Ask anyone if they think the origins of Hip Hop’s emcee, b-boy, deejay, and graffiti culture have changed, and you’ll be certain to get a unanimous response. Yes. These art forms that comprise Hip-Hop made their rise during the late ‘70s through the early ‘80s and defined themselves as a staple in the South Bronx’s street culture. In an epic Rock and Rap fusion record, “The Escapades Of Futura,” Futura 2000 and Mick Jones of The Clash painted a vivid picture of life as a graffiti writer in New York during the early 1980s. Let’s not forget the impact Richard “Crazy Legs” Colón had on the culture of b-boying, while names like Afrika Bambaataa and Grandmaster Flash serve as iconic figures in the early prominence of deejaying.
So while no one in their right mind would debate the aforementioned five pillars of Hip Hop, I think we have to come to grips with the fact that the entry points to Hip-Hop have changed. Golden Era fans likely point to the fact that those who weren’t artists per se still participated in the culture by deejaying, b-boying and practicing emceeing and even graffiti art as hobbyists and weekend enthusiasts. We’ve seen far less graf writing and b-boying over the last 30 years, technology has changed the perception and methods used for deejaying, and there are probably times when even the most hardcore Hip Hop fans believe that knowledge and overstanding of the culture is lacking. The latter is likely what prompted Nas to declare, “Hip Hop Is Dead” with the title of his 2006 album. To me, all of this leads to one question. How do you participate in Hip Hop in the Digital Age?
The Internet As An Entry Point Into Hip Hop Culture
When prompted with this same question, Compton-bred emcee, Problem, pointed to the World Wide Web.
“I guess you start a successful blog site,” he answered. “I think that’s probably the most effective way…it started as a street hobby, but so did basketball. It’s changed, so you gotta get involved with this shit and find new ways to get in and move. I watched an NBA game, and maybe three out of six commercials had rappers in them. This is it, man. Think of something and jump in! You might change the game. The thing everybody always has to realize though—it all goes back to the music. You still gotta be good.”
Problem’s observation points to an important distinction—not just in Hip Hop—but in all art forms. He notes the difference between what he called a “street hobby” and what has essentially become a multi-billion dollar industry. I’d argue that aside from the obvious difference of Hip Hop being a lifestyle or culture, the immediacy of the Internet can often transform a hobbyist into a professional in the blink of an eye.
“I started playing around in November of ,” Trinidad Jame$ noted, in an interview with Peter Rosenberg and Hot97 FM Program Director Ebro Darden. “Then I just stopped messing with it. Then two months after—in February—I decided to do the tape by myself.”
That tape, Don’t Be S.A.F.E., spawned the single, “All Gold Everything,” which debuted at the #47 spot on Billboard magazine’s “Hot 100” chart before being certified gold by the Recording Industry Association of America. Jame$ reportedly signed a $2 million deal with the iconic Def Jam Records. Yet it all came courtesy of a memorable hook over an instrumental he grabbed off the mixtape website, DatPiff—all free of charge. It was the same method he used for many records during his come-up days, as Jame$ would resort to grabbing beats off online instrumental CDs. Jame$ didn’t hide his path to success, either, when talking about how he used the Internet to his advantage when making his “All Gold Everything” hit.
“Everything I did was right out there in the open,” Jame$ told HipHopDX. “It wasn’t like it was a hidden secret. You gotta have something that’s worth going viral with. Once you go viral with it, you gotta have something that sticks to people in an original way so they feel like they really want to be a part of it.”
The example of Trinidad Jame$ speaks to the fast-paced nature of Internet-spawned success and an unwritten Hip Hop rule of perfecting one’s craft. I think how much importance each listener puts on both aspects directly informs each individual opinion on if Trinidad Jame$ is a proper representation of Hip Hop culture. Does the immediacy the Internet provides have to be mutually exclusive from perfecting one’s craft?
Paid Dues: The Death Of The Incubation Period
“A lot of kids get to come out too soon,” noted R.A. the Rugged Man, when asked about Hip Hop in the Digital Age. “[Before the Internet], when you was wack, you was learning your craft and you was wack. No one got to witness it worldwide. Nowadays, kids will be like, ‘Yo, I’m dope,’ when they’re still wack. And they get to put their shit all over online and on Facebook. And people will be like, ‘Ahh, that rapper’s wack,’ because he didn’t learn his craft yet. So you’ve got tons and tons of wack, unpolished, horrible rappers putting their fucking songs all over the Internet. They start thinking they’re a Rap star before they’re even good at their craft and before they even know how to make a song. That took at little something out of the game. ”
Granted, R.A. wasn’t speaking specifically about Trinidad Jame$ or any other particular emcee. But I can’t help but wonder if we’re talking about the issue of exposure as opposed to a fundamental shift in the way people—Hip Hop fans included—communicate with each other. I don’t necessarily think emerging emcees were better 30 years ago. But in 1983, a young emcee, deejay, b-boy or graffiti artist was pretty much limited to sharing their efforts with a small circle of peers. During that era, few could afford video equipment or the means to press mass quantities of their product for public distribution. I feel the limitations of technology provided a sort of incubation period as people perfected their craft. I’m not a mind reader, so only time will tell if someone like Trinidad Jame$ is actively working to become a better bar-for-bar rapper. And I’m not sure how we’d objectively measure such a thing anyway.
