.

Hip hop theater artists like Halifah Walidah and Danny Hoch are similarly committed to collaging under-represented voices, taking on multiple identities in their one-person shows to manufacture a new kind of dialogue. The fiction of writers like Toure, Junot Diaz and Danyel Smith crackles with cross-stitched rhythms and multi-cultural wordplay. And hip hop activists like William Upski Wimsatt, 30 -- who mixed marketing with graffiti in the advertising campaign for his self-published book Bomb The Suburbs, writing the title on sidewalks nationwide and selling an unheard-of 30,000 copies -- have begun to take the notion of uniting and amplifying disparate voices to a political level. Wimsatt's new project is an attempt to create a national voting block of young people hungry for change. Using hip hop as a common language, he hopes to network his generation politically, create voter guides, and force candidates to “take our power seriously.”

"A hip hop mindstate is an eager, hungry mindstate," says Wimsatt. "Kids of my era who got into hip hop wanted to know everything about it, wanted to master it. The same way I wanted to be the best graffiti writer in Chicago when I was young - and was willing to go out all night and find the spots no one else knew about and paint them - I'm now trying to find the people no one has mobilized politically and bring them together."

Seizing Space

Such attempts to take back public space are a historical part of hip hop. The musical collages old-school DJs like Grandmaster Flash, Afrika Bambaataa and Kool Herc created were for the enjoyment of crowds assembled, as often as not, in the playgrounds of the Bronx. The electricity needed to power the sound systems was supplied by jimmying open lampposts and plugging in -- a literal reclamation of power from the city, and an early indication of hip hop's investment in building community and staking out ground by means of creative challenges to uncaring authorities.

Graffiti writers, similarly, reclaimed the urban subterrain, painting elaborate murals on subway trains and eluding capture despite the $250 million the City of New York spent between 1973 and 1988 in its "War on Graffiti" (i.e., its war on young, poor people of color -- from the beginning, political attacks on hip hop had coded meanings).

Today, hip hop intellectuals are still staking out public space -- this time in education and journalism.

University classes on hip hop have proliferated in the past decade; there are now more than a hundred being taught around the country, by such noted scholars Tricia Rose (author of the seminal hip hop text Black Noise) and Michael Eric Dyson. Alternative high schools like New York City's El Puente base entire curriculi around hip hop, and non-profit groups like Youth Speaks in San Francisco indoctrinate young people into the culture of writing by throwing poetry slams that attract audiences in the thousands.

"In the beginning, we went out with no money and took over classrooms and theaters," says James Kass, Youth Speaks' executive director. "That's hip hop right there. The idea is to give young folks the space to do what they want to do, to approach writing in ways that are relevant to their daily lives. By the time Youth Speaks started, hip hop had already laid the foundation for multiracial communication, so we built on that. What people always say about Youth Speaks is that we make poetry cool. Hip hop is the only place that tells kids it's cool to be creative and smart -- the more clever lines you put in your poem, the more response you get.”

Even the industry devoted to covering hip hop culture can be seen as a site of resistance. "Hip hop journalism works between two worlds," says Chang. "It fights the old-boy rock critic network and also the highbrow world of cultural criticism -- both traditionally very white -- by developing an indigenous cultural criticism." The fight Chang describes is taking place not only within the pages of magazines like The Source, XXL and Stress, which are devoted entirely to the culture. Hip hop journalists like Chang, Jon Caramanica, Kalefah Sennah, Oliver Wang and Joan Morgan are also bringing it to the pages of The New York Times, The Nation, Spin and even GQ.

Ego Trip's Big Book of Racism (Harper Collins, 2002) is another product of the sensibility Chang describes. A collection of some two hundred lists and short articles, ranging from "Movie Franchise Stereotypes'" to "Riot On! The Best of Twentieth Century Civil Unrest" to "10 Items Found in Every Asian Home Not Worth Stealing," the book blends reportage and opinion, seriousness and absurdity, insight and provocation, into a compulsively readable collage of race trivia. Written by the former editors of the '90s indie magazine Ego Trip -- all of whom have moved on to editorial positions at other publications since their brainchild's demise -- the Big Book pushes boundaries and buttons like the most provocative rappers: to convey a message, but also for the sheer thrill of getting a response.

An embodiment of the strategies hip hop intellectuals derive from rappers, the Big Book gives rap fans what they look for in MCs: innovation, humor, dexterity, confrontation and fearlessness. The authors engage their readers in call-and-response, blurring the line between performer and audience just like the stage routines old-school rappers developed to engage their crowds: the nature of list-making is to invite additions, deletions, arguments, and the nature of provocation (an art the Ego Trip crew has mastered) is to solicit a response. Articles like “Six Steps to Interracial Dating Perfection” (“theivery makes a great first-date activity... please make sure your ivory mate makes those moves. The darker shade in the relationship may be used as a rather good decoy.”) and “Why Latin Dudes Love Going Downtown” practically beg for a comeback.

