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This past Saturday, National Geographic (huh?) played host to a Nas- and Damian Marley-fronted panel that discussed the combined origins of reggae and hip hop, and also conveniently served as an opportunity to plug their forthcoming collaborative reggae/hip hop album Distant Relatives. Still, any excuse to get Kool Herc, DJ Red Alert, Rakim, and many more visionaries in the same room is a good look. The entire Some of the event is available for online viewing or you can just read my rambling recollections after the jump.
– Nas, as usual, was quite clearly higher than an eagle on ether. He kept pretty quiet for the bulk of the conversation and found most questions asked of him to be either or “heavy” or “deeeep.” I didn’t get the idea he wanted to be there. (When they opened the floor for the Q&A, very few questions were addressed to him, which is surprising as he was easily the biggest American star on the panel. Maybe people just know what to expect by now.)
– Damian Marley seemed a little more interested in self-promotion than any sort of actual dialogue. One audience member asked him what he would say if given a chance to talk to President Obama and Marley responded that he’d tell the president to “buy the album.” OK. His brother Stephen was a surprise guest and proved to be more engaging, playful even.
– Sway is a fantastic moderator at a forum like this. It’s impressive how overwhelmingly positive Sway remains in the presence of his childhood rap heroes, even after years of being a reporter and hip hop personality and probably knowing some of these guys personally. (I’ve only been doing this for a fraction of the time and with a fraction of the success and, as you can tell from this post alone, I’ve become completely jaded and cynical.) And though he oozes fanboy enthusiasm it’s never to the point where it’s disruptive.
– Billed reggae pioneers U-Roy and King Jammy were no-shows. The only reggae artist from the past generation present was Big Youth, who had a bit of a tendency to hijack the panel and talk forever, and vastly oversimplified the international connection by calling himself the first rapper. Still, dude was a pretty jovial narrator.
– Simply being in the same room with Rakim and Kool Herc sent chills up my spine. So yeah, not completely cynical, I guess.
– Sirus/XM reggae programmer Pat McKay and Jeff Chang, author of the incredible Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop, were unfortunately out celebrity-ed even though they were the ones making some of the more thoughtful comments throughout the night. And poor Chang was placed in the uncomfortable spot of coming out after Rakim and Kool Herc. “Ladies and gentlemen: the man who created hip hop (cheers), the greatest hip hop artist of all time (deafening cheers), and… a guy who wrote a really good book about hip hop (golf claps).” He was rightfully compensated when a girl in the crowd shouted “I love you Jeff Chang!” as the panel dispersed.
– Senegalese rapper Waterflow seemed very smart, realistic about the inability for international hip hop to break in the American market and totally reverent toward the pioneers of the genre. Even if he sort of hilariously kept referring to Rakim as “Eric B. & Rakim.” As in “it’s great to be on a panel with Eric B. & Rakim.” (Eric B. was not there.)
– Red Alert was a great contributor, as well. He made one of the more salient points of the evening by restating that many of hip hop’s originators were of Caribbean descent, but also noting that, in that era, it was not cool to be from the Caribbean—that, as kids, they were often mocked by mainland blacks for their ethnicity. So often the story of hip hop is told of united outsiders, but in a lot of ways it was second-degree outsiders within an outsider community gaining respect through the commonality of music.
– One employee of sponsor Vtech (presumably, he was sitting in their reserved section) was visibly drunk and awkwardly heckling, mostly mocking the Jamaican panelists for their accents until a coworker subtly escorted him out. The more things change…
– The most frustrating thing about this event, and this is usually the case at thesethings, is how little attention current day American hip hop is given (or current day reggae, for that matter, though I’m not as well versed in the subject to comment on its livelihood). It’s treated as an artifact, not a living, breathing entity. With the exception of Waterflow, not a single up-and-coming artist was on the panel and none were mentioned, even when an audience member asked what artists they draw inspiration from (it turns out Kool Herc is a big fan of Speech from Arrested Development’s new album).
– Instead, many of the guests and most of the audience members that spoke dealt with modern hip hop in the abstract. The phrase “gangsta” was bandied about as a pejorative and the age-old complaint about a lack of balance and diversity was constantly rehashed. As if the most popular rappers in the country aren’t currently a pretty-boy Canadian child star, a potbellied drug dealer, a corporate shill, an ex-sort-of-fake-gangsta turned martian, and a polo clad college dropout. (Though this line of conversation did lead to Nas making the awesomely disconnected comment of “everybody I know has rims on their cars.”)
– Similarly, the panel seemed stuck in the past technologically, tied to old media models and standards. Only Chang briefly alluded to internet distribution models; everyone else seemed hung up on near nonissues like radio play and major label shine. Again, I suspect that a lot of this had to do with the age of the guests. I understand deferring to legacy, but there are plenty of smart, young artists and thinkers in the hip hop (and presumably reggae) community who could have held their own up there.
– There was an afterparty at Zanzibar but Zanzibar’s far. Anyone catch it?