A version of this article was published in The Conversation on March 24th, 2015.
Like many people around the world yesterday, I was saddened to hear the news of the death of legendary 90s hip-hop artist Phife Dawg. I was sad not because I knew Phife Dawg – I didn’t – nor because he was too young to leave us – although he was – but because Phife Dawg and A Tribe Called Quest was part of an aural landscape that formed the soundtrack to my teenage years.
But even that’s not why.
You see, hip hop has always had a bad rap. Originating in New York in the 1970s, the genre was largely associated with the influx of Jamaican migrants such as MC Kool Herc, who brought with them the dub technique of MCing over two records played simultaneously. Hip hop evolved as a fundamentally creative response to the lived environment, which largely meant young black men – and women – working with what they had. Just as earlier generations of poor african americans – especially those in more rural locations of the south – improvised musical instruments from found objects, so early hip hop artists utilised pre-existing vinyl records, the urban environment and their own bodies to create something that was utterly new and innovative. Hip hop was more than just rapping; it was a culture that included breakdancing, cutting two (or more) records together, and graffiti art.
If this phenomenon needs to be broken down further, we can do just that; hip hop was an unconscious but ingenious strategy of dismantling and reinventing the world as the B-Boys knew it. Early rapping tended to take the form of ‘battles’, with each MC attempting to outdo his peers in a spirit of one-upmanship, using a combination of lyrical wit and unexpected, comical rhyming patterns. As such, the early hip hop records of the late 70s and early 80s – The Sugarhill Gang’s ‘Rapper’s Delight’ is often cited as one of the first – were often upbeat, good-humoured and full of witticisms.
As tends to happen when new musical genres evolve, the early 80s witnessed a good deal of creative fluidity between styles that would soon splinter irrevocably; early house, techno and electro music bubbled out of the same pot as hip-hop, using the same techniques of cutting between records and sampling beats. As much as we take this for granted now, this was cutting edge. In terms of the lyrical content of early rap, social commentary began to creep in (Grandmaster Flash’s ‘White Lines’, about inner city poverty and drug-use being just such an example) but lyrics were equally likely to be about outer space or the Cold War.
By the late 80s, hip hop as a discrete musical genre had established itself and was no longer associated with graffiti or breakdancing. It was at this time that hip hop began to be viewed negatively by the mainstream press, principally because as its appeal grew more widespread (meaning that commercial artists such as MC Hammer and the much-maligned Vanilla Ice also found huge success at this time) it was finding its way into the homes and aural cavities of suburban white teens and their parents. Truth be known, the obligatory Parental Advisory label probably served as a badge of recommendation to teenagers playing with subversion – as teenagers do. But that’s by the by. If there was something explicit about the lyrics it was that, increasingly, they had something to say. And they said it. The hip hop of the late 80 and early 90s was explicit in its message, in a way that recorded music simply never had been.
Artists such as Public Enemy were amongst the most outspoken political messengers, and marked the blossoming of a brief but exquisitely powerful trend in conscious lyricism and poetry that still has no parallel across any other musical genre. It really doesn’t. For all the blanket criticisms of rap as being misogynistic, homophobic and violent, its truly revolutionary aspects have been largely overlooked. Often harking back to the civil rights movements of the 60s, the new sound referenced the profound cultural loss of an authentic homeland – Africa – and spoke of dislocation and alienation. A Tribe Called Quest along with groups like Gang Starr embodied a less aggressive form of musical messaging that had more in common with earlier rap in terms of its playful lyricism and musicality than it did with the newly-emerging spectre of gangster rap. Phife and his peers used a combination of layered melodic and atonal jazz samples to create an introspective and even intellectual sound that would later be picked up by Nas in his landmark 1994 album Illmatic; Phife’s band-member Q-Tip was part of the production team.
Hip hop’s golden age may be over, and perhaps that’s why I’m especially saddened by the death of Phife Dawg, representing as he does the passing of an age when hip hop still contained the germ of revolution. We may not be able to recreate that age; but if we can even begin to recognise and celebrate it for what it was, we just may have the beginnings of a suitable epitaph for one of Hip Hop’s finest sons.