Notes Of A Hip Hop Head

by Kevin Powell

Dissident Voice

December 16, 2002



This thing, this energy, ghetto angels christened "hiphop" in the days of way back is the dominant cultural expression in America, and on the planet, today.  You think not, then ask yourself why business interests as diverse as McDonald's, Ralph Lauren, Sprite, Nike, and the National Basketball Association have all, during the course of the past decade and a half, bear-hugged the language, the fashion, the attitude of hiphop to authenticate and sell their products.  Or why, if you are a parent, your child, be you a resident of the Fifth Wardin Houston or an inhabitant of Beverly Hills, routinely strikes a hiphop pose and dons mad baggy clothes when leaving home for school on the daily, or when cruising a mall on the weekends.  The rapper Ice-T said it best near the beginning of the 1990s: "Hiphop is simply the latest form of a 'home invasion' into the hearts and minds of young people, including a lot of White youth."  Ice-T should be crowned a prophet for that proclamation.  Sure, hiphop still rocks the boulevards but it is so much a part of American culture-hell, it is American culture, with all the positives and negatives attached to that reality-that even the bourgeois reach for it and stake claims to it nowadays.


Therefore we can comfortably say that hiphop is bigger than ever.  (If bigger is better is another essay altogether.) Just as we have witnessed the globalization of the economy, hiphop is global, making heads nod from Cleveland to Tokyo to Paris to Havana to Capetown, South Africa.  Who knew that this thing, this energy, started on the streets, in the parks, of New York City, circa the late 1960s through the decadence of the 1970s, by working-class African Americans, West Indians, and Latinos, would surpass jazz, rock 'n' roll, and R&B in popularity and come to be the gritty, in-your-face soundtrack of a generation, of an era?  From where did hiphop emerge?  Think institutionalized White racism as the midwife for poor neighborhoods, poor school systems, poor health care, poor community resources, and poor life prospects.  Think the United States government's slow but sure abandonment of its "war on poverty" programs (sending more money, instead, to that war in Vietnam) as the Civil Rights Movement came to a screeching halt.  Think the material and spiritual failures of that Civil Rights Movement: the disappearing acts of leaders of color, the fragmentation of communities of color due to integration, lost industrial jobs and new migration patterns, and colored middle-class folk jetting from the 'hood for good.  Think the New York City fiscal crisis of the early to mid-1970s, and the effects of that money crunch on impoverished residents of color in the Bronx, Harlem, and other parts of the metropolitan New York City area.  Think of slashed art, music, dance, and other recreational programs in inner-city areas due to that fiscal crisis-homies had to make due with what they had, for real.  Add these factors together, multiply by, um, field hollers, work songs, the blues, Cab Calloway, zoot suiters, bebop, jitterbuggers, low-riders, doo-wop harmonizers, jump-rope rhymers, lyrical assassins like the Last Poets and Muhammad Ali, Nuyorican salsa and soul, Jamaican dub poetry, Afro-Southern sonic calls and responses in the form of James Brown, the wall carvings and murals of Africans, Latinos, Native Americans, and the drum, the conga, the pots and pans, being beat beat beaten here there everywhere and it all equals hiphop.  Part of a continuum: magical, spiritual, a miracle sprung from the heavy bags and hand-me-down rags of those deferred dreams Langston Hughes had sung about years before.


Maybe it is no coincidence, then, that 1967 is not only the year that Langston Hughes, the great documentarian of ghetto life, died, but also the year that Clive Campbell, aka Kool Herc, came from Jamaica to New York City, to become widely regarded as a trailblazing DJ and one of the founding fathers of hiphop.  Maybe it is no coincidence that the last political act Martin Luther King Jr. attempted-his famed "Poor People's Campaign," which essentially ended when he was murdered on April 4, 1968-was aimed at the same subgroup-and their children-who would ultimately drive hiphop culture.  Maybe it is no coincidence that when Marvin Gaye asked the question on his landmark 1971 album What's Going On "Who really cares?"  and, later, pleads "Save the children" he was talking about, well, these forgotten children, the "throwaways" of post-Civil Rights America, who would merely need courage, imagination, one mic, two turntables, spraypaint and magic markers, and cardboard or the linoleum from their momma's kitchen floors, to not only make a new art, but a cultural revolution fueled by four core elements, in no particular order: the DJ, the MC, the dance component, and the graffiti writing.


