I think I got it locked, just smooth while I latch it
Q-Tip from A Tribe Called Quest, Steve Biko
My pen taps the paper and my brain's blank
Nas, Memory Lane
I'm voices in your subconscious, knots in your intestines
Crescent moon attack stance if you glance at the mic
-Casual from Hieroglyphics, Dune Methane
I'm low-key like seashells, I rock these bells
Now come aboard, it's Medina bound
Enter the chamber, and it's a whole different sound
It's a wide entrance, small exit like a funnel
So deep it's picked up on radios in tunnels
GZA from the Wu-Tang Clan, Liquid Swords
And, of course, some words from the master:
Wait by the radio hand on the dial soon
As you hear it, pump up the volume
Dance with the speaker til you hear it blow
Then plug in your headphone because there it go
And, most tellingly:
I am the R, to the A to the KIM
If I wasn't, why would I say I am?
Rakim, Pump up the Volume and As the Rhyme Goes On.
Please excuse me for starting this with so many quotes, but once I start quoting great hip-hop songs, it is hard for me to stop. I also wanted to introduce this without introduction, showing hip-hop as it is without discussing the political and social viewpoints and misviewpoints first.
I first started listening to hip-hop when I bought a Public Enemy tape in 1994, and I immediately responded to the message. For me, Public Enemy wasn't that much different from Neil Young, both were putting righteous anger to music. But I liked the sound itself, and soon enough, I started branching out into other hip-hop acts, but mostly ones with some sort of message, even if it was the more subtle messages of say, De La Soul. Substance was important for me. The fact that half of rap consisted of bragging seemed to be a necessary evil. Some of those songs and lyrics inspired me, but I always associated them somehow with something else, perhaps as an extension of the messages I heard in other lyrics.
If you ask hip-hop fans how they got started, and you will hear many different stories, but this one isn't uncommon. For middle class kids, social consciousness is often the reason to start listening to hip-hop. There is currently about twenty years of debate and warfare in hip-hop about what constitutes hip-hop, with the authenticity of various viewpoints challenged. Many socially conscious rappers and fans feel that rap with criminal themes is a marketing plot to sell fantasies to suburbanites, while I imagine many fans of gritty street rap would feel that rap engineered to be friendly to academic vegan anarchists is not, in fact, keeping it real. All of this is incorrect.
What the proper topic for rap was occurred to me when I read words of Martin Buber in I and Thou: that the experience of the I and Thou is a transaction that does not have content. I tried to imagine a relationship, a transaction, without content, and it sprang to mind: hip-hop lyrics! Lyrics with a capital L, the type of hip-hop lyrics that are written to be purely about the writing, performing and listening to of the song. Lyrics about themselves! Even though many hip-hop lyrics do not have any content, a relationship is still established between the performer and listener. The proper subject of hip-hop is neither political revolution, or criminal exploits. The proper subject of hip-hop is the creation of hip-hop itself.
As the Wu-Tang Clan puts it, merely in the process of "living out their name", of defining and defending themselves, an MC exists. It isn't that hip-hop can't have content, that it can't communicate ideas from an unlucky road trip to the identification of the ten sefiroth and ten Dharma realms, it is that all of these subjects, no matter how meaningful, are not interrupted by bragging without content. They are founded in it. Again, let us look at Rakim, speaking with what has to be playful recursion and profound religious meaning:
I am the R to the A to the KIM
If I wasn't why would I say I am