“Not until you’ve listened to Rakim on a rocky mountain top / Have you heard hip hop,” the poet and Renaissance man Saul Williams once rapped. “Extract the urban element that created it / And let a open wide country side illustrate it”
I’ve thought about these lines a lot over the years. I grew up listening to hip-hop and rap, especially the most politically unconscious variety, the kind that could most easily be summed up in the Notorious B.I.G.’s phrasing as “party and bullshit.” Then in my 20s, I wrote a coming-of-age memoir that was really an exercise in overcoming this strand of urban street culture—glorified and thrust upon blacks of my generation through hip-hop music and its milieu—which I argued had become conflated with racial authenticity.
But I never really stopped listening to the music. How could I? Besides being infectious and formally appealing on uncountable levels, it was also the sound of my childhood and adolescence. That is very hard to discard entirely. As I grew and left home and my tastes expanded, I began to hear this music in contexts far away from the urban East Coast environments that had birthed the form, and I understood intellectually what Williams had meant.
This week, however, two events came together to provoke a kind of aesthetic euphoria that, I think, also finally unlocked the full meaning of his words. I found myself in the verdant, mountainous Swiss landscape outside of Basel, inhaling the crisp, earthy air, staring at a rainbow and listening on a good set of headphones to the newly released Black Thought EP, Streams of Thought, Vol. 2—an exquisite late work by one of the most talented lyricists ever to partake of the form. Williams believed that you can only truly understand the formal accomplishment of hip-hop by considering it on its own merits, divorced from the many complicated and often problematic social elements it both channels and frequently provides a soundtrack to. At that moment, I felt his point viscerally and perhaps even spiritually. It was the closest I’ve come to prayer in a long time.
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