‘literature (it would be better, henceforth, to say writing), by refusing to assign to the text (and to the world as text) a “secret:’ that is, an ultimate meaning, liberates an activity which we might call counter-theological, properly revolutionary, for to refuse to arrest meaning is finally to refuse God and his hypostases, reason, science, the law.’ – Roland Barthes, The Death of the Author
Hip Hop originated in the block parties of the South Bronx: an expression of subaltern defiance against a society which, seventy years into a century of civil rights campaigns, still left its Black population struggling against poverty, inequality, and institutional racism. The representation of social struggle works its way as a thread through the history of the genre from its beginnings, with ‘The Message’, by Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five, detailing life in the projects, through N.W.A’s exposition of police discrimination in ‘Fuck tha Police’, to more tender depictions of family life in Tupac’s ‘Dear Mama’ and, more recently, ’25 Bucks’ by Danny Brown. In many ways it reflects trends in ‘postcolonial’ literatures, subverting cultural hegemony by rejecting linguistic norms. The precedent set by early MCs of incorporating street dialects into their lyrics along with the incorporation of these dialects into more mainstream vernacular, exemplifies Homi Bhabha’s ideas on hybridity as a challenge to the essentialist authority of mainstream language. Similarly, the ‘four letter words’ endlessly referenced by Fox news commentator Bill O’Reilly, who has famously started feuds with the likes of Snoop Dogg and Jay-Z, and labelled 50 Cent as a ‘pinhead’ in his ‘Pinheads and Patriots’ feature, directly challenge the traditional moral values held within the discourse of white America: a discourse which insists that the word ‘fuck’ is a more important source of moral corruption than poverty. The backlash of right wing commentators like O’Reilly against the ‘life of guns, violence, drugs and disrespect of women’ is the rage of Caliban, looking in the mirror and seeing that this mess is his own fault.
While postmodernism’s rejection of ultimate meaning may at first seem bizarre or depressing, we see in the epigraph from Barthes that it in fact liberates us from the authoritarian voices of God and the law. Much of art has resigned itself to the idea that all art is recycled material: none truly original. This liberating rejection of meaning has been present since the beginnings of hip hop, in its constant quotation and re-contextualisation. The first hip hop song to achieve commercial success, ‘Rapper’s Delight’ by The Sugarhill Gang, used a 16 bar sample from Chic’s ‘Good Times’, along with rapping (influenced by the griots of West Africa and Jamaican toasting – boasts and political commentary in rapping dates back to the 19th century in Trinidadan music). This process of sampling, particularly of disco in the early years, is one of the staple elements of hip hop. To take a few songs by Will Smith as examples: ‘Miami’, sampled from ‘And The Beat Goes On’ by The Whispers; ‘Men In Black’, sampled from ‘Forget Me Nots’, by Patrice Rushen; ‘Getting Jiggy Wit It’, sampled from ‘He’s The Greatest Dancer’, by Sister Sledge. This intertextuality extends, particularly more recently, to the lyrics, which often compound a plethora of references to popular culture and other hip hop songs, re-contextualising meanings and satirising the image that the genre has built around itself. We need only listen as far A$AP Rocky or ‘Niggaz in Paris’ to see this, but one of the best examples, for me, is the 2011 remix of ‘Huzzah!’ by Mr Muthafuckin’ eXquire. It begins with an intro parodying P Diddy’s opening line in Craig Mack’s ‘Flava in ya Ear’ remix, replacing Diddy’s, ‘Bad Boys, come out and play’ (itself a reference to the 1979 Hollywood movie, Warriors, and the Bad Boy record label on which it was released), with ‘breastmilk, you make my day’, (referencing a scene mocking P Diddy in Chappelle’s Show). While the old theme of social mobility developed, with the commercialisation of the genre, into an obsession with wealth for it’s own sake, Heems mocks this with the line, ‘I’m stupid as shit, but I’m ‘bout to be rich’. He goes on to take Raekwon’s line from C.R.E.A.M., ‘No question I would speed for cracks and weed,/ The combination made my eyes bleed’, bathetically turning it into, ‘I’m at the Pizza Hut, I’m at the Taco Bell,/ The combination made my eyes bleed.’ This playfully parodic pastiche celebrates the genre’s history, while gently satirising the ways in which it has moved from an expression of the struggle of a minority, to latching onto the negative consequences of violence, greed and misogyny, without considering the socially determining factors from which they arose.