Page last updated at 10:36 GMT, Wednesday, 14 October 2009 11:36 UK
Hip-hop comes of age

Simon Cowell and an X Factor contestant
What has this got to do with rappers?

By Alexis Akwagyiram
BBC News

Thirty years on from Rapper's Delight by the Sugarhill Gang becoming the first mainstream rap song to hit the US charts, hip-hop has played a surprising role in shaping modern British culture.

When the US elected its first African-American president, who did the grand inquisitor on the BBC's flagship news programme turn to for an insight into how the moment might be perceived by young black Britons?

A rapper, of course.

Newsnight presenter Jeremy Paxman questioned Dizzee Rascal about race, nationality and identity.

Dizzee Rascal on Obama's win

For some, the elevation of a rapper to the status of spokesman for a generation is part of a wider pattern in which hip-hop's elements - rapping, DJ-ing, breakdance and graffiti - have infiltrated mainstream British culture.

According to at least one of Britain's leading cultural commentators, hip-hop is now "the lingua franca of our time".

Ekow Eshun, director of the Institute for Contemporary Arts, says the language of hip-hop is "what young people speak - they understand each other, not just through the music but by the values that are embodied through the music".

He argues that the rampant materialism espoused by the genre's most popular artists have brought about a "curious inversion" in mainstream British culture to create a "culture of aspiration" best seen in the popularity of reality TV programmes such as the X Factor.

Tony Baldry
'Allotments are in big demand for growing fruit, flowers and vegetables, or just as a great way to chill out'
Conservative MP Tony Baldry (pictured)
chill v. 'A time to live, and a time to die A time to break and a time to chill'
S. ROBINSON et al. Rapper's Delight (song)
Oxford English Dictionary

Rappers routinely use their records to tell rags-to-riches stories of a past rooted in drug deals and gang life, re-inventing themselves as musical artists worth millions, often with lucrative spin-off projects in film, fashion and related merchandise.

This enables some artists to project an image of success by projecting a lavish lifestyle in music videos.

This, says Eshun, means that whereas past generations of British youngsters - Teddy Boys, Mods and Punks - detested the idea of engaging with the mainstream, there's a widespread desire to "make more money and live flashier than anyone else".

"Youth culture in Britain used to condemn its successes for selling out, for not being part of a minority. Right now the whole trajectory is about how quickly you can attain fame, status and the rewards that come with status.

"People on the X Factor all talk about how they want to make it. They want to be successful, make a name for themselves and make their family and friends proud of them."

Lawrence Lartey (left) and Jay-Z
Lawrence Lartey thinks rappers may inspire the next leaders of industry

The nature of hip-hop's roots, among black and Hispanic youngsters on the streets of the Bronx - a socially deprived part of New York - in the late 1970s - also meant that it was a subculture capable of being produced from very little - ie. recycled old records, breakdance and DIY art on walls.

For Eshun this DIY culture has rubbed off on successive generations of British youth, giving them the confidence to challenge authority and received wisdom both in the arts and everyday life.

"Young black people, disenfranchised people, found a way to articulate their hopes, desire and dreams on record. That desire spread to Britain, and that's not just about black people. That's what youth culture in Britain is about - to live as large and as fully as possible.

"This isn't just about reality TV. I see it in the clothes people wear and the way they speak. You are allowed to question authority and define yourself in terms that belong to you."

Had it not been for hip-hop, would Diversity have won Britain's Got Talent? Would Banksy be the revered artist he is today?
Lawrence Lartey

Eshun points out that in his role at the ICA - itself sited at the very heart of Establishment London, on the same road as Buckingham Palace - he often sees aspects of hip-hop in areas once reserved for so-called high culture, be they graffiti exhibitions in the art world, to street dance theatre at Sadler's Wells.

This is a theme taken up by journalist and youth culture commentator Lawrence Lartey.

"Had it not been for hip-hop, would Diversity have won Britain's Got Talent? If it wasn't for hip-hop would Banksy be the revered artist he is today? Hip-hop has given the world a cultural platform for expression," he says.

