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Baltimore Sun
April 10, 2000

Hip hop
Explosion: Web sites don't just focus on the music, they address its impact on popular culture.

By Melody Holmes
Contributing writer

Alex Hill's hip-hop Web site takes up all of his spare time and doesn't make money. But like so many who have come to love hip-hop, he brings a passion to his hobby.

"It's more than something I just do - it's all I am," says the 36-year-old Sacramento, Calif., programmer who created, an online collection of essays, lyrics, graffiti and other artifacts of hip-hop culture.

Hill is a new media artist in the culture of hip-hop, on the leading edge of a musical genre that has virtually exploded online.

Want to hear the latest single by Ghostface Killah or learn about the musicians who backed D'Angelo on his latest album? At Hill's and other hip-hop sites, fans can not only listen to the latest music, but also learn more about the movement whose influence has reached into every corner of American pop culture. For parents who wonder what their kids are listening to, these are good places to find out.

Some hip-hop sites are one-man crusades, while others are backed by multimillion-dollar players such as Russell Simmons and FUBU clothing. The most ambitious sites, including The Source, RapStation (founded by Public Enemy's Chuck D) and, reach well beyond the usual fan fare and the latest news about baggy pants to focus on community issues.

"What's refreshing about these Web sites is that they're not just concentrating on music, because it's also a lifestyle," says Sreenath Sreenivasan, an associate professor at Columbia University who teaches new media studies and consults with

For example, the lead news item on The Source's Web site Wednesday was a follow-up to the Microsoft antitrust ruling in federal court, pegged to chairman Bill Gates' $1 billion donation to Native American, black and Hispanic educational foundations.

Says Sreenivasan, "They make it relevant to the community."

As a cultural movement, hip-hop started more than two decades ago in the black and Hispanic communities of the Bronx, with graffiti, break dancing and rap as its center. Its lyrics describing urban life were new to many audiences, but in 1980, the Sugar Hill Gang's "Rapper's Delight" made Billboard's Top 40. Its lyrics - "I said a hip hop the hippie the hippie to the hip hip hop, you don't stop" - became so popular that the culture surrounding rap music took on the name.

Today, hip-hop includes the inventive use of language and urban dialects, clothing styles (e.g., baggy pants and oversized parkas) as well as the hard-edged music that often focuses on storytelling. Sexually explicit and violent lyrics are part of the mix, but so are sophisticated political messages and more tender slices of life.

From the start, hip-hop has had its ups and downs - the biggest down being the flap in the 1990s over "gangsta" rap's violent and misogynist message.

On the up side, hip-hop has made "mad" money (which means "a lot" in the language of rap) and has affected almost every aspect of American culture, says Tony Green, a music reviewer and editor at large of Blaze magazine, which follows the movement. In 1994 and 1995, albums by Snoop Doggy Dogg, DMX and the late Tupac Shakur were going platinum. Some of the entertainment industry's most recognized celebrities come from the hip-hop tradition, singer-actors Queen Latifah and Will Smith.

SoundScan, which tracks music sales in the United States, doesn't break out hip-hop as a separate category but says that of the 755 million albums sold last year, 11 percent were rap music, the main hip-hop genre. Another 23 percent came from rhythm and blues acts, many of whom view themselves as hip-hop artists.

Along the way, the music has spread far from its urban base. Shaheem Reid, assistant music editor at Vibe magazine, says true hip-hop lovers range in age from 13 to 28 and cross racial and cultural lines. They react to the charisma of the performers and the element of implicit danger in their songs.

Breakdown: SoundScan says 11 percent of albums sold last year were by rappers, 23 percent were from R&B acts like Destiny's Child (above). (Photo courtesy of Columbia Records)

"As far as money, the biggest buyers of hip-hop are white kids in suburbia," Reid says. "They'll buy the CD, the tape and the single."

Large corporations, in turn, have noticed the trend. "A few years ago, it would have been unthinkable that Busta Rhymes would be doing a Mountain Dew commercial," Reid says.

On a technological level, the leap for hip-hop to cyberspace wasn't a surprise. "So much of the music is being made with digital keyboards, sequenced through a program," says Green. "It's only a couple of clicks to send it online."

Those few clicks, and the psychological safety of the home, have fueled unprecedent growth of hip-hop online over the past two years. "The Web allows you to understand the culture without exposing yourself to it - you don't have to buy The Source or Vibe or watch BET," says Sreenivasan. "You can do this in your own space ... and that has helped some of the explosion of the culture."

Hill's has offerings typical of hip-hop Web sites - all generated by the Web master on weekends and evenings after his day job as a Web program designer for an Internet billing company.

Hip-hop lovers can check out lyrics, send messages covering topics ranging from the early days of the genre to rants over whether there really is a difference between hip-hop and rap. News about the Philadelphia-based Roots, Cleveland's Bone Thugs-n-Harmony, and Ice Cube of Compton, Calif., is a part of Hill's mix.

The commercial is a Net-based TV channel based in New York with online shows that include Queendom (women in hip-hop), 88 Soul ( R&B artists on the hip-hop scene) and the popular underground Fat Beats Radio.

Webcast at 10 p.m. on Mondays, Fat Beats Radio - created by the backers of Fat Beats clothing stores in New York, Atlanta, Los Angeles and Amsterdam - features new hip-hop releases, guest DJs, and interviews with artists.

Fat Beats is one of the best things about the hip-hop Net, Green says, providing an outlet for music and other aspects of hip-hop culture.

"The appeal is that it [Fat Beats] gives kids a chance to hear music that is not programmed by folks at major corporations which is often better music, or at the very least more diverse," Green says.

Hip-hop fan David Fennell of Clinton likes the variety. "You get tired of the basic stuff, played over and over again on commercial stations," says Fennell, a 21-year-old systems engineer who has been downloading music audio files from the Internet since he was 16. "You get a variety of things that would never get played on the radio."

In fact, Fennell says he has become fond of hip-hop created in Italy, Sweden and Britain. "Production-wise, it sounds better than some of the underground stuff done here," he says. Without the Internet, he would never have heard such music.

With FUBU backing and Russell Simmon's RS1W company creating, big money has been thrown into the arena. The industry is focused on Simmons, who co-founded Def Jam Records (which produced acts such as LL Cool J and Public Enemy) and produced "Def Comedy Jam" on HBO. But just because it's a corporate effort doesn't mean it won't have an edge, says Sheena Lester, executive editor and senior director of community at RS1W.

Tupac Shakur: The late rapper, seen in a 1993 photo, is one of many hip-hop artists whose albums have gone platinum. (AP photo)

"We want to get as thorough and down and dirty as we can," she says of the site, which is scheduled to launch June 6. "Hip-hop is global. That's why it's called Hip Hop 360 - we want to get the full circle of hip-hop culture."

The site will also try to dispel the myth that the East Coast is the epicenter of hip-hop, Lester says. "New York is not the centerpiece anymore," Lester says. "When you look at the success of people from the south like the Cash Money [Records] and Master P [both from Louisiana], you see that's true."

By diversifying their offerings, hip-hop sites not only spread the culture to the young, but also can help to educate people who have little connection to the music, say those who work on the Web sites and study the industry.

Offering more multimedia content will be key, Reid and Sreenivasan say.

"The biggest thing that is coming is more and more video online," says Sreenivasan. "You've got people who watch BET and watch MTV. They expect the same experience. They expect their TV and Web experience to be the same."

Deputy electronic news editor Kevin Washington contributed to this article.

Originally published Apr 10 2000 | Stuff | Baltimore Sun quotes