catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 2, Num 13 :: 2003.06.20 — 2003.07.03


This rose grows from concrete

Hip hop is one of the most vital art forms in contemporary culture. Artists such as Jay Z, Eminem, and Outcast, have gathered both international audiences and critical acclaim, and Dr. Dre recently won a Grammy for best producer. But it has been a long road for hip hop. The music has survived despite being labeled as a fad by skeptics, a bad influence by parents and politicians, and too violent and misogynistic by electro-music guru Moby. Though there should be some concern regarding these condemnations, artists such as NAS, Jurassic 5, Common, and Public Enemy thankfully maintain the true spirit of Hip hop.

In a recent book by Jim Fricke and Charlie Ahearn called Yes, Yes, Y'all, the origins and roots of hip hop are faithfully recounted by some of its major players. In the words of hip hop's founding fathers the book tells how a few adventurous kids from the rough side of New York City discovered a new way to orchestrate sound, bringing music back to the beat.
Hip hop sprung out of the crime and poverty-infested Bronx of the 1970s. Oddly enough, one of the reasons hip hop flourished was that there was very little societal structure in that area at that time. The African American and Latino neighborhoods of New York were generally left to fend for themselves. Although this meant that gangs ruled much of the culture, it also meant that block parties could exist.

Before hip hop went into the clubs, the place to DJ and MC was in the local park or basketball court. The DJs would just wire up to the closest lamppost and crank up their sound system. The African-American and Latino youth were tired of the stagnant sounds of radio. They began to congregate around a DJ named Kool Herc who brought back music with soul and vitality. He spun records by artists such as James Brown, Rufus Thomas, and Aretha Franklin. The main attraction at Kool Herc's parties was b-boying. B-boying (later called break-dancing) was a violent style of "battle" dancing that started with gang culture out on the streets. The songs that Kool Herc played and especially the drum breaks became a soundtrack to b-boying.
Grandmaster Flash, the originator of what we now recognize as the hip hop DJ, attended these parties but was always disappointed that the drum breaks didn't go on longer. He decided to remedy this by purchasing two of the same records so he could cut back and forth between them. Flash began to host parties on his own. He wasn't much of a talker and the DJ was usually expected to get the crowd going. He eventually asked his friend Cowboy to help him out. Cowboy was the first MC and got the crowd going with phrases such as "yes, yes, y'all" and "throw your hands in the air and wave 'em like you just don't care."

Soon there were several DJs hosting parties, each with their own MCs. DJs began discovering better ways to fashion beats and scratching the records also became part of the show (thanks to The Grand Wizard Theodore who liked the scratching sound of the needle against the record, a discovery that was made possible when his mom yelled for him to shut up because the music was too loud). The MCs eventually decided to write down the rhymes they were coming up with. As they began to write them down they thought of other rhymes. Gradually lines became verses, verses became stories, and the rapper was born.

A sense of competition has always propelled hip hop. Competing hip hop groups in the early days would set up parties where they would take turns, and whoever got the most audience response would win. These parties would be promoted as "Grandmaster Flash vs. the Funky 4+1" or "Grand Wizard Theodore and The Fantastic 5 Vs. The Cold Crush." Many of these battles became legendary as they were captured on mix-tapes and spread around the local high schools. Kids began to identify themselves with hip hop crews rather than gangs.
One of the first prophets essential to the future of hip hop was Africa Baambaata. He saw hip hop as an alternative to violence. He called his hip hop crew The Zulu Nation to show that they were getting back to their roots. Just as Grandmaster Flash had made the musical discovery of hip hop, Baambaata discovered its vision.

By the late 80s, Hip Hop was a worldwide phenomenon. Rappers like Public Enemy and Run DMC began to realize that they were reaching a mass audience and decided to bring the harsh realities of life on the street into the open. Rap was becoming a serious art form that was just as interested in conveying a message as it was in having a good time.

The 90s saw new identities emerge in rap. Gangsta rappers like NWA and the Wu-Tang Clan rapped explicitly about inner city violence over the soulfully aggressive beats of The RZA and Dr. Dre. "Ghetto fabulous" rappers like Notorious B.I.G. flaunted the success and indulgent lifestyle that hip hop stars were beginning to live. Eminem became the first white MC to do serious rap.

Eminem helped bring rap to a new mass audience. His second album, Marshall Mathers, probably should have won the Grammy award for best album of 2000. Many attribute his Grammy loss to the storm of controversy surrounding his lyrics. Eminem defended hip hop's lyrical vision in a Rolling Stone interview he did shortly after The Eminem Show was released.

I seen an interview with Tupac once—he was a huge influence on my life—where he said if you see a rose growing in concrete, you'll stop and look at it. It could be the most incredible thing you've ever seen, and instead of wondering how this rose grows from concrete, all you want to talk about is how the stem leans to the side and the petals are dried up. The fact that the rose is growing from concrete isn't enough to amaze you, you want to pick out all of the things that are wrong with it.


That's the truest statement in the world. Take this music for what it is. It's got some fucking cuss words in it. If you don't want to listen to it because of that, then don't. Live your happy fucking life, do whatever. Half of the shit I say and other rappers say, they might have done it, but they're not telling you to go out and do it. When Jay-Z said he used to push weight back in '88, he's not necessarily glamorizing it and telling you to do it. He's telling you that's what he did and that he turned his life into something positive.

Eminem pretty much sums it up. It is amazing that something so vibrant could develop and flourish out of such gloomy circumstances.


The growth of hip hop from its New York beginnings to the world-wide status it enjoys today really became evident this year, most tellingly as the first Hip Hop degree was given out at Indiana University. Such an occasion displays how far the music has come since the days of its roots. Hopefully, this event will help solidify hip hop's place in history and expand its cultural role for the future.

To Learn More:

If you're interested in learning more about Hip Hop check out the book, Yes Yes Y?all by Jim Fricke and Charlie Ahearn. Also the Experience Music Project in Seattle has a very good exhibit on hip hop, if you?re ever ever in the neighborhood.

Recommended Listening:


  • Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, The Message—The first rap recording that told of life on the streets.


  • Sugarhill Gang, Rapper's Delight—Although many say this isn't authentic hip hop, it was technically the first recording of Rap.


  • Cold Crush—These guys embodied the urgent energy in early hip hop.


  • Africa Baambaata, The Renegades of Funk—Baambaata brought many influences into his music. He would sample everything from television commercials to the Rolling Stones.


  • Public Enemy, It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back—Rap with a very serious message. Produced by The Bomb Squad who revolutionized hip hop-making with sampling and noise.


  • Wu-Tang Clan, Enter the Wu-Tang—Music doesn?t get any more gritty, violent, and soulful than this.


  • Notorious B.I.G., Life after Death—Hip hop begins to flaunt its success. B.I.G. and his crew began the trend of "Ghetto fabulous."


  • NAS, God's Son—A recent album that explores many styles of hip hop expression.


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