Friday, 13 November 2009

Is Hip Hop Dead?

Maybe I'm a bit late on this, but the other day I was reading an article about Jay-Z, and the same old question raised it's decayed hand, with a four finger ring attached. Is Hip Hop dead? I pondered on it for a second, my mind awash with the same cliched arguments and images: Kanye West, Skinny Jeans, Bling, The Black Eyed Peas, 'Real', Gats, Timberlands and appalling fake platinum chains. The type you'd find on Oxford street.

Is hip hop dead, what do I know? I'm in my 30's and when I hear some 'underground' music I generally don't like it, and most of the music on my itunes are simply downloads of old albums I have on vinyl. Maybe that's the answer I thought. I've finally grown out of it. Hip Hop was a movement created by the youth for the youth. Maybe Hip Hop's like the characters in 'Toy Story'. It freezes and dies when it's exposed to adult eyes. But Hip Hop's nearly 40 years old now, so it can't be the Peter Pan of musical genres. It's captured the world's imagination and it's a multi-billion dollar industry. So it's definitely got a pulse, but how strong is it?

I flicked through some of my play lists for inspiration. As I read names like Black Moon, Nas, UltraMagnetic Mc's, Black Sheep, Raekwon, Ghostface, and Ice - T, I realised that I didn't really listen to Hip Hop at all. At first glance, the above tried and tested line up with their critically acclaimed credentials, could be seen as a who's who of Hip Hop. But I'd challenge anyone to scratch beneath the surface of any of their songs to find the Hip Hop.

Ever since Nas sampled 'Wildstyle's' 'Subway Theme' for 'Genesis', the opening of his debut 'Illmatic' album, we've known he respects and loves the past. He even schools someone who comments, 'Yo Nas what the fuck is this bullshit on the radio son.' But soon the album moves on to familiar blunts, crack and gats territory. The first line of the next song is 'Straight outta the fuckin' dungeons of rap'. Even a seminal group like UltraMagnetic Mc's aren't very Hip Hop. They were part of the so called 'Golden Era'. Rough, chopped up breaks, big programmed beats, gold chains and braggadocios lyrics. But the 'Golden Era' spawned 'Rap', and Rap wasn't a misty eyed sentimental fool. It left Hip Hop beat down in a graffiti daubed Bronx ally way,
checked it's beeper, wiped the blood from it's Gucci sneakers and left to conquer the world.

Maybe Hip Hop had it coming though? The culture and the music, although crated from old records, always had it's eyes focused on the future. From Graffiti to break dancing, it was always about being innovative and creating new styles. To talk as a purist, you could say Hip Hop could look and sound like anything it wanted to. You just have to look at an example of Hip Hop in it's prime. Afrika Bambatta and the Soulsonic Force sampled 'Kraftwerk' and dressed up like the village people, which was inspired by P-funk's colourful stage shows. Another example of a forward thinking, innovative black musical genre. Hip Hop was meant to be about positivity and creating change. But like a cocky teenager, Rap thought it knew it all and didn't want to hang out with or dress like it's parents.

In 1998 Rap did have a little dabble with the old skool. The Rap super group 'Def Squad' covered Sugar Hill Gangs 'Rapper's Delight' and the video featured Eric Sermon, Redman and Keith Murray dressed in Shell toes and kangols. I remember being thrilled to see break dancers again, but also sad at how pop and weak the track was, for 3 such talented and 'hardcore' Mc's. A nod of respect to Hip Hop I thought, or rather a calculated way to sell out without being branded pop while cashing in on the recent success of Jason Nevins' remix of Run Dmc's 'It's like that'? Who's own video also featured old Adidas and break dancers. But when did Run Dmc ever feature breakdancers? They were the arguably the first hardcore rap group and one foot in the grave for Hip Hop.

