By CHRISTA MORLETTI McINTYRE
In an age when collecting has trumped the library and become a mausoleum of consumer culture, Rap is one of the last cultural holdouts to maintain a sense of the individual as prominent in the artistic process. Its fluid appeal is easily translated, copied and replicated from continent to continent. It carries an element of sharing and community that is disappearing from the downloading culture of Pop music, and has never been prominent with Classical collectors. Rap is a chameleon: it has a sister, Hip-Hop culture, and can be translated into material objects, literature, entertainment, sensibilities, attitudes, politics, movies, dance and plays.
By nature, Rap is centered on Black identity, and while the popular critical battleground is to name the “haves” and “have-nots,” at one point or another a Rap artist must address the Black identity of the art. The “haves” are held under a magnifying glass for popularizing material excess without allegiance to community or explaining the Western European origins of the commodities they exploit lyrically. There is a conflict, since Rap is by definition the ultimate popular and most accessible musical expression of Deconstruction: a reassembling of portable culture whose birth came out of poverty and necessity, which still relies on the premise of parts that refer to physical, emotional, and intellectual history. While the wealthiest of authors can afford the resources to make each part themselves, they still follow the origins of the structure.
There is also an elegiac pattern among Black intellectuals. The beautiful fragments that compose what we call this culture, or in this case, a play, all come onto a common ground with Idris Goodwin, author of How We Got On, which opens Saturday night at Portland Playhouse and continues through October 25. How We Got On is a celebratory bildungsroman told through a Selector of three kids during the late 1980s Golden Age of Rap who lay down beats and rhymes, overcoming dysfunction and isolation through the music that shapes their lives.
The history of Rap is still under debate: was it born from the field holla, the preacher call, the long history of Black poets in America? Some say that it was born in the late 1970s. Others look at the Last Poets and Gil Scott-Heron in the late ’60s as the fathers of the genre. Heavily politicized by them, that message never left Rap: fundamentally, when we assume art is by definition communication, Rap is a dialogue.
I spoke with Mic Crenshaw, who is musical director of Portland Playhouse’s How We Got On, the day after he MCed the new documentary Who Is Gil Scott-Heron?, directed by Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard, at the Clinton Street Theater. Scott-Heron was the voice of the Black Panther Party on vinyl: he gave us a new notion of how to look at the divisions of our cities and the marketing that invaded homes more prominently in the ’60s. His message remains clear and authentic, providing a legacy that still cuts a good groove. At the premiere of the documentary, Mic Crenshaw – community leader, artist, co-station manager of KBOO radio –presented a group of young poets who shared their lyrics on the state of society today. It was an ellipse of history in motion.
Crenshaw, born and raised in the Midwest, moved to Portland as a young adult. He’s taken on a lot of projects over the years, from poetry slams to recording to working closely with Education Without Borders, and is the Political Director of Hip Hop Congress, the Lead U.S. Organizer for the Afrikan Hip Hop Caravan. He also works with Black Lives Matter.
Like many, Crenshaw had a defining time in his life when he first heard Rap. By asking him to direct the music for How We Got On, Portland Playhouse is bringing him back to that sweet time of his youth.
CM: How did the Gil Scott-Heron go?
MC: From front to back it was awesome. The youth that performed blew everybody away, so it was great.
CM: How did you like the documentary?
MC: I liked it a lot, but I was kinda tied up having conversations with people, playing the role with the public, MC facilitator. What I saw was great.
CM: I think it’s good that somebody finally made a documentary about him.
MC: Yeah, he’s an incredible man. I’ve only seen two concerts where I was actually moved to tears. His was one of them.
CM: What was the other one?
MC: Sade. After she hadn’t toured for eight years, she started her tour in Portland.
CM: How did it go with the kids yesterday and their performances?
MC: That was some of the most powerful/moving stuff I’ve seen. It’s refreshing to see young people channel energy and expression so effectively and clearly. For each one of those kids, their messages worked when they performed. It was amazing. You know, I’ve seen, I’ve competed in national poetry competitions and some of these kids were doing it better than some of the adults I’ve seen, than do it professionally. So, it was cool.
CM: Sometimes kids have so much more energy than we do.
MC: Yeah, they do. They’re not tired, yet.
CM: We’re not going to get tired! Do you remember Umbra Penumbra?
