The legendary hip-hop artist Nas on his debut album Illmatic opens his second track N. Y. State of Mind with “Straight out the fucking dungeons of rap/ Where fake niggas don’t make it back/ I don’t know how to start this shit, yo” (1994). i too like Nas do not know how to start this shit. But, i guess i will begin with this declaration hip-hop came straight from the dungeons, the gutters, the trenches, the cut, the underground, and more specifically the spaces that the state failed to serve. Hip-hop is largely regarded to be founded in the New York City borough of the Bronx at 1520 Sedgwick Avenue on August 11th, 1973. At this time, the Bronx was seen as a wasteland. Jeff Chang describes the Bronx at this time as “ a spectacular set of ruins, a mythical wasteland, an infectious disease,… a condition of poverty and social collapse, more than a geographical place” (Chang,2005, p.17). These conditions were only intensified by constant fires, a sanitation strike, housing strikes, and neighborhood gang violence.
However, despite these hellish-like conditions on August 11th, 1973, DJ Kool Herc threw a party where he gave the Bronx a beautiful new art form and ultimately a new culture called hip-hop. DJ Kool Herc “created this beautiful art form of Hip-Hop by introducing two new DJing techniques to the world “Toasting” and the “Merry Go Round” or also known as the “Break”. “Essentially, toasting is when the DJ will say something or start a chant over the music to keep folks engaged with the music. For instance, the DJ would be spinning a track and say something like “let’s go I see you out there”(Ross, 2020). And the Merry Go Round or the Break was created when “ Herc while DJing he noticed at his parties people would really dance at the point in the song where the drums were played. Noticing this, he began using the traditional two-wheel turntable but instead we would play the same record on each wheel as a way to extend the drums section of the song to keep people dancing. This is where we get the term break dancing from”(Ross, 2020). DJ Kool Herc’s actions at this party laid the groundwork for hip-hop culture to develop. There are many aspects of hip-hop, there is the music which WE more commonly call rap, there is graf of graffiti art, fashion, and language.
At it is very roots hip-hop is a culture that was formed in the pain and suffering of Black and Brown communities. Thus hip-hop was a space of resistance and earlier practitioners of hip-hop were operating from a stream of Double Consciousness. Through this resistance, hip-hop becomes a culture of disidentification in every aspect of it. Hip-hop lives in a space where it is not wanted but it has worked with this world while simultaneously resisting it by making art out of it. This type of disidentification is what i am calling the remixing of white supremacy. Thus the performances of hip-hop culture become public stages for challenging the white supremacist capitalist patriarchy.
While hip-hop has humble and radical origins it has developed into a culture that has no boundaries. Due to this boundlessness hip-hop has almost adopted what Gloria Anzaldua calls a mestiza consciousness. Hip-hop now lives in between the borders of radical art and commercial art. Today, if you were driving your car down the road you could not go five minutes without hearing a hip-hop song. If you are walking down the street in a major city you will more than likely see a piece of graffiti on the side of a building or train station, and you can probably see a similar piece of art hanging at your local museum. And if you are on any college campus you will see kids wearing hip-hop sneakers like Off-White’s or Yeezy’s. So how did hip-hop culture become so mainstream? And is this mainstream movement good for hip-hop? To return to my earlier comments i do not how to start this shit and i do not know whether either side is right or wrong but in this paper, i will be grappling with this binary by looking at how has hip-hop served as a source of resistance through building sites of disidentification by remixing white supremacy embracing a double consciousness and a mestiza consciousness.
To begin to grapple with these two questions of how hip-hop got to this point? And whether the mainstream movement of hip hop is good or not? i will be focusing on the fashion of hip-hop because it becomes evident to see the sort of shift from underground to commercial. So to answer these questions WE must remember the origins of hip-hop. Like i said earlier hip-hop was born in hell, so initially, hip-hop was a site of resistance, survival, and joy. Due to the conditions that existed in the Bronx, early practitioners did not have access to fancy equipment, new instruments, or standard music-making products, so early artists like DJ Kool Herc relied on things around them and in their environment to create. Similarly, the fashion of early hip-hop was just what the artists were wearing; there was no such thing as brand deals. Being forced to use the materials in their environment and wearing simply the clothes on their backs to make art the early practitioners were practicing disidentification.
