Dear Hip Hop: A Letter to the Hip Hop Generation

This post is part of our forum on “Hip Hop at 50. 

Hip hop DJ scratches vinyl records on turntables (Shutterstock).

Dear Hip-Hop,

It’s the summer of 1973. The Bronx was on fire, trash filled the streets, and neighborhood gang violence permeated every nook and cranny of the borough. You weren’t born yet. It wasn’t until August 11th, 1973, that DJ Kool Herc breathed onto his turntables and gave you life, and you rose from the ashes.

It’s now October 2nd, 1997, you just turned twenty-five years old about two months ago. You have aged gracefully, but not without growing pains. With your rise into the mainstream, you have experienced great doubt and misunderstandings. At first, people didn’t get you, then people thought you were dangerous, and now people thought you lost your way. In addition, you have lost so many souls in your accession like DJ Scott La Rock, Eazy-E, the Notorious B.I.G., and Tupac. Despite losing these heroes you have given new life. I was born on this October day, and since that day you have been part of me. Hip-Hop, you have influenced much of my life. You showed me how to dress, you inspired the way I walk and talk, and you taught me how to read the world from a perspective that bends time and location.

It is now the summer of 2023. It is a peculiar sensation to reflect back on you in this way as I can’t imagine life without you. I cannot remember a time that you weren’t part of my life. However, as I pause and reflect here, I think about my father. Can my father imagine a life without Hip-Hop? After all, he was born in June of 1965 and the hip-hop scholar Bakari Kitwana defines the first “Hip-Hop generation” as African Americans born between the years 1965 and 1984. I never asked him this question and I won’t pretend to know what he would say, but what I do know is that my pops is part of the “Hip-Hop generation.” In Can’t Stop Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation Jeff Chang writes that “the Hip-Hop generation brings together time and race, place and polyculturalism, hot beats and hybridity.” I believe you also do more than that for this generation. I believe you tie people together and give them hope in a world that sometimes seems bleak. Today I would ask Chang “what does my generation bring together?”

The Hip-Hop generation is unique in what it brought forward because of what it grew out of.

The Hip-Hop Generation politically grew out of the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements. However, while these movements inspired you, you do not pretend to be these movements because, “[l]ike most youth-based cultures, generation Hip-Hop believed that previous generations simply did not understand the world it inherited or why the movement was so important to them.”

So while you politically grew from these movements you didn’t profess to be these movements. This is to say you’re not about being political by marching in the streets. Instead you choose to be sonically political like funk music or the blues. The blues is uniquely a Black expression like Hip-Hop. Lester Spence calls it Black Music. As Black music, you have “been a powerful vehicle for black political expression. This is partially because of historical constraints placed on black speech because black music requires the least amount of persistent engagement.” In this way, the blues and you are powerful tools for Gaye Theresa Johnson’s “sonic politics and for Spence, as “[s]ong lyrics travel faster than even the most powerful political speeches. Those fearful and hopeful of rap and hip-hop acknowledge this. Those hopeful believe that these messages and images can progressively transform black identity and black political practice.” It isn’t just in the words that make you political, but it’s in the vibrations from the 808s that get Black folks dancing like it’s 1979.

You sample funk music with impunity so much so that you act in many ways that funk did.  Funk dismantled white coherence by flipping any general understanding of funk on its head. This is to say Black folks understand funk in nuanced and radical ways. Rinaldo Walcott writes, “First is funky, as in body odor, and second is funk, as in seriously danceable music. Those two notions of funk always met at the junction of the word bad. Either one smelled ‘bad’, meaning nasty, or one was a ‘bad’ dancer, meaning you could funk, you could get down. From the ‘funky chicken’ to ‘kung fu fighting’ to ‘everybody get up to get down’, funk was, and is, always a call to some kind of action. Funk is impulse, funk is soul, funk is Black, funk is queer, funk is . . .” Funk is uniquely and inimitably Black, and to be funky is to be Black. You are funky.

Moreover, to return to the question at hand of what Chang would say about my generation, I don’t know exactly. However, what I would say is something that Chang says at the start of his book and that is “Generations are fiction.” It does not matter what generation brings what, in the same way, it does not matter what my dad has to say about a life without Hip-Hop. You are intergenerational. You cross generations and bring generations together like my dad and me. You are the reason why my dad and I can listen together to Whoodini, Grandmaster Flash, and Eric B & Rakim, then transition to Cordae, Juice Wrld, and Fivio Foreign. The point is we do not have to imagine such a life without you because we have you.

And you do not just define one generation. You merge generations and movements and create new possibilities of seeing the world with a unique temporality by being politically funky. Hip-Hop–I am so thankful for you.

Love and P.E.A.C.E.,

Charles Allen Ross

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Charles Allen Ross

Charles Allen Ross is a doctoral candidate in American Studies and Culture at Washington State University. Primarily in his work, Ross studies the Black Radical Tradition and its aesthetic, and the production of Black art. The title of his dissertation is "It's Bigger Than Hip-Hop, It's Religion: A Block Party for Reimagining Black Life In and Out of the Wake," a textual based analysis examining the performances of Erykah Badu, Dead Prez, and Mos Def at Dave Chappell’s 2004 Block Party. To learn more about Charles and his work you can check out his website or follow him on Twitter @Rosscharles03.

Comments on “Dear Hip Hop: A Letter to the Hip Hop Generation

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    Beautiful post, Charles. Great series. It is great to have Black Perspectives back from summer vacation.

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