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Punk and Hip Hop Panel at Madison Hip Hop Conference
Sunday, 22 August 2004
Interview with Africa Bambaata, Aaron Shuman, and Pop Master Fabel of Rock Steady Crew

Punk and Hip Hop Panel

Moderator: Rachel Swan

Panelists: Africa Bambaata, Pop Master Fabel, Aaron Shuman.

Rachel: I was gonna start off by just having everyone introduce themselves, and say what influences the punk and hardcore movements have had on you and your work. Let's start off with Bam.

AB: The punk and hardcore movements had a hip hop, and hip hop had a punk. And I could see the two relations coming down to the downtown scene when I was invited by Fab 550 as well as Michael Coleman and Who Legged Three, to start playing down to the Trinity in New York City, in the Village. And I used to play at a place called the Jefferson, then the Jefferson moved to a place called the Dance Interior,from Dance Interior to a famous place that's known throughout the world as the Roxie.

The two scenes, the hip hop and the punk, was two movements that was happening culturally -dancing- and musically -movements that was anti-what you were supposed to be at the time, be it resistant, or be the main sounds that could make you party at the dance. And they was really telling the industry, like, F-off. We were doing whatever we wanted to do. And eventually, the so-called "corporate world" started seeing ways of making money off the punk and hip hop scenes.

Popmaster Fabel: For me, it started with classic rock. My sisters used to have Santana albums, Steppinwolf, stuff like that. And I started getting into Black Sabbath, Led Zepplin -this was in '77 or '78, and I was pretty young. In my household we listened to a lot of different types of music. Gradually, it went from classic rock to something just a little faster, like Motorhead, Iron Maiden, and Metallica.

In 1981 my brother used to record a radio show that came (tk Fair Dickenson?), and New York University had a show called the Fastest Show on Earth. We started recorded these punk rock sessions which would play songs by Bad Brains, MDC. MDC's albums stood for a lot of different things -this one's cover looks like millions of dead cops. On every album the intials "MDC" stood for something different, like "Multi-death corporation", etc.

So my brother got into punk heavier than I did -I was still rockin' British Walkers, mock necks, sharkskin pants, and playboys, and he didn't have a problem throwing on boots and stomping around. I finally said "You know what?" I got a little discouraged with hip hop in the mid 80's, and I needed another outlet, so I started getting more into punk music. I was sort of a closet punker. At a certain point, I joined my brothers, and started going to CB's, and Rock Hotel at the Ritz., and slammin, and catching all the bands that came through.

New York had an incredible scene at the time. The Bad Brains had moved to New York from D.C. One of my all-time favorite Bad Brains records was (tk Rock for Bite?) produced by (tk). Four Rastas from DC came to New York and totally lit up the whole scene. Out of them came Reagan Youth, the Cro Mags, and a whole slew of other bands that had a raw sound. That's basically how I got into punk and hardcore.

Aaron: Before I start talking about where I got turned on to music, I'd have to go all the way back to Alvin and the Chipmunks. I'm not going to go back that far -it would ruin my credibility, for one thing.

People come to punk from a lot of different places. One of the things that I was thinking about this morning was the Zapatistas in Mexico, and how when they talked about their encuentros for humanity, against neo-liberalism, Marcos always has this long list describing the different masses of people who come through to these encuentros, and he's always shouting out to the gutter punks from Mexico City.

I want to clarify that I'm not a gutter punk and never have been, and I'm not from Mexico. But my connection to punk is that, being white, being middle class, being from a family that was really aggressive about advancing socially -and what that translated into was getting ripped out of my neighborhood, and sent to a private school- and being in this whole context, and this whole social structure, about fitting in. Growing up with a lot of anger about that, and sitting with a lot of anger about that. What saved me, really, in sitting with all that anger, was two things: reading black literature, and listening to punk rock.

In terms of the influence on me, I think a lot of times people talk about punk rock affecting their politics, and I don't feel that as much. I feel I got my politics from my college experiences protesting the Gulf War and the Rodney King verdict. But one thing that definitely influenced me in punk rock was the feminist culture I came up in there.

The DC bands were really important to me -bands like Fugazi, and Nation of Ulysses. I still remember being at a show in LA in the early 90's, and Fugazi coming out to play a benefit for the National Organization for Women. Or me going out, spending a week at the Positive Four's house in DC, which was a punk house that was just about doing good work in the community. They had a real feminist culture -there were shows with Fugazi and Bikini Kill.

