From Timbaland to Timberlands and Mos Def to Def Jam; from Questlove to Monie Love and Jam Master Jay to Jay Z, the branches of hip hop endlessly weave, leaving no area unrep'ed. Former rapper, award-winning journalist and Durham transplant Damien Ty Jackson provides nourishment via The Hip Hop Tree, a compact collection of "seeds, essays and thoughts" that recognizes the responsibility of nurturing our beloved culture as one we all bear. As editor of The Tree, Jackson begins with a message that serves as both a proviso and confession. He says, "First off, this collection is not a critique of current qualities in Hip Hop music." But in the very next sentence, he admits that snippets of dialog about hip hop's social liabilities may be sprinkled throughout this sleek compilation. The Tree's 90-some pages break down hip hop's conscience into a reflective trilogy of "lineage," "identity" and "empowerment." The eight-wo/man crew of writers and reciters consist of hip hop elders, knee babies and newborns, each tossing a narrative and matching poem into the mix; six of them call Carolina home.
In a piece entitled, "Echoes From the Old School," Indy columnist Derek Jennings (aka poetx) travels back in time to '79 when he first inhaled the "alliterative intro" to Sugarhill Gang's Rapper's Delight as a South Jersey pre-teen. Jennings' explicit reflections spark echoes of somebody's granddaddy tucked deep in the dirty south spouting bluesy back-in-the-day memories from a cozy porch post. "I would not leave the car until the song was over," Jennings remembers. "Which was a long time, cuz jams used to last like eight minutes É " Ya'll remember when radio jams was eight minutes long? Jennings dips down hard into the '80s conjuring names that generate fuzzy images of an art form both pointedly wise and youthfully ignorant as it approaches its 30th year. By way of seeds, Jennings plants one when he asserts, "Hip Hop is black culture on fast forward constantly morphing, adapting, reinventing itself--so much so that it even forgets about its own origins." This testimony goes a long way to explain why old-schoolers catch carpal tunnel flipping the radio on an aimless search for that real hip hop.
MC Hollywood The Star (Durham poet/playwright Howard Craft for all ya'll haters) picks up Jennings' sentiment in "Why The Love? A Hip Hop Testimonial," recalling time spent serving Uncle Sam overseas, anticipating the arrival of Word Up! Magazine from home while Salt-N-Pepa's asymmetrical hairdos lined his bunker walls. Craft credits hip hop culture, especially "conscious rap" like Public Enemy's It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back for garnering his "undivided attention," ultimately prompting him to wield the pen as his weapon-of-choice. As with his poetry, Craft drops dimes with fierce blatancy, making one anxious to find an old eight-track sample of MC Hollywood's early rhymes. Craft spits, "There are no cocaine fields in Compton, no gun manufacturers in the South Bronx É no bomb has ever been dropped in the name of niggers with attitudes." Yo, MC Hollywood? Where in Goldsboro can we cop them "Mighty Chill Crew" demo tapes?
Equally potent is "Darryl "SciPoet" Stover's ode to hip hop's Queens and B's entitled, "Diva Down," chocked full of can-I-get-a-witness homages to women spit-kickers both locally and internationally known to rock microphones. Speaking of the ladies, sistas are well-represented in The Tree by Fable Moon who honors "The Verbal Heroics of Hip Hop," which delves into afrofuturism tracing the supernatural Negro from Dolemite to Andre 3000. Blending fiction with warped realities, Charisse Carney-Nunes offers "Sleepin' on the Enemy," a short story rife with word play and blinging characters like "Princess Pus" and "Big Gunzy," who soar to the top of the rap game via misogynistic club anthems, while "Dick Whitestone" and "Fony Records" foot the corporate bill. Although some of the references are overworked, the story of Kiki (a young black woman who barters the legacy of her grandfather, a '60s revolutionary poet, for fame and money) reiterates the emergence of a pop hop blend of the culture formerly known as hip hop where predictable rhymes plus plenty bare booty equals stacked dollars.
Rounding out the collection is a piece by former Source Magazine editor and hip hop author/scholar Bakari Kitwana called, "Weapons of Mass Resistance." Kitwana poses a reexamination of the role of black art, a recurring theme in his own book, The Hip Hop Generation. Kitwana champions the establishment of a political agenda within hip hop culture to help mobilize the power of what he accurately classifies as "the dominant cultural movement of our time." He shouts out the "underground element of Hip Hop's cultural movement that is feeding into the spoken word movement," and asserts that "both are fueling the emerging political movement."
In less than 100 pages, The Hip Hop Tree reworks a once fertile soil, encouraging hip hop to remain fresh as a high-top fade circa 1988. Whether or not his intention is to "critique current qualities in Hip Hop music," Jackson assembles a crew who delves deep into the pop facade that dilutes hip hop, tenderly massaging the roots of a much-loved culture gone barren. --hattie adell