Hip-Hop: Lets take an even further look back

Blu Boy - @thisisbluboy 

In order to understand Hip-Hop and it’s cultural significance, one must not only understand African-American culture. However one must also understand the cultures that captured and enslaved Africans that were forcibly shipped from their home continent, over to the Caribbean islands, the United States and South American countries.

When looking at the origins of Hip-Hop it often said that the genre started in the early 1970s in New York. This may be true in terms of Hip-Hop as a counter culture, however the art of rapping, in one form or  another has been present within the African diaspora. The earliest form of “rapping” can be traced back to 13th century West African Empires . This tradition is known as a ‘Griot’. A Griot is a storyteller, praise singer, musicians and most importantly oral historians. In order to excel as lyricists, musicians and orators, they would trained under a strict schedule enforced by their predecessor. In  West African society the role of the Griot was (& still is) to tell and memorise the histories and genealogies of the empire they came. They’re were charged with the task of memorising thousands of poems of the predecessors as well as their own. Hip-hop artists embody the purpose of these oral traditions of keeping a verbal record of their own regions history by recording brutally honest lyrics that reflect the aggressive environment from which they come from. Nas’s song ‘NY State of mind part II’ serves as an example of this in the opening of the first verse using descriptive language he paints a picture for the listener stating “Broken glass in the hallway, blood stained floors. Neighbours, look at every bag you bring through your doors. Lock the top lock” (I am, 1999). With those lyrics placed at the beginning of the song, it is a possibility that Jones wrote them from the perspective a young pessimistic Black male in the US living in an economically impoverished stricken area (also known as the “ghetto”) more specifically housing projects. Where there may not be high paying employment opportunities. Therefore some residents may engage in illegal activity such as selling drugs. In order to make a stable and reliable financial income. However this creates violence between rival drug dealers, who may either rob each other for profit or murder each other over territory, Nas may be alluding to that as a possibility of how the floors in the hallway became blood stained. So despite the aesthetics of the of the Griot & a “rapper” being completely different at first glance as one plays drums, Kora & goes through copious amounts of formal training. Both may seem to contrast each other but they both 1) tell the history of regions. 2) Give truthful stories from their cultural perspective. 

 However that is not the only pre-colonial African influence in the genre. Cincinnati university professor of African studies Amuzie Chimezie stayed that an African game by the name ‘Ikocha Nkocha’ which roughly translates as ‘to make disparaging remarks’ is played by the Igbo people of Nigeria. The game is often played during the evening. Whether or not this game has any origin within the long standing oral traditions of West Africa is unfounded. Therefore I have to state that a majority of the material discussed in this section of the article is purely Chimezie’s hypothesis. The participants of the game are normally adolescents, it is played with parents, siblings, and other relatives acting as interactive audience members as well as, in a sense judges. As they decide which of the participants is outwitting the other. The players attempt to verbally outdo each other in terms of insults. References towards the opposing members family members and relatives may be used. Chimezie’s theory is that Ikocha Nkocha was cultural carry over from Africa during the transatlantic slave trade. The term ‘The Dozens’ is derived from the slave trade, this because slaves who may have either had an illness, suffered the loss of a limb or anything else that could be considered a ‘defective trait’. Which would in turn bring the price value of those particular slaves down. So in order to still make as much profit as they could acquire. These slaves would be round up and sold by the dozen. Hip-Hop legend KRS ONE stated: ‘Slaves were sold one by one, unless there was a defect. Their leg was hurt, an arm was severed, (they may have had) mental issues. (They) maybe sick. Those people were sold by the dozen. So slaves would start going back & fourth with each other saying “well your heads bigger than your neck & that makes you a lolly pop” “your mothers is so this this, I can do that” and everybody would laugh at you, (which) eventually became the dozens.’

If the dozens was a cultural carry over from West Africa as Chimezie hypothesises. It can be theorised that, the game was passed down from one generation to the next. In order to preserve what little they could of their own culture. Hip hop historian and journalist Dave cook in the hip hop documentary ‘beef’ states: ‘mama jokes. Where the object of ridicule was the master who didn’t know the slave would just be substituting somebody’s mama. To have him be the object of the joke. H. Rap Brown wrote a book called “die nigger die”  and that book outlines what he was doing in the 50’s and he describes people standing around in a circle. What sounds like a cypher today. Where you have a bunch young brothers rhyming against each other.’ 

Though this quote doesn’t confirm whether or not the the dozens is a carry on from Ikocha Nkocha. At best it suggests that Africans who were brought to America, used this tradition to which was possibly handed down from their parents as away to simultaneously keep part of the African culture and subliminally insult their oppressors. Both Ikocha Nkocha & the dozens are both practically identical to battle rap as all three are a contest between two (or more) contestants where each tried to outwit the other(s) using insults and rhyming (the dozens and battle rap). The form of battle rap has evolved since its beginning during the 1970s from both competitors using nursery rhymes, and acting as slick tongued comedians. In order to invoke a reaction from the crowd, to the two combatants using intricate rhyme schemes, and metaphors within their insults. As a result of this rap battles have went from rhymes being made up in the spot (popularly called freestyles). To the performance of pre-written verses, as rap battles are currently pre-booked. The winner is usually decide by the spectators. 


The most potent example of story telling hip hop that takesbthe the story telling traditions of the Griot  would be Nas’s debut album ‘illmatic’ and doesn’t only use descriptive language like his predecessors (the furious five, Rakim) particularly on the 7th track ‘one love’ in which Nas raps as if he is writing a letter to his friend who has recently been incarcerated. Giving his friend details of occurrences of their neighbourhood. In the first verse he states to one friend that he’s in his thoughts, despite being out of sight and behind bars. The song also alluded to the fact that a large number of young African American males are targeted unjustly by the judicial system, and how that negatively impacts the dynamic of the African American family and house holds. Q-Tip who produced the song states: ‘“heard he looks like ya/ why don’t ya lady write ya?” That right there if you examine those two bars and just look at what happens, when we get incarcerated, you know, you’re dealing with the African American, a young African American disease almost. It’s incarcerating black men. Not only do you incarcerate them in a physical sense but you incarcerate, you emasculate them, you incarcerate their manhood, their identity, their spirit. There’s a thing that we say in the hood “yo she’s a good bitch, she gon’ bear with you get locked. She’s not fucking around. She’s galvanising all your people, making sure you’re getting visits. She’s holding you down!” But when you’re black in America, and you’re in the hood, no income, hard to find a job. Crime all around you, there’s a cloud of dysfunction that just givers over that young sister. So that line “I heard he looks like ya, why don’t ya lady write ya” shows how the prison system, also destroys, you know. Union and love and family. You know what I’m saying? It destroys promise and hope. Not only for the person that’s incarcerated, but those people who’re attached to them on the outside.’ 

As Q-Tip states the song highlights the issues of young black men being unjustly targeted, by the police and judicial systems alike and unfortunately is still as relevant today as it was when Nas wrote it (between 1993 & 1994). However Griots and rappers are not the same infact one could argue that Rappers & hiphop artists are anti-griots as grits served and performed to kings and the rich, whilst hiphop mcs ya best expose and oppose power (let’s not count Kanye sucking up to trump). This has been a very abridged version of an in depth study on hip hop and it’s origins that have previously been unmentioned in a mainstream narrative.