I enjoy knowledge, and have a deep respect for both intelligence and wisdom. I believe that a person’s most powerful asset is his or her mind, because once a mind’s ideas manifest themselves they can drastically transcend their progenitor in application and scale. A man can move a rock–a big one too, if he’s strong–but an idea can move mountains.
To me, Hip-Hop culture is innately tied to decentralized creative innovation and knowledge cultivation, and it always will be. The best way for me to portray that is to point to Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), as well as the Shaw Brother’s film The 36th Chamber of Shaolin from which the album’s name was derived.
In the film, the main protagonist, San Te, seeks knowledge of martial arts to exact revenge on the oppressors who’ve killed his friends and family during an uprising. Initially he is rejected by the institution, but after persistence, hard work, and dedication to the sacred knowledge of Shaolin kung fu, San Te not only swiftly advances through training in the temple’s 35 chambers, but even expertly transforms an old type of weapon into a new one, the three-section staff.
In the end, San Te returns to his home town and frees them from the oppressive general who murdered his family. The movie concludes with him becoming the master of his own chamber, the 36th chamber, dedicated to teaching lay people kung fu and the means to defend themselves against oppressors.
The namesake of the movie and the album both focus on that final chamber, the one that gives knowledge back to the people so that they may liberate themselves. The 36th chamber asks nothing in return, except for your commitment at becoming skilled in your craft.
Knowledge, Innovation, and Liberation
The early days of Hip Hop followed a similar storyline, as the gateway to entry in music culture was money for instruments and lessons that people in the South Bronx (and other neighborhoods across the U.S. urban landscape) simply didn’t have. They were the outsiders. Faced with the choice between spiritual and artistic apathy and “making do”, the earliest practitioners of Hip Hop decided that they would get creative with turntables and samplers to construct looped rhythmic beats from breaks.
DJ Kool Herc pioneered the technique of flipping back and forth between two copies of the same record, extending the break-beat so that emcees could rap and b-boys could break, earning him the title “the father of hip hop”. The fact that he was, in a way, deconstructing original music and recordings and then reassembling them to fit his liking and create new music out of it is symbolic of the knowledge that embodies Hip Hop.
Because Hip Hop stood in opposition, at least at first, to the mainstream and the White establishment, there’s always been a rebellious appeal that the genre and culture have exuded. Interestingly, it may have only been considered rebellious because, in its Golden Era, it was decentralized and unregulated, focused more on the spread of knowledge and culture than on making money. Anybody and everybody with basic equipment had (and still has) the ability to produce Hip Hop music.
To quote IIP Digital and the US Embassy website: “The greatest impact of hip-hop culture is perhaps its ability to bring people of all different beliefs, cultures, races, and ethnicities together as a medium for young (and now middle-aged) people to express themselves in a self-determined manner, both individually and collectively.”
Much like kung fu can teach farmers how to wield their fists and their field tools as weapons against their oppressors, post-1973 Hip Hop informed the residents of the South Bronx how to wield their voices, bodies, and tape decks in poignant, unified expression. The parallel expressed is that attaining knowledge allows people to utilize ideas and technology to liberate themselves spiritually and physically.
Doing It The Easy Way For All the Wrong Reasons
The problem with Hip Hop, technology, and innovation as we’ve entered an era of globalization, is that establishment thinking now too often dominates deployment and dissemination. For example, take this description of how original Hip Hop creativity works, from Adjoa Poku’s “Hip Hop, Technology, and Innovation”:
“Analysis of the actual use of music engineering technology reveals that although hip hop music artists have not directly led to improvements in technology, they are themselves inventors of groundbreaking techniques. Thus, it is not enough to say that hip hop artists simply utilize this equipment, because a lot of artists in other genres were and continue to use the very same equipment to produce disco, house, and techno music. The difference between hip hop music artists and others exists in how hip hop artists began to use the same equipment in order to create a sound that is distinct to and consistent with values of the hip hop culture. Another characteristic that separates the hip hop culture from other music cultures is its spontaneous nature. The discoveries made through operation of the available technology are unplanned and at times accidental, but then they are developed further into brilliance. Because “freshness” and originality are expected from any hip hop artist, these musicians avoid falling into the habit of using traditional or established techniques. As each new piece of music engineering equipment became available and affordable, producers broke the rules of equipment operation whether it involved connecting two turntables, detuning samplers, or recording with synthesizers and drum machines in distortion zones. While these artists may not be “scientists” in the traditional and academic sense, they are ingenious inventors of technique, and continually prove through successful experimentation that “rules” mean nothing when it comes to the art of creativity.”
