Friday, March 17, 2006

Hip Hop (Part 1 of X) : A Miner 7th Revelation

Okay – so I’ve got to thinking about hiphop. What is the nature of the art form and what are the fundamental differences between how it’s done in the US vs. the UK. What's real what's hype.

I’ve decided that this is a multi parter.....so this is one of X.

I got to thinking about all of this because hip-hop in the UK for me has been a circle leading back to the beginning. Music and culture styles and ideologies are a right old mix of things.........

I got into hiphop in the early 80’s while a nipper growing up in Cowdenbeath. Cowdenbeath is a little place just outside Fife, Scotland and probably not even known about beyond the Scottish borders except for terrible football results. It appeared on government charts and was only ever statistical fodder on a spreadsheet to the powers that held sway over the loosely United Kingdom. Life was hard but regular and the work was predominantly mining and factory work.

Cowdenbeath back then even had enough work to spare and over the years Polish emigrants fleeing oppression began to arrive and pepper the towns surnames with things like Groncowski and Lesnik. Life was happy. Eventually a killer blow was dealt by the evil witch of the South when Maggie Thatcher swept down on her broomstick in the 80’s, hovering above the town square and put the ‘shut the industry down’ spell on everyone. Those get rich quick short terming bastards really put the boot into the old town. You see, those filofaxes only planned in terms of a year or so. These types never really thought 20 years down the line. ‘I want mine now and fuck the future’ would have been a good t-shirt to get printed up in those days. My dad became very politicised during this period and attended strikes, rallies and many running battles with the police. He’d relay the collective despair back to my mum while we listened and knew to shut our whining gobs.

The town was smirched as being communists by the ministers in the pockets of London when they desperately tried to band together and get some radical changes made. It wasn’t hard to brand them all dangerous lefties with all the Polish contingent in town. It wasn’t about politics for the town it was survival and the problems the town was having were in much quicker bursts than the slow and lethargic place of the ‘man’ in London. There were soup kitchens aplenty in the town. Cowdenbeath flailed like a stuck bull and nobody it seemed gave a shit. This wasn’t exclusive to Fife or even Scotland – the North of England got it in the neck too. I'm only telling what I saw.

Cowdenbeath began to look like those Cowboy towns that I had seen in the American movies. Tumbleweed blowing through the main street, pawn shops, lone men mumbling in anguish and pubs with regular fights outside them.

My mate Brian was the son of a pub owner and he lived along with me in Cowdenbeath or ‘Cowden’ as we called it. When the locals couldn’t get into The New Goth to drink on a Sunday afternoon we were allowed to have the keys to play pool and listen to the jukebox. The jukebox had all kinds of things on it and when I think of it that old jukebox really was my blinking tardis into a world into the different flavours of music. From Queen’s kickass rock of “Seven Seas of Rye” to New Editions electropop “Candy Girl”. Classic rock, reggae crossovers, folk and punk.

Brian never knew this but I used to nick records from that jukebox – it’s how I got my collection started. and I figured then, as I do now, that his dad could afford it … plus his dad used to make comments like “are we feeding the whole street?” whenever Brian and me were eating something in his kitchen. That just panders to my DickTurpin instinct….anyways alot of the singles in my collection had that telltale massive hole in the middle meaning it’d been punched out to fit in a jukebox.

If I hadn’t liberated those records then I never would have been able to obsess over one of the records that became my door into the world of America outside of Elvis and the movies. It was ‘The Message’ by Grandmaster Flash. I listened to it over and over again until I knew all the words and not only that – the growls, roars and inflections.

