"I Used to Love H.E.R."- An Ode to Hip Hop

Image of boomboxes on a wall.

"I met this girl, when I was ten years old, and what I loved most she had so much soul".
- Common, 'I Used to Love H.E.R.'

The quote above is one of the opening lines to what some would argue is one of the greatest love songs to a genre of music ever written. If you are reading this blog that means I finally accomplished what might be the hardest written assignment I have ever had! When I originally signed up for this blog in the early days of the pandemic; I thought I'd probably mention a few songs I like, briefly talk about the history and tell you as the reader to go out there and listen to a song you love. Then...like all things, life happened. Protests have erupted around the globe that asked us to reexamine what is justice, how do we express our frustrations, and for those of us who are Black, who can/should gate-keep and share Black culture.

Hip-Hop has often been called the language of the oppressed. Artists like Tupac, KRS-One and many others used this medium to share their views and share out the situations that happened in urban cities' Black communities. Recently artists like Beyonce, Ciara, H.E.R, Lizzo and Cardi B. have used this medium to express their political views and displeasure with the current state of things.

So...yet again my blog had to change because I changed. It took me a while to find my place in this blog and please forgive me now if it is too long and too much information. However, let me say that right now in this time of social unrest you will see hip-hop firmly go back to it's roots and that needs some explanation. So please bear with me as we try to condense over 40 years of history into a blog, and to loosely quote another rapper Gucci Mane (or Future if you are listening to a certain Chance the Rapper song), "let us get lost in the sauce", that is the power and influence of hip-hop.

I was born in 1980, which if you know anything about hip-hop and "The Culture" means that I now fall into what is called in the hip-hop community "Old Head" status as I had my formative listening years occurred during the Golden Age of Hip Hop. As a child, my father, who was born in 1918 to a family who can trace their origins to New Orleans, first introduced me to Jazz and Scat music. My father who had met Louis Armstrong as a younger man often sang me to sleep as a small girl in that style and would end with scat, which is vocal improvisations. Now some jazz lovers may not instantly see the connection between jazz and hip-hop but like jazz, the musical genre of hip-hop originated out of the Black community and was used not only to entertain, and provide a means of upward mobility that was not tied to a life of servitude which was often the only positions open to Black people, but also to speak on truths of Black life. When I was 8 years-old my parents bought me a stereo-system of my own. My early record collection and tapes consisted of classic singers like The Platters, Jackson 5, Michael Jackson's Thriller album (I still have the original album at my grandmother's), Stevie Wonder, Louis Armstrong, Cab Calloway and other Motown Greats. In my neighborhood Hip-Hop was played around but it wouldn't be until I was 10 years old that I discovered hip-hop for myself and from that time on hip-hop would be used to mark major moments in my life. Of course there would be other music, songs and genre's that were meaningful to me. I grew up in the age of Alternative music, the reintroduction of classic rock bands like Aerosmith and when R&B began to merge more elements of hip-hop into the musical genre. It was a great time to be really into music, and like most people during the ages of 11-13, I formed my musical preferences then. Additionally, there are studies that are looking into what our musical preferences say about who we are.

So What is Hip-Hop?

Hip-hop as a musical form is stylized rhythmic music that commonly accompanies rapping, or clearly punctuated singing which mimics a form of rhythmic style poetry. However, hip-hop is more than that. Many more define hip-hop as a cultural movement that influences several artistic expressions including music, poetry, dance, art, fashion and politics. Nevertheless the most important thing to understand from that is while rap is hip-hop; hip-hop is not rap. 

Afrika Bambaata, one of the early DJ pioneers of hip-hop, defined four pillars of hip-hop: Rapping, Turntablism, Break-dancing (or just Breaking), and Street art. An additional pillar was added to hip-hop to include Knowledge, which meant not only the sense of the history of the genre but of the culture it emerges from. 

The History

Hip-Hop first emerged in the early 1970s in the Bronx, New York, and was a direct product of its times. The 1960s had ushered in social reforms with the Civil Right's movement, but it had not been without violence, social unrest, and the deaths of many iconic leaders. Additionally, the 1970s found a country that was embroiled in war, political corruption, massive unemployment, a gas shortage, an influx of drugs, and the rise of gangs. At this same time, Reggae, with its closer connection to West African traditions of poetry and spoken word, was emerging in Caribbean culture and being transported by its people to the United States as they immigrated. All of these elements simmered in the 1970's New York culture. In an effort to try to address many community issues, street organizations and gangs (some musical/dance based and some not) began to do community activism that inspired young DJs to host block parties and express themselves using the medium of music instead of violence. 

