hip hop

Explosion: Web sites don't just focus on the music, they address its impact on popular culture.

April 10, 2000|By Melody Holmes | Melody Holmes,Contributing Writer

Alex Hill's hip-hop Web site takes up all of his spare time and doesn't make money. But like so many who have come to love hip-hop, he brings a passion to his hobby.

"It's more than something I just do -- it's all I am," says the 36-year-old Sacramento, Calif., programmer who created www.mrblunt.com, an online collection of essays, lyrics, graffiti and other artifacts of hip-hop culture.

Hill is a new media artist in the culture of hip-hop, on the leading edge of a musical genre that has virtually exploded online.

Want to hear the latest single by Ghostface Killah or learn about the musicians who backed D'Angelo on his latest album? At Hill's and other hip-hop sites, fans can not only listen to the latest music, but also learn more about the movement whose influence has reached into every corner of American pop culture. For parents who wonder what their kids are listening to, these are good places to find out.

Some hip-hop sites are one-man crusades, while others are backed by multimillion-dollar players such as Russell Simmons and FUBU clothing. The most ambitious sites, including The Source, RapStation (founded by Public Enemy's Chuck D) and Platform.net, reach well beyond the usual fan fare and the latest news about baggy pants to focus on community issues.

"What's refreshing about these Web sites is that they're not just concentrating on music, because it's also a lifestyle," says Sreenath Sreenivasan, an associate professor at Columbia University who teaches new media studies and consults with y2g.com.

For example, the lead news item on The Source's Web site Wednesday was a follow-up to the Microsoft antitrust ruling in federal court, pegged to chairman Bill Gates' $1 billion donation to Native American, black and Hispanic educational foundations.

Says Sreenivasan, "They make it relevant to the community."

As a cultural movement, hip-hop started more than two decades ago in the black and Hispanic communities of the Bronx, with graffiti, break dancing and rap as its center. Its lyrics describing urban life were new to many audiences, but in 1980, the Sugar Hill Gang's "Rapper's Delight" made Billboard's Top 40. Its lyrics -- "I said a hip hop the hippie the hippie to the hip hip hop, you don't stop" -- became so popular that the culture surrounding rap music took on the name.

Today, hip-hop includes the inventive use of language and urban dialects, clothing styles (e.g., baggy pants and oversized parkas) as well as the hard-edged music that often focuses on storytelling. Sexually explicit and violent lyrics are part of the mix, but so are sophisticated political messages and more tender slices of life.

From the start, hip-hop has had its ups and downs -- the biggest down being the flap in the 1990s over "gangsta" rap's violent and misogynist message.

On the up side, hip-hop has made "mad" money (which means "a lot" in the language of rap) and has affected almost every aspect of American culture, says Tony Green, a music reviewer and editor at large of Blaze magazine, which follows the movement. Since the mid-1990s, albums by artists such as Snoop Doggy Dogg, DMX and the late Tupac Shakur have gone platinum. Some of the entertainment industry's most recognized celebrities come from the hip-hop tradition, singer-actors Queen Latifah and Will Smith, to name two.

SoundScan, which tracks music sales in the United States, doesn't break out hip-hop as a separate category but says that of the 755 million albums sold last year, 11 percent were rap music, the main hip-hop genre. Another 23 percent came from rhythm and blues acts, many of whom view themselves as hip-hop artists.

Along the way, the music has spread far from its urban base. Shaheem Reid, assistant music editor at Vibe magazine, says true hip-hop lovers range in age from 13 to 28 and cross racial and cultural lines. They react to the charisma of the performers and the element of implicit danger in their songs.

"As far as money, the biggest buyers of hip-hop are white kids in suburbia," Reid says. "They'll buy the CD, the tape and the single."

Large corporations, in turn, have noticed the trend. "A few years ago, it would have been unthinkable that Busta Rhymes would be doing a Mountain Dew commercial," Reid says.

On a technological level, hip-hop's leap to cyberspace wasn't a surprise. "So much of the music is being made with digital keyboards, sequenced through a program," says Green. "It's only a couple of clicks to send it online."

Those few clicks, and the psychological safety of the home, have fueled unprecedent growth of hip-hop online over the past two years. "The Web allows you to understand the culture without exposing yourself to it -- you don't have to buy The Source or Vibe or watch BET," says Sreenivasan. "You can do this in your own space ... and that has helped some of the explosion of the culture."

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