by Beverly Aarons
Crumbling brick buildings litter a once thriving business district. Two-story homes blackened with soot sit boarded up and abandoned. Children find pipes and needles in sandboxes. Twenty students share five books in a freezing classroom … no heat. No food tonight, just too expensive. No new shoes — wear your older sibling’s pair and line the holes with newsprint. This is America: Late ‘70s and ‘80s. To be clear, this is America’s urban ghettos: Chicago, Detroit, Los Angeles, New York, and yes, even Seattle. One generation earlier, much of Black America fled the vicious Jim Crow south seeking safety and opportunity in the north only to find itself pinned into economic wastelands with no capital and little opportunity for growth. And it is within this context that hip hop was born. During my interview with Daudi Abe, a Seattle Central College professor and the author of Emerald Street: A History of Hip Hop in Seattle, he shared his thoughts on hip hop and its political and cultural impact.
Abe, who was born and raised in Seattle, teaches a class on the history of hip hop at Seattle Central College. Most of his students are in their late teens and early 20s, and they have a hard time understanding the context from which hip hop was born, he said. But context is key to understanding why hip hop survived and thrived while other music genres such as disco faded into history.
“I think that the social, political, [and] economic context of why hip hop came about were unlike any other genre or style of music,” Abe said. “Maybe if you’re talking about early reggae coming out of Trench Town in Kingston, Jamaica, that kind of thing, but that was kind of isolated more to Jamaica. And what I’m talking about here is more within the context of the United States and the racial history attached to that story. So I think the fact that you have this art form that is authored by and talking about at least initially, young African Americans, young kids of color, and coming out of the African American experience, it speaks to a commonality of struggle and pushing back against oppression in artistic ways.”
At the time, Black American communities were facing draconian cuts to educational programming, and music and other art forms were hit hardest, Abe said. Learning the guitar or trumpet was out of the question unless your parents could afford private lessons. And if you were poor and Black in America at the time, that wasn’t likely to happen. But Black youth weren’t deterred and were determined to express themselves musically even with no formal training.
“What those young kids kind of quickly figured out was ‘If I’m musically inclined and I don’t necessarily have money to buy an instrument or get private lessons from a tutor, if these things have gone away from school, what I can do is take one turntable and another turntable,” Abe said. And those kids learned “to turn a turntable into a musical instrument.”
Abe was born in Seattle to a white mother from Wisconsin and a Black father from Uganda, so he grew up listening to an eclectic variety of music. But when hip hop emerged, he fell in love with the new genre.
“In the fall of 1979, my father takes me to a store called Dirt Cheap Records, which used to be right up here on the corner of 22nd and Union here in the Central District,” Abe said. “And at this point I’m 9 years old and he says, ‘go and pick a record,’ and he turns me loose. And I am walking around this record store at nine years old, and I stopped — my attention is attracted by this one record. It’s kind of like a sky blue case, but in the middle was this little circle … it’s got this kind of swirling multi-colored kind of logo. And I didn’t even know what the logo was. I was just captured by the shape of it and the colors of it, because, you know, I’m nine years old. It literally reminded me of candy. That’s why I picked it up.”
That record was Rapper’s Delight by the Sugar Hill Gang, and the logo was for Sugar Hill Records. Abe took the record home and played it. He was hooked. He had never heard anything like it before — the style of people speaking (not singing) over music and the content — he could relate. There was one line in that song that stood out for Abe.
“When he talks about [how] he has a color TV so he can see the Knicks play basketball,” Abe said. “And I remember we had a black and white TV at that time, but I liked basketball. And I remember thinking, ‘Man, I would like to watch basketball on a color TV. That would be really nice.’ And so some of the things that they were saying was speaking to me and immediately just kind of drew me in. And from that point it changed my life.”
Abe said that the culture of hip hop has influenced the way he carries himself. “Hip hop is less about race and ethnicity and more about skill, authenticity, and ideology. And those are the things that I really tried to focus on in terms of relating with other people and kind of getting a gauge about what other people are about and made of,” he said.