MC: You know what’s funny, I was just watching a documentary called The Good Life about this cafe that had incredible open mic Hip-Hop in L.A. A lot of groups like Freestyle Fellowship, a lot of West Coast artists like Of Mexican Descent who were influential in changing the game, were part of that scene. A few years later, we had our own thing going here with Chapel of Skills. I would once a week on Sundays, haul a PA down there. We would have an all-night, I think we developed 6-10 freestyle artists and the kids would come in, we’d have a DJ play beats and freestyle for hours.
CM: Are you seeing that with the kids today, that “let’s just do it, make something?”
MC: One of the youths who performed last night, part of the youth collective at KBOO, they were doing something down here called “1-2, 1-2.” On Friday nights, kids will come in here and have freestyle sessions at the station. Which is actually reminiscent of when I first established myself as an MC in Portland. In Portland it was through a series of battles at KBOO, over 20 years ago. So, it’s cool to see the continuum. I have to pick when I choose to share certain things. I don’t want to be the patronizing old guy. What’s cool to see is people doing some of the same things we did and understanding they actually don’t know the lineage. A lot of stuff that’s happening, they’re discovering it for the first time, so it’s new to them. But somehow it was passed on to them, even if they’re not aware of it.
CM: That’s funny, because a lot of the questions I have, have to do with lineage. I did a series of interviews last year with DJ Pauly Paul and Dupre Haney. There was a guy at KBOO called Michael J, he was the late night DJ. He transitioned from Disco/Funk and started playing Rap for the first time on KBOO. He had a thing called the Can Jam at Matt Dishman. Do you remember him?
MC: I wasn’t in the loop then. I wasn’t paying attention to what was on the air.
CM: How were you invited to work on How We Got On?
MC: I was invited to be a part of the ceremony (for) youth who were competing in the August Wilson Monologue Competition at Portland Center Stage. I gave a little talk when the awards were presented. Jen Rowe, who is the director of How We Got On, was there, and she appreciated what I had to say. I talked about authenticity, and how the youths were able to effectively channel the authenticity of August Wilson’s characters. The things that I appreciated about August Wilson’s characters is they often portray a cross section of Black American life. The personalities remind me of people that I’ve actually known and who have actually lived. I resonated with Jen Rowe, so a few months later she approached me and asked me if I would accept the position of being the music director for How We Got On. I thought it would be an awesome opportunity and said “yes.”
CM: Are you trying to get the time period as real as possible?
MC: I was a young adult during the period in which the play is set. The cast is playing characters who were alive and I have shared experience that some of the cast has written into their roles. I have an intimate knowledge of the music, the styles, the slang, the cultural expression that was part of Hip-Hop. It’s been cool to share that and it’s been awesome in a way that’s kind of personal to remember and fall in love with things which I would not be actively looking at on a daily basis.
CM: I think it’s really cool that Idris Goodwin wrote a play about a coming of age, which was a huge period in American culture.
MC: I feel lucky to have been around then.
CM: Do you think Goodwin caught that whole coming of age, birth of Hip-Hop, how it got into the Midwest and how you experienced it at the time?
MC: He did a good job of dealing with complex aspects of identity, of being Black, dealing with class. There’s a sociopolitical commentary that’s not really overt, on the surface. But looking at the identity and the experience and the dreams that these young people have, we get to take a look at that.
CM: Is there one of the characters that you identify more with?
MC: It’s funny, I really identify with all three of them. But, even all of four of them, actually. There’s Hank, there’s Julian, Luann and the Selector. The Selector is the elder, narrator, the older DJ that had the knowledge. I think of her as somebody who is actually my age, has the historical knowledge, to contextualize the experience of the younger characters. There’s aspects of each of the characters that, just from my own struggle with identity and my affinity for Hip-Hop culture, being a young person that had a dream about transcending from who I was to who I wanted to be, I relate with.
CM: What kind of tables are you going to be using?
MC: I got my friends to donate some decks. I haven’t actually looked up to see if they’re Technics 1200s. I put the word out on social media, any of my DJ friends have some busted decks they’d let us use. We’re going for visual authenticity, we want people to see what’s familiar to them.
CM: Are you going to remix the songs or stay true to how it was back then?
