By Rob van Alstyne
By Zach McCormick
By Emily Eveland
By Jack Spencer
By Michael Madden
By Reed Fischer
By Emily Weiss
By Emily Weiss
"Hip hop has never been recorded," insists Sir Lord Scotch, enunciating each word in slow, sonorous Brooklynese. "When we started this thing, the press and the cameras didn't come; the police came. That's when you know you're doing it right. It's revolutionary."
The man addressing the room, his eyes weary but intense, looks more like a compact, pugnacious Alan Rickman than an older sibling of Everlast. Standing in the audience near the front of the Brooklyn Museum of Art auditorium, the thirtysomething rapper has engaged the floor in a rare conversation. Of the hundreds who attended a screening of the 1983 graffiti documentary Style Wars, some three dozen or so are willing to miss the first innings of the Subway Series to stick around for a panel discussion about hip hop's future. Onstage sits Grandmaster Caz, the Cold Crush Brothers MC whose unrecorded lyrics were ripped off for "Rapper's Delight." Having thus inadvertently launched hip hop as a national, commercial culture, he has just released an answer record on an independent label--20 years after the fact.
The panel is filled out with academics, activists, journalists, and filmmakers, including Wild Style director Charlie Ahearn and cultural critic Kevin Powell, who has guest-curated the touring exhibition Hip-Hop Nation: Roots, Rhymes, and Rage at the museum. But the audience teems with experts insisting they are just as qualified to be onstage. Caz's old crewmate DJ Toney Tone is present. So are many faces from the documentary--older, more animated, and glad to see one another. This is a room where b-boys approaching middle age will remind you that Kool Herc carried crates for Disco Whiz, splitting historical hairs into the evening like Upper West Side communists still taking sides over Stalin.
Their beef with the panel is twofold: 1) Who are you to tell me about[rhyming, scratching, fill in the blank], and 2) hip hop has nothing to do with "the rap industry"--an entity roundly despised here.
Like almost everyone who speaks, Scotch feels that something he helped create has been warped to evil ends. His name draws recognition both onstage and off, and he takes care to offer his résumé in a room where what you are weights what you say. He says he was hyped as "the first white MC" back when the Beasties had mohawks, but he refused to "sign on the dotted line."
"How many cats with ice on their hands are coming back to the neighborhood and putting shorty on?" he asks. "I'll tell you: none. Hip hop has nothing to do with economics. This isn't about getting paid: It's about coming back to the block and kicking it to that next kid."
Soon the debate moves entirely to the floor. "The guys making a million dollars are part of our legacy," says a twentysomething break dancer. "When we say they aren't real, we're taking away from ourselves."
"Do you know what popping is?" responds Fabel, a muscle-bound man with a graying mane and long goatee.
"Sure I do," says the dancer, and he lets a familiar old spasm ripple through his body.
"Nah, nah, that's the boogaloo," Fabel says. "Popping is a contraction of the muscles." And he demonstrates, in slow motion, saying this is how he learned it from the dance's originators. "That's why this shit is so important. If the next generation chooses not to follow the recipe that we laid down, then we need to cut them off."
"You can cut them off," says the younger dancer, "but you can't say they're not real."
And so it goes for hours, until the person with the least hip-hop cred in the room musters the courage to stand up. "Maybe economics has everything to do with how [pure] hip-hop culture can be revived," I say, expecting to be heckled all the way out to Eastern Parkway. Instead I score novelty points for being a white boy from Minnesota, and soon I'm gratified to be referred to as "the brother who brought up independent labels."
Still, my question to the room goes unanswered: "What do you all think of the example set by Company Flow?"
I've never been to Puffy Combs's front door, but I'm reasonably certain he never greets his guests with, "Please excuse the smell of cat piss." Of course, El-P is an unusual hip-hop icon: the first MC to loudly, proudly, and repeatedly denounce the major-label system from the certain high ground of an independent label and still sell more than 100,000 copies. The rapper's crew, Company Flow, helped launch the seminal independent Rawkus label (which would go on to break MCs such as Mos Def and Pharoahe Monch) with a muddily recorded, scatologically fixated, and aptly titled 1997 debut album, Funcrusher Plus. Success on the industry's fringes--"the underground"--also helped finance the cluttered, spacious Brooklyn loft that El-P leads me into one afternoon, days before I bring up his name at the
El-P grabs Murphy, a well-fed tabby, who has slunk out from behind a pile of records with a prize in his mouth. "Don't eat plastic," the MC scolds, fishing out the six-pack holder as he sits down in front of an embankment of home-studio electronics. This bulky, pale 25-year-old, who could be actor Michael Rapaport's baby-faced cousin, slips into a hip-hop patois when he answers one of his various phones.