Broken glass everywhere
People pissing on the stairs,
you know they just Don’t care
I can’t take the smell,
I can’t take the noise
Got no money to move out,
I guess I got no choice
Rats in the front room, roaches in the back
Junkie’s in the alley with a baseball bat
I tried to get
away, but I couldn’t get far
Cause the man with the tow-truck repossessed my car
Don’t push me, cause I’m close to the edge
I’m trying not to loose my head



As the record was nicked there was no sleeve so I had to make one myself and before you knew it the pens were out and my first attempts at graffiti kickstarted and all my graphic design drive. The graffitti never went much further than nicking some gold spreay paint from Halfords and trying to do our ‘piece’ a bus stop in the dark. I did the whole bit and got the cardboard out - I had flipped over into obsession. Years later and I have jammed and recorded with countless DJ's, electronics freaks, rappers, verbalists, MC's and the like.... and recently did a record in Oakland, California with some mates called Elemental. Yes that is a plug.

I've been checking out DJ's and rappers at some live shows in Manchester so my head is on all this stuff. When hiphop first hit in the UK in the early 80's it took years for anything to transpire in terms of home-grown performers and culture - we were all punters. Everybody was too scared to rap and because ecstacy hadn't 'transformed' the twitchy British youth people weren't yet funky enough - the kinetic energy of punk was still buzzing in their body shapes. It's the weather as well of course. In the early 80's people in the UK got their underground vibes through mods and punks.

HipHop in the UK got better and better though in the 90's after some daliances with DrumNBass (me included) and now I'm looking at it again in 2006 with Roots Manuva, Dizzy Rascal and The Dirty Diggers and it looks as healthy as it's ever been and in no danger of stopping. UK oiky technology based music I think is fresher than the Americans - they're jaded now that their icons that kicked it off have fallen so far like IceCube and Missy Elliot etc - serious lack of content in their products these days . In the UK people have reconciled that they can rap in their own accents and are revelling in it....admittedly the South London thing is bit literally hackneyed but the stuff up north is poetic. If John Lennon was around today he'd probably be rapping in the North of England somewhere.

All kickstarted by inspiration from the children of the children of those Africans……

Now I don’t mean the rich Africans in Africa that originally sold their kinsmen on for gold to the slave traders. I mean the poor ones that were sold. This terrible collusion of the African chiefs and the slave traders is one of the sharp points between powerful Africans in Africa and educated African Americans today – no bloody wonder. The whole how dark or white is your skin thing rages between Africans and Indians aswell – battling for either side as being the most righteous is again madness to me and just for the record I’m peach in colour.

In fact in 2006 the African lineage that was sold into America has a lot more in common socially with their similarly shat on brethren around the world than they do with the same lineage back in Africa. So I’m thinking that being African isn’t really the sole genesis of this whole hiphop gig. It can’t be cos ‘Africans’ got separated not just by geography but by class when those ships disappeared off into the terrible horizon.

The British goivernment outsourced most of the slavery to the colonies so the UK is nowhere near as 'blended' as the US. All the slave labour was kept in their native country and managed by a blend of locals and Brits. The geographic size of Britian was always smaller than it's colony and 'staffing' ambitions and this is a HUGE difference in context between the UK and the US.

Then you look to the UK and you see that the hiphop that is really happening is happening in the North of England and Scotland. The divisions here are tribal enough but the only colour difference is that they people get a blueish white the further you go north. London, the epicentre, of the UK's traffic has always had hiphop action of a sort and today the powers that be are all centred there. Dancehall offshoots and garage rhythms are a London thing but lyrically I'm finding myself responding to the folks up North. It might be grim but it's real up north.

Do I have white guilt? Do I fuck. Does anyone have Irish Guilt or Indian guilt? What about Iraqui guilt? The list of who got fucked since time began is long and bloody – me and my people didn't do it so I’m don't feel on trial and would take particular umbridge at anyone trying to have that pop. For me it’s got to be a person to person thing and an event to event thing. Ask my my mum about equal rights and she’ll tell you about the signs in England and Scotland in the 60’s that said “No Blacks, No Irish, No Dogs”. They weren’t just making that shit up you know.