MC: We’ve got sound designs from Em Gustason. They’re helping us go through the era, some of the most popular Rap breaks from that era. Those will be interspersed throughout the play. We’re actually using the music true to that era. If you lived through that time and were a fan of Hip-Hop, you’ll recognize the breaks.
CM: What’s your favorite song in the show?
MC: That’s a tough question. I’ll tell you this much, we went through five or six different songs and they’re all in my head. They’ll subconsciously come up and I’ll find myself singing the lyrics. Oh, that’s a song from the show.
CM: How did you get introduced to Rap and Hip-Hop culture?
MC: Where I group up in Illinois, Chicago and some smaller communities and satellite cities outside of Chicago in the 70s and 80s, Hip-Hop was on the radio.
CM: Who was the DJ you listened to?
MC: There was WBMX, WGCI in Chicago. Late at night you would have House music. The first time I heard Hip-Hop on the radio was actually drive time. They would actually play it during the day: Rapper’s Delight and The Breaks. Those were the songs and of course, Grandmaster Flash: The Message. That music took off so fast amongst young Black folks in the hood and the community, it wasn’t long before people had the tapes themselves. Even if you weren’t in the car listening to the radio, somebody would have a boombox, if you were at the park or basketball court or the club. We would be wearing that tape out. You know, too, what happened was, people would go to New York, those of us who had families who went on vacations to the East Coast where they had Hip-Hop stations, would bring back cassette tapes from the landmark Hip-Hop stations, WBLS and so forth. Those tapes would make the rounds, we would rehave it with tape, it would fall apart and get ate up in someone’s deck and you’d try recover it as best you could. Some of those tapes were passed around for years. What I think is awesome and also interesting is that as the ’80s went on and Hip-Hop began to have different regional expressions, we would get tapes from different places. I remember the first tapes we were getting from Florida that had 2 Live Crew, all these underground Florida sounds with the 808 bass, they were the early ones who had the kind of electronica-sounding Hip-Hop that was all about sex.
CM: If Goodwin had written How We Got On 20 years ago, what kind of reception do you think it would have had?
MC: It wouldn’t have the weight. He would have had to written it about a previous cultural movement. In order for things to resonate the way they do, because right now we’ve had time to reflect on what this all means, correction: what it meant to us at the time. To produce a play about what is happening right now, it’s tough, you know there’s so much is happening right now with Black Lives Matter.
CM: If you’re going to be talking about lineage, it’s confronting something that’s been happening for hundreds of years and was really addressed in the ’50s. When is a change gonna come? I wonder if 20 years ago, the play would have been seen as fun, eclectic? Would people have taken it seriously, this is something that we have an affinity for?
MC: What’s interesting to reflect on is The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, the TV sitcom, catches aspects and it was a real-time expression. There were expressions of the different identities, expressions and culture that some of us were going through at that time. This play is set in suburban Black Midwest. These kids aren’t actually in the Black suburban area, they’re in a predominantly white suburban area. In that place they’re searching for their identity and they’re finding it through Hip-Hop. In some of the characters there’s this experience, that they have a foot in the city and a foot in the suburban life: they’re products of a broken home, they go back between the suburbs and the city. In a comedic and light-hearted way, that’s what Goodwin is playing with.
CM: Do you think that Hip-Hop culture can be a unifier, bring people together?
MC: I think it depends upon the intent of the expression.
CM: Who do you think is going to go to the play?
MC: I’m hoping that young and old, middle-aged and alike. I’m hoping people have evolved to the point, people who support arts and culture, having an understanding that Hip-Hop has played a pivotal role historically in the context of our nation and also currently. I’m hoping that people who are interested in taking a look at that, will come to the play.
CM: That’s my big question: Do you think Rap, Hip-Hop culture is going to be accepted and become a part of the older forms of Western Art? Or do you think the content and racial divide that we’re still challenging is going to continue to have it be part of the voice of the disenfranchised?
MC: It will always be an element of Hip-Hop culture of authenticity that is coming from the disenfranchised. That will never go away. It’s evolved into something that’s profitable and been exploited for commercial interests. But, the question as to whether it will be relevant of outside the the realm of experience of disenfranchised people, as seen as something beyond an alternative expression, that question has already been answered globally. Whenever I’m in Germany, or various cities and countries across the continent of Africa, the Philippines, or Central America, it”s essential and sounds like a cliché, but, Hip-Hop is a global culture and it matters to a lot of people in the ghettos everywhere. It’s the medium of choice for young people, so whether or not mainstream cultural institutions choose to validate it, everywhere, it’s already been validated.