A couple of years later I made my first trip to Hip Hop's birth place, New York in the year 2000. My friend and I travelled from trainer shop to record shop, and were amazed at the scorn that our old skool trainers got. Even though I felt a bit dissed I still bought a pair of dunks for $20 from Athletes foot. New York wasn't interested in the old skool, it had moved on, and the 'Def Squad' track was the cash cow I thought it was. Back at our midtown hotel we tuned into Hot 97. We expected Funkmaster Flex cutting it up, but it just sounded like a radio 1 talk show with a puerto rican accent. The clubs there were
banging out Jay-Z, and one party we went to was a strictly champagne and designer dresses affair. Rap was certainly still thriving, but it was a little older and richer now. Rap's lure is a hard one to resist. By the end of our trip we had made our way to Nike town to upgrade our kicks.

The 21st Century was a rocky time for Rap. The fashion was getting back to the street, as the tailored suits it had used to get into the clubs were no longer needed, as it now ran them. Bling culture was in full effect. An updated and diamond glad version of it's 80's gold rope counterpart. The music too was reminiscent of the 'Golden Era's' programmed beats, but this time they were louder and synthesised with a pop chorus. Time had passed and the face of rap had changed again. Rap was not just happy with being spread worldwide, it now wanted the pop charts. This also caused the 90's generation of rap fans to dig deep and proclaim the likes of 'Mobb Deep' and 'Biggie Smalls' as 'real Hip Hop', further confusing the term and the music.

Now we're a decade into the 21st Century and the confusion about Hip Hop is still with us. 90's rappers are bringing out new albums, on the back of a wave of nostalgia, awash with lyrics that could be straight from episodes of HBO's 'The Wire'. Whilst they grumble about keeping Hip Hop real, from subject matters to fashion. But their simple raw productions are not enough to get them chart exposure, or propel them to the cristal heights of the late 90's. Jay-Z recently gave a disgruntled speech at a MTV awards show. He proclaimed that although he was happy to accept the 'Best Urban Artist' award, he longed for a day when music could just be called music. It seems Jay has seen the error of his ways and luckily for him, he's ready to reinvent himself again on the backs of Artists like Kanye West and Kid Cudi. Two artists that have come under fire from the 'Hip Hop'
community for not being 'real' and for wearing skinny jeans. But it seems the success of an artist like Kanye West can only be put down to the freedom he has to experiment with his image and his sound, while other rappers are trapped in the creative ghetto that rap has landed them in, and Hip Hop always strived to escape. As much as it pains me to say it, I'd consider Kanye West more Hip Hop than say, Raekwon the chef. So as we enter a new phase, I'd proclaim Hip Hop well and truly alive after playing the long game, but Rap sadly dead and left out in the street.

Friday, 23 October 2009

The Naked Truth

He woke up to some muttering, a middle of the road indie song and, as his bleary vision focused, a mid drift and some knickers. Nothing too sexy, just some M&S big black ones.

'Morning' - she said as he sat up in the bed. 'I'm going to be late. I can't believe you don't have work today, if I didn't have this team meeting I'd bunk off like you'. She carried on talking as she flew around the bedroom getting dressed. She wasn't bad he thought. A bit mumsy, but not in a bad way, tall and sturdy with curly brunette hair. He lay back down again to take stock of what was going on. He wasn't sure if he was hung over yet, but he's aversion to the noise and light gave him the idea he was. Her voice seemed distant now, muffled by the pillows and duvet, as if he were immersed in water.

He remembered waking up hours ago, but had fallen back asleep while planning to slip off early. Not that he wanted to avoid her, or to avoid the rest of the world. He quite liked the 'walk of shame'. The way people seemed to smirk knowingly at someone in the same clothes, on a weekday. No, he wanted to shoot off whilst he was still fueled and half drunk from the previous evening, so his head could spin in the privacy of his own room.

