Guns and drugs. Life and death. Politics, women, and money. Throughout his career, Nas has touched on many of Hip-Hop's most hallowed topics. At his best, these subjects have been explored with creativity. At his worst, they poorly rehashed what the next man had already said. Nas has elevated the genre, while also succumbing to the industry. His rise and fall and rise again, times of relevance and irrelevance, often have mirrored the very state of Hip-Hop, at least from a New York side of things. Appropriately enough, if I had to recommend a single song that equally summarized his strengths and Hip-Hop's best, NY State of Mind would be that track. Going post-millennia, if I then had to pick a single song that represented Nas' version of Hip-Hop at its peak, One Mic would be the choice. It's both lyrical and conscious, all those staple terms critics keep in their breast pocket. It's emotive, full of energy, as Nas literally surges with the beat. Thematically, it's defiant, violent, just as quickly remorseful and then rebellious. It stretches from the prison yard to the street corner to home, the diamonds to the dying, the women to the war. It encompasses a total view of Hip-Hop, its traps and treasures, past and tomorrow, and gives the listener a sense of the spirit that birthed a culture. One Mic is a fitting ode to the voice that empowered a movement.
What you call a infinite brawl, eternal souls clashingThis brings up an interesting point though. In focusing here on Nas' music and what it represents, we talk about Hip-Hop a lot, but what the hell is it anyway? Textbook answers are only good for textbooks and always carry their own inadequacies. This whatever-it-is is too dynamic to be summed up with some cold, scientific language or demonstrated easily like a new gadget at a technology fair. "What is Hip-Hop?" is a question I've kicked around in my own head often, even once writing a kind of exposition piece to satisfy an answer. Two and half years ago, after a Freshman semester presentation of a program entitled "The African Roots of Hip-Hop", I came back to my dorm and just started thinking it over. While I've posted this online before, I now extend to you my little rumination of a very big question.
War gets deep, some beef is everlasting
Complete with thick scars, brothers knifing each other
Up in prison yards, drama, where does it start?
WHAT IS HIP-HOP?
--Internet message boards would tell me it's dead.
--FOX News would tell me it's a disease.
--New York would tell me it's not the South.
--The radio would tell me it's not New York.
--The Bay would tell me it's MDMA.
--Dope boys would tell me it's coke.
--Bohos would tell me it's crocheted and reeks of Nag Champa.
--Russell Simmons would tell me at the release of the Spring line of Phat Farm.
--Puff Daddy would tell me at the release of the Fall line of Sean John.
--Rappers would tell me it's the streets.
--The streets would show me it's top 40.
--Record companies would tell me it's the mixtape.
--R&B would tell me it's verse-sing-verse-bridge-video shoot.
--Rawkus would tell me it's coming out next year.
--Pharrell would tell me it's smiling white girls and trucker hats.
--El-P would tell me it's depressed white girls and trucker hats.
--The backpackers would tell me offbeat and in metaphor.
--The vets would tell me it was only around when they were kids.
--Me? I couldn't tell you a damn thing.
PORTRAIT OF A LISTENER AS A YOUNG MAN
My favorite band until I was twelve was The Smashing Pumpkins. I only knew rap music as a casual listener from one of those "original home of Hip-Hop and R&B" fodder radio stations. Hiding the Parental Advisory sticker from my dad, the first rap album I ever bought was E 1999 Eternal. Before I knew the Stevie Wonder sample or saw the movie it cross-promoted, the first rap song I ever memorized was Gangsta's Paradise. Then, at age thirteen, killing time in a St. Louis record store, almost by accident and surely dumb luck, I bought Black Star's debut and Do You Want More?!!!??!, by The Roots.
That's organic Hip-Hop jazz.