CM: Will there ever come a time when it’s written down? This is our history, our story, it’s not something that’s on the outskirts?
MC: To me? That’s already happened, it’s continuing to happen. I don’t think everybody necessarily recognizes it, but I feel fortunate enough to have the perspective that I can see that it’s happening. Walk down the street, go outside, look around. It’s so pervasive to the dominant cultural force, it’s how people do what we do in life.
CM: How do you think kids today, when we were kids it wasn’t there and all of the sudden was there, are introduced to Hip-Hop, influenced by it?
MC: They don’t have to dig for it now. When I was young, there was an emergence of a culture that made us hungry and curious for more. The way we sought it out was in the crates of record stores. In the same record stores they wouldn’t sell mainstream music. There would be record stores that sold bare cuts, Jazz, Punk, Blues, that was the record stores you’d want to go to. Not Tower Records, I mean eventually the big commercial chains carried Hip-hop, of course. But, there was a time when you had to search for that culture. The only place you would find it on TV was things that weren’t mainstream, like the Video Jukebox Channel.
CM: I don’t remember personally the Video Jukebox Channel, but I started collecting vinyl when I was a teenager. I didn’t even have a record player, but was like: “How can you have this album for 25 cents? I have to save it!”
MC: I guess I was lucky, I talked to my partner, who grew up in rural Pennsylvania. I took for granted that people didn’t have access to Hip-Hop. She would get something every now and then, when her family went to Brooklyn, but for me, from age 8 or 9 on it grew in frequency of availability. More and more people started to want it. There was an ever-increasing demand for it, so I guess, it made it into the mainstream. Increasing demand and then people who had the money to invest it, made a profit and figured out how to make it available and market it. Today, people don’t have to look for it. They download it on their phone; everybody has a phone.
CM: I’m older like you and love the thrill of the hunt. I wonder how that’s going to go? Who is singing this, what is the song? Sometimes it’d be years before I actually got the album that the track was off of. It could be me, being old: you’re missing out on the adventure, all the little sidelines you go on trying to find that song. I’ve also heard you can go on the internet and download samples/break beats and not have to go out and dig in crates.
MC: I’m used to doing things a certain way. The degree in which I’m able to change, the way of doing things, just has to do with exposure. Time, interest, efficiency. There’s a lot of different factors which play into it, things that I’ve learned about how easy it is to find things on the internet. That ease has been there for a while, you know. There’s things that are new to me, that are old to younger people. This generation gap with older folks is like catch-up. There’s a lot of discussion about the attention span of the listener and the consumer or audience. How people seem to not want to listen to whole albums. It’s marketed now: you can now download singles and they don’t want a whole album, they just want that one song. There’s the question about that and at the same time, there’s an aesthetic that’s hip amongst certain people who want to put out cassettes again or a wax factory that’s going to be pressing LPs or wax that’s just opening up in Portland. I know that there are people who travel the world, who want to dig, who want to go the record store, want to get into the crates. It’s a rare groove and I don’t know that will be around forever, but it in my time it hasn’t gone away. There’s always the element that stays true to its roots and I know regardless of young people affected by marketing and consumer culture or the current trends, there are people in parts of the world very committed to maintaining an integrity of Hip-Hop culture. We have cultural organizations to thank for that.
CM: If you were going to make a musical, an opera or play, what would it be about?
MC: It would be about the confluence of the ’80s Hardcore Scene and specifically the Anti-Racists, Anti-Fascist and its connection to Hip-Hop culture.
CM: You would have a Selector?
MC: I would have a Selector. That’s right, what I appreciate about Goodwin’s play is that the music the Selector plays is the ancestor of modern Hip-Hop: Rock Steady, instrumental Funk and Soul. The music that is basically the godfather, godmother, foundation of Hip-Hop.
CM: What would your soundtrack sound like?
MC: It would sound like Ska, Reggae, Desmond Dekker, Bad Brains, Cro-Mags, Dead Kennedys, Agnostic Front, Suicidal Tendencies, Black Flag, The Specials, English Beat, Bob Marley, Public Enemy, Boogie Down Productions, Too Short, Freestyle Fellowship. What would be the challenge is capturing over 25 years of music.