Initially, the hip hop ethos was directly connected to an overt political message, Abe said. Hip hop artists were poor, Black kids from America’s neglected urban cities, and they were speaking directly of their experiences — no one was filtering the message. In hip hop’s “golden era,” the mainstream music industry wouldn’t touch hip hop artists so producing records was left to the mom-and-pop studios. With no big-money backers, artists had the freedom and power to speak of their stories in authentic and risky ways.
“Putting out material, the operative word at this time in the mid-‘80s was ‘fresh,’” Abe said. “You didn’t want to sound like somebody else. You didn’t want to sound like the record label down the street. So I think that encouraged artists to take artistic risks. But once these conglomerates started to see that serious money could be made, they start to come in and sign artists. And [they] have marketing budgets that these smaller labels can’t compete with. But then when these larger labels come in, they’re not necessarily considering the artistic integrity of the culture of the music. They’re just most interested in ‘how can we recreate what made the most money last time,’ and that doesn’t necessarily lend itself to taking artistic risk.”
What made the most money was hardcore gangster rap. N.W.A.’s Niggaz4Life hit the airways in 1991 and rocketed to number two on the U.S. Billboard’s 200 most popular songs. That had never happened before — not for hip hop. Hip hop had made it into the mainstream sans its overtly political roots. And while there is still some overtly political hip hop, it is not part of the mainstream, Abe said.
“It’s not going to be presented to you like it was through much of the golden age on your local video show,” Abe said. “It’s something that you’re really going to have to kind of seek and search out and try to make a connection … you’re kind of on your own.”
Abe points out that Seattle’s most successful hip hop artists have a unique style that defies mainstream expectations. While Ice-T was rapping about beating a woman in “6 ‘N The Mornin’,” Sir Mix-A-Lot protects a woman from her abusive boyfriend in “Posse on Broadway.” And while mainstream hip hop has evolved to glorify fast money, big cars, and designer clothes, commercially successful hip hop artist Macklemore brags about shopping at the thrift store in “Thrift Shop.” Then there are hip hop groups like Digable Planets whose leader was Ishmael “Butterfly” Butler, a 1987 graduate of Garfield High School.
“At least on that first album … they were casting themselves as insects,” Abe said. “He [Butler] was Butterfly and the other one was Doodlebug and the other one was Lady Bug. And they were talking about Marx and Socialism. And there’s even a song on that album called ‘La Femme Fetal,’ which is a pro-choice anthem, which shouts out Roe v. Wade. There weren’t too many mainstream rap groups that were really kind of taking that approach. And so that was something completely different. And of course they win the Grammy award for the song ‘Rebirth of Slick, (Cool Like Dat).’”
In hip hop’s next evolution, Abe says he hopes to see a resurgence of overtly political work.
“I am excited to see what kind of art — specifically, what kind of hip hop — comes out of 2020,” Abe said. “… In the aftermath of the Rodney King situation in L.A. there was some terrific material that kind of came out of that, that just kind of gave you a sense of the time and place of what was happening and what was the crux of the issue in the conflict. And so I’m really interested to see and hear that kind of artistic equivalent [for the] aftermath of 2020 and all of the protests and upheaval that have been happening.”
Beverly Aarons is a writer and game developer. She works across disciplines as a copywriter, journalist, novelist, playwright, screenwriter, and short-story writer. She explores futuristic worlds in fiction but also enjoys discovering the stories of modern-day unsung heroes. She’s currently writing an immersive play about the themes of migration as well as a series of nonfiction stories about ordinary people doing extraordinary things in their local communities and the world. In August 2018 she produced a live-action game and event where community members worked together to envision an economic future they truly desired to leave future generations.
Featured image is a collage created by the Emerald that features a picture of Daudi Abe that is attributed to UW Press.