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Hip-Hop: So now what?

Esquire January 2012

In the early Eighties, a breathtakingly original new music genre burst out from the ghettos of the Bronx and captured the world’s imagination. Having achieved an unimaginable success, acclaim and influence, hip-hop’s popularity is now in sharp decline, while its globe-trotting superstars seem ever more removed from their audiences. Is their mid-life crisis nothing more than a blip or is it the beginning of the end for the greatest pop-cultural movement since rock ‘n’ roll?

Thirty years ago two singles were released which marked the end of the beginning for hip-hop. The Message, by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five and Planet Rock by Afrika Bambaataa and the Soul Sonic Force came out in 1982. Although both only charted modestly, they set a new standard in artistic ambition for hip-hop that proved hugely influential. For the nascent music form that rose out of the block parties and housing projects of the Bronx and Queens during the 1970s it was a signal moment. Critics had dismissed earlier releases, like the Sugarhill Gang’s Rapper’s Delight and Kurtis Blow’s Christmas Rappin’, as novelties.

Now came the breakthrough, the  first significant steps from ghetto subculture to global cultural force. In the decades since then hip-hop has established itself as the most exhilarating music of modern times with its stars a compelling presence in popular culture, commanding ten-times-platinum record sales (Eminem), marquee name movie celebrity (Will Smith) and fallen rock idol status alongside the likes of Jimi Hendrix and Kurt Cobain (2 Pac, Notorious BIG). In tandem, hip-hop has become the lingua franca of urban youth across the world, its sounds and styles adopted by legions of followers in virtually every conceivable location on the planet from Johannesburg and Tokyo to Tehran and Jakarta. more

The return of right-wing retro

Port, 16 May 2011

Is 2011 a repeat of 1981? Two weeks ago, Britain celebrated a royal wedding with an enthusiasm and patriotic fervour that almost matched the betrothal of Charles and Diana. And today, as then, we can also see a creeping right-wing retro revivalism – an embrace of conservative style, status symbols and values – spreading across British culture.

That’s not to say that 1981 was an inherently conservative year. Sure Thatcher was in power. But it was a time of bitter division: of 2.5m unemployed, riots in Brixton, IRA hunger strikes and the Militant Tendency as a serious force in the Labour party. But if the country was split socially and politically, then it found some solace in the embrace of fashion trends and brands that espoused a traditionalist, un-modern and anti-urban concept of Britishness. This was the age of Laura Ashley dresses and Tricia Guild wallpaper, the Sloane Ranger and the Young Fogey, the Aga as a symbol of enduring tradition. more

Now Playing – Arthur Russell

Arthur Russell “World of Echo” (1986)

I fell in love with Arthur Russell years long before I  ever knew his name. I’d heard the sparse, hypnotic ‘Wax The Van” by Lola on release in 1987 and been mesmerised by it. I’d adored Loose Joints’ “It Is All Over My Face” and Dinosaur L’s”Go Bang”, to a similar extent. But it was only much later that I realised the same person was behind all those records. And that Russell himself was so much more than the creator of minimal disco. An artist of haunting brilliance.

Now Playing – Alice Coltrane

Alice Coltrane, Journey In Satchidananda (1970)

So many black visionaries have headed into outer space – Sun Ra, Samuel Delany Jr, Parliament. Alice Coltrane’s greatest journey was to inner space.

Now Playing

Ali Farka Toure, The River (1990)

From the great photographers Malick Sidibe and Seydou Keita to Ali Farka Toure, Mali has given a powerful, daring art to the world. The River is hypnotic, minimal, timeless blues.

Battle of the brands

Hip-hop – As rappers name-drop more and more labels, Ekow Eshun finds the true meaning of bling

The argument over causal links between pop culture and social behaviour is a well-rehearsed and inconclusive one. Yet it’s a debate that is tirelessly rehashed when it comes to rap music. Not long ago, David Blunkett and Kim Howells both denounced the dangerous effects on young people of songs by “macho idiot rappers” such as Jay-Z and So Solid Crew. more

Will the verdict be child-like innocent… or child abuser?

The Observer, Sunday 23 November 2003

Ekow Eshun says Michael Jackson presents himself as the victim of a vengeful media

When the world’s most famous pop star stands before a state of California judge in January, he faces the final verdict of a public trial that has lasted for two decades.
The singer is accused of multiple counts of lewd and lascivious conduct with a child under 14. Innocent or guilty, what will be revealed in the courtroom is the real face of Michael Jackson.
For the moment, with the singer out on a bail of £2 million, it’s still hard to say who he truly is. Not that we’re short of choices. Through the tabloids we have become familiar with ‘Wacko Jacko’ who sleeps in a hyperbaric chamber, dangles his baby out of a window, dyes his skin and shares a bed with young boys. Jackson himself would prefer that we saw him as the real-life Peter Pan, at his happiest riding the Ferris wheel in his 2,600-acre version of Never Never Land. more

The Rap Trap

The Guardian, 27 May 2000

Dr Dre helped pioneer hardcore hip-hop: violence against “bitches”, the love of guns and fast cars. Now a millionaire father-of-two, he says he’s turned over a new leaf – all that gangsta stuff was just about marketing, pleasing the fans. So who is the Dre of today? And has he really managed to break free from his past?

I’m on my way to meet Dr Dre, and I have a song in my head. It’s called Fuck You, and in it Dre explains, in some detail, how he just wants “to fuck bad bitches”. The streets of Los Angeles glare white in the midday sun. I struggle into the plush recording studio where Dre is working. We talk for a while about his latest album, Dr Dre 2001.

He recorded it, he tells me, because he felt misunderstood. “People definitely had the wrong idea about me. A lot of people were saying I was a mean cat, I disrespected women, a lotta bullshit, a lotta nonsense.” more