To define disidentification WE must turn to the words of José Esteban Muñoz who defines disidentification as “Disidentification is meant to be descriptive of the survival strategies the minority subject practices in order to negotiate a phobic majoritarian public sphere that continuously elides or punishes the existence of subjects who do not conform to the phantasm of normative citizenship” (Muñoz, 1999, p.27). Or in other words, disidentification is a survival strategy employed by marginalized folks as a way to challenge and resist further subjugation and ultimately to claim their existence in a world that is violent towards them. This sort of disidentification is the essence of early hip-hop. The Bronx was a hellish type of place and early hip-hop practitioners used hip-hop to survive. However, in order to practice this type of disidentification, a double consciousness was required. W.E.B. DuBois theorized the idea of double consciousness in his book The Souls of Black Folk. DuBois uses the phrase of double consciousness to describe that:
“the negro is a sort of seventh son, born with a veil, and gifted with second-sight in this American world,- a world which yields him no self-consciousness, but only lets him see through the revelation of the world. It is a a peculiar sensation this double consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his twoness, – an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts” (Dubois,1903, p.7)
In laymen’s terms, double consciousness is the vision that Black folks have developed because of racist systems like slavery, Jim Crow, and white supremacy. This vision of double consciousness allows for Black folks to see how the systems mark them as different and create issues of inequality and violence towards them. Thus with this vision double consciousness gives Black folks the ability to recognize these systems so that they may challenge these systems and survive. Early practitioners of hip-hop had this double consciousness and through this vision, they were able to look around their neighborhoods and see that the conditions they were facing were created by racist systems. With this recognition, these practitioners used hip-hop as a praxis of disidentification from these conditions as a way to survive. In terms of fashion for these early practitioners, their disidentification projects were just showing up in whatever they had. Therefore, this fashion disidentification was one of ontology and not one of commercialization. This disidentification can be seen as something radical because it was a rejection of commodification, capitalism, and racist systems. Or in other words, this fashion was real “hip-hop”.
DJ Kool Herc Djaying an early hip-hop Block Party
Hip-hop pioneers Grandmaster Caz and Kool Moe Dee at an early hip-hop party
As we can see in the two above photos, these early practitioners were just donning the fashion of the time and they were not tied to a brand or commodification of their bodies. However, something important happened in 1986 that led to a shift in the way that hip-hop became fashionable. In the late spring of 1986, the New York, Queens Rap quartet Run D.M.C. released a song called My Adidas. Through this song, the group raps about how they wear the athletic brand’s shoes. Run D.M.C. opens the song with:
“My Adidas/ Walk through concert doors/ And roam all over coliseum floors/ I stepped on stage, at Live Aid/ All the people gave and the poor got paid/ And out of speakers I did speak/ I wore my sneakers but I’m not a sneak/ My Adidas touch the sand of a foreign land/ With mic in hand, I cold took command/ My Adidas and me close as can be/ We make a mean team, my Adidas and me/ We get around together, we down forever/ And we won’t be mad when caught in bad weather/ My Adidas/ My Adidas”(1986).
By opening My Adidas with this verse Run D.M.C. layout how they wear the sneakers, how the sneakers travel with them, and ultimately how the sneakers and the brand have become part of the rappers. The song was a commercial success and highly acclaimed. Due to the success of the song Adidas reached out to Run D.M.C. and offered the group an endorsement deal. The deal was the first of its kind. Following this deal we began to see other fashion companies like Tommy Hilfiger, Polo Ralph Lauren, Gap, among others offering similar deals to other hip-hop acts and other groups. It is important to note that the brands offering these deals were white-owned.
Run DMC My Adidas World Tour Poster
Tommy Hilfiger with Rosie Perez and Q-Tip (Tribe Called Quest)
Through getting these endorsement deals hip-hop acts become the face of these brands. Therefore, the question can be raised if the hip-hop acts are receiving these deals are their hip-hop performances legitimate, or are they just performing for the brand? While this is a valuable question, i do not think this is a question that WE should be asking because even with partnering with these brands hip-hop acts can still engage in a disidentification project. This is to say there is a more expansive understanding of disidentification that says:
“Disidentification is about recycling and rethinking encoded meaning. The process of disidentification scrambles and reconstructs the encoded message of a cultural text in a fashion that both exposes the encoded message’s universalizing and exclusionary machinations and recruits its workings to account for, include, and empower minority identities and identifications. Thus, disidentification is a step further than cracking open the code of the majority; it proceeds to use this code as raw material for representing a disempowered politics or positionality that has been rendered unthinkable by the dominant culture” (Muñoz, 1999, p. 31).