This is just a taste of hip-hip's extensive history - there are several documentaries that cover it better than what I describe, if you are interested.

My Hip-Hop in the 90s, 00s, 10s: The story of a young girl to a woman

Once I discovered hip-hop as a young girl it became a very important part of my life and the lives of many of my friends growing up. Music has always been part of my neighborhood. In the early 80s impromptu block parties with music provided by chrome boomboxes with mixed tapes were a constant. Nevertheless, I didn't really didn't get into music until the last years of my father's life when I was looking for understanding on what I was experiencing. Hip-hop who often gave a platform to young people who weren't much older than I was would speak to me about life and the things I would encounter as I got closer to their age. N.W.A. would teach me about police brutality and racial profiling. I was then quickly introduced to Public Enemy, who warned me about the speed of 911 being a joke in my town (inner-city neighborhoods). Ladies Love Cool James (LL Cool J) told me that my mother would prefer if I knocked people out if they pushed me. Digital Underground, featuring a then young on the scene Tupac, taught me a cool dance that made me limp to the side like my leg was broken. Too Short would teach me that Life is...Too Short. A Tribe Called Quest would teach about the Scenario that was even co-signed by a younger Spike Lee. MC Hammer would give me the fun tag-line "You Can't Touch This". Run DMC and Aerosmith taught me which way to walk. The Geto Boys would teach me that paranoia especially on Halloween was not good. Naughty by Nature would tell me the many meanings of O.P.P. Sir-Mix-A-Lot would teach me that my developing pre-teen body didn't have to conform to conventional beauty standards of the time. The Pharcyde would give me important future dating advice that sometimes a person you like may just pass you by. The Wu-Tang Clan told me that cash rules everything around me, and dollar bills should be my focus instead of the trappings of city life. Ice Cube would tell me to focus on the small things that make days good even if ideally we aren't in the place we want to be. I would "Jump, Jump" around Six Flags Over Georgia with my friend in her backward overalls to find (well..more like stalk, we were middle schoolers) Chris Kelly and Chris Smith for an autograph. Like many other parents, my mother warred with letting me listen to rap, as the genre has gotten a bad reputation due to the use of language, overt sexual messaging, misogyny, homophobia, criminality, colorism and toxic masculinity; however she re-framed and reminded me the differences between the fantasy and reality. She taught me that while they may be discussing concepts that are adult in nature that this was just another form of expression that is not reflective of that artists entire life or may only reflect what they have seen or how they lived in the past. 

As I entered my teenage years Hip-hop would take on a new level of importance in my life. The East coast versus West coast rap war was at its peak then. Kentucky, my home state, being far removed from either coast let the rap beef get as deep as the East side and the West side of my city being divided on where they stood on the rap coastal feud. Growing up on the east side of town and moving to the west I didn't choose a side as I would remind my friends that we live in Kentucky, who cares! There are many songs that I would dance to as a cheerleader, that I would listen to uplift me when I was down and that I used to pump me up to get excited. The first friend I made in high school, we bonded over knowing all the lyrics to Warren G's "Regulators" and Snoop Dog's "Gin and Juice". I would visit my cousin and talk to her neighbor Static Major about his music group. When I transferred from private school and I began riding the school bus for the first time, we would sit on the school bus reciting the lyrics to "Elevators" by Outcast. I remember the football game in September 1996 when we learned Tupac died and how we huddled together and cried. A few months later we would find ourselves huddled together crying at the basketball game talking about the death of Notorious B.I.G. (also know as Biggie Smalls). This loss had a profound mark on those of us who fall into Old Head status, as it opened a large void in the rap universe and would largely mark the end of the East coast/West coast feud. The void, left by the loss of Biggie and Tupac, rappers that many would say were G.O.A.Ts would leave room for rappers like Juvenile, Master P, Jay-Z, 50 Cent, Lil' Jon, Ludacris, Kanye, and Eminem to step in and make their marks. Leaving for college "I Ain't Mad at Cha" would be the song my best friend played as I left her to attend university in Louisiana. At school in Louisiana I would learn to embrace Southern Rappers and the sounds that merged brass band with reggae and fast baselines; artists from Atlanta all the way to Texas. I hyped myself up for my Disney internship by listening to the Ying-Yang twin's "Whistle While You Twurk"(No Miley Cyrus did not invent Twerking). I listened to Renegade over and over on my way home from breaking up with my then college fiance on a visit to Florida to see him (I have never been back to Florida might add). When I had part of my pancreas removed and transferred home I kept "Try Again" on repeat on my CD player to remind me that I could finish rehabilitating in the summer to go to college in the fall, even when it hurt to lift my arm to brush my teeth.  Even now there are songs that make me instantly want to move because they are fun, though my knees are now not what they used to be. I try to go to music festivals as often as I can, I listen to recommendations of my younger friends on new artists and I keep an Apple music subscription to keep learning about new music; it's not easy. 