CM: It’s been my experience, I’ve never read an essay about it, but that was a time: Punk and Rap shows that would happen at the same venue. It was amazing, we were really different people, but had these same political ideas. Our music was so different, but we influenced each other. It was precious and nobody has documented the intricate history between Punk and Rap. It was a beautiful time when we were all kids and music brought us together and the music behind the politics brought us together.
MC: Some of the perspective Killer Mike spoke to this recently, how a lot of the punk groups and Hip-Hop would play in the same night clubs. It was because nobody else wanted to book them. I realize I have to prioritize my documentation of it. I went out and saw Straight Outta Compton.
CM: I was going to ask you about it: I’ve been hesitant to see it. The people who bankrolled it, it seemed the whole purpose was to introduce young people to their music. It wasn’t the whole story. The reviews that I’ve read say that people with no ties to the Black community are going to go see it and say it’s great, but the Black community is very critical of it and I think they should be.
MC: I was critical of it. It was a conscious decision to wait and see it. When I first saw the previews I thought: “Oh, I have to see this when it comes out.” But, when I started to see some of the criticism I had to sit and wait with that. I need to process this and when I look at this, I need to look at this in the right way. It occurred to me after watching it, that regardless of the criticism, I would have been critical of it. It was very transparently Hollywood and they captured some history, but at the same time they were true to the market interests of re-upping , using the screen to capture another time. I guess there was some disappointment and disillusionment. I was disappointed by the shallowness of it, but what do you expect, that’s what Hollywood does. I’m really glad that after watching the movie about NWA, Straight Outta Compton, I watched the documentary called The Good Life. Because The Good Life was going on at the same time, in those formative years during the Reagan Era, there were also all these guys who were doing Hip-Hop, who were in the same neighborhoods that weren’t part of the mainstream push that Dr. Dre ended up getting. They were talking about different things, even though they were living similar lives. There’s always two sides to whatever is up, in the spotlight getting millions of dollars for some.
CM: That period of Rap/Hip-Hop was too precious and I’m afraid if I watched Straight Outta Compton, I’d have some bad memories or (realize the film) misrepresented something that was pivotal.
MC: NWA was pivotal for me, as a member of the audience. The beautiful thing is about something that big, if we weren’t bombarded with so much media, we’d still have space to make up our minds how we want to internalize the art we were affirming and make it our own. There was some ownership that we all took of that. We related to aspects of it and then there were aspects that we were just living vicariously: vanity and entertainment. It was important for us to identify with as young people. It went so far as to influence our dress styles, the slang we started using in our own communities, and so the nod to Hip-Hop is that it is “ours.” If somebody does it in an impressive enough way, we want to adopt that. We’re proud to say: “I can relate to that, I’m taking that and I’m going to rock it my own way.” There were some positive things about it, but right now the power of social media and the visual means by whichever the market wants to saturate us, I think it leaves less to the imagination. If you don’t have a lot of support for being yourself, then you can wind up having a lot of your mind being made up for you.
CM: I assume that’s the difference with what happened with Punk music and Rap. Punk music became silent. I remember people asking if Punk would be good again once George W. Bush was elected. While, in Rap there’s still the search for authenticity, for that voice. That’s where I think Straight Outta Compton would fail, the authenticity would be lost.
MC: They try to capture it. They’re not talking about it in a deeper, radical context. Because the market forces are dominant and the market interests are dominant, they didn’t give themselves permission to talk about the deeper radical stuff. They tried to touch on the rebelliousness of being artists who are constantly harassed by police. It’s timely for them to have done that right now. Because we’re all as a nation reflecting on the police violence and how race plays into how the police actually treat Black people. It’s autobiographical, how they came to be who they are, but I think when they chose which clips to edit, it became very apparent the battle between NWA and the cops. You have to wonder, considering the current sociopolitical climate, especially in relation to police violence and Black youth, did it effect the edit of the film? In the film they scratched the surface of something that could’ve been examined much more critically. If anything, even if it’s a commercial piece of art, at least it keeps the conversation going.
