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VOL 3. NO. 33 Monday, August 27 - Sunday, September 2, 2001
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Suburbs & Ciphers (Part I)
To some, the term "hip-hop culture" has become a nonsensical term - even to those who once participated in just about every facet of it. There are quite a few timeworn b-boys and b-girls that look to vanquish all traces of their back spinning, fader bending, can rattling and microphone abusing past. Part of this denial stems from the fact that what we witness in current "hip-hop culture" is so unlike what we were accustomed to. We didn't grow up calling it hip-hop culture. Honestly, I can't recall what we called our activities. We just simply kept it all separated. Whatever you liked doing most - whether it was DJ-ing, Graffiti, Breaking or Emceeing - you called it what it was.

It was also a racially harmonious culture - race truly didn't matter. If you look at the early hip-hop films such as "Breakin'," "Beat Street" and other Hollywood hip-hop films, the dancing contortionists known as "breakers" were multifarious in hue. Given its booming popularity at the time, it made sense that the culture would cross most racial lines. As the 80s roared on, hip-hop culture and its racial makeup became less mixed and more segregated. The culture's musical face has mostly been one of African descent since its inception. That much is still true in today's hip-hop. Most of our current heavy-hitters, save for a select few, are black. Yet there exists this insular sense of division - and it's as simple as black and white.

The term, "backpacker" is one that some may deem offensive while others welcome it. Simply put, it is a nickname given to those hip-hop fans whose passion for the music shuns mostly all commercial hip-hop releases - almost to a fault. The backpacker mostly dresses in loose fitting musical group shi rts and usually embodies the look of a morose college with a near empty backpack. Walkmans and portable players of all types are the requisite - and an insatiable appetite for having the latest, most obscure releases before all else. The backpacker hangs out in Internet chat rooms and message boards, arguing points until they too become pointless. The backpacker usually has more money to burn on music rather than food. The mentality of this fellow is simply to either be down with the underground program or be singled out as the enemy. It used to be you just saw them hanging in small packs at various hip-hop shows. Now, they've cornered themselves into cyberspace and dark enclaves throughout these various venues. The oddest thing about this phenomenon is that most of the "packers" are white, middle to upper class folks who seemed to care a bit too much. But that isn't a problem; it's just a fact I've observed. I wouldn't say that what I've typed here is law. I do not encourage the use of this term; it's just what is most commonly used.

I haven't been to a show lately where indie or lesser-known acts took the stage and the club wasn't packed to the nines with the suburbs' finest b-boys. This isn't to say that all of the "packers" I've seen are white boys with attitudes. Some of the members of Virginia's Team Demolition are black and don't deny the fact they are from the "Burbs". Members of underground favorites, Souls Of Mischief, aren't all from the hood. Three of that group's members split time between college courses, recording music and tours. It's possible to be a part of hip-hop culture and still have a posh zip code. I wonder, though, if the so-called packer set realizes how exclusive they've become. I have many friends and associates of all color - some are big hip-hop fans and some aren't. I've noticed that my affinity for some "aboveground" hip-hop artists has made me a bit of an anomaly. I feel out of place with them at times. I've always purchased it all - when I could afford to. It didn't matter if they were glitzy commercial or dusty underground. I wanted it on my shelves. If I thought it was good, I didn't care what my pals thought. I never considered myself a packer nor have I thought myself "elite" in my hip-hop knowledge. I know quite a lot about the culture. But that isn't anything one should feel makes them superior to other hip-hop fans.

The hip-hop collective Anticon released an EP titled "Hip Hop Music For The Advanced Listener" in 1999. This EP spawned an LP, "Music For The Advancement Of Hip-Hop". The artists that make up the collective, to my understanding, are all middle-class white men. Their race isn't a grave matter, however. I'm a huge fan of Irish-born rapper/singer Everlast. I've been following Eminem's career since 97. I loved the Beasties Boys in the 80s. I think El-P of Company Flow fame is one of the better producers and MCs out today. But for some black fans, they think this is signaling the end of black folks' dominance in hip-hop. Call me ignorant here, but I still see more black representation in Jazz (and hip-hop) than I do white. That is if you don't count the jazz styles of Kenny G and Candy Dulfer. If that's the jazz that whites are taking then Kenny, Boney James, and company can have it. In hip-hop, there's still plenty of room for everyone.

Anticon's music is a mix of good, bad, weird and flat-out ambitious. I didn't get it at first, and much of it I still don't. That seems to be the thing most underground "artsy" groups do. Confuse the heck out of your audience; make them work hard to understand you. Label it "art" and just let it flow, man. It's almost like the indie movement is our generation's beatnik/hippie era. Only the "cool" are in on the joke. Only the worthy can sit at the table of the knapsack gods. A lot of the net-packer favorites are just simply hard to get. If you've been reading this column, you've read that I carry my Walkman and sling pack everywhere. I think my preference of hip-hop tends to lean towards the lyrical rather than musical. I'm a well-read kind of guy so I'm impressed with an MC who uses words like "epicurism" and "virulence". Those kinds of words come across well over minimalist beats and nicely eq-d vocals. That isn't always the case with the smaller acts. In Anticon's case, some of the vocals are so painfully forced or delivered - there is almost no regard given to rhythm or cadence. Still, I'm glad the art is advancing on all levels. Kudos to them and other like-minded acts.

The suburban b-boy is alive and well. Most of the b-boy crews (breakdancers) are white or Asian. I haven't seen a black breaker since...who knows? All of the graf writers I meet are young white kids. All but one of the turntablists I know is non-black. Back in my day (the days of old, of course), we all got down together. That, if anything, is the most disturbing thing. The togetherness is gone. It's become this "us vs. them" situation - the commercial against the underground. The indie against the major label. It used to be just good vs. bad. At a local Hieroglyphics show I attended last year, I heard something rather disturbing. There was a group of white, supposedly down-ass b-boys in a cipher rhyming. When it was over, I heard one of the kids say, "It's a lot more black guys here than I would've expected. This is more our thing, right?" I walked over to him and asked him why he uttered those words. With the straightest face, this cat tells me that we (black people) abandon anyone that shows skill and that we'd rather party than check for skills. I won't lie; I wanted to knock this kid silly. But I realize I was a bit too old to be scuffling over his opinion - his statement not based in facts. I wondered if others shared his views in his suburban brotherhood. If so, I'm saddened by that.

So what is really going on? Is it theirs or ours?

To comment on this or any article by D.L. Chandler email confluence@metroconnection.info.

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