The Function of Sound and Its Implication on Integrating Hip Hop Culture and Commodifying Female Sexuality
As outlined by the Cornell Hip Hop Collection’s exhibit – Now Scream, the four core components of hip hop comprise DJing, MCing, B-boying/B-girling, and graffiti. It is worth exploring the relationship of these four in their respective and collective influence in the hip hop culture. However, it is conceivable that among the four, there is one element (B-boying/B-girling) that is physical, one (graffiti) visual, and two (DJing and MCing) audial. The audial aspect of hip hop therefore deserves extensive attention in the study of hip hop culture. This paper examines the different functions of sound in hip hop and the implications of these uses of sound in relation to other hip hop elements, to the hip hop lifestyle, and to gender issue.
Sound and Other Hip Hop Elements
DJing and MCing constitute the major sound production component in hip hop. together with other elements such as graffiti and break dancing, developed the early hip hop culture, which is a combination of audio, visuals and physical movement. The influence of one on another was found in the crossover of different elements in the culture. Each element of hip hop has developed over time with certain cultural influence and perpetuated itself through the adaptation and modification of different cultures. Most importantly, it is the synthesis of all four hip hop components that forms today’s hip hop landscape, which is a strong force in the world where the four strengthens each other. Mohanalakshmi Rajakumar, a scholar of cultural studies and gender, wrote the book Hip Hop Dance, in which she examined the evolution of hip hop through the lens of race, geography, gender, etc. She confirms the interconnection of these four elements as she suggests in her investigation of hip hop history that someone interested in dance could also decorate a stage with graffiti for a DJ; some graffiti artists were also b-boys. That one can play multiple roles in hip hop culture reinforces each other and continues fostering the development of hip hop. Specifically, Rajakumar says that hip hop dancers would spray painted their moves in graffiti as a way to lay claim of the moves; similarly, some DJs would leave their signatures on the wall. This sort of demonstration of the integrated hip hop culture is also seen in today’s hip hop devotees. From my interview of Richard Wen, a member from Absolute Zero, the only breakdancing group on the campus of Cornell University, I learned that their logo is ‘Absolute Zero’ in graffiti and it is designed by one of the founding members. A graffiti logo for a breakdancing group is not only fitting but also supporting the group’s branding and pride. That the member of Absolute Zero is talented in both breakdancing and graffiti epitomizes the interconnection of the two hip hop elements and the passion of hip hop enthusiasts for the hip hop culture at large. In addition, Wen showed me a video clip of their past performance, where one of their members were DJing as the rest of the group were dancing. The fusion of the two forms of performance is indicative of the integrated dynamic in hip hop. Wen said that ‘the fact that our members are so versatile in doing different hip hop performances fortifies our credibility as hip hop artists…by demonstrating our talents in DJing we are making a statement that we have a strong authority in our performance and our claim of devotion to hip hop.’ The cross-reference of hip hop elements has shown us the interdependence of sound and other components. Whether it be DJing or MCing, the audial components play an important role in complementing other forms of hip hop culture. Interestingly, this strong interconnection between the four core elements actually reinforces the competitive nature of hip hop. By making appearance in multiple areas, hip hop artists endeavor to establish ownership of certain moves and music styles through different media – body, graphics and sound. This endeavor is justified by the competitive culture in hip hop in general and the pride that hip hop devotees take in their accomplishment. Specifically, MCing and DJing are the practice of this endeavor that well exemplify the synergy between different hip hop elements as a result of competition and interconnection. MCs typically would try to win the audience’s applause in a battle by outplaying other MCs on how ‘fluid or creative’ their rhymes and lyrics were (Rajakumar 2012). In order to win by this standard, MCs need to be both spontaneous and well versed in the lyrics. Likewise, b-boy dancers strive for a performance that show their ability to improvise to the music as well as the technicality of their moves. Therefore, the inherent qualities of music and dance in hip hop are highly similar in that they are both ‘improvisational and designed to impress the audience’ (Rajakumar 2012). These similarities explained the significance of one element to the other in the hip hop culture. Usually, DJ would play different tricks to show off, and the b-boy would try to dance to the beats mixed by the DJ. As the b-boy engages onlookers by dancing to the music, the DJs’ spinning of tracks and the MCs’ rhythmic party chants further provoke the audience to get more excited. The spontaneity of everything in the performance is thus the essence of the show. It makes each performer’s skill seem to be a very respectable talent. Hence dancers appraised a DJ or MC by dancing to their music or chant on-site rather than buying an album (Rajakumar 2012). The spontaneity and the synergy between performers account for the popularity of hip hop among the youth because being improvisational is deemed a real talent that deserves peers’ respect and a necessary feature that constituted what is considered a real show that unfolds itself based on performers’ interaction with the audience. The immediacy of the invented moves and the improvised music have an implication of not only the level of skills, but also the difficulty of recording (Rajakumar 3). The preservation of hip hop performance has arisen from the importance and immediacy of the culture. Particularly, the methods of recording the sound of hip hop, i.e., DJ and MC’s work, have evolved over years. Based on the documentation of the Cornell Hip Hop Collection, we learned that many early sound recordings are at risk of being lost because of the deterioration of quality due to transportation and storing condition. So it is crucial that these soundtrack to be digitalized.