Now I am not going to dive deeply into new rappers like G-Eazy, Tyla Yaweh, Lil Keed, Future, Joyner Lucas, Migos, Lil Dickey, Da Baby, or Lil Uzi Vert as an Old Head. My knowledge of new rappers only expands to those who mimic styles similar to artists that I liked in my youth. I will however say that many of these new artists, mumble rappers to conscious rappers alike have brought a fresh new energy and style to rap that I feel will one day have us adding them to the list of G.O.A.Ts.

The G.O.A.Ts

So I am sure you are wondering what G.O.A.T means. G.O.A.T or GOAT (always in all capital letters) stands for the "Greatest of All Time". GOAT has its origins in sports, which has always had a close relationship to music. The term was made popular by LL Cool J but he would cite that the term is from a Louisville native (and family friend) Muhammad Ali. GOATs in hip-hop refer to rappers who have reached a pinnacle in their careers. Now let me be clear that there is an on-going argument on who should and shouldn't be on this list and also a few different ways those lists are defined, even from those considered GOATs themselves. There is also a few different lists of songs that fall into the greatest tracks produced. I can't speak for all of those songs or artists but I will give you a small sample of who I would personally include in my top twenty-five with my favorite songs (in no order of course):

  1. Tupac Shakur - "Keep Ya Head Up"
  2. Biggie Smalls - "Sky's the Limit" 
  3. Andre 3000 of Outcast - "International Player's Anthem" (opening bars from UGK's song) 
  4. Eminem - "Renegade" (from Jay-z's The Blueprint Album)
  5. Jay-Z - "Lost One"
  6. Kanye West (before his mother died) - "Two Words" "Good Life"
  7. Missy Elliot - "Work It"
  8. Drake - "Passion fruit"
  9. Lil Jon - "Turn Down for What"
  10. Ludacris - "Move Bi@$!"
  11. Dr. Dre - "Ain't Nothing but A G Thang"
  12. Snoop Dog - "Drop it Like it's Hot"
  13. Nas - "If I ruled the World"
  14. Lil Wayne - "A Milli"
  15. Kendrick Lamar - "DNA"
  16. J. Cole - "Neighbors"
  17. Nikki Minaj - "Feeling Myself"
  18. 50 Cent - "Do You Think About Me"
  19. Travis Scott - "Sicko Mode"
  20. Lil Kim - "Crush On You" (remix not album version)
  21. Mos Def - "Hip Hop" and "Ms Fat Booty" (It's neck and neck)
  22. Grandmaster Flash (and the Furious Five) - "The Message"
  23. Redman and Method Man (Yes I know they they could each have a spot but my list my rules) - "Da Rockwilder"
  24. T.I - "Bring 'em Out"
  25. Ice Cube - "Check Yo Self"

Honorable mentions: 

  • Rakim- "I Ain't No Joke"
  • Lauryn Hill- "Nothing Even Matters"
  • Chance The Rapper- "Smoke Break"
  • Cardi B- "Bodak Yellow"
  • Queen Latifah- "U.N.I.T.Y."
  • Twista-  "Overnight Celebrity" (for his contributions to rap speed)
  • Mc Lyte- "Lyte as A Rock"
  • Common- "The Light"
  • Q-Tip, A Tribe Called Quest- "Butter"

Rise of the Female Rapper

If you have been really analyzing my list you may have noticed there as serious lack of female rappers. This hearkens back to when I mentioned that Hip-Hop has a problem with colorism, size-ism, misogyny or even better misogynoir as many rappers of prominence are Black. What you will also notice if you look at many of the list of GOATs out there, you will see there are few if any female rappers included on the lists. Female rappers are often not given as much radio play time, investment, the best lyrics from ghost writers and beats that slap (this means "good"). Also noticeably, current contemporary female rappers have to play up sexuality in their lyrics and styling.