But both Lartey and the ICA's director agree that, as Eshun puts it, "rappers have, at times, become demonised figures", amid concerns that they encourage gang culture and reproduce misogynistic imagery.

Lartey, formerly the contributing editor at urban music magazine Touch, says such an analysis lacks subtlety and doesn't stand up to close scrutiny.

"Gang culture would exist without hip-hop," he says. He accepts that "certain elements", such as the "ostentatious pursuit for money" by some artists, can "exacerbate" the problem, but maintains that it's unfair to label the entire culture and its influence as mostly negative.

'Can do' attitude

He argues that, away from the most notorious culprits, other well known artists within the genre such as Talib Kweli, Common and The Roots produce music which is thoughtful and complex.

Lartey also suggests that the culture of "multitasking" which saw Will Smith and Ice Cube become film stars, and Jay-Z balance rapping with a fashion label, has encouraged a similar "can do" attitude in this country - possibly acting as an inspiration for the next generation of entrepreneurs, particularly youngsters who aren't from a wealthy background.

He points out that UK rapper Tynchy Stryder has "realised that selling T-shirts is as important as selling CDs". Similarly, Dizzee Rascal is among a number of artists to set up his own label - Dirtee Stank.

Perhaps more than any other British rapper, Sway Dasafo embodies the entrepreneurial zeal described by Lartey.

Boris by Banksy
Boris by Banksy, who has used hip-hop as a cultural platform for expression

The 27-year-old rapper and producer won the award for Best Hip-Hop Artist at the 2005 Mobo awards, ahead of established US artists, without a record deal. He developed an underground following by setting up his own label, DCypha Productions, and selling his CDs direct to fans.

Sway agrees with Eshun's assertion that "hip-hop has played a very important role in establishing a much more nuanced sense of who black people are within mainstream society".

He recalls growing up in the 80s and early 90s when there were far fewer black people in the media glare and argues that hip-hop has "played a part" in this cultural shift, which he feels has been aided by the internet and satellite television allowing people to "choose what they want to hear".

"Black culture is a lot more accepted now in society. Pop music now is urban music. Just look at the Top Ten and it's usually either hip-hop, hip-hop inspired or urban."

The rapper believes that the unforeseen consequence of successful black Britons looming large in pop culture is that it becomes commonplace for people to see the likes of June Sarpong and Ozwald Boateng in entertainment and fashion.

For Sway, who sees fans of various ethnicities at his gigs, the all pervasive nature of hip-hop in modern Britain also aids multiculturalism and eases class divisions.

"Everything has its time and right now it's all about hip-hop."

Below is a selection of your comments.

Interesting analysis. As an old punk, I grew up with the idea that to be truly creative, free, and earn respect, one had to disengage from, and rebel against, the establishment. This generation seeks to swallow it. I foresee a future backlash, when another generation will do as the punks did, and rebel against whatever is the cultural establishment of the time. And so it goes...
Rob, London, UK

I listen to quite a lot of hip-hop but I cant help but feel some of the messages that some rappers send out glorifying violence and regarding getting rich through guns and drugs has had a negative impact, particularly on young black men. It inspires a get rich quick approach that combined with the modern celebrity culture for some young people seems to put them off actually working hard to achieve their goals.
Stickwithit, Reading

An interesting, if flawed, article. Music has always provided the intelligent working class with a means of improving their life if other routes are blocked, no matter where they live. The concept of "selling out" only emerged with punk in the 70s. Before then, if a band made it, everyone was pleased for them to get as much out of "the suits" in the time available to them. I suspect it is much the same today.
Donald Barker, Waltham Cross, UK

"If it wasn't for hip-hop would Banksy be the revered artist he is today"? Banksy became revered because his work is clever, it has genuine depth lying beneath its surface as it satirises the society in which we live. Satire is often considered the highest form of humour, ergo his popularity across the spectrum: he took a street style and injected it with intense political acumen. I'm not absolutely certain how hip-hop comes into this, seeing as many of today's rappers wax about accruing wealth and and the delights of excessive consumption with no hint of irony whatsoever.
Jay, London

