Friday, December 30, 2005

Hypnotic hop

I said before that I'd be coming back to this quote - and I am. This is an essay I wrote for college some time ago, and a discussion of hiphop has prompted me to post it now.

There are some things I would like to add, particularly to the list of remarkable Nordic acts - if you can find anything by the Don Johnson Big Band, you should get it and listen to it.

This does not discredit me as a headbanger. Metal and hiphop are not mutually exclusive, and history has seen them blended much more successfully than the popular American acts you tend to think of when such a fusion is mentioned. (Also see: H-Blockx, 'Get In The Ring' or their cover of 'The Power'. Or, for something a bit more mainstream, Gorillaz.)

And now, the article itself:

The hardest thing for any musical artist to be is original. Very few people make music just for the fun of it, and fewer still have the clout to make something completely unique successful – and that is if they have the imagination to come up with a piece of art unlike anything before. But while most music can be classified into genres, any single style eventually begins to expand, to encompass offshoots that its founding fathers had no notion of.

While originality may be scarce in individual artists, it is not such a rare occurrence in the entire industry, which is effectively an embodiment of creativity in sound waves. The 20th century has seen the introduction and popularization of several brand new styles, but one of them stands out in a crucial way. Whereas the evolution of jazz was effectively a progression of skills with the saxophone and related instruments, and rock could not exist without the technical innovation of the electric guitar, the last original musical genre of the 1900s was centered on pure imagination. In the last quarter of the century, America came up with its second art form. And like anything so great, hip hop evolved and came to include concepts foreign to the culture that spawned it – but true to the spirit.
From ’84 to ’99
It’s been a very long time
Since the movement called hip hop arrived
In this cold country of mine.

Seen the old, the new,
And now the true school.
And for once I can say -
Something has changed.

Or is it just me?
In the place to be…
Actually, I am being a little coy. The canon stipulates that the four original components of hip hop expression were the skill of the DJ, the talent of the MC, plus the art of graffiti and the moves of the B-boys (often misrepresented as break dancing).1 But I would feel like a fraud analyzing old school hip hop, something beyond my era and turf. It is sufficiently curious to observe the parallel branch of evolution that is hip hop in Europe.

The problem with rap music is that there is no reliable way of transplanting the original ethos of the time of its birth into modern reality, when it isn’t just co-opted by popular culture, but reduced to the level of a marketing tool. Mainstream hip hop in America, with all due respect to the incredible artists keeping the flame alive, is involved in selling useless merchandise by proxy to an unrealistic lifestyle.
So I take my time, think for a minute
Why do they always go for the gimmicks?
Is it because no one told them better?
Or is it because society brings pressure?
Where’s all those brave enough to fight the system?
Where’s all the ones that know the difference?
Europe, however, embraced hip hop and made the new music its own. For the continental club scene, it was a match made in heaven. An obvious example would be the phenomenon of Scooter, but the craze was wider than that. The seminal music of the Nineties was Eurodance, defined as an electronic dance rhythm with a fast beat, female chorus vocals and a male rap.2 Admittedly, there was no great philosophy behind this music – but it never claimed such heritage, and that made it more authentic. Eurodance came and went, but it did leave behind a peculiar offshoot called freestyle – nothing like the American understanding of the term. This is still dance music, but it unites cheesy pop songs, party anthems and classic hip hop declarations, laying it over a synth beat that can be traced back to the mid Nineties, but that distinctly evolved past it. Limited mostly to Germany, its best representative is probably the Flying Steps – a B-boy group that also happens to make music.
Lay your ears to the speakers and feel the bass
Blow the dust off your sneakers, get back in the race
Keep on rockin’, never stoppin’, hiphopping the place
I’ve got a smile on my face, it’s like I’m back in the days.
Old school homies see me, recognize my face
Safe to say, hip hop works in mysterious ways
I quit my full time job to save the hip hop faith
But making money with the microphone is not the case.
Starting with the end of the millennium, more serious projects started to pop up over Europe. The explosion came with the Bomfunk MCs’ Freestyler, not their first single but the one that, in 1999, conquered pretty much every device in Europe capable of reproducing sound or moving pictures. This triggered a golden age in Scandinavian hip hop (which happened to coincide with the golden age in Scandinavian rock music), and it hasn’t stopped yet. Finland has given the European music scene acts like Redrama and more recently Beats and Styles, a loose collective of artists mixed and matched by two DJs, while the Bomfunk MCs themselves have recently released their third album, which features a collaboration with Kurtis Blow – one of the founding fathers of hip hop in the 80s and the first rapper ever to be signed by a major label. And of course, no mention of Scandic hip hop can be complete without Outlandish – a Danish trio, none of them remotely American, who are no less of an influence in European music than their countrymates The Hives. Britain meanwhile has been coming around as well. Most of their hip hop acts are barely disguised carbon copies of US pop rap, but a welcome breakthrough comes from The Streets, whose originality can no more be challenged than their authenticity. The proof that hip hop is indeed a global musical genre is that artists are choosing it for expression of ideas that have nothing to do whatsoever with the ethos of its creators.

Hip hop in Europe is not only popular, but more importantly it is extremely healthy. While America engages in decadence and ludicrous leaps of imagination to give itself a measure of faithfulness to the true spirit, the Old World simply utilizes a new art form, accepting it for what it is. There will be good artists, and there will be bad artists, and there will be some that are truly ugly. But all hype aside, this side of the pond is where the Rocking Nation has the best shot at greatness.
Not many of us get to do what we want
Not many of us don’t have to front
But if you know your song, and you know it’s strong
Then let me see you get-get up on
Because we drop the bomb in
We must rise up and prevent the wrong
Ain’t no joke, man, I wish it was,
But so many of us seem like they’re brainwashed.

All we need is, a little love
It doesn’t take a scientist to figure this ‘cause
It’s so – obvious
All this rush causes fighting and fuss.


1), accessed on January 12th, 2005
2) Eurodance Encyclopaedia -, accessed on January 12th, 2005

1) Bomfunk MCs – Spoken Word (from In Stereo, 1999, Epidrome/Sony)
2) Bomfunk MCs – Obvious (from Reverse Psychology, 2004, Polydor/Universal)
3) Flying Steps – Breakin’ It Down (single, 2002, MAR)

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