Friday, 27 May 2011

Folkin' Hip-Hop.

Today I have been thinking of a most interesting question. Is hip-hop folk?

Ok, that seems an odd hypothesis, but let me elaborate. First off, when I speak of folk I don't speak of the modern day Mumford & Sons et al (not that they I don't like them, just not that they're not folk). I mean the English folk tradition; songs passed down through the generations.

When I speak of hip-hop, I don't mean the modern day money-grabbers like Soulja Boy and 50 Cent. I mean the original innovaters on the streets of New York.

I make the connection for several reasons. Foremost amongst them is simply wealth. Originally folk and hip-hop were not the realm of the rich man. Both value their ability to make music with little equipment, or even skill. Many folk singers wouldn't be counted as great singers, and the same can be said of many of the most prevalent MCs. A musician could pick up a guitar, learn to play a folk classic, and sing it in any way he could. An aspiring MC could do the same, rapping over the beat of a record, or even making a simple beat of whatever is around.

In this sense they are DIY genres. Anyone can do it, at any time. Many folk songs and hip-hop tracks are even acapellas, requiring no instrumentation what-so-ever.

The next great connection is lyricism. The fast majority of pop songs these days are concerned with just two things: love and fame, maybe with the exception of Friday, which is about... erm, Friday. This is not to say that songs about these things can't be valid, or even good, but come on songwriters, have a little imagination.

Folk and hip-hop to differ in one regard, however, in that hip-hop talks about what's real to the rappers, where as an intrinsic part of folk is telling traditional stories through the music in a bardic sense. Saying that, both are trying to tell a story. Hip-hop was a revolution in American black music, and would only have been possible in that society. America stands out as a leading first-world power that continues to repress its ethnic minorities. This is not to say that racism is not evident in the rest of the world, but the rich/poor divide in America is colossal, and the vast majority of the poor population are black and hispanic. Hip-hop was thus a political expression and movement, directly relating to its community and its problems, and indeed became their only form of communicating their woes to a largely uncaring upper echelon.

I feel it's sad that the genre has lot a large part of this. Nowadays rappers mainly concern themselves with money and fame. But then hip-hop was part of a moment in time, a brief spark that ignited a new culture, and for that its effects can still be felt.

Folk, in some sense, seeks to preserve this. It's an ever-present part of traditional British music. Certain songs have been sung for generations in traditional styles and locales. They tell stories, which are often missed by the casual listener, such as 'Scarborough Fair', where a forlorn suitor is forced into a series of impossible tasks to win his/her love. Folk tells the tales of a persistent generation, hip-hop tells the story of a single but prevalent one.

I guess you can say most songs tell a story, but whilst love songs may reach an audience in some rhetorical or memorable sense, the lyrics will always contain an element of a deeply personal relation, only partly accessible to the listeners. The beauty of truly story-telling music is its ability to reach past boundaries of personal, ethnic or social nature, and thus bear relevance on any one us, and I think this is where the true comparison between the two lies.

So, in answer the question, hip-hop isn't folk, per se. Saying that though, they do have deep connections in the context of their origins and their aims. Both now have pretenders to their name, and this in itself is testament to their success. It may seem like I am simply bashing modern music. This couldn't be farther from the truth. To understand anything present, we must understand the past.

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