The one point that I wanted to make about punk before is that I spent a day going out with this one person, Mark Anderson. We spent the day delivering meals to the elderly. That's not something people think of, in terms of the punk community. Like, how is that punk? But the concept of building community that was developed there was unique, and really particular to me.

Rachel: At what point did these two things break apart, and what broke them apart?

BAM: I think the industry tried to keep punk away from hip hop. And then people would diss punk -if you were punk wearing a porcupine head, spiked hair. Later on, if you were in the punk scene, you'd start wearing boots and things. Those were the slicker, more stylish types of punks that came later.

But I think (the separation) has a lot to do with the corporate world. The divide deepened when people started (getting into New Wave) and people who continued with punk were a more hardcore.

Pop Master Fabel: When I was into the punk scene, at a certain point there was a merging of thrash and punk. You had groups like PRI, Leeway, Sick of It All, and even the Cro Mags -groups with a thrash metal edge, that still were considered punk and hardcore. There was so much tension at Ceebee Geebies, man. There was the long-haired cats, versus the skins and the punks. It was really a lot of fighting, a lot of bloodshed. One cat literally bit another dude's finger off, and made them cancel a couple shows.

I used to count fights. I went to see the The Exploited once, and I was with my brother, like, "Oh, there's a fight right there, oh look, there's another one." Like nine fights broke out.

It was a weird identity thing, that some of the punks and skins felt that the thrash heads -people who liked Metallica, Slayer, Venom, Dark Angel, and Celtic Frost- that whole batch of people didn't belong in the punk scene.

I remember going to Three Kabobs -this pretty popular record store in the Village. Now, I always kinda looked a little strange. I was a mixture of different cultural scenes, and what-have-you. I may not always look like a straight punk. I was in there looking through the hardcore section, and right next to me is a metal section. So I had one cat come up to me -punked-out to the max- and he said "Aren't you looking in the wrong section?" I was like, "What are you talking about bro? I'm here to buy a record, what should it matter to you which record I'm buying?"

But that's just to give you an idea that all that sort of fighting, and what-have-you affected the scene, to a certain degree. And then stuff started getting sorta blurry. What's a punk? Who's a thrash head, or a metal head? And then, of course I agree with what Bam said, and a lot of people who grew up in the scene know that the commercial aspects of everything -the same obstacles that rap artists find in the industry, also (befall) artists in the punk scene. There were bad contracts, for example.

Also, every band wasn't straight-edge. You mentioned bands from DC, like Minor Threat -they're straight-edge. It seemed like those cats had their heads screwed on a little better than some of the guys who just didn't give a shit. A lot of the bands were breaking up, because they just didn't know how to maintain. Then you had record companies that were really changing their sound. I remember when I bought the last Discharge album -Discharge became Broken Bones- the last Broken Bones album I bought, I thought this it, I'm never buying another Broken Bones album in my life. The production was so wack, it just didn't sound like Broken Bones, anymore. Broken Bones sounded like Discharge, because that's where they came from.

Anyway, things started getting watered down, and like Bam said, it's inevitable that when's something hot, underground, and pumpin', there's always some industry buzzard flying around and waiting to feed off of the carcass.

Bam: You have to look at the difference between UK and U.S. punk.

Aaron: When I was coming up, these scenes had already grown apart, and been forced apart. So, in writing the article for Punk Planet in 2000, it was a project that everyone was immediately excited about. The idea hadn't occurred to anyone, even though, if you think about punk as being people under the regime, the connections between the two forms of music and two activist communities (are apparent).

For me, that's just how my mind works. So the question is how to get them back together now.

Rachel: What's keeping these scenes apart, now?

Bam: Now it's about hip hop, and hip hop rock.

Pop Master Fabel: I actually sparks of potential of bringing these scenes back together again. On one of Mos Def's last CDs, he had a hardcore song where he was dropping knowledge about the history of punk. From a black perspective, he showed how it was relevant to him, relevant to hip hop, and relevant to black music, period. Even guys like the Bad Brains, from DC, started as a jazz-rock-fusion band, and ended up playing the most furious punk songs you ever heard in your life: "How Low Can a Punk Get?", "Furious Vampire Killers", "Attitude", I mean, their songs are off the hook. Anybody who knows about the Bad Brains knows what I'm talking about.