Hip Hop Music and Lifestyle
The practice of performing hip hop has its meaning in not only the art form itself but also the larger social context. As we see in the documentary Paris is Burning, the challenges for the drag queens in New York City to live a life as an entertainer and one of the socially margined are beyond our imagination. In I Am Hip Hop: The Chicago Hip Hop Documentary, most interviewees, including both male and female rappers, expressed their passion for hip hop by indicating that they would like to continue rapping and adhere to a modest lifestyle in the future (Rajakumar 2012). The activities of DJing and MCing not only reflect the social status of the hip hop enthusiasts but in return have an impact on their lifestyle. According to Rajakumar, due to limited income, DJs in the 1990s would often illegally plug into the streetlamps and reroute other city-run electrical sources in order to power their sound systems. They managed to have entertainment despite their depressed economic status. Many of the early DJs were West Indian descent and had powerful speakers that could host outdoor parties, which were reminiscent of Jamaican block parties with reggae music and the practice of ‘toasting’ and ‘boasting’ by the DJ over the music. So it was common to see these young men of their 20s enjoying their life in Bronx by throwing parties outdoors or in gyms and community centers, playing their original mix of music. These young men were considered the original creators of the ‘Hip Hop Generation’ in Bronx from 1965 to 1984. They set an example for many later DJs how DJing is a synonym of a lifestyle that involves frequent outdoor parties and community activities. The practice of MCing has derived its root from the influence of African American and Latino cultures. The tradition of oral poetry, for example, has echoes in the rhyming lyrics created by MCs. Thus it is natural to link the characteristics of MCing to the spoken lifestyle of those relevant descent. Rapping, derived from MCing, is the most vocal form of performance in hip hop; however, it is more than a rhythmic creation. It is also a channel through which rappers communicate their opinions to the outside world. The lyrics of rap usually reflect the rappers’ life status and their discontent about life, as more than often rappers have to deal with issues such as ‘drug addiction, teen pregnancy, and economic hardship’ (Rajakumar 2012). Nonetheless, it is the hardship in life that nurtures the creation of poetic language in rapping lyrics. It is always something rappers take from the real life that makes a real impression in their lyrics, which in return has an impact on the audience’s life. One great example of this effect would be the comments from Seamus Heaney, a poetry professor in Oxford University. Heaney praised rapper Eminem’s innovative use in lyrics as something powerful as an ‘influence on his entire generation’ (qtd. in Rajakumar 2012) Thus, meaningful content in hip hop music can increase the significance of lyrics to the listener as it becomes more relatable (Rajakumar 2012). As a result, the value of music in the hip hop culture has a greater impact on people’s life than simply a form of entertainment.
