Part 1 of 6
There are three famous quotes that haunt me and guide me though my days. The first is from John Bradford, the 16th-century English reformer. In prison for inciting a mob, Bradford saw a parade of prisoners on their way to being executed and said, "There but for the grace of God go I." (Actually, he said "There but for the grace of God goes John Bradford," but the switch to the pronoun makes it work for the rest of us.) The second comes from Albert Einstein, who disparagingly referred to quantum entanglement as "spooky action at a distance." And for the third, I go to Ice Cube, the chief lyricist of N.W.A., who delivered this manifesto in "Gangsta Gangsta" back in 1988: "Life ain't nothing but bitches and money.
So what if hip-hop, which was once a form of upstart black-folk music, came to dominate the modern world? Isn't that a good thing? It seems strange for an artist working in the genre to be complaining, and maybe I'm not exactly complaining. Maybe I'm taking a measure of my good fortune. Maybe. Or maybe it's a little more complicated than that. Maybe domination isn't quite a victory. Maybe everpresence isn't quite a virtue.
I have wondered about this for years, and worried about it for just as many years. It's kept me up at night or kept me distracted during the day. And after looking far and wide, I keep coming back to the same answer, which is this: The reason is simple. The reason is plain. Once hip-hop culture is ubiquitous, it is also invisible. Once it's everywhere, it is nowhere. What once offered resistance to mainstream culture (it was part of the larger tapestry, spooky-action style, but it pulled at the fabric) is now an integral part of the sullen dominant. Not to mention the obvious backlash conspiracy paranoia: Once all of black music is associated with hip-hop, then Those Who Wish to Squelch need only squelch one genre to effectively silence an entire cultural movement.
And that's what it's become: an entire cultural movement, packed into one hyphenated adjective. These days, nearly anything fashioned or put forth by black people gets referred to as "hip-hop," even when the description is a poor or pointless fit. "Hip-hop fashion" makes a little sense, but even that is confusing: Does it refer to fashions popularized by hip-hop musicians, like my Lego heart pin, or to fashions that participate in the same vague cool that defines hip-hop music? Others make a whole lot of nonsense: "Hip-hop food"? "Hip-hop politics"? "Hip-hop intellectual"? And there's even "hip-hop architecture." What the hell is that? A house you build with a Hammer?