Unfortunately, the modern message nowadays is that if you follow the right formula, i.e. get the right equipment, rap about the right things, essentially fake it til you make it, you can be a rapper/producer too. This negates the “knowledge” required to properly portray the essence of Hip Hop. To take it back to the 36th Chamber, let’s look at Daniel Roy’s 2003 essay, “Hip Hop Music Technology and Blowing Up”. In it, he corresponds with Carlos Bess, a multi-award holding studio engineer best known for his work on Enter the Wu-Tang.
“Carlos commented that, while high-end digital hardware and software was becoming cheaper, its price tag was still out of the range of the beginner producer. Carlos, who has spent the last 10 years as a studio sound engineer, was convinced that skill was a better determining factor when judging whether someone could escape the bedroom and enter the big time. Carlos clarified his stance when he bet that he could buy a four track for $800 and out mix anyone who bought a 48-track digital workstation who tried to replicate his technique. Carlos even went so far as to say that he felt that the new equipment simply created lazy producers who could only produce more beats, not better beats.”
Knowledge, then, is consistent with building skill, style, and technique. It takes time to build and attain, and correlates with the knowledge of self. If you ask yourself what makes the difference between somebody who’s authentic and somebody who’s a poser? Knowledge.
Mo’ Money Mo’ Problems
At a certain point, the economized artistic community bought into Hip Hop, representing a divergence from the original intent to perpetuate knowledge and culture. I’m not saying Hip Hop is dead, not at all–just that it’s not always made backed by knowledge. To quote ACRN’S HIP-HOP 101 blog: “Without knowledge, a person who can rap will never be an emcee. A person who can mix records on a turntable can never be considered a DJ if he or she doesn’t have knowledge. Spinning on your head without possessing knowledge only makes you capable of getting dizzy. Tagging the walls without knowledge is just vandalism.”
When Hip Hop starts to sound similar, formulaic, and shallow, it becomes apparent that the “breaking of rules” and unorthodox creativity that originally breathed life into the genre have taken a backseat to return on investment. Sample clearance requirements mean that not everybody can produce Hip Hop in the same way anymore, not without permission at least, and not without jumping through hoops and paying somebody else for it. Sure, much of the hip-hop that you hear on the mainstream radio might sound like Hip Hop, but that doesn’t mean that it’s intention is to be Hip Hop. This is because Hip Hop is fresh, unpredictable, and encourages taking risks–three qualities that also just so happen to make attaining ROI difficult.
Technology is a lot like Hip Hop, in my mind. Look at Elon Musk. That dude is breaking away from profit-at-all cost business conventions, utilizing technology in ways that others won’t, due to regulations, and will end up probably doing more for the human race than any other person on the planet. Other companies would rather control technology to make sure that they maximize profits, even at the expense of their customer’s inconvenience. HP, who recently updated their printers so that they wouldn’t accept third party cartridges after customers had bought them, presents a great example of technology that creates personal gain by spawning problem for others.
Knowledge For Betterment of Self and Community
To me, Hip Hop and technology are both great equalizers. When accessible by all without fetter, they promote knowledge and application of that knowledge in not only the practitioner, but in the community surrounding the practitioner as well. This is because, in their purest forms, decentralized and unregulated, technology and Hip Hop are fueled by the same essence: knowledge for betterment of self and community.
It’s only when the well is poisoned by selfish ideals and short-sighted ignorance that hip-hop fails to be Hip Hop, and that technology fails to be a liberating force for all mankind’s brothers and sisters. When innovators and practitioners put up walls and adhere to rules and regulations designed to squash competition and further innovation, that’s how rifts–’isms and schisms–are created as well.
Egos kill dreams.