Sound of Hip Hop and Female Artists
As Rajakumar pointed, female MCs were ‘the earliest feminist response to male rappers’ in the world of hip hop, which had been predominantly controlled by males. As seen across the entire hip hop arena, females were not recognized as the main player. A lot of the dance moves in breaking were considered gender inappropriate for young girls. (Rajakumar 2012) Rajakumar suggested that Female MCs entered the scene with ‘active and aggressive lyrics.’ They were the pioneers in leading female hip hop artist to challenge social justice issues and vocalize their political standpoint. Inevitably, in the process of fighting for a position in the hip hop arena, female artists are faced with the challenge of commodifying their sexuality. It seems that this is a plausibly easy way to secure their success in the industry and thus a frequently seen controversy in female hip hop artists. Among the four components of hip hop, DJing and MCing probably see less female participants than the other two, just because the arguable technicality of these two activities. Rebekah Farrugia wrote a book on female DJs and their stories of overcoming the technological difficulty and coming forth ward in the industry. It has certainly not been easy for female DJs to gain a seat in the male-dominated industry. Thus the issue of commodification of different female features (mostly their bodies) arises in their effort to become famous. For instance, Tenashar is a recent rising star in the world of DJ. She is one of the few female DJs who made it to the Top 100 DJs list ranked by DJ Mag, the most reputable online DJ community. Tenashar’s name on the list has been questioned because the controversy has it that she would not have made it to the top 100 if she did not make her public appearance in super sexual outfit. The phenomena of female DJs climbing the career ladder by commodifying their physical assets is seen across the globe. Taiwanese hip hop artist Jolin Tsai transformed her public image from an outdated teen idol to a ‘rhythmic sexy dancing queen’ through a performance where she danced to her newly released hard-hitting song in a flamboyantly provocative costume. These female artists indeed gained their success, or simply public exposure, through catching people’s eyes with their sexuality. However, it provokes us to contemplate the cause of this phenomenon and the implication of it. Perhaps the necessity of using the sexuality of a female artist as a selling point comes from the fundamental inequality between male and female. Female artists endeavor to gain recognition for their sexuality because there is no other way to break through the male-dominated industry. In some way, nonetheless, female rappers are believed to be better poised to enter into hip hop music because they already had topics such as domestic abuse to talk about in their music. However, in reality, women were more seen in production process, bartending or PR. So some would argue that women are not getting the opportunities to be at the front of industry and to use technology as much as they are entitled to (Farrugia 2012). However, it could be the case that it is not completely discrimination that female DJs are getting as much public attention as male DJs. In fact, some female DJs expressed their interest in teaching DJ classes rather than performing on the stage. It might be that it is by their own choice that female DJs feel more comfortable with less public exposure and staying behind the scene. In light of the fact that females have better informal inter-personal skills, it is actually better for women to work as a producer, who has a much more low-key lifestyle, instead of a DJ. From Forest Green’s interview, we understand that the majority of the work as a DJ is ‘being out, talking to people, promoting events’ (Rajakumar 2012). This ties back to the importance of branding in DJing. A big part of the success is accounted by the branding image of the DJ. Because of the less outgoing personality, women struggle to develop a successful DJ or producer career (Rajakumar 2012).
After exploring the function of sound in the world of hip hop, it is clear to us that DJing, MCing and the hip hop music at large have a significant influence on integrating the hip hop culture. It is the strong tie between all elements in hip hop that synergize this culture, which is worshiped and practiced around the world. ‘Neither gender, nor race, nor nationality can determine how successful a rapper will be’ (Rajakumar 2012). It is ‘the person’s connection to the art form of rap itself’ that counts. What really matters is whether or not the artist can ‘present what he’s saying in an understandable way, in a rhythmic way, in a stylish way,’ In short, it is the meaning, musicality, and manners of the performance that defines an artist. The implication of any sound in hip hop goes beyond its art form, as we see how DJing and MCing have made an impact on the artists’ life. Particularly, female DJs and MCs have to go through hardship of fighting their way out and justifying their success in the question of commodification of their sexuality. It has yet to be answered that whether or not female artists can gain their power and recognition through the methods equal to their male counterparts.
Cornell Hip Hop Collection (CHHC). “Now Scream.” April 4, 2013 – February 4, 2014. Hirshland Exhibition Gallery, Carl A. Kroch Library,Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, Cornell University Library. Exhibit. Dodds, Sherril, and Susan C. Cook. Bodies of sound: studies across popular music and dance. Burlington: Ashgate Pub., 2013. Print.
Farrugia, Rebekah. Beyond the dance floor: female DJs, technology and electronic dance music culture. Bristol: Intellect, 2012. eBook.
Hager, Steven. Hip hop: the illustrated history of break dancing, rap music, and graffiti. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1984. Print.
Rajakumar, Mohanalakshmi. Hip Hop Dance. California: ABC-CLIO, LC, 2012. Print
Washabaugh, William.The passion of music and dance: body, gender, and sexuality. New York: Berg, 1998. Print.