Words written by Hip-Hop Chess Federation founder, Adisa Banjoko.
Weap·on·ize, v. — To convert or to use an item as a weapon.
When Straight Outta Compton came out I did not watch it because of the role Eazy-E played in making my own, personal career happen. Writing about him was the first article I ever got a byline for and I was a 17-year-old kid in high school. I was coming back to California after a short vacation in Hawaii and I decided to watch it to distract me from the turbulence.
By the end of the film my eyes were tearing up at 34,000 feet in the sky. I’m having a million flashbacks about my times talking with Eazy, his death and everything that made hip-hop great in the beginning. My mind started drifting to the rise of Public Enemy, Geto Boys, 2 Live Crew, Tupac and Ice-T.
All of them were hated by the mainstream in the beginning. All of them told aspects of black life that most of the daily news was blatantly ignoring. Rap music was forcing mainstream America to see black life in its totality—unfiltered.
Hip-hop was a weaponized art from day one. It always told the truth others were afraid to tell. Within the culture, rap music was an unfiltered black voice of expression that white America could not control. DJ’s were able to change the ways records were played to use only what they wanted for their house parties and park jams. Graffiti art was created by kids who had art classes removed from their classroom. They picked up cans of paint and painted about everything from removing the mayor of New York to pieces against the nuclear war arms race in the eighties. The b-boys and b-girls created new movements to the new music that truly made the planet rock.
Soon all the media outlets were trying to explain it, attack it, devaluing it and writing it off as a fad that would never last. Several billion dollars later we see hip-hop as a global economic, political and social force. Today, hip-hop culture and music are behind some of the best Super Bowl TV commercials, it makes politicians from Vermont hang out with rappers like Killer Mike and engages artists like Talib Kweli, Brother Ali, Quadir Lateef and Jasiri X to help champion various social movements like #BlackLivesMatter and other forms of social resistance.
Not too long ago, Gene Simmons from the rock band KISS made some negative statements against rap music just as N.W.A. was being inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. He told Rolling Stone how much he hated rap and then he gave a great prophecy: “Rap will die,” he says. “Next year, 10 years from now, at some point, and then something else will come along.”
I love to see dinosaur era rockers still bitter that hip-hop robbed them of their coolness. No rock group on the planet will ever be harder than N.W.A. or Public Enemy. The rebellious nature of rap overshadowed a lot of what rock used to be.
That does not mean that all of hip-hop has to be weaponized. For everything rebellious, dangerous, taboo and controversy that involves hip-hop, it will always be a form of entertainment. It’s supposed to be fun. Kids love dope beats. They love clever, fun intelligent rhymes and that should never go away. The other reality though is this: As fun as it is, if we abandoned the weaponized elements of hip-hop then Gene Simmons prophecy will come to life.
To be frank, I would be lying if I said I didn’t love me some songs by Future, Migos and some of the other trap artists in the game. Hip-hop is the voice of the youth, and I’m in my mid-40’s. I’m not here to judge. I’m just an O.G. telling what I see. Right now, a lot of the shock and awe for the game is gone. The mainstream media is not afraid of black rapping males strung out on Molly and syrup, waving guns at the camera. They know the person doing that will only shoot other black men who look like them.
America is not as afraid of hip-hop as it used to be back in the day. I hear a lot of rappers sounding like they want to be like Tupac [Shakur], yet they never share the same pain and honesty on the mic that he did. N.W.A. and Public Enemy are in the Rock Hall of Fame now, but in their day they were hated, attacked, scorned and feared. Find me a rapper today embraced by the mainstream and I can show you a rapper that will never reach the heights of N.W.A. They will never make people scared like Tupac made people scared.
This series will look at each element of hip-hop (rap, graffiti, DJ’ing and dance) and showcase some of it’s most weaponized moments. If you’re riding with me, I will start way back, but don’t worry, I will bring it current. I promise.
Exhibit A: The Rap Music of Public Enemy
If a rap group ever had a proper name to match their actions, it was Public Enemy. Rising up outta Long Island (a.k.a. Strong Island) — they hypnotized young minds with their aggressive beats and politically charged lyrics. For many hip-hop lovers of that time, Public Enemy were the Second Coming of the Black Panther Party.
Exhibit B: Graffiti Artist Spin Bombs On Mayor Ed Koch
Of all the elements of hip-hop, graffiti (also known as aerosol art) is the only one in the culture that is truly illegal. If rap became illegal tomorrow, you’d see a million folks run off into the shadows. Because of that, I personally respect graf writers more than anyone else in hip-hop. This is mainly because they risk their freedom to do 99% of what they do and they know it’ll be covered up in a few months.
“In 2013 Slate.com wrote: Tensions began with his crackdown on graffiti, one of the so-called four elements of hip-hop. Koch wasn’t the first New York City mayor to wage battle against street art: Mayor John Lindsay declared the first “War on Graffiti” in 1971, and in 1976 Mayor Abraham Beame spent $20 million to buff all the trains. But Koch’s war on graffiti was particularly fraught. One of Koch’s first actions was to put dogs and razor-wire around the subway yards to discourage the young artists who tagged the trains. “If I had my way, I wouldn’t put in dogs, but wolves,” Koch said, at least partly joking, explaining that artists would be “scared as hell.” In the acclaimed 1983 documentary Style Wars, Koch defends his attacks on graffiti, saying that such vandalism “destroyed our lifestyle.”
Spin cut Koch deep with this piece. There have been many others to do damage to politicians or amplify messages in the hood. We will revisit these matters soon enough.