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The Immersion: The Birth of a True Hip-Hop HeadPosted by Dharmic X on 06/14/12 | Filed under Features, Opinion, The Immersion
According to dictionary.com, the word “immerse” means “to involve deeply; absorb.” Immersion involves entering an environment that is different from your own and absorbing its entire essence down to its gritty details with every pore in your body. What does it mean to immerse yourself into the hip-hop culture as the son of Indian immigrants growing up in the city of Boston amongst peers who don’t truly appreciate its origins? This is my story...
My first exposure to hip-hop came when I was 13-years-old, around the time most people seemed to have gotten into hip-hop. The problem is that I became a teenager in the year 2005. To put it into perspective, in October of that year, the group D4L released their smash hit “Laffy Taffy,” which went on to become the number one song in the country several months later. That song was one of my first exposures to the genre.
What made me starting listening to hip-hop? To be honest, reaching out to hip-hop came from a need to fit in, but not in the way you might think. I went to an exam public school within the city of Boston, a school with a lot of opportunity within a system that sorely lacks opportunity. The school is predominantly Caucasian, with a significant East Asian population. After that came a small percentage of Latinos and African-Americans... A percentage that has likely only gotten smaller over the years.
As an Indian, I didn’t fit in amongst the white kids in the school. I wasn’t from the same neighborhoods most of them came from and couldn’t really relate to them (it took time and a comfortability within my own skin for that to happen, and eventually my family did move into one of those neighborhoods). When I quickly realized that, I tried to fit myself in amongst the “Asians” within my school... but there were blatant differences that don’t make sense unless you’ve experienced this scenario (I’m not going to get into that here).
It was the smaller community of minorities within the school that I felt most comfortable with: they were more open and friendly than the others. And hip-hop was what they were listening to.
That summer, I was listening to the songs that everybody else was listening to, songs like “What You Know” by T.I., “Ridin” by Chamillionaire, and “Lean Wit It” by Dem Franchize Boys. My friends were listening to the songs that were on the radio and on television, and I was following their leads.
But when you’re trying to fit in, you don’t want to be the last person in the know; you want to be ahead of the curve. This meant doing research.
With nobody to really turn to in order to “put me on” to the history of hip-hop, I turned to Wikipedia. Every other day I would spend hours reading articles, trying to absorb a complex history that could never be fully processed by simply reading. I would find out about the creation of hip-hop, the emergence of a “Golden Age,” and the creation of the term “Gangsta rap” (amongst many other details) through simple, often underdeveloped Wikipedia articles.
And of course, as important as the past was, I needed to know what music was coming out now to get ahead of the curve. To do that, I also turned to wikipedia, but specifically, I read up on the major labels, finding the artists that were currently on the labels. And it was while going through the roster lists on Wikipedia that I reached a turning point in my hip-hop discovery... although I wouldn’t realize it at the time.
Essentially, I found this song:
At the time, Joell Ortiz was signed to Dr. Dre’s Aftermath Entertainment label; “Hip-Hop,” which came on his debut project, “The Brick: The Bodega Chronicles,” was released shortly after signing to the label. And despite my limited understanding of what made a good hip-hop record, I was mesmerized by the power of this song.
“Hip-Hop” provides perspective. It starts even before the first verse. “I accidentally stepped on your white sunglasses; we don’t do those over here... This is us still fighting police brutality: This is Hip-Hop!” The statement was a bold one, and stood in stark contrast to the elementary song-and-dance routines from rappers like Soulja Boy. Furthermore, the statement emphasized hip-hop’s inextricable roots to community and the graphic episodes that plagued communities with specific demographics (such as the murder of Sean Bell).
As the song moves through the first verse, I got a sense of both hip-hop’s history and its geography. I realized that there were generations before my time that had fallen in love with the MCs of the past, artists definitely worth checking out and studying up on: “A new Nas joint used to give me the chills.” Meanwhile, it was Joell’s line that made me realize just how different each region of hip-hop originally were: “If you’re from the South finger-snap ‘til your hands hurt, if you’re from the West W’s in the air, if you’re from the East Coast act like you’re from here.”
There’s more to “Hip-Hop” than just history and geography lessons for the uninformed. Joell’s intensity and hunger reverberates throughout the song, addressing topics like age with lines like “July 6, 1980, how does your age even matter when you rhyme this crazy?” But it was this line that really captivated me the most: “Look at me, gaze into my eyes see the poverty? Now understand why me and this music just gotta be? There’s something that’s inside of me and I can’t shake it, so I embrace it, and let y’all taste it.”
Up until that point I had thought of hip-hop as just a trend, something that required me being ahead of the curve to fit in within a group of people. But that line made me realize that there was something more involved with it. Hip-hop is an art form that arouses passion. It creates a feeling that you can’t escape once you hear that first drum beat or the opening words to a song. And through simple words recited over instrumentals, a universe is created: a gateway to the American Dream for those who were not given the normal avenue to pursue it.
Joell was right, of course. “This was hip-hop,” even if at the time, I was too immature to really appreciate that. But my immersion was just beginning...
(DJ Dharmic X is the host of This Culture Never Dies, 11PM-1AM Saturday on wnyu.org. Fans and haters, can follow him on Twitter and check him out on Facebook.)