Hip-hop's Internet problem

In street culture's transition to the Web, a lot gets lost in translation. 
BY JOE SCHLOSS 

I WAS WATCHING Rosie O'Donnell recently. Um, I mean, I was
flipping through the channels and happened to catch Rosie, and
she was interviewing this group of earnest young white men
about their new theater piece, A Bomb-itty of Errors, which is a
"hip-hop version" of the Shakespeare play of virtually the same
name. They spoke about how theater needs to be introduced to
a new generation and how hip-hop is the key to making that
happen. It was clear from their demeanor that they were
intelligent, sincere people who truly cared about the culture.
Then they got up and performed one of the most egregious
displays of minstrelsy I have ever seen, complete with garish
costumes, sideways baseball caps, painfully exaggerated
Flavor-Flav dance moves, and blatant misuses of Black English
(Black English has grammatical rules; it is possible to speak it
incorrectly). How could these well-intentioned youngsters be so
misguided? I blame the Internet. 

More precisely, I blame the attitude that the Internet has
spawned: One should have access to everything all the time. The
problem is not what you get (unlimited information), but what you
don't get: context, experience, and time to think about what
you're doing. "It's kinda dangerous," notes Seattle MC and graffiti
artist Specs. "It's just gotten easier for people that have more
resources to get closer to things, or be more culturally
well-rounded in their exploits. Just because things are available
to 'em. So people are DJing for a year and then all of a sudden
they're in nightclubs. Or rhymin' for a couple months and all of a
sudden, they've got albums." 

Let's be honest here: I've made almost all the mistakes that
those guys on Rosie did (except the sideways baseball cap, but
that's just because of the shape of my head). There are two
differences between me and the hip-hoppers that came of age on
the Internet: I had real live human people around me to tell me I
was an ass; and I kept coming back anyway. 

HIP-HOP IS ABOUT social experience, about collective
engagement with reality. You're supposed to learn about hip-hop
by doing it wrong, being corrected, feeling stupid, and still
showing up the next day. In that sense, the Internet is the
opposite of hip-hop: It's individualistic, unreal, and you can't
dance to it. So it's surprising to see how central the Web has
become to hip-hop culture. Except when you consider the
upside. 

"It's very positive for a person like myself, that's hella into it,"
says Seattle MC and producer Samson S. "It's a valuable
resource. I get my daily hip-hop news from Support Online
Hip-Hop (www.sohh.com). I find out what underground 12-inches
are out, and I get to listen to 'em before I buy 'em. Shit, that's
unprecedented!" 

True. And, as my barber Spyridon "Spin" Nicon points out, the
benefits are not just for the hardcore heads. "I think you can
become an underground fan much easier now," he observes.
"Here's a good example. . . . Over the past three weeks I've been
hunting and searching for the Saukrates Underground Tapes EP.
I could not find it in Seattle. My girlfriend--who isn't even really
into hip-hop--heard me talking about it, and she went online. She
ended up finding it! All of a sudden, she was part of the
underground scene of Toronto hip-hop." But the increasingly
porous boundary between hip-hop insiders and outsiders raises
serious questions, like how hard you should have to work at
earning hip-hop knowledge. 

The Original Hip-Hop Lyrics archive (www.ohhla.com) features
reliable transcriptions, and the archive is a priceless resource for
hip-hop lovers. But every once in a while, you come across lyrics
transcribed by far-flung fans whose grasp of language and
American culture are, ahem, limited. When Willie D says he
"hooked a left at the Popeye's" (referring to driving through the
parking lot of a fast-food place), it is rendered on Ohhla.com as
"but they're laughing at pow pies." 

Another example of the Web's dubious role in hip-hop's social life
is www.okayplayer.com, which was founded as the official site
for Philadelphia's Roots crew, but which soon grew to
encompass affiliated artists such as D'Angelo and Common; it
also has a chat room. Intelligent and nuanced debates arise,
with artists good-naturedly squaring off against fans and vice
versa. But on Okayplayer, the opinion of a 14-year-old from
Norway carries equal weight as that of a DJ from the Bronx.
While the democratic implications of this are exciting, the
intellectual implications are less so. Individuals who may never
have moved in the social circles of hip-hop are emboldened by
their anonymity to speak on experiences they never had, and if
someone doesn't like it, well, there's not much they can do. A
flame war and a face-to-face argument are two very different
things. Personally, I've learned a lot from arguing with people. 

AS THE PUNDITS are fond of pointing out, the Internet frees us
from the pesky constraints of our physical bodies. But it also
frees us from the continuity of the body. In real life, if you feel
uncomfortable or exposed or stupid, you have to accept it, learn
from it, and move on. This is not the case online, where you can
turn off the computer and pretend it never happened. If you want
to learn anything about culture, you have to--have to--be willing to
mess up. "That's how I learned everything in life," says Mr.
Supreme, hip-hop producer and cohost of KCMU's Street
Sounds. "Through mistakes." The Web has robbed us of this
opportunity, and the results are starting to become apparent. 

There was an era when hip-hop, like most musical scenes, had a
probationary or hazing period built into it. Basically, the
enthusiastic but ignorant young "toy"--recognizable by their
idealism and overuse of slang--made a fool of him or herself while
learning the rules. It could be a painful education, but a valuable
one. You picked up things that couldn't be articulated in words:
how to stand, how to speak, why no one wore MC Hammer
pants in real life. 

The science of hip-hop sampling used to be handed down
through apprenticeships: Paul C taught the Large Professor,
Marley Marl (to hear him tell it) taught everyone else. If you
wanted to find out which soul, funk, and jazz artists were being
sampled in your favorite hip-hop songs, you had to hang out with
producers. Now you can simply go to the rap sample FAQ (that's
one URL I'm unwilling to plug). This site is a staggering
compendium of sample origins, information that until recently
was only available through personal research or word of mouth.
Still, there are many other aspects of the traditional
apprenticeship that you can't get through the Internet, such as
lessons in how to listen for breakbeats, access to out-of-the-way
record spots, and someone to blame when you spend your
whole paycheck on old Les McCann records. When it comes to
hip-hop, there's a big difference between online life and real life. 

And the people who miss this distinction, as Samson S. points
out, are often the people who most need to be thinking about it.
"I think that's wack if there's people out there whose only
connection to hip-hop is via the Internet," he says. "That's not
good. And then those are usually the same motherfuckers that
be comin' out acting like they're like experts and shit. And ain't
even never been booed. Or never been in a battle. Or never been
to a rowdy hip-hop show. To me, the Internet's just a tool to
enhance certain things." 

Such as personal experience. But, as Mr. Supreme asks, "How
can you have experiences if you're not there? Even if you read
about it, or watch a documentary or something. . . . You'll learn,
but it's not like being there. It's not like the real thing."