For now, I don’t think perfecting one’s craft and the immediacy afforded by the Internet have to always be mutually exclusive. Facebook, YouTube and Twitter are part of the fundamental ways we communicate with each other in 2013. What’s the difference between someone in 2013 sharing their personal contribution to Hip Hop with 500 “friends” on the Internet versus someone in 1983 sharing their personal contribution to Hip Hop with 10 friends they personally interact with face-to-face? As someone is perfecting their craft, how do we as listeners separate the baby steps that sometimes lead to innovation versus an untalented contributor that’s better off just being a fan with a day job?
Started From The Bottom: Errors, Innovation & Excellence
“Back then, everybody was a biter,” noted legendary b-boy Richard “Crazy Legs” Colón in a 2010 interview with SceneInteractive.com. “But it was all about how can you bite, come back that next week, make that move yours and put your own little stamp on it?”
To me, Crazy Legs’ quote speaks to the issue of innovation and contributing to Hip Hop in the Digital Age. Whether you’re talking about deejaying, sample-based production or even emcees freestyling over previously used beats, I feel much of Hip Hop culture is comprised of adding on and creating new material from a previous work. Colón added that one of his many legendary innovations, was birthed from some haphazard experimentation while he was still perfecting his craft.
“It was an evolution of accidents,” Colón explained, while chronicling the invention of the infamous b-boying technique of the Windmill. “One day, I was trying to go into a Chair Freeze, and I over-rotated, because I was practicing in a small hallway. We didn’t have studios then, and I was in a tenement building. I went to go into my Chair Freeze, and to prevent myself from hitting my feet against the wall, I kind of whipped my legs around from [a different] position. Then I started spinning, and my cousin was like, ‘Oh shit!’”
I wonder what would have happened if Colón’s awe-inspiring mistake during that Chair Freeze was witnessed by a dozen people via a webcam instead of his cousin? If he’d essentially “gone viral” during what R.A. referred to as that wack period when people are experimenting and perfecting their craft, would we look at him differently?
Ill Communication: A Global Shift In How People Share Information
Ultimately, I think comparing pre-Internet Hip Hop contributions to today’s environment is apples and oranges. Legislation, societal norms, technology and a host of other factors make the decrease in visible b-boys, deejays and graffiti artists more than just an issue of trendiness. And I feel it’s almost impossible to knock how Hip Hop contributors share their contributions when the fundamental way we share everything has changed so much in the last few decades.
“We really are in the middle of a massive change and transformation in telecommunications in general,” noted photographer, producer and deejay Ryan Lewis. “I think just to be a person right now—so much has drastically changed in the world of communications—it’s heavily affected what it means to be a photographer or a producer. We have access to things.”
Lewis’ entry point was certainly aided by technology. He credits software programs and the ability to pursue photography and music production all relatively cheaply (or freely) from the same computer as a reason he is in his current position.
“The access is crazy cheap or free,” Lewis added. “And once you attain a certain skill level, the ability to freely promote and market yourself through social media is sort of the next step to that. It’s a very interesting time, but it’s a very difficult time to get recognized for anything artistically because there’s so many people doing that shit.”
Worldwide Underground: The Digital Tradeoff In Hip Hop
I can’t front as if I was around for the b-boying days of Crazy Legs or the times when KAWS was bombing trains and billboards. That was over 30 years ago. But through a knowledge and appreciation of the culture, the Internet has provided me the opportunity to study the history of Hip Hop’s rich culture. Interestingly enough, part of the reason Golden Era contributors such as Crazy Legs and KAWS are still in the public eye is at least partially due to Internet savvy artists like Kanye West and Clipse. Older heads undoubtedly remember KAWS as the guy who was infamous for bombing trains, walls, and billboards. But to younger fans of the Internet Era, he’s the guy who designed the artwork for West’s 808’s & Heartbreak and Til The Casket Drops by the Clipse.
“When I was younger I just saw [graffiti] as a great outlet,” KAWS explained to Philly.com in an April interivew. “I wake up and make what I want to make. It wasn’t a decision to stop doing one thing. It was more like becoming obsessed with another…When I was doing walls 15 years ago I was thinking about painting. I like painting. I like composition. It’s not really any different than it is now.”
Between artists directly interacting with fans via social media and using willing corporations like Budweiser and Redbull to increase visibility for themselves and their craft, the Digital Age provides more entry points into Hip Hop culture than ever before. In exchange, the ability to filter out a struggling novice from an unskilled, burgeoning pro has pretty much disappeared. An artist’s ability to perfect their craft during an unofficial incubation period is nonexistent. People across the globe can engage in heated debates about the merits of Hip Hop culture. Do the positives outweigh the negatives? I guess that’s something each individual has to answer for him or herself.
“The rappers that did study the craft now have a way of getting their music worldwide,” R.A. the Rugged Man added. “Some kid in Compton can go put his shit online. All of a sudden they’re listening to it in Belgium, Poland, Japan and fucking Slovakia just by this kid pressing a button. So there’s two sides of the Digital Age—it helps, and it hurts.”
It’s no question today’s stars have attained some level of success through talent, but in this Digital Era—in order to spread the word to the world—no other tool is more powerful than the Internet. It’s a tool that has given me the opportunity to reach out to today’s artists, and talk to them regarding their lives in this era. As much as rappers have gained from blogs and music publications, the same goes both ways. Without this commodity, sites worldwide—including HipHopDX—would have a much more difficult time reaching out to the stars and providing readers with more exclusive content. Like it or not, the Digital Era has made everything possible in today’s time.
Additional reporting by Michael Nguyen.
Omar Burgess is a Long Beach, California native who has contributed to various magazines, newspapers and has been an editor at HipHopDX since 2008. Follow him on Twitter @OmarBurgess.