Strip hip-hop of all its hype, bling, cultural epitaphs, overrated moguls and their entourage, and believe it or not, you are left with a form of music. What started as simple beats and rhymes, an escape for black youth in New York, has turned into a worldwide culture equipped with clothing lines, cologne scents and other grotesque displays of wealth. Behind it all, however, hip-hop will always boil down to two essential elements — the beats and the rhymes.
Isolating themselves from all hype, a group of beat-boxers has decided to take those elements back to where rap began. Before 50 Cent landed on MTV, hip-hop was underground, quite literally, finding an identity on the subway, the great equalizer of New York City. Today, MCs are using the subway to create an atmosphere that highlights the fundamentals, when hip-hop consisted of two people, one making beats and the other spitting rhymes and the whole thing was as portable as transportation itself.
Every other week a group of 40 people will follow Terry “Kid Lucky” Lewis as he boards a train, all there to revel rather than travel.
“Sorry for messing up your beautiful commute, but this is a hip-hop subway party,” Kid Lucky announced to the passengers of a Bronx-Bound number 6 train. “We aren’t asking for any money, just a little bit of patience,” he continued. And with that, Kid Lucky drops a beat and the party begins.
The familiar screeching sounds of the subway are drowned by human beat-boxers. They are joined by singers and MCs, who proclaim the car a “party train” in the name of hip-hop. The regular beeps and whizzes of doors closing are incorporated into the constant beat of impromptu music. Passengers en route home or to dinner stare in confusion, as regular subway etiquette is tossed out the closing doors.
The hip-hop subway party is a “flash mob,” an organized but seemingly spontaneous gathering, designed so beat-boxers can learn from each other and most of all have a good time.
“This is our time to do positive hip-hop underground,” said Lewis, 33, wearing a T-shirt that depicts George W. Bush as a vampire biting the Statue of Liberty’s neck. “This is the essence of hip-hop; talking and communicating,” he continued.
The Subway Series is designed to be a space where conscious hip-hop can thrive outside of the underground music scene and right in people’s faces. It’s Lewis’ attempt to change how most people see rap.
“Hip-hop was something that saved the black community in New York. Instead of fighting physically we battled through dance, MC-ing, DJ-ing, and now people think that is like a myth,” said Lewis, founder of Beatboxer Entertainment, a collection of 50 beat-boxers from around the country. Putting an upbeat but activist light on rap is increasingly hard for Lewis, who was particularly upset with recent news that the all-hip-hop radio station. Hot 97, was facing eviction for gunshots that went off in the building.
“That’s not Hot 97’s fault, that’s hip-hop’s fault,” said an angered Lewis, reading the morning news. “That’s like a Muslim blowing up a mosque,” he continued.
Although rapping about violence is commonplace today, the main elements of hip-hop — rapping, break dancing, graffiti and spinning records — were all outlets for young African Americans to compete without violence when the cultural movement started in the late 70s and early 80s.
“They feel that is an old-school way of thinking, but why is that old-school? All you’re doing is killing each other and gangbanging,” said a frustrated Lewis.
Hip-hop has always had an inherent sense of social justice, dating back to the days of Grand Master Flash, who rapped about the difficulties that poor black youth faced in New York. Back then rappers were “trying to position their experience in a larger cultural context, and I think that is the legacy or thread that leads to conscious hip-hop,” says Murray Forman, assistant professor of Communications at Northeastern University and co-editor of the Hip-Hop Studies Reader. But today, many critics of rap complain that social analysis has been traded for self-glorification, forcing “conscious” rap to go beneath the media radar.
“We call conscious hip-hop ‘underground’, so work that metaphor out and they are taking conscious stuff back to the subway, it’s a literal translation of the underground,” says Forman. People of all different races and countries, from France, Spain and Amsterdam, have shown up to participate in the Hip-Hop Subway Series. The model has even spread from New York to London where there is a hip-hop party in the Underground.
Once on the subway, participants add their own unique sounds to the growing beat. Divas howl from the pits of their lungs, wrapping arms around the center pole like a microphone stand. Young rappers freestyle next to beat-boxers, trying their best to keep their balance in the moving train, while dropping lines about what it is like to partake in the hip-hop subway party.
“I’m Ludacris, zany and fresh/All aboard the spontaneous subway express,” yelled Rabbi Darkside, a local New York MC playing off of a known line from the rapper Ludacris. “Spitting rhymes from my sick brain/Can’t you see there is a party on the 6 train,” he continued.
One passenger, Dushan Perera, 25, was on his way to meet a friend for dinner when his train was turned into a traveling jukebox. While an old Jewish man wearing a yarmulke ignored the ruckus going on right next to him, Dushan stood up to get a better view.
“It takes me back to listening to hip-hop in junior high when it was more jazz-influenced,” said Dushan. “It transports me 20 years ago when this was the hip-hop movement, as opposed to how commercial it is today.”
The party train usually includes a stop midway at a subway platform where breakdancers let loose and “express themselves in movement,” said Lewis. On one occasion tap dancers came along and did a call-and-answer routine with the beat-boxers. The tappers would create a beat with their feet and the human beat-boxers would duplicate it with their mouths. It’s a routine Lewis calls “hoofers and woofers.”
By the end of the subway ride, which has a different destination every time, sweat is dripping from foreheads, feet are sore and lips are numb. The ride back is left open for people to exchange numbers, spread word about upcoming shows and “network,” said Lewis. The hip-hop series has taken a break for the summer, partly so Lewis can manage Beatboxer Entertainment and also just to enjoy the fact that the group never got caught during their hijacking of subway trains.
The party will continue, however, come this fall said Lewis.