He groaned and rubbed his eyes, putting on a bit of a show of it as he did. Not for attention, but so she'd avoid any proper conversation. It worked, as he heard her laugh and say something about sambuca. She then lent over him, still talking. He wasn't sure what she was saying, so he responded with 'mmming' through a closed mouth smile. As she left his view he sat up, her words becoming clear as she headed for the door. 'Don't worry there's no one else here, just make sure the window's closed when you let yourself out. You jammy so and so'. She paused by the bedroom doorway and did the routine check through her bag. 'I'll text you later or something'. He smiled and held up and hand, half way between a sign of recognition and a wave.

Text? He winced. He didn't mind her having his number, she seemed nice enough and last night must have gone well. No, it was the fact that they had exchanged numbers prior to going back to hers. It made him feel a bit uneasy. He'd of preferred an awkward exchange in the morning, or none at all if she didn't want to. It was somehow more honest that way. The fact that she already had his number meant that at some point they both had plans on leaving the bar separately. But for some reason they couldn't and carried on drinking until they left together. He tried to remember the exchange. Was it when they were at the tube or was it when they were waiting for cabs, but decided to share? None of this may of happened, but they were likely scenarios. He shuddered for a moment at the thought that he may of coerced, hounded or begged her to come back after they had swapped numbers. Maybe it was in a cab on their way back? He preferred that thought. But then he grimaced at the thought of an uneasy silence in the back of the cab and an awkward, 'oh you must take my number'.

He stretched, then squashed his eyes into his head with his palms. When the room came back into view, he saw his jeans on her linen basket. He slid out of the bed and put them. As he pulled them up his face came level with the window. He looked for the handle to open the blinds, but noticed that it was broken off the same way his had. Cheap Ikea crap he thought. With his finger and thumb he prized a slat open. It looked like a cold, yet sunny morning. The street below was quite leafy, and a row of Victorian conversions faced him. I must be in South London, he thought. A high spirited group of mainly black girls and boys were on their way to school, and were being given a wide birth by the commuters heading to the tube. At least he hoped they were heading to the tube. He couldn't face a bus journey, let alone work out what bus to take.

Her bedroom door opened out onto a landing. There were stairs down, but only to the front door. Across the landing were the kitchen, bathroom and another bedroom. The living room was to his left. He walked barefoot across the landing, his sweaty feet sticking to the laminate flooring, but they were soon cooled by the tiles on the bathroom floor. He lifted the seat then stood still for what seemed an age, waiting to pee. He always lifted the seat and put it down. He hated it when women complained about men leaving the seat up, then not pulling down the cover themselves when they were done. He wiped some stray piss off the toilet with some tissue, then flushed and washed his hands. The first pee of the day could be hard to control after a heavy night. He splashed some water on his face and looked at himself in the mirror.
He was thinking about grabbing the rest of his clothes and making a move, but he had used wax in his hair the day before and now he looked like he had been dragged through a bush. He tried to smooth it down with his hands to no avail. He thought that If he was in South London, then he might as well pass through town and go to a few shops. But he couldn't face the world looking like this.

He found a clean looking towel, then stepped over the side of the bath to use the shower. He looked around. The corners were heaving with products, but to his annoyance he couldn't see any soap. He never really understood shower gel. It couldn't reach the hard to get to places, and you had to hide what you had in your hand from the water, while putting the bottle back, before applying it to your skin. Then you had to do it all over again, because one lot was never enough! As he worked his way through a sorcerers cupboards worth of elixirs and shampoos, he sighed and took a long squeeze of something that looked expensive. As he worked it into a lather over his body, he could feel the shower revive him and as he closed his eyes to wash his face he got flashes from the previous night.

He had been walking back from the toilets, when he tripped over some bags that were peaking out from a booth. He turned to apologise, and to scan the people occupying the booth. There were 2 girls and a guy. But before he could muster the words for his opening flirt, their gay workmate did it for him and took the words out of his mouth..'She does that on purpose to attract men'...The whole booth laughed, while he beamed the most charismatic smile he could at the bags' owner.

He had the same smile on his face as he turned the water off.