Banksy's work is stencilled. Using stencils in graffiti associated with hip hop is considered cheating. Banksy has far more in common with clever, thought-provoking jokes written on the wall of the gents long before hip hop came into being.
James Stuart, London

The majority of the populace only read about these fashions/trends/genres - call them what you will - and they only affect most people's lives as an eventual trickle down effect that is a pale shadow of the core subject. I was a teenager in the punk era and a young adult when hip-hop came to town. Neither made much of an impact on my life at the time, nor do they seem to figure in it much now. I'm betting the same is true for a lot of people my age. Oh and by the way chill - as in chill out? The phrase was in common use by jazz/swing followers in the 40s, the beatniks in the 50s and anyone who considered themselves hip from the 60s onwards. It most certainly wasn't created or popularised by hip-hop. Sheesh...
Penny Ward, London

It's true that a lot of hip hop is misogynistic but so is a lot of music, it is just hip hop is more honest/explicit about it. Women in most rock and roll songs (indie is not immune to this) tend to be at the catholic extremes, virginal or slut. What's sometime missing is how the religious backgrounds reinforce rap artist beliefs and their clans and groups are extended family units. The artists mentioned in the article are good examples of positive influence, but I would include Roots Manuva, MIA, Kanye West (minus his 'look at me' days) and Saul Williams as positive examples of hip hop.
M Mansell, Walsall

Maybe without hip-hop, there'd be less homophobia and fewer attacks on gay people. It's surely a source of shame in our society that hip-hop has always had a vein of homo-cidal hatred, given that so many hip-hop stars come from a community which should know through experience just how damaging it is to be on the receiving end of bigotry. Homophobia in rap music? It ain't free speech, it is hate speech.
David Whitehouse, London

I believe the most positive roots of hip-hop lie in the older stylings from people like a Tribe Called Quest or De La Soul, however as you mentioned in the article there are now modern (but unfortunately slightly more underground) artists creating far more positive music, lyrics and attitude which makes a good change and hopefully the attitudes of original hip hop will shine through again soon.
N Bramley, Manchester

It's obviously a good thing that "black culture" as you call it is represented in the UK so strongly. But the fact that it is a) written about now that it has been assimilated by white kids, and b) we are still talking about differences between black and white culture in 2009 leaves a bit of a bad taste in the mouth. We are, after all, all the same. Hip-hop has been huge in this country for over 20 years - it's just that now its been hijacked by the corporations and sanitised and diluted, same as they do to everything.
Ben Skinner, Leeds

I'm a working class boy and I HATE rap music, it has nothing to do with me. It doesn't say anything about me. I can't relate to it and never will. Music I can relate to is bands like Oasis, The Jam, The Enemy, Arctic Monkeys. Normal working class lads, who go out with mates to the pub or to the football. People seem to think that all young people listen to is rap and hip hop which is so wrong. All my mates listen to is real and talented music.
Joe, Bracknell

I think it's very sad when people say they HATE one form of music or make out that only the music they like is "real" or "talented". Open your eyes and ears and learn there is quality to be admired in all genres of music and that it's not just white boys with guitars who are "normal working class lads".
Neil, Liverpool

It would be a nicer looking country as the graffiti that goes along with it wouldn't be here. Women would be treated with a bit more respect and people would wear their clothes properly.
R Rowell, Walsall

A lot of the comments being left are confusing the difference between hip-hop as a culture and hip-hop as in music. Many aspects of modern culture wouldn't be around without it, the same as aspects wouldn't be around without punk, ska, northern soul, The Beatles etc. So to argue about its validity or dismiss it entirely really shows that some people's mentalities are as closed off now as they ever were. I'll agree that you'll always get the "violent lyrics" argument, because there is a point to it, but the world would still be violent with or without lyrics that condone or suggest it. And don't make me laugh with your indie boy comments, indie artists take pleasure in telling journos they emulate their idols (The Beatles etc). So how's that being more talented?
SteveTheHipHopLifer, Leicester

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