In 1998, Wu-Tang Clan’s Ol’ Dirty Bastard famously stormed the stage at the Grammys to proclaim that “Wu-Tang is for the children”. While not everyone would agree with that, it spoke truth: hip hop is for the children, a voice that resonates across the youth whether as a frustrated teen or, perhaps more importantly, as a long sought-after global representation of yourself. Hip hop, more than any other genre, is born from community, where global superstars and amateurs alike take pride in the places that raised them. Because of that, hip hop feels like a representation of an artist’s past, which stays with them throughout their careers.
It’s a strange irony, then, that hip hop is in some ways tarnished, lazily, as a genre that is anything but child-friendly, when it’s easily one of the most childlike genres. That’s not to say it’s in any way immature – during the N.W.A. years, nobody thought that Ice Cube would later be performing magic tricks on Sesame Street, or that Snoop Dogg would be so good at Halloween costumes – but the point is that hip hop has never felt the need to grow out of its childhood, and that’s never been a bad thing. From action figures to comic books, college years to Cartoon Network, the genre continues to use inspirations of childhood to diversify itself.
THE SOUND OF THE PLAYGROUND
Hip hop’s always had an affinity for its university and high school years. On the one hand, it can be the inspiration behind three of the best hip hop albums ever created (Kanye West’s Late Registration, College Dropout, and Graduation). On the other, it can lead to Asher Roth’s questionable 2008 pro-fratboy tragic-smash “I Love College”. While it’s not quite the turntable or the sampler, the high school marching band still holds an important place in hip hop history: from Outkast’s “Morris Brown” to Trick Daddy’s “Shut Up” and Yung Wun’s “Tear It Up”, the marching band helped create a sound for those whose inspirations didn’t lie solely in the grit of New York or LA’s G-Funk era. This was never more strongly felt than in the state of Virginia with the birth of the ‘Hampton Roads’ scene in the early/mid-90s, an area of the US state where the likes of Pharrell Williams, Missy Elliott, and Timbaland grew up.
As author Mickey Hess writes in his book Hip Hop in America: A Regional Guide, “understanding the role of high school marching bands on the Hampton Roads’ hip hop scene is imperative if one hopes to understand Hampton Roads’ hip hop.” Located on America’s east coast, Virginia is a prominent college state, where university campuses like Virginia Tech, Virginia State, and Norfolk State University are practically small towns in and of themselves. What we associate with typical university life in the US exists in Virginia, where amateur football teams fill arena-sized stadiums and the game’s half-time performance is a spectacle in itself. Because of this, the marching band has long been a weekly form of entertainment within the Hampton Roads area, bringing a ‘high school spirit’ to the area that became everyday inspirations for the likes of Missy Elliott, Timbaland, and Pharrell.
Fundamentality, marching bands rely on heavy and complex drum-based rhythms, snare rolls, horn sections and bravado. While N.E.R.D’s “Spaz” and Pharrell’s “How Does It Feel” share in that trait, it was a high school marching band that single-handedly turned Gwen Stefani’s “Hollaback Girl” – produced by Pharrell – into one of the biggest tracks of the decade. While Timbaland’s been doing the same for years with the likes of Bubba Sparxxx’s “Ugly” in 2001 and 2009’s “4 Minutes” by Madonna, it’s with Missy Elliott that the hip hop marching band truly reaches its peak. While “We Run This”, “Pass That Dutch”, “Ching-A-Ling” and many more Missy tracks heavily reference marching bands musically, aesthetically the coordinated dance moves, bright costumes, and the choice of locations in her videos are more than reminiscent of a high school nostalgia most of us never had.
CARTOONS TO WRITE BARS TO
Hip hop has long appreciated animation. Both provide an outlet for their creators to adopt a different persona, allowing them to tell stories that may seen as fantasy, but are embedded in truth. From hip hop’s infatuation with Akira and Madlib’s Quasimoto alias to the animated rap alias of Flying Lotus in Captain Murphy, animation is just another source of inspiration. Animation has also thrown up some pretty surprising collaborations too. It’s how Method Man and Redman were able to voice a pair of pixies on the Nickelodeon TV series The Fairly OddParents – and it’s why Cartoon Network played a more important part in hip hop history than you may think.