Then I heard Mos Def's track, which I think he had Dr. Know from the Bad Brains play on, and I thought wow, it could still happen -it's just that people aren't taking chances anymore. Public Enemy used Slayer's chord progression from "Angel Of Death" in "Shoebox Channel Zero." If you listen to that song, what you're hearing in the background is Slayer, looped. So it worked there. We just performed at Cochella with the Rock Steady Crew, and Mos Def was there with Dr. Know from the Bad Brains, performing with a live band.

So I think it's just a question of following the tradition. In a way, when you started getting these huge, Woodstock-like events like Lollapalooza, this was once again a chance for different genre to meet each other, and for different types of people to bond, and feed on the same energy. On the real, there's so many similarities between the real punk scene and the real hip hop scene, that if we started building on our similarities, rather than looking at our differences, we could really produce a lot more stuff. It's about taking chances, going against the grain, and not really worrying so much about sounding like the next man.

You also have the guy from Spearhead, Michael Franti, who had a band called Beatmates, at one point, that rocked. This band was off the hook. And then they became the Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy, and kept that flavor, (which translated into) Spearhead. So again, that's another cat who definitely proved that we can mix genre, and team up based on our similarities.

Aaron: I definitely agree. One of the things that's interesting for me, in going to spoken word events, is that that's where I see the two cultures coming together a lot, in the Bay Area. That's where I see punks coming in because they're hungry for the kind of critical first-person breaking-shit-down that you get out of spoken word, and that I think you get out of learning the tradition of hip hop and rap.

Personally, I felt I'd reached a limit with punk in terms of punk being a four piece band, and so much being voiced in terms of confrontation. I guess that's a dynamic that you find in magazines like Punk Planet. Trying to figure out what punk is, and what punk is as punks get older -as punks becoming twenty, thirty, forty- how is what we do still "punk"? How is that experience inherited from us still punk?

I think the other question is just in terms of thinking about the events like Lollapalooza, and presenting these things together, it's like, how can we build on it so it doesn't feel like we're re-inventing things? Lollapalooza happened, and in some ways it feels like we're further back. So how do we avoid making those mistakes?

Question: I wanted to take issue with (the point about) corporations playing into the separating of these scenes. It seems to me that it comes down a lot more to the fact that there's a white culture and a black culture, and there's always been mutual distrust. Merging the cultures hasn't always worked out. Like in the history of techno, black djs in Detroit created this music, which then became popular mostly through white men in Europe. I remember a guy I know getting on his high horse at one point when techno and electronica became popular. Everyone's forgotten that this started as a black form of music.

What really happened was (white) Americans didn't hear about techno (until it was imported from Europe), or maybe we weren't all that interested to begin with.

Bam: A lot of groups themselves use hardcore punk and hardcore hip hop, and change their faces. In a group named tk, they had hardcore rap, and then they started adding in a little more sound, and the beats that they added sounded a little slower, and a little more soulful, like Tears for Fears and George Michael. And then they started adding slow R&B and pop soul, and people started liking it. And they started adding more reggae in, and some soul, and people started checking for it. (You can see it now in artists like Missy Elliot and the Roots).
So of course you had some white people who didn't like black people, and blacks didn't like whites, and people who would say "I just like rap," or "I'm a rock head" or "I'm a metal head."

Pop Master Fabel: To address your question, there was a time when some of those barriers were being broken down -like I mentioned the Bad Brains. I went to so many of their shows, and their were mostly white folks there, but we definitely started getting black folks who were friends of the Brains, along with other Puerto Rican punks.

You have to remember that in the lower east side, where some of these punks and non-racist skins hung out, they were mad cool, man, because if they weren't, we would stomp them out real quick. They were in our neighborhood, you know what I mean? The truth of the matter is that you had other bands like Burn and Grieve and Living Color who used to open up for the Bad Brains -and they're actually the ones who wound up getting commercial success. You had 24-7 Spies, Psychopunkopus, I mean, I'm starting to think of all these bands that had black players. The lead singer of Agnostic Punta was actually of Cuban descent, the list goes on and on.

