Table of Contents
2.1. Origins and Ideology
2.2.1. Communities and Non-Commercialness
2.2.2. Ethnic and Social Background
2.2.2. Rejection of Traditional Forms
2.3.1. Influence of Mainstream
2.3.3. Opposition of Mainstream
3.2. Rejection of Authority
As soon as rap music had proven to be something more than a short lived youth phenomenon it began to be acknowledged as an American counter-culture - maybe because of the often controversial lyrics, maybe because of the socio-cultural background of the participants. This paper raises the question if American rap music can be seen as standing in the tradition of the Beat Generation, an artistic and ideological movement that is treated as the foundation of the term Counter Culture as it will be used in the further progress.
The definition of this term is based on three texts: “The Culture of Spontaneity” by Daniel Belgrad, “The White Negroe” by Norman Mailer and “The Philosophy of the Beat Generation” by Jack Kerouac. These works have in common that they are all concerned with the phenomenon of the American Counter-Culture in general and with the Beat Generation in particular - be it from Kerouac's personal point of view, from a contemporary one like Mailer's, or from the scholarly perspective of Belgrad. They each deal with different aspects of this movement and in this give a broad definition of it, including ideological as well as formal points.
These individual notions are then used to construct a basis for a comparison. They are compared to respective aspects in rap music, with no special regard to decades, geographic focal points or stylistic tendencies. The rap culture is rather seen as an entity, the different artists as manifestations of its ideas. This means that the personal views and works of rap musicians are as important as their common denominator and are treated likewise. Yet there needs to be a distinction between those rap artists that create in accordance to the original ideas of Hip Hop and those who compromised on their musical integrity, whether due to the taste of the main stream or to artistic misleadings. The term 'Counter Culture' itself proves to be very helpful here, for it already implies that the followers of this movement oppose the 'Culture' of the main- stream and can therefore not be part of it, like the latter group of rap artists is.
Finally, the aim of this paper is to trace the similarities of the two movements, but also to highlight the differences - the reasons why rap Music should not be considered as part of the American Counter-Culture, as a new Beat Generation.
2.1. Origins and Ideology
2.1.1. Communities and Non-Commercialness
What counts for both movements is that they laid a focus on building up a community. This is partly due to the way in which they presented themselves and their art, and partly due to how they saw themselves. Neither the Beat Generation, nor the pioneers of the Hip Hop culture considered themselves to belong to a however defined elite. Their art was for the people, by the people and therefore open to anyone interested, whether as participator or as spectator.
Back in the late 70's when hip-hop was being pioneered [the] main objective was to bring people of the inner cities together, and cease the senseless violence that plagued the neighborhoods. There was no money needed or market to be targeted. It was two turntables, a mic, and hundreds of people gettin' together to have fun1.
The important aspects here are 'non-commercial' and the emphasis on the collective rather than the individual. Of course these aspects were also covered by the Beat Generation, as is proven through the many public readings and gatherings that were held especially in San Francisco throughout the mid-Fifties. Or by the countless voyages that were made through the continent, always with little to no monetary means and always an inspiration to the art of those that undertook them. And would it really be too audacious to claim that “On the Road” could as well play in the 21st century within the rap culture?
2.1.2. Social and Ethnic Background
Another important aspect that both movements share is mentioned by Daniel Belgrad in his introduction to “The Culture of Spontaneity”. Referring to the art of the Beat Generation, he states that it “provided an alternative means to cultural authority more accessible to aspirants from immigrant, working-class, and minority backgrounds”2. For both movements it was important to challenge “the predominance of […] Anglo- American traditions in the name of a more pluralistic and inclusive definition of American culture”3. If this counts for the artists of the Beat Generation with their mixed origins4, it holds even more truth for most rap musicians5. Even three decades after the birth of Hip Hop its sub-cultural authority is still formed by a multitude of ethnic and social groups.
It is, however, important not to mistake the cause for the effect here. The 'Culture of Spontaneity' was frequented by those groups because it provided ways for artistic expression that other institutions of culture denied them, not vice versa. A closer look at the formal aspects, the aesthetics, will bring some clarity.
The artistic manifestation is already inherent in rap music and it was of similar importance to the members of the Beat Generation. Even though the means to achieve it differ a lot, with the focus on audible and the focus on visual art, they still offer a lot of possibilities for a more profound comparison.
Spontaneity is a virtue to the artistic understanding of both movements, rap music and the Beat Generation. Kerouac has already laid this down in his “Essentials of Spontaneous Prose” and it does not take such a document to testify that rap musicians lay the same emphasis on these aspects. Their emphasis on spontaneity is best represented by the discipline of 'Freestyle', which means to invent the rhymes right before uttering them. This form of expression was basically at the very beginning of rap music and it is still very important to the contemporary rap scene as the many freestyle contests and -shows prove.
2.2.2. Rejection of traditional forms
But just like Kerouac's Spontaneous Prose, the discipline of 'Freestyle' was for most artists rather a way to reach an artistic goal than that goal itself. Yet its importance in the creation of art should not be underestimated. For many rap musicians it was the only possibility at hand and even if Phife Dawg's line “I learned to freestyle early 'cause I couldn't afford a pencil”6 may contain a good proportion of irony, it still holds some truth. Rap music laid no emphasis on the adaption of conventional forms, like for example coherence and metric in the lyrics or a compositional finesse in the production. It offered alternative means to “the oppressed people of neighborhoods who had nothing but a pen, a pad, some turntables and an ancestral yearning to express their inner creativity”7. And it was not important if this inner creativity was expressed even in a correct grammar as long as it came from the heart, was grounded on the right intentions. Just like the rap music does nowadays, the Beat Generation had also “emphasized 'honesty,' 'awareness,' and 'authenticity' over the mastery of traditional forms and techniques stressed by the established institutions of high culture”8
1 X'WuN The KING. “Hip Hop: The Counterculture That Became Mainstream Culture.” Philosophy's of an Exile. July 5, 2008 (accessed February 10, 2010) http://xdaking576.blogspot.com/2008/07/hip- hop-counterculture-that-became.html.
2 Belgrad, Daniel. The Culture of Spontaneity. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1998. 16.
3 Belgrad, Daniel. The Culture of Spontaneity. 40.
4 Kerouac had a French-Canadian background, Ferlinghetti and Corso Italian ancestors.
5 the first artist that could even be considered to be counted to the White Anglo-Saxon Protestants, the predominant group in charge of cultural authority, was DJ Flash in 1981.
6 Phife Dawg. “Thought U Wuz Nice.” Lyrics. Bend Ova / Thought U Wuz Nice. Groove Attack, 1999.
7 X'WuN The KING. “Hip Hop: The Counterculture That Became Mainstream Culture.”
8 Belgrad, Daniel. The Culture of Spontaneity. 16
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- Ruprecht-Karls-Universität Heidelberg – Anglistisches Seminar
- Ferlinghetti Ginsberg Kerouac El-P Phife Dawg Beat Generation Counter Culture Rapmusic