Though a palpable hip hop sensibiliy runs through the work, there is barely a word in the Big Book about beats, rhymes, breakdancing or graffiti. This illuminates a further point about the hip hop mindstate: once in place, it maintains no topical allegiance to hip hop itself. Because hip hop is a culture which is constantly synthesizing, evolving, testing out new notions, it can survive higher education, wider experience, even the process of growing up. A hip hopper can be bored to death with every rapper in the world and still call herself hip hop.

A Critical Moment, a Lasting Sensibility

In fact, the current class of hip hop intellectuals is largely fed up with what hip hop has become -- sick of rap's minute attention span, misogyny, violence, idealism, cynicism, self-obsession, disorganization, arrogance, machismo, homophobia, and materialism. 50 Cent's hedonistic club anthems, Nelly's odes to his Nike Air Force Ones and Missy Elliot's goofy sexual bravado might be worldwide hits, but they sound hollow to a generation reared on Krs-One's "You Must Learn," Public Enemy's "Fight The Power," and The Jungle Brothers "Acknowledge Your History" -- righteous directives which passed as song titles in the late eighties.

Circa 1988-1990, the zeitgest ears for hip hop's second generation, rap was going to be The Revolution. Whereas musicians of the past had played complimentary roles in the quest for liberation by providing soundtracks to the struggle -- from Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come” to James Brown’s “Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud” to The Last Poets’ “When The Revolution Comes” -- rappers were right at the forefront. KRS-One, X-Clan, Public Enemy The Jungle Brothers, Brand Nubian and Queen Latifah were articulating the hypocrisy of American life. They railed against police brutality and racial profiling, called for multicultural education, gave their own history lessons.

The music spoke with passion and urgency, reconnected militance with cool. It opened lines of communication in black youth culture; for the next ten years after he said it in 1988, nobody could write an article about hip hop without including Public Enemy fontman Chuck D's quote about rap as "the black CNN." And as has always been the case with black American music, hip hop articulated something so universal and revelatory that white kids wanted (to listen) in. Some even began to question the skin privilege into which they had been born. Rap was beginning to break down the doors barring access to the mainstream: exploding onto radio and TV with its politics intact.

"When PE hit in '89," says Chang, "they focused a lot of issues that were urgent: from ethnic studies to racism in education to affirmative action to college admissions. It seemed like an incredibly energized period to me. Intellectually, it was all of a piece, from "Fight the Power" down to how to actualize that in activism and journalism. And if you shift the details, the context is still there for a lot of folks."

Still, Chang notes, "art never produces coherent politics." In retrospect, a bunch of young entertainers without proper preparation, or fully conceived agendas, or access to resources, or experience in coalition-building, was suddenly being expected to lead a movement for social justice -- a movement inextricably tied to the market.

Around 1991, that market swung away from consciousness. The fashions changed, and as hip hop moved into its next phases -- ‘gangsta rap,’ crossover success, worldwide diffusion -- hip hop intellectuals started to realize that all the time they’d put in as participants had made them more.

Suddenly, they were the experts, the torch-bearers. And as hip hop moved farther from what they wanted it to be -- as KRS-One and Chuck D gave way to Ludacris and the Cash Money Millionaires, as "hip hop" devolved into a marketing term -- hip hop intellectuals became increasingly vocal about hip hop’s true nature. They started trying to be the activists, the artists, the thinkers, that hip hop needed. As they earned their advance degrees, landed their book deals, established their non-profit status, they continued to carry hip hop with them -- sometimes on their shoulders, and always in their hearts.

So while 50 Cent is selling out arenas, Sarah Jones is packing auditoriums. While Sprite is capitalizing on hip hop’s popularity to sell soda, Youth Speaks is using it to amplify a new generation’s voices. From Hoch’s Hip Hop Theater Festival to Toure’s fiction, Wimsatt’s activism to Chang’s journalism, hip hop remains a transformative force when it finds its way into the right hands.

Or, as Wimsatt puts it, "In '88, we were talking about changing the world. Now we're doing it - through community organizing, electorial politics, business, media, art and philanthropy. Hip hop gave us the tools, and now we're trying to build the house."


Adam Mansbach is the author of the novel Shackling Water and the poetry collection genius b-boy cynics getting weeded in the garden of delights, and the former editor of the hip hop journal Elementary.


Adam Mansbach  books  events  bio  music  interviews  other writing