Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Expressing With My Full Capabilities


I spent the Labor Day holiday immersed in hip-hop and history, going to see Hamilton on Broadway and Straight Outta Compton at the cineplex.

In many ways, the most remarkable thing about these two cultural products is the simple fact that they exist.  It is fair to say that neither a hip-hop musical nor a feature-length bio-pic about a rap group that recorded only a single good album would have been conceivable when I was first introduced to hip hop at a basketball camp in Washington DC back in the summer of 1984.

I had heard "The Message" by Grandmaster Flash some time earlier.  As good as that song was (and is), I dismissed it as a one-off, a gimmick.  Then, on the bus ride to camp one day, I heard "It's Like That" by Run-DMC.  It was, as Large Professor would say, "rebel music," and as such, it resonated with my teenage anti-authority impulses.

With the benefit of hindsight, the 1980s was not the best of times to be a teenager -- AIDS, crack cocaine, an explosion of gun violence, disinvestment in cities, etc.  But I will always be grateful that I got to experience the "golden age of hip-hip" as it unfolded.  It seemed like every month, a different artist was releasing ground-breaking work -- the Jungle Brothers, Eric B and Rakim, Boogie Down Productions, Big Daddy Kane, Beastie Boys, Public Enemy, De La Soul, and many others.

I have written a fair amount about my love of hip-hop.  I don't want to over-sell it, but there is no doubt that hip-hop has had an influence on my professional life.  Thanks to hip-hop (and an unsolicited editorial I wrote about Eazy-E), I got a chance to freelance at the Providence Journal in my early 20s.  And while there is no obvious connection between hip-hop and the Center for Court Innovation, I like to think that I bring some of the creativity, humor, and DIY spirit of the music to my daily work.

These qualities are manifest in abundance in Lin-Manuel Miranda's Hamilton, which really is as good as everyone says it is.  In an odd way, I found the musical about our founding fathers closer in spirit to what drew me to hip-hop than the film about N.W.A.  The Straight Outta Compton movie makes a half-hearted effort to claim that N.W.A were "journalists" reporting on the reality of life on the streets of Los Angeles.  For a time, it was possible to listen to Public Enemy and imagine that you were tuned into "CNN for black people," as Chuck D famously said.  But not N.W.A.  Once you got past a handful of powerful anti-police songs, N.W.A. spent most of their time engaging in macho posturing and adolescent sex fantasies.  And that comes across in the film, which, like the music it depicts, often feels cynical and mercenary.