Thursday, August 9, 2012

Hip-Hop & Graffiti: It's The Same, But Different

Hip Hop and graffiti have long been associated with each other.  Perhaps it is the urban culture, or the subculture of African Americans who are often affiliated with that urban environment.  Perhaps it is because both are unique and seemingly radical art forms that many people can’t seem to accept right away.  Some feel as though graffiti is to hip hop as a word is to a sentence, just part of what makes it whole.  Others don’t see a connection and don’t care to try to make one. 
However, as both art forms advance, different connections can be made and added to the existing ones.  For one thing, graffiti is now for the masses. 
It may just be my age bias, but graffiti was always cool, it just wasn’t always admired the way it is today.  Until “Exit Through the Gift Shop” and Shephard Fairey’s presidential campaign, graffiti was largely seen as an obnoxious and in-your-face display of art that few considered art.  It was almost as if these graffitists had hijacked public space to present some sort of message that only they found important.  Cher Knight, in her book entitled Public Art: Theory, Practice, and Populism, writes “most graffiti writers lacked any formal art training…Many graffiti artists painted illegally upon subway cars and stations, or on the walls of privately owned places,” (Knight, 118).  Graffiti artists were seen as punks with no regard to the way things should be done, much like the reputation rappers have dealt with for decades.  Several music critics and older music legends can’t embrace hip hop because it seems their craft, achieved with years of music study, intricate song structures, and hard work and practice, have been overtaken by thugs who wail “bitch” every other word.  In time, both graffiti and hip hop have gone on to both prove otherwise, and to support these claims. 

Worthy Praise
Knight later on writes “though many observers regarded graffiti as intrusive defacement, others saw it as an energizing enhancement of the urban milieu,” (Knight, 118).  Ultimately both art forms did enhance their respective cultures by expanding.  “Hastily drawn ‘throw-ups’ were placed anywhere, focusing on quantity and visibility,” (Knight, 118).  Think Tyga, or Lex Luger.  These artists make songs like it’s a bodily function.  Tyga breathes lyrics, Lex shits out beats.  A silly comparison, yes, but let me elaborate.  Let’s say Lex makes a bowel movement once or twice a day, it is completely logical to assume that he can make one or two beats a day, with virtually the same effort.  Tyga breathes as much as any other human, but as his lyrics really don’t require much thought or exertion, it is as simple as breathing.  These artists throw up their tags on the radio more than others, so they are known better than others.  This sort of music can be imposed upon you.  You don’t always want to see three different examples of the same piece of “artwork” that you consider an eyesore on your way to work. Just like you don’t necessarily want to hear Tyga’s “Make It Nasty” every time you walk into a trendy store, or pass a bodega that is blasting music. 
There is something to be admired in this.  While the lyrics may seep from Tyga’s lips effortlessly, or the beats come out of Lex Luger once in the morning and sometimes at night, it does take a lot out of them.  The time and patience to record/produce each song, the ability to continue at such a fast pace, to preserve both a fan base and the unique quality that makes the artist appealing, all of these things can be exhausting.  It’s no joke making “Rack City.” It takes a lot to get all over the city and scribble your personal tag in as many places as possible.  While the craft and genius of graffiti or hip hop may not be evident with these types of artists, what they do is still quite commendable.
It is much easier to praise an artist like Banksy.  While Banksy is responsible for an intimidating and barely imaginable amount of graffiti, the focus is more in the messages of his work. He excites. He thinks outside of the box, breaking into Six Flags to stage a piece, or making a pro-animal statement by busting into a zoo exhibition and creating a motorized cheetah tail with a fur coat.  Mysterious, exotic, playful, and distinctive, are the qualities that make Banksy so appealing.  In hip hop, a comparison can be made to an artist like Danger Mouse.  Danger Mouse, who produces up to 4 albums a year, has a brand and a mysterious energy that attracts people.  Elements of his work can lead an audience to say something like “this feels like a Danger Mouse song.”  Seeing a traditional English telephone booth warped and melted, or a drawing of a maid appearing to lift up a sheet of wallpaper to reveal the brick underneath, and potentially hide dirt underneath, and knowing who is responsible most definitely says something about the art form.  It says something similar to what Danger Mouse might do musically, adding subtle layers to seemingly sparse music to create a work of art that is open to interpretation. 

Yet another comparison between graffiti and hip hop is that art inspires art.  Graffiti artists are like any other artist in the way that they have influences.  Traces of several eras of artwork are evident in works of graffiti because that particular artist may have been a fan of anyone from Keith Haring to Michaelangelo.  I am more speaking of the concept of sampling.  When a hip hop artist samples a song, they generally borrow a few bars of an old song, reinventing it with a different sound in a different genre.  Five seconds of a James Brown song can go a long way. For one thing, people recognize the riff or beat, or whatever sample is in use.  That could bring the original audience around. They may respect and enjoy the use of the original, or they may find it unpleasant or unfair.  Either way, their attention has been brought to the song.  Others may not be familiar with the sample, but will be intrigued.  Say they are not a fan of James Brown, but enjoy the way in which two genres of music are mixed, and find it compelling enough to learn more.  Others couldn’t care less who made the sample, and only want to hear their favorite rapper on the song. 
Shephard Fairey borrowed/sampled the image of Andre the Giant, and recreated both his own and Andre’s images in the process.  Old wrestling fans and pop culture enthusiasts (and fans of the movie Princess Bride) may be interested when they see Andre the Giant’s mug pasted on the side of a building, and would like to know who put it there.  Fellow artists, critics, and the general public may be interested as to why this person is relevant, what he means to a graffiti artist, and how his image relates to and interacts with the image that Fairey has.  Fans of Fairey might not care who Andre the Giant was, but they understand that something from the past has regained relevance in a new way.  Where other artists may incorporate certain aspects of another artist’s work, it is a much more obvious connection when an actual work of art is used inside of another.  Rappers regularly sample other iconic rap songs like Fairey sampled an iconic image.  It is the context in which the artist uses the original work that makes the new piece important. 