I empathise with poor people getting shafted and managed like livestock. I empathise with powerless victims of the violent PR techniques employed by right wing states. I empathise with creating something from nothing and rising out of your situation. Don’t play the black and white game like chess. We think we are playing the game and moving the pieces but in fact we are the pieces......

The truth of it as Melle Mel simply puts

It’s like a jungle sometimes, it makes me wonder How I keep from going under….
It's all shades of green in the jungle and it aint just the red things that are dangerous...

I might not have understood all the references at that age but Cowdenbeath was definitely a fine context to hear hiphop.

So I break it down like this for those that have skipped to the summary

  1. It doesn’t come with colour it comes with your story. That means you can only deal with ‘hiphop’ ideologies on a person-to-person basis – otherwise you are a lunatic.
  2. Stations or product streams called Black Music this or that are mentalists. How can a music wave or particle have a colour? Was Jimi Hendrix’s band one third black? Will these stations hive off into Beige Music and Dark Chocolate music in order to further differentiate the coloured demographic. Where’s my Peach Channel? A record made by Snoop Doggy Dog talking about cars and bitches...that's isn't African music.
  3. ‘Urban’ as a term increasingly means fuck all – half the world is full of concrete and computers and khaki green is all the high street stores – posh and otherwise. The grit-E urban reaLITee is in all modern composers work – it’s just different instrumentation and a cognisance of the role that it plays that differs. Urban is the term they use to give street cred to some bollocks normally.

That’s it – hiphop is contextual – that means “it depends” on who/where/when and it certainly doesn’t have a template or way of automatically being born into it.

Part Two next titled ‘Subverting Tools is Cool’.

Check out this great summary page of UK hip hop

6 comments:

Togo the Schnauzer (minature) said...

Togo the Schnauzer here.

I have been instructed from the afterlife (probably, else I'm the oldest, gnarliest, most stinking animal this side of life) by my master Mr. Brian Mclaren, pub landlord, Cowdenbeath, just outside Fife (eh?), Scotland.

I hereby serve notice that our lawyers - a well known firm based in the Dunfermline area, just inside Fife that specialise in all things, you know, 'crimey'. They also do a nice line in Estate Agency and Property Management but I digress.

Thing is, I always knew you were blaggin mah vinyl. You may have hidden it well from the humans, but I was always there. A small grey shadow with an alarmingly yellow chin / beard arrangement.

I had always suspected you, though I had various suspects in the plot - the talkative one from Dunfermline who stayed at the house / pub for what seemed like a lifetime and I'm not talking dog years either. I thought the lanky streak of piss had moved in. 'Feeding the whole street indeed'. If old Margaret hadn't spent all her housekeeping on Findus Crispy Pancakes, the fruits of her loins might have turned out, well.... lets just say, with more taste. I liked the guy from Dunfermline though, despite the fact that he used to 'boot fuck out of me' when no one was looking. But then, you all did...

I also reckoned the fat, baldy, once was a ginger geezer with the penchant for 'two special fried rice' and 'wan canny diet coke' had a hand in the vinyl theft but I soon discovered that he was too busy trying out for a high score on Bubble-Bobble at that shop near the church with his chiselled mate 'kitten' (who I understand now models the catwalks in Milan...)

Now, after years and years of blog trawling, I discover it WAS you.

After much deliberation and a few more chicken and bacon crispy pancakes, Brian & Margaret have decided that an amnesty will suffice. We understand that we did not record all of the missing vinyl but will accept and expect the following 7"s to be returned immediately.

Electric Boogaloo
Together (in electric dreams)
The Honeythief
Breakin - theres no stoppin us
Tour de France
Take me with u
and all 347 Chaka Khan singles

Failure to do so will result in Brian's next 'pairty' bein cancelled.

If you do choose to return the records as requested, then the next time I find myself in Manchester (my old stomping ground and favourite city ever lived in - oh! happy days...) then I'll take you down the Horse and Jockey on Chorlton Green for a proper pint.

