Last Wednesday evening, the historic Lincoln Theater situated in the midst of Washington, DC’s bohemian U Street district played host to a discussion of the power of hip hop lyricism sponsored by the upcoming Smithsonian Museum of African American History and Culture centered around the release of the new scholastic volume chronicling some of the greatest lyrical moments of hip hop history, The Anthology of Rap. Now nearing it’s 40th year in existence, hip hop clearly has shown the ability to be a cultural aggregate, a study of the pulse of race and culture and worthy of canonization in the tome. Present for the discussion were two hip hop giants, reflective of two different eras in hip hop’s development. 80s New York City icon Kurtis Blow, the first millionaire rapper (along with aspiring novice emcee son Kurtis, Jr.) and multimedia star of rhyme, stage and screen in the present era, Chicago native Common. Interviewed in fifteen minute flights by collaborative authors Adam Bradley and Andrew DuBois with a final group discussion at the end, the discussion was equal parts hip hop love affair, educational moment and proof of the staying power of the once nascent now commercially empowered genre.
Kurtis Blow is a genius. You come to this realization while listening to him speak about being a college graduate with a Communications degree and a penchant for declarative speeches. A man who through his collegiate background likely studied the oration of the likes of William Jennings Bryan, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and a plethora of other key speakers of antiquity, upon reflecting on his legendary rap singles, you see the scholastic method that guided his rise to success and is a wise path for future emcees to follow. Outlining various types of speeches and classifying his raps into those categories, his albums always had structure, balance and given his lyrical skill, a potency that allowed for his greatness. In discussing the art of constructing a rhyme, he made mention of the concept that being an MC meant being a “master of ceremonies, which means mastering any ceremony, anywhere.” With a career that has spanned the historical beginning of hip hop performance in the block party as a largely lower and middle class black response to the relative opulence of the concurrent disco club phase to having toured six continents and rocked millions of people, he spoke words worth their weight in historical truth.
Common took the stage next for a discussion that bore a striking similarity to James Lipton on Inside the Actor’s Studio. It makes sense as the rise of Lonnie Lynn hanging out on the south side of Chicago to uber conscious rapper Common Sense to bankable mainstream star and beacon guiding hip hop culture into new artisitic endeavors Common is a multimedia growth worthy of such distinction. The Common discussion was more centered around the artist always as a fan of developments in the genre, perpetually looking to find his place, and in his constant artistic development ascending to a level of being considered one of the dopest veteran emcees in the game today. The ability for hip hop to mature lyrically as an art form to diversify its fanbase was handled in the discussion when confronted about his early use of homophobic slurs in his raps, he noted that his change in tune coincided with his art form reaching a more cosmopolitan audience. Noting that he felt his sphere of influence grow when many gays and lesbians appreciated his talent, but could not fully embrace him as a fan due to his word choice, he made the conscious effort to tone down his homophobic lyricism. It was a great moment and truly showed the depth and scope of hip hop’s development and reach over the last four decades.
Of course, this being an event celebrating hip hop, there were performances. Upon hearing the onstage DJ drop a few bars of his massively influential 1994 hit “I Used to Love H.E.R.” and breaking down how the song came to exist as he wanted to reflect the concerns that commercial success brought to the game, Common decided to perform the first 32 bars of the legendary song to wild applause and mass appreciation. He also kicked the first eight bars of the first rap he ever wrote, which while bearing a striking resemblance to the flow of Casanova Fly of the Sugar Hill Gang was a fun and rare look into the true appreciation for the genre held by the rapper.
The hip hop showcase evening ended with an energized 20 minute performance by Kurtis Blow with his hypeman son Kurtis, Jr. Running through his legendary hits like “The Breaks,” and scouring the hits of Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, Rob Base and DJ EZ Rock and a plethora more, the night ended as the forever spry Blow the senior leapt into an eager crowd and rocked the mic from the floor to House of Pain’s 1992 classic “Jump Around.”
The Anthology of Rap is available for purchase in bookstores everywhere. Also, contrary to what Nas said, Hip hop? Not dead. Now preserved for eternity.