I thought I was good then. Like every teenager caught between know-it-allism and gym class, sophomore year of high school, I could have sworn I had it under control. Mos was telling me I was Hip-Hop. And laces out and pants sagging, I believed it. I knew about an Extinction Agenda and A Nation of Millions. I knew about De La, Tribe, Rakim, Kane, Wu-Tang, Slick Rick. I was really good then, right? Next came the first week of "Music Theory and Harmony" a.k.a. "Music Appreciation." The teacher, an older white man who played the tuba, asked us where we thought rap music came from. I was all ready to chime in with "Bronx, 1973, sir", before my thought process was interrupted--
"Centuries ago in Africa . . ."
Oh, right, Acey and them told us that back in '93. That's Innercity Griots.
STUDENTS IN THE NIGHT
Regarding the proper dress for the night's performance, I had really been trying not to come off as the typical white dude trying to be "down." However, an afternoon nap and rainy weather forced the backwards baseball hat and Russell blue hoodie on me. And since I'm not one to do anything half-assed, I threw on a Jesus piece, wave cap, and "Thug Life" tat for good measure. As I walked into the Commons area, avoiding a Jansport by rocking an Ampac, in too strolled Northern California's own version of urban influence on the suburbs. EM, IN, and their other friend, EM, were all wearing the standard garb, overcompensating for a lack of melanin with identical Raider beanies.
That's keeping it real?
AND THE BAND PLAYED ON
The night's entertainment was soon introduced. Henri-Pierre played the role of lead vocalist, joined on stage by an acoustic guitarist, a bass player, a hand-clapper / all around performer, several female dancers, and two percussionists. The percussionists were distinguished by Henri-Pierre as "the groove masters." Continuing, he proclaimed, "those familiar with rap have your MPC 3000, well, we don't need that, we have the real thing."
There were about 85 people at the show, aproximately:
60 white females
15 white males
03 Asian females
01 Asian male (who of course had to breakdance)
02 Hispanic females
02 Hispanic males
01 black female
01 black male (who of course brought his cool white friend)
That's the demographic.
WE ARE THE MUSIC MAKERS
Before the night even properly began, Henri-Pierre had instructed all the "lazy" people to take their chairs to the back, while the rest of the room danced in the front. On cue, seventy white kids made like The Mighty Mighty Bosstones on ecstasy and No Doz.
Consisting of upbeat, ballad, and call & response numbers, and with a repertoire featuring songs from Mali, Senegal, and Ghana, the band played a thrilling set for nearly ninety minutes. Throughout their performance, the group's musicianship and passion was so vivid that it made everything seem beyond fluid. Chills were instant and even the most stubborn of audience members was swept up. All the angles and stars and sounds lined up just right, and I swear I had this odd reaction, almost like a numbness, to the point where I was forced to check to see if my hat was still on. The air felt that light around me.
WHAT IS HIP-HOP? (cont.)
At the end of it all, the question was still looming. I didn't quite get the lecture I might have been expecting. The breakdown of the social and musical diasporas, tied in amongst a reflection of current state of affairs, from the unique perspective of an African musician living in modern urban America, was lacking, but I couldn't be mad at the music.
Still, what the hell is it?
--KRS-One: "rap is something you do. Hip-Hop is something you live."
--DJ Premier: "what we're doing is Hip-Hop. They're doing rap."
--Saul Williams: "not until you've listened to Rakim on a rocky mountain top have you heard Hip-Hop."
--And some others dudes probably have said some other stuff--I don't know.
However, from what I picked up at the African Roots performance, one thing stuck out: at a certain point in the evening, the maestro of handclaps jumped down from the stage and started dancing in a frenzy, center of the room. All the energy around swelled in his presence. He then quickly stopped and pulled out a lighter. Next he reached for a nearby torch-like instrument. He lit the torch, and all but the steady, creeping pace of percussion ceased. The once-dancing crowd stood still, silent in anticipation. With all attention squarely in his direction, the man placed the flame in his mouth and swallowed it whole.
Nas: One Mic
Nas: One Mic live @ BET Presents (video)