Language, Empire and Dope Shit: The Story of Hip-Hop in Europe
Hip-hop has been a steady global cultural force for the past three to four decades, but in recent years, the genre has experienced unprecedented ubiquity. It has ridden the soundwaves into homes and spaces all over Europe; yet this is not as self-evident as it may now seem.
Still hip-hop, defying stereotypes that it was about little more than hustling drugs and popping bottles in clubs, prevailed. In the words of the late great Notorious B.I.G.: You never thought that hip-hop would take it this far / Now I'm in the limelight 'cause I rhyme tight / Time to get paid, blow up like the World Trade. But for a culture that has notoriously focused on specific American localities, from name-dropping neighborhoods and repping certain area codes, it is impressive that hip-hop has penetrated European culture in the way it has. So how did it happen, and what does that mean for Europe?
Recently, that question took the form of ‘what are you doing here?’ Abrasive as it may have been, the question was ground in a rather practical reality: what exactly was I—young, white, European—doing here? The here, in a geographic sense, being Harvard’s Hip-hop Archive and Research Institute, and in a bigger, more ontological way, here being my ongoing engagement with a musical tradition and a cultural phenomenon that I had grown up loving, but whose epicenter was fairly far removed from my Dutch childhood .
“Hip-hop belongs at Harvard, and we are here to show that,” Marcyliena Morgan, director of HARI and an expert on the globalization of hip-hop culture, told me not long after I arrived. “The Archive has to be here,” she said. Yet HARI, whose output is focused on the multitude of ways in which hip-hop culture is worthy of academic research, remains relatively little known to Harvard students, despite its location just a corner away from the picturesque Harvard Yard.
Rather than asking myself why I was in America exploring hip-hop culture, I started wondering why hip-hop would be a thing anywhere else. Why had it been so pervasive a part of my Dutch childhood, mainly spent in the Netherlands? Back then, all I knew was that I had this deep interest in a growing movement that seemed to be influencing large parts of the world.
As a global phenomenon, hip-hop is first and foremost understood as a “language ideology,” laying the foundations for an imagined community not unlike the way nation states connect internal cultural forces and produce social cohesion. Unsurprisingly, this concept of individuals around the globe bonding over a similarity in cultural understanding is referred to as ‘the Hip-hop Nation’. However, as hip-hop culture spread from the South Bronx to the rest of the world in the late 1970s, the “linguistic” connection between these disparate people, the idea that they were speaking the same language, might be taken as symbolic rather than literal.
Hip-hop hit France particularly hard—harder perhaps than any other country. According to cultural historian Rachel Gillett, France, which is often considered the number one hip-hop producing country after the United States, also has a reputation for producing “more and more better” music than elsewhere in the world. For Gillett, this is because of France’s strong tradition of embracing, and then adapting, American music.
“American army bands marched into France and the country went crazy–it was an instant hit,” she tells me in an Utrecht coffee shop, side-eyeing her young daughter who’s playing with her cappuccino cup. “Hundreds of African-Americans poured into Paris and London and made lots of money. They played everywhere and the French loved it.”
Gillett, who specializes in the history of jazz in France, adds that the French were quick to make jazz their own. Household names like Louis Armstrong and Dizzy Gillespie, spent parts of their lives in Paris, playing, creating and exchanging ideas. As jazz developed, so did sub-genres like acid jazz and bebop emerged as products of the French-American jazz exchange, attracting attention from intellectuals and the press.
“Not everybody loved it, but it was discussed,” Gillett says. “Jazz appealed to the French on an aesthetic, avant-garde and intellectual level, and it also had a major popular appeal.”
“I think the idea of it being American music also has some appeal, because it gets out of the problems France had with their colonial situation,” continues Gillett, who enjoys blasting Busta Rhymes as much as singing church hymns. “So you take this Black American music and it has an exoticism and energy that is not politically threatening. The French can embrace it and absorb it without having to navel-gaze at their own colonial problems. They can take all that they love about this exciting, syncopated, interesting music without having to think about the kind of stuff behind the music.”
In one way or another, rappers have always rapped about America. This is obviously true for American rappers, but, for a long time, also considered as such for European rappers. As hip-hop slowly gained airplay on European radio stations in the late 1980s, it was widely considered just another aspect of the American imperialism to which Europe had been subjected since the end of World War II. But movements tend to develop; the arrival of hip-hop in Europe kickstarted a process of adoption, and then adaptation, of those American cultural symbols and artistic formats.
Hip-hop has, in its relatively brief history, wielded a double edged sword. Hip-hop provides a platform for youth who have been disadvantaged by socio-economics , racism and other cultural forces ignited by 19th and 20th century European imperialism. It has opened a space within its beats where they can express their joys and fears, and assert their socio-political identity. At the same time, it, like other American cultural phenomena, has served a sometimes hidden master. American music and movies accompanied American dollars across the Atlantic after World War II, under the guise of the Marshall Plan to rebuild a decimated continent. What remained snuggled safely out of sight was President Truman’s threat to withhold funds if European cinemas were to refuse to play Hollywood movies. Even—or especially—in those early days, America understood the power of culture as a form of soft power.
