It’s events like this that make me believe that there is a good future for British music. Organised under the auspices of the Octavia Foundation, the recent Hip-Hop History event in west London was, first and foremost, a great idea. For a music geek like myself, the idea of having an evening devoted to the history of a genre as fascinating and eclectic as hip-hop was an intriguing prospect in and of itself. Add to that discussions and performances featuring some of this country’s most interesting established and up-and-coming MCs and I’m so there…
The evening started with a trip back in time with local boy Kevin Davis, who was part of Ladbroke Grove’s earliest hip-hop crew, thirty-odd years ago. Explaining that hip-hop in the UK goes back a lot further than many people would think, Davis discussed the tight-knit connections between the London and New York scenes of the time and talked about the parties his crew put on in the west London area.
(Incidentally, I was interested to learn from Davis’ fascinating talk that the dancer and actor Danny John-Jules (better known to most of you as the Cat in the cult TV comedy Red Dwarf) was also a hip-hop DJ on the west London scene in the 1980s and owned the UK’s first set of Technics 1200s – the decks of choice for every DJ worth their salt these days!)
Next up came a showing of Byron Hurt’s provocative and important film, Hip-Hop: Beyond Beats & Rhymes, which takes an unflinching look at masculinity, misogyny and homophobia in some aspects of hip-hop culture; articulately exploring how these factors affect both the music and the lives of MCs and hip-hop fans of all genders and sexualities.
As a feminist and a hip-hop fan (and yes, I am aware of the potential paradox there!), this film was of particular interest to me – especially the interviews with such legends as Chuck D, Mos Def and Busta Rhymes alongside the views of various academics and cultural commentators. Check the link above to find the film on YouTube, watch, and prepare to be informed, shocked and enlightened.
The panel discussion which followed the screening was equally fascinating. Some interesting points were made about the origins of hip-hop as party music, about its politicization as a genre, about how hip-hop reflects society (or otherwise), about the objectification of women in music videos, about violence and controversy in hip-hop, and about how it can be a revolutionary force for positive change if it inspires people to get up and get involved – as long as people are prepared to get up and get involved.
It was great to hear these often challenging issues being discussed with such passion by a panel of interesting, knowledgeable and intelligent individuals including Carlos Martinez, Isis, Lowkey and Akala. Personally, I believe that music can be a crucial and important force for positive change in society as well as in individuals, and it is good to know that there are other people out there who believe in this too; people who are prepared to openly challenge the status quo and be an active part of such change.
The evening ended with performances from talented up-and-coming MCs such as the Brotherhood Movement, alongside fantastic spoken word artists like Deanna Rodgers and Kate Tempest, the excellent Miss Trouble, an enjoyably eclectic mix of everything from Where’s Huey?, and some fierce rhymes from MCs like Akala, Lowkey and Marechal.
In amongst the intensity and ubiquity of American hip-hop, it has sometimes been difficult for the UK scene to make its mark and find its own voice. The Hip-Hop History event showed beyond doubt that British MCs and DJs have long had a style and an energy all of their own – and that this energy is safe in the hands of a new generation who are, as they should be, pushing it to its limits. I hope this won’t be the last of such events; the evening was both entertaining and thought-provoking.
A note on the photographs: These pictures were taken in low light conditions and without flash. Technically they aren’t brilliant – but I think they capture at least some of the kinetic energy and passion of these amazing performers…