This was not always the case with early female rappers, like Roxanne Sante, Mc Lyte, Salt and Pepa, JJ Fad, Da Brat, Lady of Rage and Mia X. Sexuality and aggressive language have always been a part of Hip-Hop and female rap artists also rapped on those topics. In the early days female rappers flows were more similar to their male contemporaries and many were part of male rap crews. However, there was a marked change around the mid-90s with the rise of artists like Lil Kim and Foxy Brown. Those who found the most commercial success were those who peddled in overt sexual content. As a young girl I had a collection of female Hip-Hop artist records, but often growing up I would get more push back trying to buy these female artist's works than I did male artists (back when I still purchased music from record stores). Female rappers were often relegated to the shadows of the genre (and the back part of the store).

Nevertheless, there has in the last few years been a rise in well known and successful female artists like Cardi B, Nikki Minaj, Lizzo and Megan Thee Stallion. This may be in part due to the way artists have been able to break onto the music scene by creating their own content, promotions and videos thanks to social media and the internet. Additionally, there has been a lot of R&B cross-over that has blurred who could and couldn't be considered a rapper. That said I would like to give props to the female rappers I have loved throughout the years:

  • Mc Lyte
  • Queen Latifah
  • Roxanne Sante
  • Mia X
  • The Lady of Rage
  • Eve
  • Lil Kim
  • Foxy Brown
  • Lizzo
  • Missy Elliot
  • Yo-Yo
  • Lisa "Left-Eye" Lopes
  • Rah Digga
  • Remy Ma
  • Young M.A
  • Da Brat
  • Gangsta Boo
  • Dreezy
  • Boss
  • Janelle Monae
  • Trina
  • Nikki Minaj
  • Cardi B
  • Megan Thee Stallion
  • Lauryn Hill
  • Lil Mama
  • City Girls

I do not have the words to say how I feel about those artists or how much they mean to me and continue to influence rap.

But is it Hip-Hop? Hip-Hop in Fashion, Movies/TV, Merchandise, Terms, BLM and Covid-19

Hip-Hop for me was not just about music and like many I found it bled into other things like art, hairstyles, protests, fashion, fiction, Black comedy, movies, academics and TV. I remember being in high school groaning because it seemed like every teacher had seen "Dangerous Minds" and wanted students to make journals and turn assignments into rap. I wore Cross Colours in the early 90s, tried to dance like J.Lo when she was a Fly Girl, I read "The Coldest Winter Ever" by Sista Soulja, there was a Radio Raheem figure in my neighborhood who walked around with his boombox, and I cried when Ricky died in "Boyz In the Hood". While style wise I was a preppy girl, think more Clueless than House Party, as I grew into an older teen I still loved the colors and styling as there is a natural swagger to Hip-Hop. 

Growing up I lived in one area and went to school in another so I found myself many times acting as a "translator" for new terms that would enter the lexicon that came out of Black and Hip-hop culture. Today I am not as fast as I was to grasp new terms in the urban vernacular as I don't often listen to as much new music. Yet as terms like Dope, Phat and Bling have been officially added to our dictionaries hip-hop has changed the ways in which we express ourselves and will continue to have a trending influence on language. 

Movies and TV have also been heavily influenced by Hip-Hop culture. Its not as revolutionary as it was when I was younger to see rappers on TV or in movies but as a kid it was amazing to see Ice Cube be a featured star in Friday. I lived for musical guests at the end of sketch comedy shows like In Living Color and Chappelle Show. Now there is a large number of movies with Hip-Hop influence from House Party to Oscar winners like Hustle and Flow, and shows like Power, Love & Hip-Hop, Run's House, Flavor of Love, and Growing-up Hip-Hop. Still I was tickled when I heard Jordan Peele use a classic Luniz song "I Got Five on It", chopped, and screwed (that means "slowed") to be used for the horror movie "Us".

