When reggae met hip hop: a love story

During this past California Music and Arts Festival over Memorial Day weekend, I had a moment to break away from the 5th annual madness to sit-in on Zion I’s exclusive press conference in the middle of Day 2. The meeting conveniently followed the group’s hour-long set on the main Bowl Stage – where thousands of people danced, freaked and smoked incessantly to Zion I’s unique rap and dance-infused hip hop.

Now, although the duo produced an extremely entertaining set, I immediately addressed the elephant in the room when I stepped into their press conference: let’s talk about how you’re not ‘reggae’. It’s like when the wide-eyed and somewhat scared character of Brick Tamland looks at Veronica Corningstone in the movie Anchorman and says, mortified, “you’re not Ron.” As the Oakland boys mentioned that this was their first time attending the California Music and Arts Festival, just south of their hometown, I had to stand up and ask how it felt to be the sole tangent – amid 47 other performing acts of the weekend – who didn’t mold to the central theme of ‘one love’ and ‘Jah bless’ reggae notions. They even had the crowd chanting “HIP, HOP, HIP, HOP!” Although my question was borderline crass, what they replied was truly unexpected.

Zion I

Zion I’s hip hop, therefore, is an extension of the reggae sounds emanating from the other acts at Cali Roots

MC Zumbi, the conference spokesman of the two, stated bluntly that rap, as a genre, would merely not exist without reggae’s direct interference. Zion I’s hip hop, therefore, is an extension of the reggae sounds emanating from the other acts at Cali Roots, and thus, they are all one big subculture phenomenon. The answer was rich in references and it made me wonder the validity behind rap and reggae being so closely intertwined.

I took the liberty into researching the birth of hip hop in America once I returned home from the festivities. According to an excerpt from Becky Blanchard’s Poverty and Prejudice: Media and Race entitled “Social Significance of Rap and Hip Hop Culture”, hip hop was born out of a Halloween party in New York City’s The Bronx in 1973, when Jamaican-born Kool DJ Herc used a novel technique on a turntable to stretch a song’s drum break. The origins of rap and hip hop hybridizes several musical styles other than reggae, stemming back thousands of years to African oral tradition and including, but not limited to, jazz, soul and gospel. Although the birth of the genre is a general amassment, reggae is the one classification within hip hop that is ironic: the two styles grew together simultaneously. As radio stations in New York started to play Jamaican reggae to the public in the late 1960s – especially during the Civil Rights Movement – disc jockeys would use rhyming schemes to introduce the individual tracks. At the same time, these stations would be played back to listeners in Jamaica, who heard the talking flow of the DJs and then indoctrinated their rhyme styles over new reggae songs. The perpetuating cycle of talking over dub tracks continued to grow ever since – seguing into MC-ing and eventually formulating gangster rap in the mid-1980s.

One further similarity between the two genres is unfortunately unnerving: rap and reggae are unanimously considered distasteful by any listener living outside the respective hip hop and Rastafari subcultures. Although most songs by rap and reggae artists are seemingly innocuous – even uplifting and inspirational at times – the general public continuously attacks the two for advocating violence in order to solve world issues. Even though all genres contain songs with lyrically drastic solutions to social, political and economic problems, protesters classify rap and reggae as damaging entities for today’s youth to hear. Walking away from Cali Roots #5, I find that this is simply not the case. It is clear that American youth have indeed been affected by rap and reggae music, yet, instead of criminals, this influence has turned young minds into truly beautiful people. If the rap and reggae movements continue to struggle out of condemnation, then we need to covet the music, preserve the lifestyle and propel the message in order for the genres to gain momentum for the next generation. Thank you, Zion I, your answer was perfect.

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