You have been warned.

Togo.

Drongomala said...

Ghost of Togo - you were indeed the most sensible of the whole crew and your geography is impeccable. I must have some secret wish to have Cowdenbeath as a breakaway state.

That vinyl is lost in the mists of time - almost like those white bikes that the Beatles made....idealism vs. need can get ugly.

excellent comment....

Drongomala said...

you got me thinking about that whole mob.

'Tootsie' - the ginger one - my favourite moment was when he used a bottle of fizzy lemonande to get vindaloo out of his eye. that was the second vindaloo in one sitting mind you....other than that he slept in the dockyard in the hulls of ships.

Kitten and his woes. He once asked me to break his leg in proper Escape to Victory style....he was a YTS apprentice and they had him lugging huge concrete blocks for 7 hours a day for less than peanuts....ahhh - the 80's..I was seconds off doing it and it aswell

wild west

At least the McLarens were into computing, trakking on the Amiga and hiphop early in the life of public computing and the media blitz. Possibly helped and fuelled by my own obsessions - there's the upside if you're looking for it;)

The Goth was the manor no question

p.s.....please god don't remind me of Findus anything mate...I have a nausea of years stored up with that...

Togo the Schnauzer (minature) said...

The Hulls of Ships?

I may be missing something. Perhaps it's artistic and poetic license with a beaufully apt but spectacularly vague hidden meaning? Still, deep breath, pinch nose, here I go...

I thought he lived in the front bedroom on his folks 2 bed, 1 bog state home, huge (impressive even) porn collection, a 'top loading' video (VHS!) to play said porn on, a 26" TV to transmit the imagery of girls next door bending over, CD player (first to have one, give him that - you may have convinced yourself that vinyl was 'organic' but you, like everyone else, wanted that CD player - it was the cutting edge of music then and his surrounding associates who fancied themselves as muso afficionado's felt, if they were honest, that he didn't deserve it as he didn't really appreciate it) - though his choice of CD's were questionable in fairness, brown cortina MKII (sports steering wheel - ten quid, halfords) in the cracked concrete driveway, the smell of his old man's tobacco as it singed a subtle woodbine crust on the racing pink mixed with the smell of his lovely (seriously - a lovely woman) mother's scones cooling on the kitchen window ledge. The house was literally a 6 minute walk from the hub (Pub Mclaren) yet old JTF was determined to pass his driving test...

The Hulls of ships? As a schnauzer (miniature you will remember), I was unable to access any nearby shipyards. You must explain that one if you would be so kind.

Also...

I recognise that this is your stage, your platform to indulge your own cultures but perhaps to cement your 'wild west' imagery of 'Cowden, I remember various visitors to the house - Brian Jnr's side, for he had his own 'wing' of the flat above the pub, singing the following jingle towards the end of another successful party where the walls were splashed with teenage spunk and on the odd occasion - luminous body paint...

To the tune of 'The Munsters'

Everybody - put your hands in the air and sing!

They're dirty and they're smelly,
They hav'nae got a telly,
They come fae near Lochgelly,
The 'Cowden family...

It truly was a ghetto, but, like the old cliche's go, 'we were 'appy...'

Next time... I had never given it any thought until yesterday. "The New Goth" Whats in a name? Discuss?

Togo - Confirmed Dead.

Drongomala said...

John Tootsie Frazer helped the peace effort by doing no work at all in his job with the military - refitting (or not) warships in the Rosyth Dockyard

as to the Munster thing - you wish.

all the best semi-mystery interloper.

km87 said...

Lmao I grew up in Cowdenbeath myself (& still live there) & Ive never met a single person who has been into hip-hop like I was/am.

Its strange, I always felt that my experience of growing up in Cowden in the 90's was part of what made me gravitate to hip-hop in the way that I did, since its like a ghost-town here.

Its funny, I totally found this by chance (link on wikipedia) and yet your experience seems similar to my own in many ways.