What we consider Streetwear today grew out of the styles of clothing and the influence of Hip-Hop artists and devotees. Brands like Dapper Dan, Rocawear, Phat Farm, Apple Bottom went from cheap to million dollar household names. From saggy pants, African Diaspora colors, clean kicks (sneakers) to bling (sparkling jewel or crystal jewelry) billions of dollars has been made in the fashion industry thanks to Hip-Hop culture, though unfortunately many Black creatives have been largely locked out of the brands who are in some cases largely indifferent to social issues that influence Hip-Hop's Black artists.  Hip-Hop has been used to sell us burgers, chips, alcoholheadphones, water but there has been criticism that the genre has largely failed Black culture to a degree. Hip-Hop like many other forms of Black art has been the subject of what is cultural appropriation who can claim authenticity, one of the cores values of Hip-Hop. From artists like Vanilla Ice in the 90s to Iggy Azalea there has always been a question about who can and who shouldn't be able to profit from Hip-hop that traces it's roots not only to telling the stories of Black oppression but Black activism; as often these artists put on a persona to become successful. To be clear Hip-hop alone is not the only area where the line between appreciation of Black culture and imitation leading to fraud have been blurred. Blackfishing has happened in every area from art to now in recent months the outing of academics who not only use these personas to align themselves with communities of color but additionally in some cases would then use these positions to question actual BIPOC contemporaries authenticity or for their own personal gain as professionals by filling spots in some cases that have been reserved for diversity hires. 

Yet in recent years, in response to this criticism Hip-Hop has gotten back to part of its roots with raps that are more political active and conscious to the struggles of the Black community. Hip-Hop artists like Cardi B have used their platform of social media to talk directly to fans about their criticism of the Trump administration's response to COVID-19. Additionally, other rappers are using their platforms to speak on the virus that has hit communities of color heavily.  Megan Thee Stallion used her recent SNL appearance to speak out on Breonna Taylor's death at the hands of police and the lack of action by Kentucky AG Daniel Cameron made in addressing the issue. As a genre hip-hop has always had political undertones like Jazz and Blues from Public Enemy's protest anthem "Fight the Power" to more contemporary artists like Lil Baby, hip-hop can be heard now on the streets as part of the protest movement. You could make a protest playlist from rap music (I suggest you do). Rappers have not only donated money to social causes but those who can, like "Love and Hip-Hop's" Yandy Smith, have risked their freedom to join the current social justice protests. Prior to becoming President, Donald J. Trump was once considered as an icon for rap music for his persona and the way he marketed himself. However, after taking office as President Trump there has been a rise in songs that focus on the message of social justice and systematic racism due to the fact that many of these artist who liked his swagger realized they did not like his politics and President Trump may never recover from that fall in the Hip-Hop community.

So What's Next?

As we start Hip-Hop history month we find ourselves in an place of uncertainty. The November election looms heavily on the national consciousness and questions about will there be a transition of power, and if there is will it be peaceful. We may be opening up but the COVID-19 virus has began to surge again globally, as well as here at home. Civil unrest over George Floyd and Breonna Taylor continues in our streets and on our social media platforms. The very fabric of what this nation claims to be is fraying at the ends and poised to unravel.

So what does that mean for Hip-Hop music? I predict there will be an explosion of not only new music, but new artists. Artists both mainstream and unknown, will be using Garageband and other software to make music at home away from studios and producers, giving them a new freedom of expression that was usually only given to artists after years of being molding into the commercial mechanism to be marketable to audiences. There will be artists once held close to our hearts, that will see their star fall because of their political affiliations. Some artists will use social media to release songs, market themselves, change their looks and speak directly to fans. With social media not only can artists influence us but we will be able to influence them and push them to use their platforms to help us navigate this uncertain future. Animation will be used to create videos bringing a new flavor to the visual art world or in some cases artists with the funds to do so will go to great expense to make sure those working with them on projects have all been tested giving those in the creative industry opportunities to continue working.

I want to say first thank you for taking the time to read this very long post but I wanted to make sure I gave the genre I love the justice it deserves. I don't know what 2021 will hold for us a nation but I know whatever happens I will be listening to the voices of artists both past and present to help guide my thoughts and rally my spirit. I hope you too will do the same. 

And Yes...I still do love H.E.R.

Blog Category
Adult Nonfiction

Comments

Submitted by Lizzie Nolan on Wed, 11/18/2020 - 9:03 AM

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Thank you so much for sharing your personal journey with music. Hip hop has done so much to shape us as Americans and America's image/culture throughout the world. So many great links to jump off to and songs to discover/rediscover. For the podcast listeners who like hip hop history/analysis, I've enjoyed "Disscet" and "Mogul" in the past, and "Louder than a Riot" is on my to-listen-to list.

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