Accordingly, we have not been able to avoid dreaming of a hiphop America since, nor the ubiquitous image of a b-boy standing in a b-boy stance.  Ain't no secret that hiphop is a boys' club.  No denying, either, that the ladies have been in the house from jump.  Pioneers include graf legend Lady Pink, Sha Rock (from the seminal rap group Funky Four Plus One More), the Mercedes Ladies, and entrepreneur Sylvia Robinson, whose Sugar Hill Records label scored hiphop's first commercial hit with the Sugar Hill Gang's "Rapper's Delight" in 1979. And, yup, gotta speak it as I see it: "Rapper's Delight" shamelessly borrowed Chic's "Good Times" rhythms and straight jacked the Cold Crush Brothers for lyrics.  So while a momentous disc, not mad original.  And the rest, as they say, is a very short herstory, with names like MC Lyte, Dee Barnes, Lauryn Hill, Fatima Robinson, Gangsta Boo, DJ Kuttin Kandi, and Missy Elliott.  Exceptions to the rules, these women have been blips on the testosterone screen.  It be like that this go-round because, I submit, there is a direct link between '60s souls on ice like Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael, H.  Rap Brown, Huey Newton, and Eldridge Cleaver, and all that posturing by brothers around the way-the afros, the dark shades, the black turtlenecks and black leather jackets worn, even in the summer, for the right mix of rage and cool-at hiphop's break of dawn.  In fact I think it kinda deep that the 1960s marked the first time that rank-and-file Black people, especially Black men, used the word to tell it like it is, holding back nothing.  Replicate Nat Turner by thousands of suddenly fearless coloreds and you begin to understand them was some angry, signifying Negroes.


Kinda deep, again, that the Civil Rights era literally overlaps with hiphop 's first boom-baps and public-surface scrawlings.  Might it be possible that them brothers scared White America so bad that as the movement was ending it was them same brothers who were disproportionately left behind?  I'm not declaring brothers got it worse than sisters-nope, not me; we got it bad equally, just differently-but I am declaring that it is wild, when you really stop to ponder this, that Blackbrownbeigebutterpecan men, principally the younger ones, have always been viewed as dangerous by this country and that a concentrated effort to hush these cats through police force and a whole bunch of other things you can find in those FBI files did leave a whole bunch of Black cats, and their Latino brethren, invisible, unseen, gone, with the sounds of silence clanging in the air.  So hiphop, to me, is about these males, with names like Lee Quinones, Seen, Crazy Legs, Dondi, Afrika Bambaataa, Cowboy, and Pete DJ Jones, shining light on their invisibility.  Think a merger of Ellison's Invisible Man, Wright's Native Son, and Thomas's Down These Mean Streets and you begin to get the complexities of the heads who have populated the hiphop nation.


So, yeah, no question, hiphop owes a debt to the best and worst of being so dude-centered.  On the upside it is about male-bonding, autobiographical vulnerability, reportage you don't see on your local news, and, if you are truly willing to listen, some of the best speak-to-the-times poetry this side of Shakespeare, the Beats, and Sonia Sanchez.  I cannot tell you how many White devotees have told me they knew nothing about Blacks and Latinos until they began absorbing hiphop culture.  Nor have I ignored the throngs of Asian hiphoppers who assiduously study and manifest the culture better than the Black and Latino folks who birthed it.  It is an organic cultural (self) education for insiders and outsiders and self-empowerment in the face of impossible odds.  At its worst hiphop serves up some of the most destructive and myopic definitions of manhood this side of all the caveman-like things Mick Jagger, Sid Vicious, and other drugged-up and oversexed rockers said and did in their prime.  Indeed, like rock 'n' roll, hiphop sometimes makes you think we men don't like women much at all, except to objectify them as trophy pieces or, as contemporary vernacular mandates, as "baby mommas," "chickenheads," or "bitches." But just as it was unfair to demonize men of color in the '60s solely

as wild-eyed radicals when what they wanted, amidst their fury, was a little freedom and a little power, today it is wrong to categorically dismiss hiphop without taking into serious consideration the socioeconomic conditions (and the many record labels that eagerly exploit and benefit from the ignorance of many of these young artists) that have led to the current state of affairs.  Or, to paraphrase the late Tupac Shakur, we were given this world, we did not make it. Which means hiphop did not breed ghettos, poverty, single mothers, fatherlessness, rotten school systems, immorality, materialism, self-hatred, racism, sexism, and the prison-industrial complex that is capturing literally thousands of young Black and Latino males and females each year.


