My first, and perhaps most indelible, memories of hip hop are from Public Enemy’s “Fight The Power” and “911 Is A Joke” videos in the late 1980s and early 1990s. My introduction to hip hop was to a sound that was not only immediately resonant but that spoke out like the protest songs of the previous generation – albeit with more a boom bap than a twang.
NWA scared the daylights out of everybody when “Straight Outta Compton” from the album of the same name showed up on MTV. Here were these insanely cool rappers coming up and saying what they thought, damn the consequences, and they were getting paid in the process. Where Run DMC had seemed to get more concerned with their track suits and their Adidas, these guys were speaking about their life and a struggle that some knew all too well. More than that, people were listening. People were afraid. There really was a Fear of A Black Planet. There really was a Parental Advisory in communities everywhere, as the media showed piles of cassettes and CDs being ran over by steamrollers. Ironically, these demonstrations were made against the artists that were protesting through their art the very people protesting them. My young mind saw the tug-of-war there, a failing status quo fighting to preserve this wholesome vision that never happened.
In a world that saw Rodney King in the Golden Age of Hip Hop, that still sees Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown and Freddy Gray when hip hop is past its golden age and in the dominant role of topping every popular music chart, that still sees discrimination on the basis of race, sexual orientation, gender, and more, hip hop – while it is not free of its own misogyny and homophobia – is a place where the oppressor can be condemned and a good time had in the process.
Hip hop is not all protest music, it is an art form, it is a space to enjoy yourself and show off a little bit (OK, a lot, if you believe everything you see in videos today) and also enjoy some healthy competition. Emcees will hone their bars until they know who can body who on a track. The fans will argue about who bodied who on a track. Some fans only care about the beat and whether it makes them nod their head or shake their tail. Others are focused more on the rhymes themselves and a particular subset are so obsessed with the technique and lyricism they could listen to a capella freestyles, verses and battles without any concern for the music that a rap is usually lain over. As Snoop Dogg said, after he split from Dre and before he dropped the “-y Dogg”, “Beats? So that’s what makes me now? Man, I don’t give a **** about no beats!”
Journeyman Rappers is a concept for a tome that explores the life, the trials and tribulations, of artists in Baltimore (primarily) working to get by while also working to share their own vision, their art, with anyone they can reach. The goal of this project is to focus on the people that make up hip hop. Specifically, the people that make up hip hop in my current and likely permanent home of Baltimore, Maryland. There is no way that one person can cover every voice that has something to contribute, so there will be people overlooked. In this book, the focus is not on the major artists. The focus is on the people that experience hip hop in a pure form, as a means of communicating and of being in the world. Subjects include rappers/emcees, producers/composers, and the people surrounding them. If the creators are the nucleus of the hip hop cells that make up the larger organism, their friends, families and fans make up the other cellular components. Moreover, there are other people who make hip hop happen anywhere you go. Venues have to exist that support the art form, writers and photographers have to expose talent, and most importantly people have to go to shows and buy the music and help support artists who want to make a living.
While music is what inspires this project, music is not exclusively what the project is about. Hopefully the reader will seek out the music mentioned herein, but the intention is to focus on the human and cultural aspects without which the music would not exist.
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