Terry O'Brien, Deputy Librarian, Waterford Institute of Technology, Waterford, Ireland
Icons of Hip Hop: An Encyclopedia of the Movement, Music, and Culture
Edited by Mickey Hess
Westport, CT and London
978 0 313 33902 8
Encyclopedias, Music, Popular culture
Emerald Group Publishing Limited
New York in the 1970s was a place of great social discord and fragmentation, but also of incredible musical and cultural diversity. Studio 54 was where disco began, the punk scene found a home at CBGB's, and hip hop traces it roots to the streets and block parties of South Bronx. Mickey Hess and his fellow contributors sketch the path and “unique contributions” of hip hop from its earliest days (1973), starting with acknowledged founding fathers, Kool Herc and Grandmaster Flash, and bringing us right up to date with Jay-Z and Kanye West, two hugely popular mainstream performers (2007). Hess profiles the 24 most important hip hop artists in broad chronological order. These are worth listing: Kool Herc, Grandmaster Flash, Roxanne Shante, Run-DMC, Beastie Boys, MC Lyte, Eric B. & Rakim, Public Enemy, Salt-N-Pepa, Queen Latifah, The Geto Boys, The Native Tongues, Ice Cube, Dr Dre and Snoop Dogg, Nas, Wu-Tang Clan, Tupac Shakur, Notorious BIG, Lil' Kim, Outkast, Eminem, Missy Elliot, Jay-Z, Kanye West.
Many of these names will be familiar, a strong indication of how mainstream and commercialized hip hop has become, and the topic has recently received some treatment in the library and information literature (e.g. Gibbons, 2007). Hip hop originally started out in the early 1970s when Jamaican-born Kool Herc began isolating the break or percussion elements of funk music at Bronx block parties, thus becoming the first “breakbeat” DJ. These parties became famous for the unrivalled sound systems with Herc and others powering their turntables from street electricity. Although “hip hop” and “rap” are now often used interchangeably, hip hop is essentially a collective term, comprising four main art forms – graffiti, DJ'ing, break dancing and rapping (MCing). Rap has become the pre-eminent element within hip hop culture, a departure from the early “old school” days when the DJ was king and the “mc or rapper, served chiefly to call the crowd's attention to the DJ and to entice people onto the dance floor”. The MC has now superseded the DJ, and in commercial rap music “the live DJ has become obsolete in many contexts”. The Fatback Band released the first rap record King Tim III but its impact was insignificant, and it was not until the Sugarhill Gang became the first rap band to have a worldwide hit with Rapper's Delight in 1979 that the die was cast and rap music started to crossover to the commercial music world. Kurtis Blow soon followed as the first rap artist signed to a major record label.
Hip hop has become a truly global cultural phenomenon and has already shown a remarkable longevity as a musical genre. Hip hop is increasingly pervasive and is probably the best selling music in the world – the biggest purveyors of rap music are young white men. Like many genres it has evolved and continues to provoke debate, not just over its subject content, but what is real hip hop, about over-commercialization and “selling out”. In 2006, Nas released his lament for the old days Hip Hop Is Dead, but rumours of the demise of hip hop have been greatly exaggerated. A Hip Hop collective was launched in 2006 at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History, recognition of the enormous impact and legacy of the culture. Kanye West has appeared on the cover of Time magazine and in an unscripted emotional outburst, openly criticized President Bush on network TV in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Hip hop has always been socio-political, particularly since the seminal release of The Message in 1982, by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five. Whether through links to the Black Panthers, the Nation of Islam or Public Enemy's militant black nationalism, hip hop has addressed social deprivation and sought to reflect the harsh realties of urban America.
Hip hop continues to be rife with contradictions and many of these are referred to throughout the encyclopaedia. Although there are six highly influential women icons in the set, such as Roxanne Shante, Queen Latifah (probably better known now for her film career), Salt-N-Pepa (TV reality stars) and Missy Eliott, the role of women in rap has nearly always been portrayed (especially in videos) as that of sexual objects. Hip hop remains highly sexist, misogynistic and homophobic despite the efforts of De La Soul, West and others. Criminality, drugs, materialism, gangsterism, cars, anti-Semitism, the culture of bragging and violence remain recurring themes and sit side-by-side with more positive subject matter such as humour (ya mamma jokes originated in hip hop culture), ethnicity, the role of the “mother”, fashion, the family, the neighbourhood, community values and entrepreneurialism
What is unique about rap stars today is that they are celebrities not just for their music – many are producers, film and TV stars, business people, fashion designers, writers, CEOs, restaurateurs, and none is more representative of this approach than Jay-Z, one of the most powerful men in American music. Collaboration, solo-runs (see the Wu-Tang Clan's model) and cross-fertilization have always been common in rap with many hip hop artists going beyond traditional hip hop, incorporating rock, metal, funk, r 'n' b and pop, displaying the ability of hip hop to constantly change and reinvent. It was almost certainly Run–DMC that brought hip hop into the mainstream world of television and fashion, through their collaboration with Aerosmith in 1986. Fashion and street wear is central to hip hop but it was Run-DMC, who were the first non-athletes to be sponsored by Adidas, that brought branding and hip hop fashion to the masses. This is not to diminish their musical legacy – they remain for many, amongst the foremost hip hop artists and helped place Def Jam records as the forefront of hip hop record labels.