Meaning, disidentification works to rethink or reconstruct ideas, systems, tastes, and meanings to resist and challenge the majority or in the case of hip-hop, disidentification is the process of remixing whiteness and white supremacy. So it looks like when hip-hop acts partner with these white brands we simultaneously see Black-owned fashion brands like Kani, Cross Colours, Walker Wear, and others emerge that challenge white-owned brands by disidentifying with their market strategies.
To make this conversation more contemporary it is because of these fashion disidentification projects and the emergence of the Black-owned fashion brands that serve as sites of disidentification that an artist and designer like the late great Virgil Abloh can become a staple in the fashion industry. Virgil Abloh was a Black fashion designer, artist, DJ, and creator who passed away in late November of 2021 at the tender age of 41. Prior to his death Virgil shook up the fashion world with his use of hip-hop/ streetwear fashion ideas and combining them with more high-end or mainstream fashion companies. Virgil had his own Black fashion brand called Off-White. One of the most iconic fashion designs Virgil created was the Off-White x Air Jordan 1 High Chicago’s. This collaboration is the epitome of a disidentification project and is a demonstration of remixing whiteness and white supremacy. This is to say Virgil was able to take a mainstream or popular sneaker and was able to design a sneaker that respected the integrity of hip-hop fashion while also making a product that is considered high fashion.
It is with this collaboration that Virgil completes a disidentification project because he one works with Nike a brand that is white-owned but he resists the brand by stamping his artistic expression onto the sneaker. In addition, it should be noted that these sneakers sell for thousands of dollars. Therefore, the question many will and continue to ask are the sneakers real hip-hop? Or because these sneakers have entered the mainstream and are a global phenomena are they radical? And i will return to what i said at the beginning. i don’t know where to start with this shit.
However, what i do know is the culture that started in the Bronx that required a double consciousness has now become something no one could have imagined. Thus hip-hop now has a mestiza consciousness. While mestiza consciousness is a Chicano feminist theory i find it to be powerful to use here in the way that Gloria Anzaldua says she has no country, hip hop today has no borders. Yes, Hip-hop is a uniquely American Culture and has origins in a Black suffering and radical tradition but it is a culture that is fundamentally entrenched in artistic expression. And being, a culture of art it is a culture that should be and needs to be seen as subjective art cannot be objective, nor can it be placed on a binary.
Therefore, WE cannot put hip-hop on this binary of radical vs commercial. Thus hip-hop needs to be seen through a new consciousness like a mestiza consciousness where it can exist in the center or in between radical and commercial. This is to say for hip-hop “That focal point or fulcrum, that juncture where the mestiza stands, is where phenomena tend to collide. It is where the possibility of uniting all that is separate occurs. This assembly is not one where severed or separated pieces merely come together”(Anzaldua, p.79). Hip-hop can stand in the middle of radical and commercial, and it has. Hip-hop has through the practices of disidentifications has been radical in the sense that it has provided young Black folks the opportunity to express themselves through an artistic double consciousness which has also helped the same folks to provide opportunities for other Black folks to express themselves in and participate in commercial activities like starting Black-owned fashion houses or collaborating with Nike. And this type of disidentification is radical and commercial and that’s beautiful. So to end this shit i know now that hip-hop can just be, it can be radical and commercial which is a peculiar sensation of disidentification.
Anzaldúa Gloria. (1987). Borderlands: the new mestiza = la Frontera (1st ed.). Spinsters/Aunt Lute.
Chang, J. (2005). Can’t Stop Won’t Stop A history of the hip-hop generation. Picador.
DuBois, W. (1903). The Souls of Black Folk.
Muñoz, J. E. (1999). Disidentifications: Queers of Color and the Performance of Politics. University of Minnesota Press.
Ross, C. A. (2020, August 11). Hip-Hop Hooray: The Birth of Hip-Hop. Retrieved December 8, 2021, from https://coffee-with-chuck.com/2020/08/11/hip-hop-hooray-the-birth-of-hip-hop/
Run–D.M.C. – My Adidas. Genius. (n.d.). Retrieved December 8, 2021, from https://genius.com/Rundmc-my-adidas-lyrics.
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