The Identity of Hip Hop: Image, Reality, and a State of Mind
Adam de Paor-Evans [+]
University of Central Lancashire
‘On Identity’ draws on many of the discussion points from the previous five chapters to ask: what is the identity of Hip Hop in the non-urban, and how does it differ from that of the dense urban city? This question is addressed through investigation of material expression, and applies lyric, sound and photographic analysis to interpret attitudes to place, apparel, ownership, and language. This is supported further by revisiting Bhabha’s models of cultural third space and mimicry, and Hebdige’s discourse of forbidden identity and sources of value, and also draws on recordings made by a number of non-urban artists. By 1989, British Hip Hop was beginning to own a sound, which by 1994 had become to be known as Britcore (although this term was invented by European devotees). This was a sound of urgency, and whilst British artists acquired the rapid speed and intense sampling akin to such sounds by American artists such as Public Enemy, Big Daddy Kane and Kool G Rap, added layers of industrialism and noise were prevalent on countless recordings identifiable with British Hip Hop. Successful artists such as Hijack, Hardnoise and Katch 22 were among those mainly from London, so how does non-urban hardcore Hip Hop differ, if at all? PROJECT CEE of Def Defiance suggests that whilst the sound is similar, it is the lyrical content that differs: Definitely we were aiming for that hardcore sound, but we are not going to start rapping about the ghetto and blocks of flats and being chased on the tube, are we? At the same time, DEED suggests that, ‘nobody wants to hear you rapping about cream teas’, but CEE continues: My raps were always trying to place myself in a situation, I rapped a lot about trees, the earth and the sea, I have pagan and wiccan interests, and there’s something about folklore stories that I was trying to relate to. At the same time, this isn’t about shying away from the dark politics of the time. The tories were wrecking the country, and we were perceived as menaces by the Daily Mail readers, we thrived on that and played it up too in our lyrics. Continuing from this, ‘Image’ deepens the discussion into the realm of portrayal which broadens the context to the politics of the rural-urban dialectic where it is necessary to unearth the tensions, apprehensions and perceptions of which, both positive and negative. One’s image in Hip Hop is critical to acceptance or at least peer acknowledgement and image in Hip Hop is a palimpsest that may present itself before the person in many material ways. In Terrified Faces (Def Defiance, 1990), CEE attempts to bridge his immediate context with the desire to obtain a recording contract, but without commercial massaging: Terrified faces, places and dwellings, Negative vibes associates selling, Out to clout, serious about turn, Learn and understand poets must earn And the more obvious: It’s Hip Hop isn’t it? That’s the fable, What will it take to get a white label? Dominant proof, you need a hook, No sell-outs inside of my songbook Taking issue with the commercial record industry was a common topic in the Britcore years, and to do so makes strong suggestions about one’s awareness and ‘realness’ in their practice. The next section, ‘Reality’, challenges one of the most common phrases pronounced in Hip Hop, ‘keep it real’. To ‘keep it real’, suggests that ‘it’, whereby the ‘it’ refers to whatever element, practice, moment or event that requires the need for the statement is in jeopardy of becoming unreal, or not real, or possibly surreal. Simon Reynolds describes a two-fold sense of what is ‘real’ in terms of Hip Hop, the most relevant here being: ‘First, it means authentic, uncompromised music that refuses to sell out to the music industry and soften its message for crossover’ (Reynolds 1996). Whilst the notion of the authentic is important, this definition of ‘real’ omits a critical component of the cultural phenomenon of realness in Hip Hop that extends beyond the edges of music. In a chapter for a book on music in The North of the UK, I suggest that, ‘a broader sense of realness encompasses attitude, actions and the way in which one presents and displays oneself, often using material things as support mechanisms’ (Evans, forthcoming), and this section interrogates this idea by asking what is it to be authentic to Hip Hop? If authentic Hip Hop is about the tropes and signs we associate with Hip Hop, does that not fall into a trap of formula? If so, then the practice surely is already compromised. How do the non-urban heads gain recognition for their productions in a cultural arena that is staged as strictly urban heterotopia? The responses to these questions are drawn out in the final section of this chapter ‘State of Mind’.