Other topics discussed by the various contributors include explanations of sampling and mixing (copyright anyone?), the difference between DJ'ing and MC'ing, what is a boom box, the human beatbox, grills, skits, censorship, East Coast versus West Coast and “The Beef”. The Beef refers to conflict in hip hop, arising from the tradition of competition between rappers. Frequently utilized for publicity and as a marketing tool to boost image and marketing sales, very real beefs have occurred in hip hop with fatal consequences, most notably resulting in the death of Tupac Shakur in 1996 followed by Notorious BIG in 1997 as a consequence of the East Coast-West Coast feud. Other well known beefs include Jay-Z and Nas, Eminem and Ray Benzino, Kool Moe Dee and LL Cool J. In the 1980s female artists such as MC Lyte used “answer records” to deal with perceived slights, real or otherwise. The sub genre of Gangsta rap has also been the subject of much controversy and criticism within and outside of hip hop culture. Artists like Ice Cube and The Geto Boys have been accused of venerating the gangster lifestyle and promoting violence. Albums such as Dr Dre's The Chronic (1992) and NWA's inflammatory Straight Outta Compton (1988) personify the cult of gangsta rap and provoked fury amongst many including the FBI, but remain popular today. Defenders of gangsta rap argue, with some justification, they are not advocating or glorifying violence, simply portraying life as it appeared to them. Gangsta rappers rhyme in the first person and appear to be encouraging a certain way of life and not just telling a story or narrative.
Whether those listening to this picked up on such subtleties, is of course, debatable. Certainly not all rappers confine their subject matter to darker themes. Although mid-80’s artists such as Run DMC, the Beastie Boys and Eric B. & Rakim represented a new departure and move away from what might be termed old-school hip hop, their topics were more serious and a had a harder edge. The Beastie Boys were hip hop's first successful white band and had huge crossover success with their brand of rock infused literate hip hop. The increasingly aggressive subject matter of rap affected a reaction in New York from a collective known as The Native Tongues. This communal, made up from amongst A Tribe Called Quest, Queen Latifah, The Jungle Brothers and most prominently De La Soul represented a much more positive, Afrocentric, socially responsible, musically eclectic subculture within hip hop. This is best represented in De La Soul's brilliant 1989 release 3 Feet High and Rising (my personal absolute favourite). In more recent times, pioneering southern hip hop duo Outkast might be said to carry on in this innovative tradition.
Mickey Hess's Icons of Hip Hop is part of the Greenwood Icons series with the two volumes stretching to 640 pages. Although not a particularly scholarly work, (Hess admits it is part homage), it is extremely detailed, with a high quantity of name dropping and cross referencing that may be daunting for the novice. This should not really surprise us as “shouting out” and name-dropping are part of the fabric of hip hop culture. (See punk icon Blondie's shout to graffiti king Fab Five Freddy in the Rapture video). All 24 icons get a treatment of about 20 pages each, which are interspersed with “sidebars” or mini-essays on various hip hop related themes and subjects. These are particularly useful and add a “cultural and historical context to the encyclopedia”. In addition to these, Hess writes a short preface and introduction discussing ideological distinctions of what constitutes authentic hip hop along with the evolution and legacy of hip hop. Each profile ends with a brief discussion of the artist's legacy, a list of works cited, suggestions of further resources and a brief selected discography. Volume II ends with interviews of two prominent DJs – DJ Premier and DJ Scratch. An afterword from Masta Ace on the twenty-four most overlooked MCs in hip hop, plus honourable mentions follows, Hess no doubt conscious of omissions. There is a small selected bibliography and a detailed index. The Timeline of hip hop history is excellent, highlighting many of the significant achievements and moments in hip hop culture, such as the first featuring of turntable scratching on a rap record (Grandmaster Flash, 1981), first rap video on MTV – Rock Box by Run-DMC (1984), first Grammy for rap music – Will Smith and DJ Jazzy Jeff (1988), and Eminem – first hip hop artist to win an Oscar for Best song (2003).
Hess has produced a highly readable and stylized introductory encyclopedia of hip hop and its most iconic figures. Reverential yes, but also containing lots of information, facts, figures, considerable detail, social history and recognition of the multifaceted nature of hip hop culture. I am not sure that these volumes are for the general reader, at least some knowledge or interest is probably required, but it is certainly an excellent starting point for someone looking to research or find out more. Notwithstanding regional variations, the encyclopaedia is almost exclusively North American in scope (that is where all the icons are from!) and focuses primarily on music. Those interested in the study of hip hop, rap or popular music generally, will see this as a worthy and highly useful contribution. It will be of value in public and school libraries, and to undergraduates and students across a range of disciplines at further education levels.
Gibbons, W.C. (2007), “From the streets to academia: a librarian's guide to hip-hop culture”, Collection Building, Vol. 26 No. 4, pp. 119-26.