November 20, 2007

Hip Hop Lives in Our Memory

LL Cool J was 16 years old when he recorded Radio. But when we listen to the album aren't we all?

I first heard Radio when I was 13. Just one of a number of hip hop tapes providing background music in my next door neighbor's basement during epic battles of Double Dribble and Mike Tyson's Punch Out. It wasn't Radio in particular but this exciting music, hip hop, made me feel older. Maybe not quite 16 but not a mere 13.

This new music was ours. It wasn't made for our parents or our teachers. It was made for us. For our pleasure and for our fun. We knew that they didn't "get it". Sure, they might try to listen and see what this new rage was but they never stayed. They would never put our tapes in when we weren't there. They could never understand. Just like our Nintendo. It was a separation that I cherished.

So when I listened to Radio again I was overjoyed to hear LL's youthful defiance and his charming innocence. Overjoyed because I wasn't sure it was going to be there.

It's been a 20 years since 1987. LL's had dozens of feature films, a sitcom, a workout book, and like three greatest hits albums.

Was my memory of a furious sucker-MC-stomping rhymer accurate? A teenager so angry at the status quo, at pop music, that the targets of his lead single weren't other rappers but Bruce Springsteen, Madonna, Prince, and Michael Jackson. Musicians that adults listened to and understood; music that was played on the radio.

Of course that's the irony of the album's title: in 1986 hip hop wasn't played on the radio. OK, maybe it was played in New York late at night and in other cities on small AM stations, like LA and even Harrisburg!, but that was it. Heck, pulling in the Harrisburg station was so difficult that I never even tried.

Back in 1987 the words "Hip Hop Lives" were graffitied on a brick wall that faced the Harrisburg midget football practice field. Our team practiced there once daylight savings ended; they had lights. The graffiti was so declarative but at the same time so desperate and defiant. It screamed that hip hop was not a fad and would never die out. But at the same time only those in the know would ever understand.

It didn't turn out that way. In fact it was going to be just like rock and roll. Yes, I had just seen La Bamba, Peggy Sue Got Married, Back to the Future. They were just out on VHS. Their parents didn't get rock and roll either. They said it would die. It didn't.

Now hip hop is everywhere. And so is LL. When you listen to Radio you know it's LL just like you know it's hip hop. LL's rhyme flow and voice are still shockingly similar. It's the same inflections that same cockiness and the same self-assuredness. The rhyme subject matter is a different story. On Radio he's so young and so innocent so sweet and just a little bit corny. His rhymes could only come from a 1986. There's no cursing and the malice is playful. Not that LL ever changed, he just grew up. Just like hip hop.

In 2007 LL's album title, Radio, is no longer ironic it's anachronistic. The boombox has become a dinosaur and FM radio is close behind. Hip hop isn't a music of defiance and youth, it's the stuff of McDonalds commercials and big business. I can't hate the route LL and hip hop took; it was only natural. I'm just happy I can cue up my mp3 player, hear the booming bass of "Rock the Bells", and be instantly transported to my neighbor's basement, his Nintendo, and a welcome generation gap.


Ancient Scientist said...

I remember on the school bus once I argued, vociferously, that rap was a fad and that it wouldn't last. I think I did it partly to get the goat of some of the cool kids in class (the only way I could get their attention, I guess), but I remember the vehemence of not just the cool kids I was targeting, but some of the more normally quiet and subdued kids all shaking their head and saying, "No no no, it's here to stay."

I feel bad when I think about that. It was the time of 'Radio' too, I think, or maybe a bit earlier than that, actually.

venerableseed said...

have there been any musical genres of the past 15 years that caused such a "will it last?" debate and divide?

In the 80's there was hip hop and techno and maybe I'm just too blind to see what polarizing innovation there is now. What am I missing?

polchic said...

There are several genres I can think of that I would like to just go away, but I don't think that's your question.

There are also some genres that were perceived as new, like reggaeton (sp?) that were really just derivations of older traditions.

Eurowags said...

I liked how you capture how rap was bubbling over with energy at the time. Sure, it wasn't mainstream yet in 1985, but it was sure gaining a tremendous amount of momentum and the accessibility to it (low-cost medium) by so many youth made it extremely appealing. You also allude to a more innocent time when language was not a harsh and abrasive and when rivalry was carried out through words, clothes, scratches, and dance moves.
As for its longevity, I don't recall making any predictions one way or another. I do recall, though, how by 1986 and 1987 much mainstream media - read White media - talked about it, joked about it, and represented it (mainly in parody form) as if it was only a curious fad.
Good comparison, Venerable, with rock n roll of the 1950s and how the music was not immediately accepted. Unlike rock, however, rap was not massively co-opted or stolen (Elvis) by White America. Rap, for the most part, has been moved and controlled by many influential African-Americans.