Over the past few weeks the conversation surrounding the success of Iggy Azalea has ignited a maelstrom of criticisms of her within hip-hop, as artists and members of the hip-hop community have railed against her, saying she doesn’t belong. Cries of cultural appropriation can be heard accompanying every insult. Her critics fashion themselves as hip-hop’s cultural gatekeepers, and they’re everything that’s wrong about hip-hop.
The great irony of hip-hop’s self-appointed gatekeepers is that their actions make them the least hip-hop people around, as they either don’t understand hip-hop’s origins, or have decided to rewrite hip-hop’s past to better suit their own personal desires.
I have the answer to this problem, however, and it’s a simple one – kill all the gatekeepers.
(Not literally. Don’t be an asshole)
I think everyone knows that hip-hop started at block parties; parties that anyone could attend, and at which budding emcees could pick up the microphone and attempt to rhyme over the disco breaks the DJ was extending.
Today’s hip-hop gatekeepers would have been the equivalent of a night club bouncer being at those parties, only allowing those they deemed worthy take part in the fun.
Those same gatekeepers would have kept me out of hip-hop when I first discovered it in the mid to late 80s.
My first hip-hop album was DJ Jazzy Jeff and The Fresh Prince’s He’s The DJ, I’m The Rapper. I also had plenty of the other albums you’d expect a white kid from the suburbs to have, including releases by MC Hammer, Young MC, Tone Loc, LL Cool J, and yes, Vanilla Ice (he didn’t sell ten million copies to nobody!). Rather than the inviting nature of the original hip-hoppers, current gatekeepers would have ripped the artists I was listening to for their radio friendly raps, and alienated me, and all the other fans of those artists. The gatekeepers would have felt they did something to be proud of, being under the misguided impression that they “saved” the culture. The problem is, they would have never given me, or anyone else, the chance to discover themselves through hip-hop, and discover everything else hip-hop has to offer.
While filling my album collection with the best pop-rap I could find (apologies to LL and the Fresh Prince. You are not pop-rap, but were assumed to be by many during that time), I was also starting my appreciation of crate digging. This is because the pop-rap I was listening to, and the colorful personalities hosting hip-hop shows like Video Music Box, and Yo! MTV Raps, made me want to know more. Less than five years later Das Efx’s Dead Serious was in my collection, and shortly thereafter I was labeled a hip-hop head.
As the years went on I began to discover indie hip-hop, which I’d then go on to write about, helping great artists I felt deserved to be heard by a wider audience get press in both online, and print publications. This included a multiple year stint at Elemental.
Hip-hop’s current gatekeepers would have prevented all of that from happening. I am not saying this as someone who considers himself a unique snowflake. I’m saying the exact opposite. I’m saying there are millions of people just like me, and hip-hop’s current gatekeepers are doing a huge disservice to the culture by shunning, rather than embracing, these new listeners.
The tearing down of Iggy is incredibly disheartening in that regard. It’s almost as if hip-hop is emulating Drake and deciding we can have “No New Friends.” This is especially troubling being that Iggy’s fan base is made up of, predominantly, two groups hip-hop normally doesn’t reach out to – women, and gay men (I attended a concert of hers earlier this year, and was one of the only straight males there).
One of the ugly truths about hip-hop is that it still has a lot of misogyny, and gay bashing, issues. Women are treated as objects in a majority of the songs, and those who refuse to be treated as objects are torn down as bitches. Similarly, homosexuality is something that’s still dealt with as a punch line, as rappers use gay slurs to insult each other, and as recently as a few years ago the phrase “no homo” was used any time a rapper said something they felt might be construed as gay (which really told us more about how often THEY think about homosexuality, but that’s another article for another time).
By telling Iggy and her fans they aren’t welcome, hip-hop’s self-appointed gatekeepers, whether consciously, or non-consciously, are doing all they can to keep hip-hop as straight, and male, as humanly possible.
But that accent, the gatekeepers say! Iggy is from Australia, but rhymes in a Southern American accent. Some have even called it a “black-cent,” although those folks might be best served by studying Southern hip-hop a bit more, or at least listening to a Paul Wall song.
The truth of the matter is many artists in all genres of music change their voices when they perform. The Rolling Stones are British, but perform Southern blues rock, right down to Mick Jagger sounding like a Southern American. Iggy’s fellow Australian, Keith Urban, is one of country music’s biggest superstars, and he sings like he’s straight outta Nashville. The country music community not only accepts him, they love him for being a part of it.
Hip-hop’s self-appointed gatekeepers, however, ever filled with overflowing amounts of ego and myopia, will tell you hip-hop is bigger than any form of music. This is why when someone mentions Iggy Azalea, they shout that she’s committing the crime of cultural appropriation.
This is an interesting instance of the pot calling the kettle black, because what many in hip-hop don’t want to admit, and what has been completely reworded in every book about hip-hop’s history, is that hip-hop was born out of appropriation.
Hip-hop’s origins involve extending the breaks of disco records, and when hip-hop was first recorded, the sampling of those songs went without remuneration to the original artists. This appropriation of disco was a large aspect of the foundation of hip-hop, and yes, disco was a culture.
In her book, Hot Stuff: Disco and the Remaking of American Culture, Alice Echols explains, “The first rap record to hit the charts, 1979’s ‘Rapper’s Delight’ by the Sugar Hill Gang, adapted the rhythm track of Chic’s ‘Good Times.’ Village Voice music critic Carol Cooper was the perhaps the first to note the ways in which this appropriation shaped the sound of early hip-hop. (Chic’s) Bernard Edwards’ ‘percussive, attitudinal bass line,’ she argues, ‘dictated the cadence and the timbre of rappers’ rhymes for the next three years.”
Echols continued, “Chic keyboardist Raymond Jones acknowledges that rap’s ‘macho nature’ is often contrasted to disco’s ‘fruitiness,’ but he correctly points out that ‘if disco had sucked in such a major way, hip-hop would not have stepped in and appropriated it.'”
Joanna Teresa Demers, in her book, Steal This Music: How Intellectual Property Law Affects Musical Creativity, calls this kind of transformative appropriation, “The most important technique of today’s composers and songwriters.”
While the music is just one aspect of hip-hop, in an article for the Seattle Times, Daudi Abe, author of 6 ‘N the Morning: West Coast Hip-Hop Music 1987-1992 & the Transformation of Mainstream Culture, explained the widespread appropriation that took place to help give birth to hip-hop, writing, “During hip-hop’s formative years, appropriation could be found in rap songs played by DJs at block parties who sampled records by artists like James Brown and the Tom Tom Club. Graffiti artists appropriated walls and entire sides of subway cars, and break dancers created a new genre by taking elements from others such as tap, jazz and lindy-hopping.”
Hip-hop’s history is steeped in cultural appropriation, so for the self-appointed gatekeepers to decry it when someone does it to them is more than a little hypocritical. Were it not for the appropriations done by the early hip-hoppers we would not have this incredible culture that we have today, so for anyone to say that someone taking an aspect of hip-hop, and doing something with it, is wrong, misses the point of the culture entirely.
In the end, this isn’t about Iggy, it’s about inviting new people to be inspired by hip-hop, and work with it, and ultimately mold it into something of their own. If, on a personal level, we like what we hear, that’s great. If we don’t, hey, there are plenty of hip-hop artists we don’t listen to.
Hip-hop, on its own, isn’t all that special, but what an artist does with it can be. If we’re to find those special artists, however, and experience both their incredible, and regrettable, experiments with hip-hop, we’re going to have to kill all the gatekeepers, because the gatekeepers are the ones dooming hip-hop to a creative stagnancy that will eventually kill the culture.