On Death and Rebirth: MCA and the Spirit(s) of Hip-Hop, by Mike D’Errico

by justindburton on May 21, 2012

“Hip-Hop is Dead” –Nas

On Friday May 4th, Adam Yauch—a.k.a. MCA, of the hip-hop trio The Beastie Boys—died of cancer at the age of 47.

So read the opening lines of countless obituary pages and tribute articles, from Rolling Stone to MTV to an endless number of hip-hop blogs. Millions of fans tweeting and retweeting their favorite rhymes, cars at stop lights blasting Check Your Head and Licensed to Ill, friends reminiscing, iTunes singles reselling, sounds resounding. Yet, as is always the case with mourning, it is never solely the individual deceased that we remember. It is the ghost that we hold inside ourselves, the nostalgic memory of what once was, the tangible intangibility of collective memory: that bassweight in your gut after a show, spirits speaking through clenched-fists at the freestyle battle, the beating heart of hip-hop. For Sasha Frere-Jones, it is not only MCA who has left us, but early ‘80s New York, as well as a part of his own American Dream, “Adam Yauch was a part of my childhood, an ambassador to America from our New York, which is now gone, as is he.” Others lament the end of the golden age, the sound of a particular historical moment archived, frozen in crates of vinyl: “The golden age of New York rap ended a long time ago, and with MCA’s death I’m reminded of what’s already been relegated to the milk crates.” These are the ghosts that come back to haunt us whenever another idol falls. Indeed, it is not solely Adam Yauch to which we pay tribute, but the pieces of himself (and ourselves) being left behind.

It was fitting, then, for me to pull up Paul’s Boutique on my Spotify playlist. One of the first vinyl records to fill my crates—my introduction to hip-hop—now floating around in the cloud. Indeed, its ubiquity has provided the very syntax of technical practice in sample-based hip-hop, what DJ Q-Bert calls a “breaktionary”: an archive of building blocks as well as the practical techniques used in their juxtaposition. Drum break fills as verse transitions, short orchestral stabs as vocal introductions, imperfect loops forcing us to feel the anacrusis; an eternal return to where we began. Utilizing over three hundred different sample sources in under an hour of music, Paul’s Boutique sparked the war on copyright, two years before Biz Markie and Gilbert O’Sullivan. It is open-source culture before the widespread “platform politricks” of the digital age, as The Beastie Boys drop the needle on their own place in the American Dream. From disco breaks to 808s and punk guitars, the album has become one of the many ghosts in the aural history of hip-hop culture, a spectral legacy haunting the minds of beat heads and crate diggers around the world, forever refusing to be buried in the milk crates from which it originated.

“Hip-Hop culture is eternal” –KRS-One

Cancer epitomizes the deepest anxieties of hip-hop culture. The seemingly unstoppable virus, gradually eating away at the physical body, tearing the material from the spiritual self, and exposing the vulnerability of memory. It is the supreme metaphor for the endless march of capitalist “progress” in the digital age: history threatening to erase its own past, technology consuming itself, the MP3 replacing the CD replacing the Tape replacing the Vinyl record. The constant fear of being erased, what Jeff Chang calls the “politics of abandonment,” is at the heart of ongoing claims for the death of hip-hop. At the same time, the culture attempts to immortalize itself by etching scriptures onto wax, and tagging its name onto concrete. Hip-Hop is dead. Long live Hip-Hop.

Letting the dead bury their dead, only to resurrect them as a testament to eternity. Thus the importance of myth in hip-hop culture: Tupac’s “Resurrection” as an omen for his eventual return as a specter, J Dilla ventriloquizing through the ghosts of soul, dropping the needle on the record, stretching the sample, manipulating time. To protect its own history, hip-hop posits itself beyond past and future, looping around the present and eternally returning to a constantly changing origin. Full circle. It has to exist primarily as a feeling, a spirit, a ghost of itself, neither here nor there, but ubiquitous as the inescapable proliferation of the sub-bass frequencies, and the cracking backbeat. It buries itself in stacks of vinyl records, only to be conjured in the form of the throbbing crowd, the passing car and the digital sample, what Bob Fink calls the ghost in the machine. Of course, in the end it is not the ghost of hip-hop we are confronting, but the ghosts of ourselves in the hip-hop machine. Hip-Hop is dead. Long live Hip-Hop.

With the recent death of MCA, hip-hop culture finds itself in an all too familiar place. Looking back on its own demise, sounding the death knell as yet another chance for rebirth. It is that moment when the record has run its course, but the vinyl continues to spin, the needle having lost its place amongst the grooves on the wax. Amidst cracks and pops, the grain of the voice echoes in our heads, over muted drum breaks and lo-fi chops. Yet, as the sounds fade from memory, the record still spins. We let the needle drop once again, at the beginning of the record, seemingly familiar sounds taking us to a different place now. Dust on the surface reverberates in the fragmented grain of the digital sample, the glitch in the CPU overload, the gap in the streaming data, the ghosts of new media conjuring their own past. Perhaps it is time we learn to live with these spectral moments, apparitions who transgress boundaries, walking through walls, and speaking through vessels. More than anything, deaths in hip-hop displace time, memory, and materiality, asking us to take responsibility for history. Learning to live, finally. Full circle.

“You can’t, you won’t, and you don’t stop” –The Beastie Boys

With a musical background in classical percussion, popular music, and electronic dance music, Mike D’Errico has performed as a DJ with various hip-hop, electronic dance music, and noise artists in the Boston area, a drummer and percussionist for multiple bands and orchestras including the Portland Symphony Orchestra and the Maine State Ballet, bassist and praise band leader, keyboard player with New Hampshire rock bands, and co-founder of the chiptune music duo, The Attic Bits. As a recent graduate of the University of New Hampshire (BM in Music Education) and Tufts University (MA in Music with a focus on Musicology), Mike is currently researching topics such as popular music and technology, electronic dance music, compositional methods of hip-hop production, 8-bit chipmusic and videogame culture, and the changing trends in hardware interface and software controller technology.

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