Before Adult Swim gave a platform to the likes of Tyler, the Creator, A$AP Rocky, and Schoolly D (who wrote the theme tune to Aqua Teen Hunger Force), Cartoon Network was doing the same with some of hip hop’s biggest names. In 2008, Outkast’s Andre 3000 was enlisted to front the criminally short lived Class of 3000, voicing himself as a music teacher in Atlanta, Georgia’s Westley School of Performing Arts. There’s also the little known Dexter’s Laboratory hip hop album Dexter's Laboratory: The Hip-Hop Experiment, a 2002 compilation of tracks inspired by the cartoon series. Somehow, the album managed to bring in some genuinely great talent: De La Soul created “Sibling Rivalries” for the album, a track dedicated to Dexter and his sister Dee Dee’s long-running feuds, while the late, great Phife Dawg of A Tribe Called Quest wrote “Love According to Dexter” for the record. You also had Coolio’s “Dexter” on there (with accompanying cringe-worthy video) and will.i.am’s “Secrets”, so it wasn’t perfect, but I guess experiments rarely are.
THE BIRTH OF A VILLAIN
For the heads reading this, it’ll be no surprise to read that when it comes to a mutual love of comic books and hip hop, few channel that better than MF DOOM. MF DOOM’s childlike nature lies in his very name, DOOM – not only is it based on Dr. Doom, the #1 nemesis of Marvel’s Fantastic Four, but the rapper also borrows his mask. His face is covered at all times by a pseudo-spartan metal mask that in true Madvillian style hides his identity from his enemies – which, given he’s known for cancelling gigs at the very last minute or for not turning up at all, are surely plentiful. While his image is of the supervillain, his dastardly persona goes much deeper than that. Take any one track and it’ll be littered with samples of 70/80s animated incarnations of Marvel shows and children’s TV series. In “One Beer” you’ll find samples from two episodes of the 1978 series The New Fantastic Four and one from 1981’s Spider-Man. “Hey!”, taken from 1999’s Operation: Doomsday, uses various Scooby Doo samples, and 2009’s “That’s That” lifts samples straight out of Who Framed Roger Rabbit? and various sound effects from the video game Doom.
DOOM is also known for his far reaching collaborative efforts, where inspirations from his childhood remain ever prominent. The video to Madvillian’s “All Caps”, his much-enthused collaboration with Madlib, is an ode to old school comic book artistry itself and tells the fable of DOOM’s creation. If you managed to scramble through the crowds at Record Store Day 2015 you may have found the previously banned “Black Bastards”, one of DOOM’s first releases with his former rap group KMD, which was re-released as part of a pop-up children’s book. And Bob Dorough’s “Little Twelvetoes” (originally used to teach kids their timetables as part of the educational TV series Schoolhouse Rock!) gained a new lease of life in the 2014 MF DOOM and Bishop Nehru collaboration “Om”. Who knew villainy could be so childish?
YOU HAVE TO PLAY THE GAME
From Run The Jewels’ Christmas jumpers and Bun B’s official rap colouring book to Biz Markie branded cereal boxes (rapping doll included, obviously), it’s near impossible to find something from your childhood that hasn’t been branded with a rappers name. If you search hard enough you can pretty much find any rapper in action figure form, from the Beastie Boys and J Dilla to fanmade P Diddy Lego sets (which can be yours for a cool £100) to this bootlegged Tupac/Robocop crossover. Furthermore, if you can’t wait for Danny Brown’s upcoming Dr. Seuss-inspired tale to hit the shelves, then LL Cool J’s 2002 children’s ‘novel’ And The Winner Is… should help pass the time as you wonder how the hell its front cover managed to make it through quality control. Where video games like Wu-Tang: Shaolin Style were an uber-violent extension of the Clan’s image, games like NBA Street and SSX Tricky (where Beastie Boys DJ Mix Master Mike was an unlockable character) brought the wider hip hop culture to the front rooms of middle England. When it comes to merchandise, nobody does it quite as creatively as rappers – perhaps because rappers see themselves as ‘brands’ more than other musicians, but possibly also be because hip hop generally looks to inspire the youth more than other genres do. Hip hop by nature aims to change pop culture and hand down knowledge to the next generation, and an action figure of your favourite rapper is just another way of doing that.
Follow Jack Needham on Twitter here @tiestosdad