He gathered the rest of his clothes from her bedroom, dressed then sat down on the end of the bed while towel drying his hair. He then stood and styled is hair with his hands in the mirror on her dressing table. The mirror had photographs and postcards surrounding the edges. Some were from holidays and some must have been from university. One was her and a group of girls holding up small green buckets in an exotic looking beach bar, probably Thailand he thought. 'What cunts', he muttered out loud. Then he looked at another and thought, 'I've never been to thailand'.

His trainers were at the foot of her open cupboard. She was quite tidy, which made a change form most of the girls he knew and it endeared her to him. But she had left in a rush, so the cupboard was spilling it's contents out into the room. He looked at the pile of boots and shoes at the bottom, and flicked through some of the hangers. Nothing very flash, but he quite liked her high street style. There was something homely and unpretentious about it. If he were to keep seeing her she'd be easy to impress at Christmas and on birthdays, he thought. He smugly thought about how impressed and thankful she'd be when he introduced her to some of the small boutiques he knew.

In the kitchen he found a glass on the draining board, he rewashed it then after letting the tap run, poured himself a glass of water. He roamed the kitchen as he sipped his drink. It was well stocked with cookery books, but when he opened the fridge there was distinct lack of food to cook with. Just a couple of bottles of white wine at various stages of being drunk, next to some pasta sauces at various stages of being eaten. He closed the fridge, took another sip of water, then walked onto the landing.

The other bedroom door was ajar and seemed to call to him. He looked around, even knowing that he was alone, then gingerly made his way to the door. He opened it fully, but just stood in the doorway.
Thank god he didn't wake up here he thought, as he scanned the room taking in the pile of clothes on the floor and the unmade bed, which had more piles of clothes on it. Her mirror was also covered with pictures. He stepped in the room and cautiously made his way past the mound of clothes as if it were a crime scene. He looked at one picture, and recognised the bar it was taken in. There were three girls in the picture, one was the girl from last night, but he wondered which one of the other two lived in the room. Although all three girls were quite attractive, he guessed it was the 'sexier' looking one. Judging from the clothes, underwear and designer bags laying around the room. 'Why couldn't you have been out last night', he thought to himself. But then he picked her out in the rest of the pictures, and judging from the way she was fighting for attention with the rest of the subjects, he decided he was glad she wasn't. He placed the bar picture back under the lip of the mirror frame and looked at himself. He smiled as he looked at his face. His skin seemed alive again and there wasn't much trace of the toll that the night had taken on him.

In the living room he picked up his coat from the sofa. His wallet was inside, and to his amazement and joy there was still a twenty pound note inside. He looked out onto the street again, it was empty but the weather had turned and it had started to rain. He decided to give it 10 minutes to see if it would stop, as it was only a light shower. So he turned his attention to a shelf of books and DVDs. He could've guessed the contents without looking, he thought to himself. Lost, The Breakfast Club, Dirty Dancing, a '24' box set, Sex in the City and the last series of The Sopranos (which he hadn't seen yet). At the end of the line was a friends box set on VHS. VHS? he thought, how old is this girl, and who buys friends anyway? It's on all the bloody time. He couldn't get his head around friends. He thought mainly is was due to the fact that he shouldn't like it, but did. He hated the way Channel 4 seemed to have friends on some kind of shuffle system. It skipped about series', but you never saw the first or last one. He always thought friends kept you in some kind of stasis when it was on. Time stood still, like it was kind of TV tranquiliser.
He always thought that the friends themselves were quite vile people, who ostracised anyone they didn't know and wouldn't make very good friends anyway. As for Sex in the City, he thought, don't get me started. Four professional women fighting against convention for all those episodes, only to find happiness in traditional women's roles at the end. What heroines they turned out to be.

The rain stopped and he pulled on his coat. He walked to her bedroom and paused in the doorway. He slowly looked around the room, then did the routine check through his pockets. Wallet, keys, oyster card and phone. All present and correct. He didn't want to leave anything behind. He walked to the stairs and paused again looking around. He then took out his phone and walked out the door, whilst writing a text.