The rise of hip-hop in Europe, however, was not exclusively a top-down affair. Though globally marketed by a powerful entertainment industry, hip-hop was also genuine, exciting, new and, to an extent, controversial; obviously, the French just had to be involved. “American hiphop is coming across on the radio in France and people are listening and they’re receptive to it,” Gillett says. “The French have always been receptive.”
The French were quick to then also make hip-hop their own. With continuous solid output of great cultural products, from the pungent rebellion of Assassin to the dreamy, jazz-infused musings of MC Solaar to the politically charged lyrical excellence of IAM and the harsh black-and-white reality of 1995 cult film La Haine, France stood up and showed it wasn’t just imitating.
Yet, France wasn’t the only country where hip-hop grew to become the main mouthpiece of the disadvantaged youth. Gillett notes that the sentiments ‘we are urban, we are subject to socioeconomic discrimination along racial lines’ are integral parts of the experiences that hip-hop expresses par excellence. It appears that Naughty By Nature’s Treach wasn’t exactly right when he proclaimed: If you ain’t been to the ghetto / don’t ever come to the ghetto / ’cause you wouldn’t understand the ghetto.
As an art form that is highly suited for storytelling, hip-hop has become a way of portraying and dealing with history and collective memory. But there is another kind of hip-hop scene, which doesn’t necessarily focus on the personal struggles of the socially disadvantaged. There are also countless examples of rappers that express themselves through hiphop for the sheer joy of wordplay [CLICK this link, because it's the definition of beast mode - eds.], delving into the absurd for the sake of mere creation. Often times, their subject matter has nothing to do with national identity or European colonialism, or it can embrace parts of national—mostly working class—identity, while discarding others.
Ever since the Iron Curtain was lifted, Eastern European hip-hop artists have stormed the stage to share their struggle with poverty and corruption in Post-Soviet countries. In the Balkans, hip-hop has helped youth express post-war confusion. In the Netherlands, hip-hop culture has created a platform for Surinamese, Turkish, Moroccan, Antillean, and “native” Dutch working class youth to join together in creative projects. To the south, Flemish rappers have been using their nation’s division as a springboard to reunite. Across the channel, UK Grime has slowly, but very surely been taking over the world—admittedly, with more than a little help from streaming service darlings Drake and A$AP Rocky.
However, to artists, the appeal of hip-hop can be far simpler than a readymade tool with which to express hardship and discrimination. “I really liked the raw creativity,” Dutch rapper Vincent Patty (better known as Jiggy Djé) recalls. “Everything about it was tough and cool, right? And I simply thought that was dope.” Patty doesn’t like to be labelled at all, except for maybe one thing: a creative mind. “At the end of the day, everything I do is rooted in creativity,” he says.
This articulates a strong conflict within hip-hop artists today. On one hand, they strive to carry on the tradition of knowledge providers, emphasizing struggle, self-worth, and overcoming. On the other, they desire to be seen as artists rather than activists. It is expected of hip-hop artists to be vocal, even political, and to an extent this is inherent to their existence. But the expectation of rebellion limits hip-hop artists to the realm of struggle and racism, potentially turning hiphop music into a platform for satisfying an outsider’s voyeuristic tendencies. Or as Nas put it: You'd love to hear the story how the thugs live in worry / Duck down in car seats, heat's mandatory.
Yet, where American hip-hop artists often succeed at reaching foreign markets, success for their European counterparts is usually limited to their national scene. According to Gillett, there are several reasons for this, including a “well-oiled” star production machine, and the global reach of English, which has become both a cause and consequence in the feedback loop of American cultural dominance.
Obvious language barriers and a fractured industry landscape may also explain why it is hard for foreign artists to gain international acknowledgement: for instance, you wouldn’t see a French rapper jump on a Dutch song. But according to Patty, that boundary may soon be a thing of the past. When I spoke with him, he had just returned from Paris where a group of twenty Dutch and French rappers had holed themselves up in a studio, recording up to fifty songs in French, Dutch and English. Moreover, the two major Dutch labels, Top Notch and Noah’s Ark, hosted a European gathering in the Netherlands in late August with the aim of exchanging knowledge and ideas.
Can these types of inter-European collaboration challenge the idea that European hip-hop is simply a form of American pastiche?
“If you think that European hip-hop artists are simply copying Americans, you really haven’t been listening well,” Patty enthuses. “The influence of [North] Africans, especially in the Netherlands and France, creates a sound that is distinctive in these countries. You won’t hear that anywhere else.”
Still, the balance leans towards American dominance. Even “smart” producers who incorporate worldly sounds and influences into their music eventually end up rebranding the style as American music. Or at least, music that gets understood by the world as ‘American,’ particularly in a relative absence among U.S. listeners in tracing the origins of the sounds they love.
“America kind of has this black hole effect, where it sucks up everything, and everything becomes defined as American, no matter where it comes from,” Gillett says.
Whether hip-hop is able to transcend its ‘language ideology’ and help reinvigorate Europe’s entertainment industries vis-à-vis the relentless force of American culture remains to be seen. But it doesn’t really matter. There are plenty of great artists out there, in Europe as well as in the U.S. What matters is listening to what’s great.
Patty may sometimes sound depreciative and sobering on paper, but he speaks calm and calculated. He is aware of his influence and that of hip-hop culture at large. As he adds just before we part ways, “At the end of the day, we all just want to do dope shit that inspires. Whatever we come up with serves to achieve that.”
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