Register Thursday | June 20 | 2019

In Extremis

Hip Hop is alive and well


Hip hop is dead. Or so claimed Nas, with his album from 2006 adopting that sentiment as its title. If pushed, some historians, journalists, and “heads” (a term for avid fanboy listeners) might go so far as to date hip hop’s death with the 1980 release of the Sugar Hill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight”—hip hop’s first hit single. Their argument? The moment the music got in bed with a “culture industry” hip hop lost its auteur-like innovative artistry and became a retrograde, diluted product. And, of course, there’s a certain irony that shadows Nas’s obit when you consider that his prodigious 1994 debut album Illmatic is often credited as playing a major role in the resurrection of a nearly-flatlined New York-based hip hop. “I never sleep, cuz sleep is the cousin of Death / I lay puzzled as I backtrack to earlier times / Nothing's equivalent to the New York state of mind” (“N.Y. State of Mind”). Simply put, death—or at least its threat—is hip hop’s generative force.

One thing leads to another; that’s the algorithm of life. And hip hop is about as dead as saying hip hop is dead, which is to say, it isn’t dead at all. Yes, yes, y’all, and it don’t stop… Think, then, of hip hop as permanently in extremis — that is, always at the agonistic limit. Theodor Adorno, in his critique of Spengler’s Decline of the West, states that the latter fails to recognize the value of “the forces released by decay.” Embedded in decline, according to Adorno, is “a potentially better life”. It’s Baraka’s “changing same,” it’s Bernoulli’s self-renewing spiral, it’s the myth of the phoenix: “The hip-hop generation, it might be said, was born in these fires,” writes Jeff Chang, in his lucid and comprehensive Can’t Stop Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation. He’s talking about the fires that consumed Kingston, Jamaica, and, later, the South Bronx in the early and mid-1970s, respectively. The South Bronx, where hip hop begins:

Remember Bronx River rollin thick

With Kool DJ Red Alert and Chuck Chillout on the mix

When Afrika Islam was rockin the jams

And on the other side of town was a kid named Flash

Patterson and Millbrook projects

Casanova all over, ya couldn't stop it

The Nine Lives Crew, the Cypress Boys

The real Rock Steady takin out these toys

As odd as it looked, as wild as it seemed

I didn't hear a peep from a place called Queens.

(Boogie Down Productions, “South Bronx”)

In that last line, KRS-One is attacking Hollis’s own Run-DMC, and that’s all well and good. I love that song; I love that album on which it appears, Criminal Minded (B Boy Records, 1987). But where hip hop begins (South Bronx) and where it is (“Hello everybody… coming live from somewhere” is the all-inclusive, all-encompassing bellow that begin’s Black Star’s “Definition”) should never be absolutely coterminate. Fear inertia— aesthetic, ethical, political, whatever. Progressivity is dynamic. Fear amnesia, too. If hip hip extends beyond the city limits, it shouldn’t forget the city.

So that, hopefully, explains my column title; perfunctory, yes, but necessary, too. As for what I’d like to do during my tenure as hip hop columnist for Maisonneuve: well, whatever I damn well please; that goes without saying. You can expect some short, declamatory, retroactive essays on hip hop classics or unacknowledged classics— seriously, is there anything more under-discussed than the GZA’s Liquid Swords? (The screaming, tonally-distended note that begins “4th Chamber” makes my skin crawl every time; “Labels’s” paragrammatic embedding of record-label names within each rhymed couplet is a high-point— one of many— in hip-hop verbal innovation.)

What else? Of course, reviews of new hip-hop CDs and books (attention labels and publishers: please do send your stuff my way); interviews with independent hip-hop artists; and analysis of topical issues, as they arise (they always do). Also, you’ll get my poetry-inflected appreciation of hip-hop artists, as I’m currently working on a dissertation that looks at the place of hip hop in North American Verse Culture.

As a columnist, writing from column to column, from month to month, I’m aiming for what Ralph Ellison and Albert Murray describe as “nimbleness” (Trading Twelves) or, as Mos Def puts it, “You know the motto / Stay fluid even in staccato” (“Hip Hop,” Black on Both Sides). “Everything that glitter ain’t fishscale” (MF Doom “Figaro,” Madvillainy), and— if I’m doing this thing proper— you’ll turn, and return, to this column so as to find out which is which, glitter or fishscale.

Alessandro Porco is a poet, critic, and scholar. Currently, at the State University of New York at Buffalo, he is working toward a dissertation on the subject of hip-hop poetics. The author of The Jill Kelly Poems and the forthcoming Augustine in Carthage, he is originally from Brampton, Ontario. His poetry has appeared in such literary magazines as Matrix, Grain, and Queen Street Quarterly. Visit his blog at