Sunday, April 25, 2010

Spiritual Strains of Hiphop

Within the culture of hip-hop lies another element often ignored by mainstream society -- religion. There has always been the question of where the people of hip-hop get their energy from, and the answer is often umbrellaed as an energy that is used to fight freedom. However there is a deeper layer in the hip-hop community than the mere desire to be equal, and most people attribute it to a form of religion within hip-hop culture formed by hip-hop pioneer Afrika Bambaataa.

Before he became "The Godfather of Hip-Hop," Bambaataa was a leader of the Black Spades, a notorious Bronx-based gang. After he discovered hip-hop and Zulu, he made it a purpose to fuse the values as an Amazulu believer with the tools in hip-hop. He not only left a legacy consisting of great music like "Planet Rock" and "Looking for the Perfect Beat," but he also started the Universal Zulu Nation, an international group of b-boys and b-girls, DJs, emcees and graffiti artists who are dedicated to pushing the beliefs of Zulu and Afrocentrism through the artistic elements of hip-hop.

The Zulu Nation carries some similar and different religious values other major religions of the world have. For starters, they believe in no single god figure and that all major religions of an omni-God faith (i.e. Christianity, Islam and Judaism) are essentially the same. According to their first tenet, "We believe in one God, who is called by many names -- Allah, Jehovah, Yahweh, RA, Eloahim, Jah, God, The Most High, The Creator, The Supreme One... We will recognize them all to be the same one God."

Their tenets also stand against any form of racism, instead promoting peace among every human and the environment. It also references Supreme Mathematics as the foundation for "life, creation, everything." An example of Mathematics in hip-hop could be directed to the Wu-Tang Clan's debut album
Enter the Wu-Tang: 36 Chambers:

There is a story behind why the famous hip-hop group named their album 36 Chambers, and it is due to their value of mathematics. In Supreme Mathematics the number 9 means "to bring into existence" (also known as a debut). At the time of their debut album, Wu-Tang had 9 members, each members having 4 chambers of the heart (2 atria and 2 ventricles), and if you multiply 9 and 4 you get 36. Hence the title 36 Chambers, meaning a total of 36 chambers within the hearts of the Wu-Tang Clan.

Over its years, the Universal Zulu Nation began to take a more Afrocentric turn, embracing thoughts and ideas from the Five-Percent Nation of Islam. Specifically, the notion of overthrowing white supremacy was through centering their spiritual beings around the Black men, i.e. claiming the Black man as God. For example, if you listen to a lot of Wu-Tang's early music (in particular, 36 Chambers), they will greet each other like "Peace God" or "God, check it..." greeting each other as if they are a god because that is the belief of the Five-Percenters.

Other famous hip-hop artists with ties to the Universal Zulu Nation and the Five-Percent Nation of Islam:
  1. Eric B. & Rakim
  2. KRS-One
  3. X-Clan
  4. GURU
Recently, the Universal Zulu Nation joined forces with the Temple of Hip-hop to form the Declaration of Peace. This declaration proclaims hip-hop as a nonviolent culture that seeks "a foundation of health, love, awareness, wealth, peace and prosperity for ourselves, our children and their children's children, forever."

A good book that explains everything religion-wise in hip-hop is "The Gospel of Hiphop: The First Instrument" written by KRS-One. It is essentially a bible aimed at the hip-hop culture using the same principles established by the Universal Zulu Nation and the artistic elements of hip-hop as tools for social and political change. It is a book that explores the science and religion of hip-hop.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Spectacular Vernacular: The Development of Hiphop Rhetoric

Hip-hop music has always been dubbed "poetry in motion" over its years of existence. The "poetry in motion" saying holds two meanings: rhymes flowing over beats and the constant change of the rhetoric in hip-hop culture.

