Gnathic's tiny apartment is immaculately clean. Lit warmly by white Christmas lights and a lamp by the futon which serves as the central couch, it is not exactly where you'd think to find the heart of hip hop in Albuquerque. Gathered around the main and only real room in the apartment, however, are two MCs, a DJ, a break dancer, a graffiti artist and a guitarist—all of whom claim to be, more or less, a part of the growing sub-culture known as hip hop. According to these 20-something men, hip hop is alive and well in the Duke City.
DJ Intro, Gnathic, Phil and N8 Trauma are all members of the local hip hop group Brain Sweat. Having recently released their independently produced album (available at Hastings, Natural Sound and L.A. Underground) they are a good place to start in the surprisingly difficult journey to define hip hop. With the aid of graffiti artist Plot and break dancer Dylan they represent a little bit of what Dylan hesitantly calls “the four elements of hip hop: DJ-ing, MC-ing, ’grafing', and breaking.”
“I manipulate sound with a turntable,” explains Intro, Brain Sweat's DJ. “You can compare it to freestyle jazz.” Gnathic and Phil, both MCs for the group, describe themselves as lyricists or rappers and N8 Trauma plays bass guitar.
“What I'm upset with,” says Intro, “is the radio.” The rest of the group echoes this general distaste for mainstream media's presentation of hip hop culture.
Gnathic claims that hip hop “is a little more intellectually driven, has more to say politically” than what you hear on the radio.
“You know what's really hip hop?” asks Plot, and the sarcastic tone is more than obvious, “smoking marijuana and drinking forties on your porch. I'm gonna say that's the most hip hop thing I've ever done.” Laughter fills the apartment.
Apparently it's easier to define what hip hop isn't than what it is. Though music itself provides the core of the subculture, it isn't all encompassing. Plot, a local graffiti artist claims that “70 percent of the people who write [graffiti] listen to hip hop.”
The break dancing, which, according to Dylan, started as a Haitian marshal art Kapoera became the particular style of dancing which is done to a hip hop beat. But not all breakers dance to hip hop, not all graff artists listen to the music, and believe it or not, not all rappers are hip hop MCs.
In fact the members of Brain Sweat and their compatriots were all decidedly irritated by the label “hip hop” and its manifold misinterpretations. While they're willing to throw the term around a little bit, they are all much more interested in discussing what the music, artwork and dance movements they make represent individually and to their audiences.
“When you learn your ABCs as a kid you learn it through song,” says Gnathic. “A lot of hip hop out there now does the same.” Intro nods his head in agreement and explains “Some do it for fun, for knowledge. You can learn from it.”
Not only that, but you can start the learning for free. Although Plot is quick to point out that music equipment isn't cheap, there is always a way for the genre to find its way into a party or a street corner with no real financial support. Beat boxers can replace DJs to some degree, making beats with only their vocal cords; MCs rap alongside them, break-dancers need only their bodies (though a sheet of linoleum helps with some of the moves) and for graffiti, as Plot says “use anything, scratch in the sidewalk.”
So what, exactly, is hip hop then? Mnemonic device? Music performed and enjoyed outside mainstream channels? Public art? Uh? Well? It's diverse.
“It's got multiple levels to it,” says Gnathic.
“It's a way of communicating” says Phil.
“It's so different than what 90 percent of the population that listen say hip hop is,” says Plot. “It's about resistance against corporate fucking pop,” says Trauma.
About the only straight answer you can get from Brain Sweat and their dancing and graffing friends is that hip-hop is not an adequate word to get at the underground culture from whence it comes.
N8 Trauma, who (as he freely admits) looks a little more like a member of the pop band Hanson after a few good years of fierce rebellion and maybe a little drinking than your run of the mill hip hop guru, plays bass guitar for Brain Sweat and is also the lead guitarist for the local heavy metal band Anesthesia. He is the best example of the apparently amorphous nature of hip hop culture in Albuquerque. Able to appreciate the general reticence of underground hip hop to measure up to pop culture standards, he claims that hip hop and heavy metal are related.
“It's a touchy style of music. Don't sell out. Underground, the fans are really hardcore.”
This resistance, apparently, is what separates underground hip hop from the popular rap icons like Nelly or Jay Z. “Rap has been popularized recently through mainstream artists” says Gnathic, claiming that “hip hop is different than that.”
Certainly all of the supposed four elements of hip hop culture display a striking element of resistance. Even DJ-ing struggles literally against popular music, breaking it apart, changing it and reusing it. “It has its own flavor to it,” explains Intro, “like a signature.” MCs and even break dancers battle each other, matching wits, rhyme skills and dance moves. Graffiti artists fight against restrictions of public space, not to mention the less philosophical laws which prohibit much of their work.
What's clear is the easiest way to loose the signature that makes underground hip hop its elusive self is to sell out. And this is apparently true for everyone from DJs to MCs to graff artists. But there's also a path where self-expression and the public commons collide. Says Plot of illegal graffiti writing: “If you don't go out and tag, you might as well just go to an art school. I know a lot of people who do both, but that ain't me. It's too cool to be in it. It's too Nelly.”
To be hip hop, then, if there is a way, is to avoid its mainstream stereotypes. Or, as Intro says, “Be a pioneer. Do it for yourself. Go out there, go past the trees, shut off the media and explore for yourself.”