Monday, March 14, 2005

Soon We'll Find Out Who Is
(The ideas in this post have been bubbling up for awhile, but thanks to Jeff Chang and his incredible book for bringing them to a boil.)

I teach in the birthplace of the biggest cultural movement of the last thirty years. Hip Hop was born in the Bronx.

Kool Herc was living on Tremont Ave, still a 15 year old Jamaican kid named Clive when he figured out how to jerry-rig some extra juice out of his dad’s sound system, started throwing parties, and shortly thereafter – in a moment as miraculous as when Charlie Parker forgot about chords and invented Be Bop – figured out he could send dancers to another level and keep them there if he isolated instrumental breaks on his records and juggled back and forth between two copies, extending the climax as long as he wanted.

Afrika Bambaataa was less than 20 years old and living in the Bronx River Houses projects when his imagination transformed a film of British sentimentality for the glory days of Colonial Empire into the seeds of a collectivist, pro-black, manifesto, when his leadership and charisma turned enemies into party-people and gangs into a collective of forward-thinking stylistic mavens, when his ear for all things futuristic and funky added Fela and Kraftwerk to Herc’s formula of endless breaks.

Thousands of other kids were right there with them; the first to rock an end-to-end-burner, the first robotic wild-style, the first to fly off the floor in a helicopter, the first narrative rap, the first to drop a multi-syllabic internal rhyme, and on and on, and it don’t stop.

I look at my kids and I don’t see it. I dig and dig. I poke and prod and pry. They can bang a mean beat on the desk, but only one they’ve heard before. They can crip-walk and booty shake and meringue their asses off, but their moves are mimics; they wouldn’t make much loot on a subway car. They tag all over the walls and stairwells, but there’s no style to be seen, no craft, no technique, just territorial pissing. They spit rhymes down in the teacher’s cafeteria at the monthly open mic, but aren’t saying anything new. They’re talking loud, ain’t saying nothing.

I try to challenge their preconceptions, to encourage real, deep, thought. I have them look at where they are as opposed to where they want to be. I have them look at what the newspapers and radio-stations are saying about them and their community. I have them write poems. I have them write short stories. I have them draw. I have them sing and dance. They’re smart kids mostly, and funny as hell. Many are hard-working, mature and responsible. Most are incredibly generous.

None are innovators, none are leaders, none are revolutionaries.

Will the cycle come back around? Are - like their fore-runners in the Young Lords and the Ghetto Brothers and Bambaataa the Black Spade - the shifting, nebulous identities of the gangs about to blossom into organization, into forces for positive change? Is there a new music waiting to burst forth from their endless Fitty and Reggaeton and Dipset derivations?

Not yet.

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