Nowadays we actually have a very similar thing which actually started prior to that. Some of the skins and punks from Astoria Queens -where Murphy's law came out- and some of the lower east side skins, when they used to do their shows, they would talk like hip hoppers: "Wussup ya'all, how ya'all feeling?" Hitting the slang, holding their nuts, and the whole nine. You know? I used to sit there and say "Holy shit, what's happening here?" But in a way, I was feeling it, because I was like "man, this is all just becoming a common vibe." Whether you were influenced by hip hop or punk didn't matter, as long as you were getting your point across. Your music can speak louder than anything else.

Some of those bands were Youth of Today and Leeway. I would see these cats with hip hop flavor turning their hats to the side, and dressing half punk, half hip hop. I was sorta caught in that for a minute too. The jacket I used to wear in the pit when I used to slam -I painted the names of my favorite bands on there, really similar to the old gang style, and the outlaw bikers.

There's all kind of connections we could make, even from the rebelliousness of outlaws like The Black (Spades?) The tk Skulls, and the rebelliousness of the punks. Outlaws used to dress like bikers. They would wear their name on their back in patches -a style they got from copying the Hells Angels. You know, punks did the same thing except with bands they were into. Or maybe the British flag if you're into British bands, and the American flag.

The bands that we have nowadays that sort of remind me of Leeways and Youth of Today, because they have hip hop flavor, are of course Limp Biscuit -who make an attempt to mix the genre- Rage Against the Machine -who actually covered one of Bam's records, Renegades of Funk, Lords of Brooklyn -with my homeboy (tk Caides?).

Racism does play a role. I got stomped out at a Murphy's Law show. Jimmy Gestapo, the lead singer of the band, isn't one of the asshole-fascist-racist kind of skins, but when they play, they attract the asshole, suburban, idiot skinheads who don't see the difference. They're just there to hurt people. They go into the pit and inflict pain. Anyone who slams in the pit knows you're fighting for your own space, especially when the shit hits the fan, and they're playing the pit song. You're fighting for your own space, and it isn't supposed to be about pointing out one person and saying "I'm gonna punch that dude in the face when I get to him." It really wasn't about that, at least not when I got into it --I wasn't into the punk scene in the 70's, but in the early 80's I definitely started hitting the clubs.

I got jumped by these racist skins because I had hair that was shoulder-length, I had a denim jacket on, where I painted a portrait of Bob Marley with his hands together, and on the bottom it said "Rasta Live." And I guess they singled me out, and believe me, I got my ass stomped out that day.

It sorta made me say, "You know what, fuck this scene, I'll go back to the hip hop clubs and get shot there, you know what I mean?" You'll find similar tension in both of the scenes. But my thing is that there's a possibility (for mixing the scenes). Maybe not commercially, but on a grassroots level. Garage bands might be able to find this common denominator.

Aaron: Listen to Bambaata talk about the industry made me realize that the artists don't have the power to control the culture. The artists don't control the culture in terms of how it's beamed into television, computer, that type of stuff. One thing that I've really had to realize is that I'm only 31, but I already feel really old, in terms of the media culture. MP3, I don't know a thing about that, downloading music I don't know a thing about that, so on the one hand I think more people are becoming artists, today -more people are thinking of themselves as artists. That gets back to what I was saying about spoken word -in terms of breaking themselves down, and taking that responsibility unto themselves. So that gives me hope. On the other hand, these people are locked down using computers all day, and not bridging the very real, soulful barriers that exist. That goes in the opposite direction, that's a reason for pessimism.

The other thing I was thinking of, in terms of what keeps these things separate, is that these were scenes that were created by people taking responsibility unto themselves to create them. A lot of them were breaking into spaces, throwing shows in wearhouses. In Oakland, the first piece of journalism I did was on hip hop being evicted out of the city, and priced out of the city because the cops were totally discriminatory in terms of how they policed it. They would jack up the security costs, and make promoters hire all these cops. So there's also a very real in way in which the police, the economy, and getting spaces shut down keeps people separate. That's very real.

Bam: When he said the police keep people separate, people in power dictate to make sure that things stay separate. When hip hop came out, it crossed this barrier, and idea that all people on this planet could love it, you can bet all the high-ups couldn't stand to see black, brown, red, yellow, white, people together loving this form. Like keeping things in black and white: white people wear these types of clothes, and black people wear that type of clothes.
The put point-blank these audio movies out there, and it's showing you what America should look like in the future.

Posted by yorachelswan at 1:45 PM EDT
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