Local Anchorage rapper and video producer, Mutazz Chenery, better known as Maxamillz, was living in Philadelphia when hip hop first reached him. He shakes his head at how young people today don’t know the roots of the culture.
“I’m an MC. And these kids don’t know nothing about Universal Zulu [Nation] or [the] Jungle Brothers,” Max said. “When I first touchedhip hop, it was nothing but Black people. Wasn’t nothing to hear your history and heroes come off an MC’s lips in a cipher. Nowadays, all they do is talk about trapping. Even [explicative]s with jobs and ain’t never touched work is talking about trapping.”
For the past year, Chenery has attempted to help the hip hop community be just that — a community — with his video channel, AKAftaDark. The marketplace for hip hop in Anchorage remains undeveloped with few outlets outside of social media. Local rappers reach Chenery via his Facebook page and YouTube. Beyond that, his and their reach is limited.
“I let ‘em cuss,” Max answers, when asked why AKAftaDark isn’t more mainstream. “What am I going to tell a grown man? Nah, don’t cuss. We can’t use that footage. Plus, we in the hood. I film most of my stuff in the hood, where these heads live. Hood [expletive]s know he ain’t going to be invited to no school, not if he trying to be himself. Really trying to be himself. They get the clean-cut heads to do the school assemblies. But, if you ask the real heads in West High or East High who they listen to, they gone say, Muldoon Manny, Young Block or me. Street [expletive]s. They listen to us because they is us.”
Max explains this matter-of-factly. He is loyal to a certain authenticity lost during the global expansion of a frame originally fashioned among poor Black and Latino youth, living within blocks of thriving American cultural centers in the South Bronx, New York.
It was 1973 when Jamaican born musician DJ Kool Herc, who is generally credited with “starting” hip hop, staged a party at a recreational center on 1520 Sedwig Avenue. Influenced by what the sound systems were doing in Jamaican dance halls, Herc “played” records like Louie Armstrong played his trumpet, meaning Herc did not just let the record play, he used the riffs and vocals like the strings on a guitar or the holes in a flute.
And, he wasn’t doing anything new. The same year, a DJ named“Africa Bambaataa” put some words to paper and worked out the philosophical underpinnings of hip hop. He laid out five elements to hip hop: the 1) DJ, or musician, the 2) MC, or poet, the 3) B-boy/B-girl, or dancer, the 4) Graffitiartist, or painter and 5) knowledge. The fifth element borrowed heavily from the nationalistic movements that made African American life tolerable in New York, from Marcus Garvey in the 1920s to Malcolm X in the 1960s.
The Sugar Hill Gang dropped “Rapper’s Delight” in 1979, where in a scat-riff, Wonder Mike uses the term “hip hop.” When I heard the song, I did not think anything of it. Why would I? Scatting was everywhere in my world, from classic Cab Calloway song and dance routines to Mahalia Jackson catching the Holy Ghost.
The poverty inside the South Bronx prevented most cultural expression using elaborate material goods, like instruments. Hip hop embodied personal and cultural expression for those without access to expensive, standard-issue performing arts.
“Beat boxing,” or using the voice to imitate musical instruments and harmonies, was a natural evolution of singing. The same happened with dance. Cardboard boxes were cut out and an aggressive, physical form of dance, similar to the acrobatics of “lindy hopping,” was born on New York sidewalks. Lastly, painting, or graffiti, developed along the same lines. Canvasses weren’t readily available, but the surfaces of abandoned buildings were.
Each borough started to craft it own “flavor,” or version, of hip hop. Depending on how a person dressed, spoke, or referenced history, it soon became possible to determine which borough they lived in.
Add to those performing arts the edginess of adolescent competition and “battling” was born. The goal was very democratic: move the crowd. The only limitation was not to “bite,” or copy, the competition. A DJ could not use the same song as the other DJ used to get a “pop,” or cheer, from the crowd. MCs could not use the same delivery style as their competitor. You couldn’t wear the same teeth grills as the other guy. A graffiti artist’s finished product had to use a different technique or visual theme. And, a B-boy or B-girl could not use a move that his, or her, competition just used. Creativity was built into the reputation and bragging rights which were the only real currency among the impoverished youth.
Community elders liked hip hop because a lot of interpersonal conflicts among the young were decided to the boos and cheers of their peers, rather than through fists and guns.
Conceptually, it was “The Message” by Grandmaster Flash and The Furious Five in 1982, that established the genre inside the mainstream mind. The poetry ceased being the feel good vibration of a party, where the lyrics described the normal evolution from baby to school-age to young adult, like in Bill Cosby’s “Fat Albert” cartoons. Grandmaster Flash was gritty. The video was shot in the streets. His rhymes cut straight to the heart of the matter. He described the reality of New York life: “It’s like a jungle some times / Makes me wonder / How I keep from going under!”
That’s what caught Chenery’s ear growing up in Philadelphia. Here was an avenue for personal expression that did not require him to conform to America’s stereotypes of poor Black and Latino youth. Through hip hop they could be themselves and still receive a community-wide stamp of approval.
MCs like KRS-One — an acronym meaning “knowledge reigns supreme over nearly everybody” — imitated their Jamaican counterparts and boldly expressed the nationalism that inspired their thinking. In his most popular video, KRS-One, an East Coast rapper, addressed black on black violence by uniting the most prominent rappers of his day to cut a track entitled, “Self-Destruction.” “I didn’t have to run from the Ku Klux Klan and I shouldn’t have to run from a Black man,” West Harlem rapper Kool Moe Dee said.
The video resonated with many fans because of it’s authenticity. KRS-One filmed entirely inside the park where the founder of the Five Percenters, Clarence 13XSmith, better known as Father Allah, home-schooled New York youth. Smith was one of Malcolm X’s leading lieutenants. His organization became the first pool of MCs and foundation for the Golden Age of Hip Hop in the 1990s.
The group Brand Nubian featured Minister Louis Farrakhan exclusively on a track entitled, “The Meaning of the Five Percent.” Not one rhyme. All of it was a clip of a 1985 lecture the Minister delivered in Chicago. However, it makes lots of sense that Minister Farrakhan was featured because he was head of the New York mosque – in the 1970s. Farrakhan remains popular among MCs to this day, recently entertaining questions from Jay-Z and inviting Kayne West into his home.
That’s not to say White people were excluded, otherwise global expansion would not have occurred. A producer named Rick Rubin worked with Run DMC to create their biggest crossover hit, “Walk This Way,” featuring Aerosmith. The Beastie Boys shared the same record label with LL Cool J. Third Base, a rap duo, commanded respect too.
However, acceptance within African American circles was carefully cultivated, because disrespecting the culture meant not being invited to the next battle (battles were not advertised via mainstream channels) or, worse, being denied airtime by the DJs.
That level of disrespect now happens all the time. Most modern MCs don’t display the originality the Golden Age exemplified. Nor, do they have too. National distribution efforts, represented by radio stations, need a consistent product, not Baskin Robbins’ 31 flavors.
“We trying to bring it back, at least here in Alaska,” Chenery said.“I miss those days. It was real. If I wanted to know how things were popping in Chicago, I listened to Twista. If I wanted to know Miami, I listened to Uncle Luke. Juvenile and them gave me that Louisiana flavor. And, you know NWA was all over Los Angeles. Now, when you listen, they all sound the same. Like a formula. Ain’t nobody stretching. Nobody trying to grow past what the contract tell them to do.”