What hiphop has spawned is a way of winning on our own terms, of us making something out of nothing.  Hiphop is a mirror for the world to look at itself, for America to take a good look at the children it has neglected, to see the misery it has been avoiding or covering up. And, no, it is not pretty nor pristine.  Hiphop is the ghetto blues, urban folk art, a cry out for help.  The same cries that once emanated from the mouths of a Bessie Smith, a Robert Johnson, a Billie Holiday, a Big Momma Thornton, a Muddy Waters.  Hiphop is rooted, to a large extent, in traditional African cultures and the Black American musical journey.  Thus, no big surprise that the face of hiphop's songs has mainly been Black, although others have grabbed the mic as well. Hiphop is an unabashed embrace of the past, sampling any and everything at its disposal, the world clearly its altar of worship. Booker T.  Washington once urged his peeps to cast their buckets where they were.  Hiphop, in its purest form, is about ghetto youth casting their buckets into dirty sewer water and coming up with hope, new identities, fly names, def jams, acrobatic dance moves, cutting-edge art, and, if we are lucky enough, something other than lint in our pockets, anger and confusion on our brows, and hunger in our bellies.


Given the mass appeal and multiple layers of hiphop, you can understand why the images of Ernie Paniccioli are so incredibly vital. I call Paniccioli the dean of hiphop photographers because I don't know of any other person who is as uniquely qualified-and positioned-to dramatize the culture as Paniccioli is.  Nor do I know of any other photographer who has single-handedly built a visual vocabulary for hiphop as Ernie Paniccioli has.  Recall James Van Der Zee's majestic portraits of Harlem in the 1920s and you begin to sense the breadth of Paniccioli's life-calling.  We cannot think of that Harlem without thinking of Van Der Zee, and we cannot think of the first three decades of hiphop history without referencing an Ernie Paniccioli print.  His art and his personal saga are that intertwined with hiphop's evolution.


For here is a man spit from the pig guts of New York City in 1947, predating hiphop by twenty years; a man who was not supposed to have had much of a life because of the price of the ticket given to him; a man who learned the art of war, during his formative years, on the concrete floors, in the libraries and museums, during his socialization amongst hustlers and musicians, gang members and street dancers, and as a sailor in the United States Navy.  That Paniccioli is Native American, yea, suggests he understood, the moment he could decipher the world, what it meant to be marginalized and an outsider in his own country.


It is this outsider status that has propelled Paniccioli's craft-first his sketches and collages while in the navy during the 1960s, then his photography beginning in the early 1970s.  We know that some of America's greatest artists-Zora Neale Hurston, Thornton Dial Sr., Prince Paul, to name three of thousands-have been folks beyond the margins for much, if not all, of their natural lives.  That marginalization is a wide canvas on which they interpret their realities and conceive new possibilities.  An artist cannot do this if he/she ain't got what painter Radcliffe Bailey labels "grit."  And an artist cannot do this if he/she has not been touched, cosmically, by ancestral hands, to feel, to see, to be, freely.  Amiri Baraka said it best: All important art is self-taught and the most significant artist is the one who feels he/she has nothing to lose and everything to gain from a relationship with the soul, with the community, with the universe.  By self-taught I only mean that Paniccioli is an eternal student of politics, the visual arts, literature, religion and spirituality, science and mathematics, the JFK assassination, music, love, peace, and war.  Academia could not have molded an Ernie Paniccioli just as no university molded Gordon Parks.  There are artists who do it because they are told to do so by an instructor; and there are artists, like Parks and Paniccioli, who do it, and have done it, because their work is blood, bone, breath, to them.  Or: more often than not school trains us to be something for someone else. Self-education demands we train ourselves for ourselves and for the people.  Hiphop is a self-taught art because the MCs, the DJs, the graffiti writers, and the dancers nurtured themselves, and each other.


So as Paniccioli was learning how to use a camera, he found himself recording the biggest cultural phenomenon since rock 'n' roll. Paniccioli knew it intuitively because he had seen Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Bob Dylan, live.  It was the same power, the same passion, the same rebels without a pause.  And like the pioneering hiphoppers, Paniccioli's work was not sanitized.  When you look at his photographs you see warmth, camaraderie, texture, detailed composition, an insider's raw, painstaking truth.  Just as Edward Curtis's iconic offerings of Native Americans presented them as regal, proud, defiant, so too does Paniccioli's work portray hiphop society as human, dignified, remarkable, as survivors, winners, and losers, all of it brewed as uncut funk.  It does not matter if a shot is at the dance club or in an alley, at a video shoot or in a studio, Paniccioli's pictures are murals, snapshots of history, reflections on urban American fashion trends, and love-soaked tributes to this thing, this energy, called hiphop.  No matter how much bigger hiphop gets, or if it one day returns to the margins, like the blues and jazz before it, we will always have the photography of Ernie Paniccioli as a reminder of what it was we created and what it was like for us hiphop heads to dream our own worlds.


Kevin Powell is a writer, poet and cultural critic. He is the editor of Who Shot Ya? Three Decades of Hiphop Photography (Photographs by Ernie Paniccioli), and author of Keepin' It Real: Post-Mtv Reflections on Race, Sex, and Politics. Kevin Powell can be reached at Ernie Paniccioli can be reached at