Dialogs: Chicago Humanities Festival Explores Hip-Hop History and Black Punk Now

Chicago musicians Chance the Rapper, Jennifer Hudson, plus legendary producer Quincy Jones, recently opened the renovated Ramova Theatre. The interior’s quaint cityscape-inside-a-building balconies and windows have been restored to usher visitors into the repurposed space. The former 1920s movie theater had been sitting empty and decaying since the 1980s, but now it’s a live music venue for 1500 that also sports a grill, beer garden and a brewery partnership with Other Half Brewing.

The Chicago Humanities Festival took advantage of the Ramova’s snazzy new upstairs meeting spaces to present several speakers during Bridgeport Day on May 4. Dr. Todd Boyd, the “Notorious Ph.D.,” had a conversation about his new “personal and professional” book Rapper’s Deluxe: How Hip Hop Made the World with Chicago native Open Mike Eagle, a hip-hop artist and comedian now based in LA. Detroit native Dr. Boyd also lives in the city of angels as USC’s Chair for the Study of Race and Popular Culture as well as Professor of Cinema and Media Studies.

The cultural juggernaut known as hip-hop celebrated its 50th anniversary last year. Eagle asked Dr. Boyd why it took so long to publish his book about the phenomenon: “I needed 50 years to tell those stories,” Dr. Boyd said. “Father Time is undefeated.” Noting that his book is divided by decades, he started with hip-hop history and how the Blaxploitation movies of the '70s, along with cultural icons like Muhammed Ali and Richard Pryor, propelled this vibrant movement from the underground to around the globe.

Open Mike Eagle. Photo courtesy Pitchfork.

This “mythical origin story” begins on August 11, 1973, when DJ Kool Herc hosted a south Bronx block party to raise money for his sister’s back-to-school clothes, “because you’ve got to look fresh, look clean, on day one,” said Dr. Boyd. He also admitted to carrying around the latest albums as a flex, a status symbol as a youngster himself, adding that “the drip is my thing.”

Apparently, actor Pam Grier is the touchstone for most of hip-hop’s milestones, Dr. Boyd noted. One of the top movies of 1973 was her Coffy, followed by Grier’s Foxy Brown the next year. Foxy became Jackie Brown in 1997. The ethos of many Black creatives at the time was not to show off with wealth, but to show wanting something deeper, Dr. Boyd said. “The culture wasn’t about materialism, but respect. I exist; pay attention.”

Most refer to Sugar Hill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight” as the first mainstream hip-hop track. But few know the real story, said Dr. Boyd. Producer and performer Sylvia Robinson, hip-hop’s godmother, assembled singers to rap over a sample of Chic’s “Good Times” for two versions, one for regular radio and a seven-minute version for parties. Sugar Hill had never recorded together before and borrowed others’ rhymes for the recording, atypical because “hip-hop is invested in authenticity,” said Dr. Boyd.

The late 1980s was hip-hop’s heyday, which naturally brought some cautionary tales as well. “Don’t get high on your own supply,” said Dr. Boyd, referencing Scarface and the Godfather movies. By the 1990s, hip-hop arrived in films, sports and elsewhere. Many listeners said they learned about Malcolm X and Angela Davis through song lyrics, certainly not in schools. Dr. Boyd became friendly with Chuck D of Public Enemy and Big Daddy Kane. The 2007 movie American Gangster inspired Jay-Z’s tenth album of the same name. The track “Blue Magic” says “Blame Reagan for making me into a monster / Blame Oliver North and Iran-Contra / I ran contraband that they sponsored / Before this rhymin stuff we was in concert,” which illustrates hip-hop’s response to American white supremacist capitalism.

When asked “Where are the women in hip hop?” Dr. Boyd reiterated that Sylvia Robinson launched the genre, and noted that the Fugees’ Lauryn Hill was a 1999 Time cover. He credited other pioneers such as Queen Latifah, Monie Love and Lil’ Kim. “Hip-hop has everything,” said Dr. Boyd, “including misogyny.” To track the diversity of the Black diaspora in this genre, he named comedian Nipsey Russell as the first to rhyme on TV talk shows, and boxer Ali to rhyme first then “whip ass.”

Like America exported basketball to the world, hip-hop culture is now global. Dr. Boyd recalled visiting Tokyo in the '90s where he heard a Japanese speaker perfectly rap American lyrics. “She didn’t speak English,” he said. “But she speaks Biggie."

“Rap is what you do,” Dr. Boyd concluded. “Hip-hop is who you are.”

James Spooner. Photo courtesy Park School of Baltimore.

At 5pm, graphic novelist and tattoo artist James Spooner talked about his new book Black Punk Now with Chicago creator Damon Locks, who is originally from DC. When he was only 25, mixed-race Spooner created the documentary Afro-Punk to chronicle his experience of African Americans in punk music, where “the bands were the fans and the fans were the bands,” he said. The project became “a healing experience.” He’s not as angry as he was in his earlier days, saying that maturity has brought him more empathy. “Punk is youth culture at its essence,” he said.

Spooner also noted that American capitalism is needed in this genre, as “punk needs the mainstream to push up against.” He first gravitated to comics because “there are no gatekeepers” and was a straight-edge punk (no drugs or drink) from age 15-22. He spent time in New York and then moved to LA to do tattoos, but “wanted to make stories again,” especially because the genre is not as binary now. Current punk music and fashion blend many styles.

Damon Locks. Photo courtesy BantMag.

Both panelists gave a shout-out to Pilsen’s hardcore band Los Crudos for giving voice to Latin punk rockers. Plus, “most Afro-punk festivals are run by women or femme-identifying,” said Spooner. His 14-year-old daughter is now singing Bikini Kill lyrics (see lead singer Kathleen Hanna at CHF on May 18). When asked how the Afro-punk movement interfaces with Afrofuturism, Spooner said “You can put Afro in front of anything. You could call Black Goldendoodle owners 'afro-doodles.' But it’s a great frame to see things differently. We are everywhere, even in the future.”

“Black people can be anything,” Spooner concluded. “We just need to keep saying it.”

Check out upcoming Chicago Humanities Festival programs, including:

Ijeoma Oluo: Be a Revolution on 5/18

Doris Kearns Goodwin: An Unfinished Love Story on 5/21

Reggie Watts on 6/3

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Karin McKie

Karin McKie is a Chicago freelance writer, cultural factotum and activism concierge. She jams econo.