Language develops over time, and no matter what culture you live in, words change meanings all the time. Hip-hop is no different. Actually hip-hop, along with many other subcultures in America, is a heavy influence of the changes in mainstream society. From words like "bomb" to "bling," we've witnessed the definition and context of hip-hop's vocabulary used by almost everyone in America. "Bling" rapidly became the term to use for luxurious items such as jewelry and cars for everyone, but not until it was used in the song "Bling Bling" by the Cash Money Millionaires (seeing the video will show you why it was so influential).

Take Urban Dictionary for example. Although this "dictionary" is the Wikipedia of vocabulary - with its user-created content, which makes the words and their definitions exaggerated - it is a great example of how influential hip-hop culture has been in developing language for all of America. How?

Well, to credit Urban Dictionary, and the development of the vernacular of hip-hop, you have to understand hip-hop is all about representing. It's always been about how you represent your neighborhood - from the neighborhood's style of music to the type of language they use - through the artistic elements hip-hop has to offer. Like the post about chopped and screwed music in Texas, their style of music is slow and relaxed. So their style of rhyme and vernacular, just as it has been before the days of hip-hop, is slow and drawn out.

Bringing this back to Urban Dictionary, the site has over a million submissions per day from people of various backgrounds. And if you notice the definitions (including all of the ridiculously sexual ones), they always let you know what region of the country the word comes from. For example, if you look up the word "shorty" you'll get over a dozen results that come from over a dozen regions of the world. The definitions vary from culture to culture, especially within the culture of hip-hop. Like in the South, "shorty" means a fine, attractive girl. In the North, "shorty" means a young man new to the streets. In Australia, according to Urban Dictionary, "shorty" means a way to insult someone smaller than you.

Basically, the rhetoric of hip-hop is ever-changing with the time for the region that it serves. And as it changes, so does the rhetoric of mainstream American society. Language can be a never-ending cycle, and the cycle is often sped up by the culture of hip-hop.

Thursday, April 8, 2010


In hip-hop, all good things never come to an end!

Here's the scoop: I graduate this June, and I would definitely love to see this blog for ACRN continue. One important thing about hip-hop is dropping knowledge, as well as carrying on tradition, so I am seeking some writers who are knowledgeable about hip-hop that want to post pieces on this site on anything hip-hop.

There aren't many requirements to this job; in fact, it is more fun than anything! Your only duty is to post one blog - whether it is a small, 200-word joint, or a piece of media, or an elaborate article - per week. This is not a paid position, but it is a great way to get some experience out there working for a radio station and online magazine, plus it'll reap some great clips to add to your resume.

If you have any questions about this position, feel free to shoot me an email me at, or the ACRN blog editor Krisi Nehls at!

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Hiphop's 5th Element: Kickin' Knowledge

As mentioned before, hip-hop culture is typically broken down into four elements: emceeing, breaking, DJing and graffiti. Throughout this blog we've examined these artistic aspects and how much they have impacted the globe. However, we haven't discussed one other important element in hip-hop culture: Knowledge.

Knowledge, an element made by Afrika Bambaataa and the Universal Zulu Nation, is the glue that holds the artistic elements within the context of hip-hop. 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.

Knowledge is the element that explains the difference between mainstream society and the hip-hop community. It helps the people of hip-hop learn about and embrace their differences, from language to physical abilities. It teaches the hip-hop community how to properly express themselves for the entire world to experience.

Knowledge can be seen in numerous ways. It explains the reason why folks who are in tune with hip-hop can rhyme over any beat about political and social issues. For example, if you put a rapper on the spot and ask them to rap about the health care reform, and this person says one line about health care and seven lines about how great they can rap, then that person lacks knowledge.

Another way knowledge is portrayed is in pieces drawn by graf writers. The famous "Tuff City" piece by Skeme is not just a picture showing off the skills, but a story of corruption in the eyes of a then 17-year-old. A true graf artist won't stop at writing his or her name in the subway train. They want everybody to know who they are and their story.

In essence, that's what knowledge is. It is the element that teaches the hip-hop community about their identity and how to express it. The entire concept of knowledge dates long before hip-hop; it lies within its roots and sheds light on why hip-hop is so powerful.