But hiphop, my beloved hiphop, is immaculate. At its core there are no shotgun shacks sleeping under weeping willows, but towering Corbusierian housing projects ("islands in the sky"); there are no upheavals caused by tumultuous great rivers (flash floods breaking levees and carrying away helpless cows), but instead upheavals caused by new superhighways, such as the one urban planner Robert Moses forced through the South Bronx in the '70s.
In hiphop, the rural world is artificially manufactured. Bands like Arrested Development and Outkast have to physically insert elements of rural reality into their music (as Outkast does in their hit single "Rosa Parks," with a sudden burst of ecstatic, knee-slapping, harmonica-wailing peasants), instead of stripping the music's layers to unearth it (as Charles Mingus often did with jazz). If one unwraps the folds and layers of hiphop history they will find only the electric beeps and bonks of bands like Soul Sonic Force, Kraftwerk, Mantronix. Not only is the genesis of hiphop entirely urban, but it is also impossible for an artist to cut a jam without describing the city they come from. Indeed, this is what rapping is all about: affirmation of one's urban world, letting everyone know which city you represent.
With other music forms, this is not an important issue at all. There is, for example, no real need to know where the Smashing Pumpkins come from; but for a hiphop artist like Common, it's crucial. We have to know he is from Chicago, that he is "representing" Chicago; otherwise if he drops the name Leroy Brown (as he did on Resurrection), we will miss the point.When I was in a hiphop group many years ago in Harare (the capital city of Zimbabwe), the songs we produced never failed to mention something about our city, our neighborhood (Chisipite), our favorite streets (First Street, Enterprise Way, Bay Noakes Road). The pleasure we derived from evoking these bits and pieces of our city to a background of thundering beats was intense. We liked the drum machine to boom, for each beat to sound like a miniature nuclear blast. There was no sensation like it--it felt so good, so right, so fulfilling to "hold it down" for your city. And the pleasure was not only ours, but also the listeners', who either had their city world affirmed by the song (recognizing familiar haunts, boulevards, skyscrapers) or, if they were from another city, had the opportunity to access, to experience, to relish, to compare the texture of another urban reality. This is what I enjoyed (and still enjoy) most about hiphop: its ability to transport, to re-create a foreign and distant urban world.
Indeed, before I arrived in London, songs by the Demon Boys and the Cookie Crew supplied me with crucial cultural information about that city, informing me how bad the bobbies were in this or that part of town. And while in Stockholm, spinning records with a blond Swedish b-boy one night, I learned that Seattle had a street called Broadway which some guy called Sir Mix-A-Lot loved to peruse.Since my Harare days, I have collected hiphop songs that directly pay tribute to cities. These are the types of hiphop songs I love most (next are hiphop songs which espouse the virtues of hiphop culture). True, not all tributes are great--some fail miserably--but when they work, when everything is in order, the experience is exquisite.
Here are the four city tributes which, over the past five years, have given me the most pleasure:
MOOD CINCINNATI "Cup of Tea" This song is found on a mix called Turbo Beats. It is a voluptuous tribute to Cincinnati (a.k.a. Sin City) which informs the listener that though the cops in Cincinnati are real pigs, the city does have a great jazz festival.
SUPREME NTM "Paris Sous Les Bombs" ("Paris Under the Bombs") Supreme NTM (a.k.a. Supreme Motherfuckers) are from Paris, and this single, which came out in 1995, is about how hiphop transformed their city, made it a real city, a hardcore b-boy city. Boom!
TASK FORCE "Liquidized Language" This song, from the album Deeper Concentration, has a "legion of hearts," as they call themselves, claiming that their city is more hiphop than three big cities in America. They boast: "In London town, London town we have lots of MCs who are keeping it native when we rap on the beat/because we are not dealing with Queens, L.A., or Bucktown, we are coming from London so we bring our own sounds." I just love that affirmation, that love, that audacity--you can only get away with it in hiphop.
SOURCE OF LABOR "Sunshine" This local band has produced what I feel is the best hiphop tribute to Seattle and its weather: "In the city where it rains all day, I'm still looking for the sunshine hey." The mood is just right, laid back and a little melancholic, with the ease of a ferry crossing the sound.
If you want to know what a city is about, you have to listen to the hiphop records coming out of that city. A city without a hiphop community, without a hiphop tribute, is not a city at all. How can you respect a city if no one cares enough to represent it?