America's leading cultural export: Dopeness

By Eric Kelsey

George Steinbrenner is known as the Evil Emperor of Major League Baseball. Walking through most European cities, one can see that his reputation could be misunderstood. Despite the fact that his spending habits render two-thirds of the League uncompetitive, nearly every baseball cap worn in Europe pays homage to the New York Yankees. If one didn’t know any better, Steinbrenner could be grouped with Hollywood executives as one of the black knights of American cultural imperialism.

Yet, not all baseball caps worn are Yankees’ caps. There’s a smattering of Atlanta Braves, Detroit Tigers, Los Angeles Dodgers and St. Louis Cardinals. In other terms, these caps represent the centers of American hip-hop. Diddy is a Yankee, Snoop Dogg a Dodger, Nelly’s St. Louis, Eminem Detroit and Atlanta the Dirty South.

In the age when one fears cultural homogenizers like Parisian pickpockets, it’s never been more apparent that the world is awash in the endless pathways of black-American culture. Whether it’s the long-standing fascination with the blues and jazz, Turkish kids C-Walking down a Berlin subway platform, Chinese youths breaking in the middle of busy Xi’an, or two teenaged girls practicing their best Dave Chapelle, they all like to rock their Roc-a-Wear.

Sixteen years after Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power,” fighting the power has turned into the powers that be.

In that span of time hip-hop has made itself an international space and a language all its own in order to define it. Even when taking or writing about hip-hop, we are confined somewhat to its own self-prescribed language. When was the last time that anyone heard a rock song that was “off the hook?”

But it’s the hook that makes us wonder and create a new language. A term as catchall and vague defies classification. As with the improvisation of jazz musicians and our daily repertoires of “fucks,” “shits,” and “damns,” it’s up to the receiver to fill in meaning. What hook am I exactly off? How did I get here? It’s time to draw your own conclusions.

As far as my limited to non-existent research shows, every language has its way of talking around a subject. There’s the familiar work of Jacques Derrida and Harry G. Frankfurt’s essay “On Bullshit,” which posits that bullshit is a process and not an end. But hip-hop has taken American English to the point of no translation. When there’s finally a Norton Anthology to hip-hop, it will show that a two-minute rap can require lengthier annotations than the song itself.

The oral tradition of speaking around a subject can be traced back to Africa. In the American context, it found a new dynamism on the southern plantations of the 18th and 19th centuries. Forbidden to speak another language besides English in the presence of whites, slaves developed an elaborate coded language outside of the white-English comprehension.

In his pop-history book, Hip: The History, journalist Jim Leland illustrates this point by using an example of a slave preacher scolding a runaway slave. Under no circumstances could the preacher, the white-selected leader of the slave community, praise a slave for his flight around white ears. “Scolding,” then, took on the practice of praise. As Leland notes, slave preachers would scold, “You’ve been bad!” but really meaning good. Thus, “Your kicks are bad—and by that I mean good!”

This is perhaps the origin of contemporary American wordplay as heavily influenced by hip-hip. Thanks to Jay-Z, a question like, “Do you sell cocaine?” can be answered as, “No, but I do sell snowflakes by the o.z.” For the postmodern crowd it’s almost instant agency, a way to inscribe, distort and claim something as your very own.

The flows of those like Rakim or Missy regulate and distribute power through their personal flow and rhymes. Shock G takes words and imposes them upon a world to make sense of it subjectively. Rap’s MCs are Quixotes and Humberts representing the world not through maps but words—expressing a power and control over their own environment. In the larger picture, it’s the local colliding with the global in a perfect post-colonial conundrum.

Even if one argues that hip-hop is only empowered through the processes of Occidental hegemony, they must nonetheless tackle the way hip-hop confronts the status quo without trying to erase its historical links.

Perhaps we can thank the Throne of England for inadvertently evolving English through colonial endeavors. But my stark American realization bites harder than a goat at a petting zoo: slavery lies at the heart of American English’s suppleness. Opposed to a language like German, whose heads of state had few colonial pursuits, American English, the black-infused English, is the nucleus of American creativity—not paintbrushes, bridges, plumbing or washing machines.