CM: There were a few halcyon days with Rap in the late ’80s and early ’90s that brought to the fore the Black revolutionaries who were around in the ’50s and ’60s, that we as kids would have never known about.
MC: Essentially since Public Enemy, we need to see it in an historical context, if we’re just looking at Hip-Hop the emergence (and there’s been people who have documented this in an outstanding way) the presence of Black consciousness in Hip-Hop with political, cultural and nationalist messages and the transition of that into everybody just talking either about materialism or murder. NWA actually played a crucial role in that transition. They might have not set out to do that as individuals and as a collective, but that’s how they were viewed. They can be seen as a hallmark of that transition from conscious Hip-Hop, a more diverse discussion: There were always people talking about the reality of street life, but there we had a lot of choices about kinds of expression you would find in Rap or Hip-Hop culture, but it got to the point of predominantly talking only about money or about killing. Both sides, whether you’re getting rich or killing, everybody, is fucking everybody. Both sides have a lot of women with barely anything on in the imagery. That’s been the dominant, the prevailing box that has existed ever since then for commercial Rap. They’ll let a few people in: they’ll let Common in to do some stuff that’s conscious, Kanye had a period where he was being kind of thoughtful. But, now this fool is talking about fashion and crying because he can’t be in the fashion elite. Who gives a fuck about that? Do average people on the street know what he’s talking about? Do they care if you’re a fashion mogul?
CM: I think Kanye is a tricky widget. I think he’ll end up being the Prince of Rap music. He’s off the grid and doing whatever the hell he wants. I don’t think he has a moral compass, he’s out there.
MC: He’s out there, but he’s boring for me.
CM: I thought those first two albums were good. He was doing some really great things, but he could have been hiding all those back tracks for years: “I’m not going to share this with Jay-Z, I’m going to put this on my album.”
MC: I don’t know, maybe sometime, in the future I’ll have a deeper understanding and to be fair a lot of what I see is how the media portrays it and I have a question as to how much he would change how he’s portrayed and how much people influence his image. There have actually been some interviews where things seem pretty disconnected coming from his own mouth. Not in a way that’s inspiring. In an out-there kind of way that seems disconnected and draining. That’s the critique I have. Not in a way that inspires me to say: “I want to be like that.”
CM: You grew up in Illinois, so if you have a critique of Kanye West, you most of all can have a critique of Kanye West. He does kind of whatever and all of a sudden says: “I’m running for president.” No one sees where Kanye led up to that point.
I do think you have a good point about NWA and Public Enemy started to commercialize a message, but who knows how much the studios, the record labels pressured them into doing that? They were kids and maybe didn’t understand the money politics behind the game?
MC: That is one thing they do address in the movie about success, fame and money. They are very clear about the fact that they hit upon something, which caught on like wildfire. They were at the right place, at the right time, the right people and that’s where the success came from. There are people like Jerry Heller, who were able to see with the right promotion and marketing behind them, they could go far. The juxtaposition to that is that they were talking about everyday life on the streets. At that point, that’s not what anyone in the industry wanted to invest in. Too much of a threat, you know, can’t have Black people talking about what they go through everyday on the street, no way.
CM: Even though we’ve been talking about this since the ’60s? “On the subway…..”
MC: There’s an overt and covert political nature to the art. Whether or not they were conscious to all the political implications, there are political implications and there always will be in relation to Black arts.
CM: I think that’s something that’s missing from most art. It often has no context to the struggle of the times. It would be nice if we could live in a world where you could make art and be absolutely free, but that’s not a reality.
MC: There’s a lot of people who get to make art which isn’t tied to any political struggle, but there’s constantly a political struggle within the artist, whether or not they express that. I know that not everybody has to do it, to express themselves politically, but I’m happy I do it. I feel like that’s my role and there are times where I make an effort to come full circle. Even that in itself, is a political gesture. If I choose to be intentionally less political with my work, because I’m making the intent to speak with my audience, that in itself is unity and political. There’s lots of people who want to arrange their lives based upon psychological and sensory perceptions. How much money do we have? Are we depressed? Are we trying to party? Are we trying to party, because we’re happy?
CM: That goes back to the whole idea of when we were kids and we discovered our own music. It was a catharsis: someone saying and putting music to what I couldn’t do at the time. That’s the most powerful kind of art. It transcends. It makes us all feel human.