Kanye sampled Natalie Cole's Someone That I Used To Love and Maroon 5's Nothing Last Forever in his song Heard 'Em Say.

Allow me to state the obvious once more: the last five or ten years have altered nearly every aspect of each art form.  Perhaps the reason that Lex Luger can make so many beats is the fact that he has a signature sound, which can be accessed and exercised in seconds on his computer. He already has a drum kit preset, a synth sound he likes, a tag that lets the listener know this is a Lex Luger beat, and an audience to grab anything he releases.  The nature of his music is so simple that it can be made quickly and efficiently.  Graffiti artists who were planning a huge piece of work would have to start weeks or even months in advance.  Scouting the proper location, hiring the proper assistants, choosing the right time, using the right tools.  These can all be figured out on an iPhone now.  Go to Kinko’s to make giant stencils of your piece, google the hours of operation so you know when to set up, and send a group message to your team with the details. Boom, now alls you gotta do is paint it.  The glass is half full.  Because all of these tools are available to nearly all people, a greater emphasis has been placed on originality.  The fact that everyone can achieve the same sound or imagery, levels the playing field, and allows for a fresh take.  Graffiti used to be done with a spray can and some fancy lettering. Now it has all sorts of interactive elements, different mediums, different cultural significance, and different approaches.

One of the more recent developments in hip hop is that the concept of apprenticeship has gained much more importance.  Wayne brings Drake in. Kanye brings Big Sean in.  Jay Z brings J. Cole in and so on.  Knight writes that “Graffitists developed their own system of apprenticeship, in which younger, aspiring writers were mentored under their slightly older counterparts,” (Knight, 118).  The idea that newer, younger talent can be brought in and vouched for under older veteran types, is very similar to the concept being employed in hip hop today.  Young artists need to prove themselves, and it proves easy to prove when they’ve got the right guy behind them, muttering instructions in their ear.  Previously, both art forms held locational importance.  Where the artist was from defined them to a certain degree.  The epic West Coast vs. East Coast rap era was quite something, and based on the geographical layout of Los Angeles vs. New York City, graffiti was bound to reflect the cities as well.  But as time moved on, other cities wanted in, and they got in.  Location is barely discernible in hip hop nowadays, unless explicitly told to the listener.  In ’93, all you had to do was listen for that West Coast whistle or a G-Funk bass line to know where the given rapper was from.  In 2012, it’s no surprise to hear a rapper from Michigan share a track with a rapper from Florida. 
What is more important now is what makes an artist reputable.  Who said they’re any good? Who is willing to be held responsible for the art that they make and the direction they head in?  Who do they collaborate well with?  If the artist is not known to be a loner, they better have a posse or a buddy. 

Haters. Everybody’s got them.  UrbanDictionary defines a hater as “A person that simply cannot be happy for another person's success. Hating, the result of being a hater, is not exactly jealousy. The hater doesn’t really want to be the person he or she hates, rather the hater wants to knock someone else down a notch.”  To be a naysayer and a Negative Nancy is one thing, but the kind of haters that oppose rap and graffiti, are some serious haters.  The kind of haters that took rappers to court over lyrical content. The kind of haters that treat graffiti like genocide and take it upon themselves to remove any traces from their perfect urban environment.  Most average citizens could care less at this point. After all, neither the music nor the graffiti is physically hurting anyone. Both art forms are an expression, where some works are most certainly easier to take in than others.  But the haters are just part of the game.  Without haters, who would the artists have to stick it to? Who would they be shutting up? To be celebrated by all is to live without challenge in the worlds of hip hop and graffiti, so it is safe to say those art forms would not be the same without their respective haters, and I thank those devoted bastards for being filled with so much animosity. 

Accessibility and Reception
While various connections can be made, the most important one is that both art forms have grown to become much more than what they previously were.  Both faced a less-than desired reputation, and both have expanded to show that there could be some high art in there after all.  Graffitists have their work in galleries, textbooks, and all over the internet. Not to mention that the majority of street works are more visible than gallery works, and can be shared (Instagramed or Tweeted) within seconds, whereas those other pieces have limited access.  Hip hop has evolved to include many other genres of music, opening the eyes of music fans everywhere that are now able to find some form of hip hop they like.  Musicianship in hip hop has also grown, and its relationship to electronic music allows for ample public praise and accessibility.  Hip hop, with electronic music, is at the forefront of the technological evolution of music, allowing all sorts of people to watch it change, where other genres took several more decades to branch out. 

Times They Are A Changing
It’s still exciting to catch a guy hanging off a billboard spray painting in the dead of the night.  However, it is just as exciting to see an elegantly painted elephant circling an art show (Mr. Brainwash/Banksy).  It’s still fun to bounce to mindless rap with recitable lyrics and a hard beat, but it’s a whole other feeling to examine the jazz influence behind a producer like J. Dilla, or to hear an massive switch in sound due to a producer like Clams Casino or a group like Odd Future.  It is unrealistic to expect all art enthusiasts or music fans to embrace graffiti and hip hop respectively, but it’s sort of a “parents just don’t understand” kind of thing.  Some parents are just cool. They get it.  Even if they don’t get it, they get that we get it, which is an important attitude to adopt. 


Knight, Cher Krause. Public Art : Theory, Practice and Populism. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2008. Print.

by Ken Glauber