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Nelson George is a novelist, cultural critic, and filmmaker. After receiving his degree from St. John's University in 1982, George first worked for New York's Amsterdam News, later becoming an[…]

Rising from an abandoned city, hip hop captured the voice of a generation.

Nelson George: I don’t know if I can take you through the genesis of hip hop, I mean, other than to say that . . . I mean ‘cause that’s been talked about so often. Essentially it’s a product of New York during its darkest days when no one cared. And one of the reasons that hip hop and punk rock, actually, and graffiti and all these parallel kinds of expressions existed is that they came out of areas of New York that the government had basically signed off on. When I say that I mean if you went to South Bronx in 1978 or ’77 and you went to the Lower East Side in 1977, there wasn’t a . . . They were different but they were both burnt out. They were both messed up. They both had tons of drugs. They both had a lot of people looking for things to do, and feeling very abandoned by both the city government and the national government. And out of that chaos came all of these artists. Or artists might even be overstating it – people who wanted to do something. They may not have seen themselves as artists. Some saw themselves as artists. Some saw it as people, you know, creating activities, having fun. And I think what people don’t really focus on when they talk about that era is fun; that New York had this, you know, Johnny Carson ____________. It was nightly jokes about New York city all over the Tonight Show. “New York City drop dead” was the famous daily news headline. But people wanted to have fun, and hip hop comes out of people having parties, and wanting to have parties that were different from what was going on at Studio 54, or at ____________, or at some of the other downtown clubs. There were all of these scenes in New York of people partying and partying really hard in the face of all of the mess that was going on. So hip hop was a particular subset of this thing. And I think the reason hip hop has sort of, in many ways, outlasted or certainly become a more universal and powerful expression – especially compared to punk rock and some – is that it embraced dancing. It embraced graffiti art. It embraced what we now call “turntablism”. All these kind of forms of expression that under the banner of hip hop were taken in. And so it continued to grow and continued to bring adherence over the years. So I think that hip hop in that particular time was expressing a desire to have fun. And ‘cause it’s all about parties. I mean all these expressions we’re talking about had a connection to fun. And I think that, you know, even the ironic, fun city comment – everyone made fun that Lindsey tried to call New York “Fun City” – that desire to celebrate, and have fun, and get together is what brought hip hop culture, created it, and also what people are nostalgic for now. When you hear nostalgia about the old days it’s for a certain spirit of fun, and entertainment, and celebration that these parties suggested, these parties created where you could go and there wasn’t . . . It wasn’t as rigidly . . . Now at hip hop shows there’s a way you’re supposed to dress to be hip hop. It wasn’t as rigid as that. People dressed in a variety of ways at these parties. Everyone didn’t breakdance, but everyone did sort of celebrate that spirit. So that’s what I think about when I think about that period. I remember going to shows . . . going to a show at City College, early show. It was R&B singers on the show, DJ Hollywood, and I think ___________ was DJing. And it was a fight broke out. (Punches his fist into his open hand.) Bang! Boom! Chairs fly up, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. People break out. Bang, bang. Guys get carried out by security, people put the chairs back and they go back to the party. And that happened a lot. There were a lot of fights. This was before guns were as prevalent as they are now. So everyone wanted to party, and a fight would break out because fights did break out. Someone would try and rob somebody, but that was it. That didn’t stop the party. That did not stop the party at all. It was just taken for granted that this would go on. So I mean that’s what I think about hip hop in that period.

Question: What is hip hop’s impact

Nelson George: Well hip hop has become an international vocabulary for young people to express themselves; and particularly to express their rebellion. If you go to Colombia and listen to the Colombian hip hop; if you hear hip hop from Ukraine; if you hear music made from the __________ outside of Paris; you will hear hip hop as a tool of self-expression around the world for people . . . I heard kids from Kuala Lumpur shouting out for the KP. So it’s become a way . . . an international vocabulary of expression and rebellion. Some of the best breakdancers in the world now come from Korea and Japan. One of the biggest breakdance extravaganzas every year, competitions, happens in Germany. So hip hop is a global tool for youth communication. And that’s really . . . I think to me that’s its biggest international expression. How it’s used particularly in each city and each country, what samples are used, that varies. But that sense that this is a vehicle for us to express things that aren’t expressed in other media is there. Breakdancing, the DJing, even the graf is all over the world. So I mean to me that’s the greatest legacy of it in a global sense. There are things about some of the early beginnings of it that I think could be more complicated in some of the discussions. I think one of the things I try to talk about in the book, and I think I could have talked about even more, the relationship between the graffiti artists, and the MCs and hip hop is not as intimate as people made it. To some degree certain people in the early days who were sort of promoting hip hop brought graf to graffiti art onto hip hop; whereas some of the graffiti artists themselves didn’t like hip hop, were more into rock, and in some ways saw themselves more as punk rockers than hip hop people. And if you look at a lot of the art that was used in the actual fliers for all the early shows in the ‘70s and the early ‘80s, almost none of it is graffiti. It’s a different style. There is a kind of look to a lot of the fliers, but it’s not graf as we think tagging. It’s some other things. It’s some other style. There’s a definite artistic aesthetic to a lot of it. So there wasn’t . . . It wasn’t . . . That connection between graffiti art, and hip hop music, and dancing is not as intimate, I think, as it’s been made sort of nostalgically in retrospect. So that would be a big thing I think . . . a big thing to look at.

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