I WAS WATCHING Rosie O'Donnell recently. Um, I mean, I was flipping through the channels and happened to catch Rosie, and she was interviewing this group of earnest young white men about their new theater piece, A Bomb-itty of Errors, which is a "hip-hop version" of the Shakespeare play of virtually the same name. They spoke about how theater needs to be introduced to a new generation and how hip-hop is the key to making that happen. It was clear from their demeanor that they were intelligent, sincere people who truly cared about the culture. Then they got up and performed one of the most egregious displays of minstrelsy I have ever seen, complete with garish costumes, sideways baseball caps, painfully exaggerated Flavor-Flav dance moves, and blatant misuses of Black English (Black English has grammatical rules; it is possible to speak it incorrectly). How could these well-intentioned youngsters be so misguided? I blame the Internet.
More precisely, I blame the attitude that the Internet has spawned: One should have access to everything all the time. The problem is not what you get (unlimited information), but what you don't get: context, experience, and time to think about what you're doing. "It's kinda dangerous," notes Seattle MC and graffiti artist Specs. "It's just gotten easier for people that have more resources to get closer to things, or be more culturally well-rounded in their exploits. Just because things are available to 'em. So people are DJing for a year and then all of a sudden they're in nightclubs. Or rhymin' for a couple months and all of a sudden, they've got albums."
Let's be honest here: I've made almost all the mistakes that those guys on Rosie did (except the sideways baseball cap, but that's just because of the shape of my head). There are two differences between me and the hip-hoppers that came of age on the Internet: I had real live human people around me to tell me I was an ass; and I kept coming back anyway.
HIP-HOP IS ABOUT social experience, about collective engagement with reality. You're supposed to learn about hip-hop by doing it wrong, being corrected, feeling stupid, and still showing up the next day. In that sense, the Internet is the opposite of hip-hop: It's individualistic, unreal, and you can't dance to it. So it's surprising to see how central the Web has become to hip-hop culture. Except when you consider the upside.
"It's very positive for a person like myself, that's hella into it," says Seattle MC and producer Samson S. "It's a valuable resource. I get my daily hip-hop news from Support Online Hip-Hop (www.sohh.com). I find out what underground 12-inches are out, and I get to listen to 'em before I buy 'em. Shit, that's unprecedented!"
True. And, as my barber Spyridon "Spin" Nicon points out, the benefits are not just for the hardcore heads. "I think you can become an underground fan much easier now," he observes. "Here's a good example. . . . Over the past three weeks I've been hunting and searching for the Saukrates Underground Tapes EP. I could not find it in Seattle. My girlfriend—who isn't even really into hip-hop—heard me talking about it, and she went online. She ended up finding it! All of a sudden, she was part of the underground scene of Toronto hip-hop." But the increasingly porous boundary between hip-hop insiders and outsiders raises serious questions, like how hard you should have to work at earning hip-hop knowledge.
The Original Hip-Hop Lyrics archive (www.ohhla.com) features reliable transcriptions, and the archive is a priceless resource for hip-hop lovers. But every once in a while, you come across lyrics transcribed by far-flung fans whose grasp of language and American culture are, ahem, limited. When Willie D says he "hooked a left at the Popeye's" (referring to driving through the parking lot of a fast-food place), it is rendered on Ohhla.com as "but they're laughing at pow pies."
Another example of the Web's dubious role in hip-hop's social life is www.okayplayer.com, which was founded as the official site for Philadelphia's Roots crew, but which soon grew to encompass affiliated artists such as D'Angelo and Common; it also has a chat room. Intelligent and nuanced debates arise, with artists good-naturedly squaring off against fans and vice versa. But on Okayplayer, the opinion of a 14-year-old from Norway carries equal weight as that of a DJ from the Bronx. While the democratic implications of this are exciting, the intellectual implications are less so. Individuals who may never have moved in the social circles of hip-hop are emboldened by their anonymity to speak on experiences they never had, and if someone doesn't like it, well, there's not much they can do. A flame war and a face-to-face argument are two very different things. Personally, I've learned a lot from arguing with people.
AS THE PUNDITS are fond of pointing out, the Internet frees us from the pesky constraints of our physical bodies. But it also frees us from the continuity of the body. In real life, if you feel uncomfortable or exposed or stupid, you have to accept it, learn from it, and move on. This is not the case online, where you can turn off the computer and pretend it never happened. If you want to learn anything about culture, you have to—have to—be willing to mess up. "That's how I learned everything in life," says Mr. Supreme, hip-hop producer and cohost of KCMU's Street Sounds. "Through mistakes." The Web has robbed us of this opportunity, and the results are starting to become apparent.
There was an era when hip-hop, like most musical scenes, had a probationary or hazing period built into it. Basically, the enthusiastic but ignorant young "toy"—recognizable by their idealism and overuse of slang—made a fool of him or herself while learning the rules. It could be a painful education, but a valuable one. You picked up things that couldn't be articulated in words: how to stand, how to speak, why no one wore MC Hammer pants in real life.
The science of hip-hop sampling used to be handed down through apprenticeships: Paul C taught the Large Professor, Marley Marl (to hear him tell it) taught everyone else. If you wanted to find out which soul, funk, and jazz artists were being sampled in your favorite hip-hop songs, you had to hang out with producers. Now you can simply go to the rap sample FAQ (that's one URL I'm unwilling to plug). This site is a staggering compendium of sample origins, information that until recently was only available through personal research or word of mouth. Still, there are many other aspects of the traditional apprenticeship that you can't get through the Internet, such as lessons in how to listen for breakbeats, access to out-of-the-way record spots, and someone to blame when you spend your whole paycheck on old Les McCann records. When it comes to hip-hop, there's a big difference between online life and real life.
And the people who miss this distinction, as Samson S. points out, are often the people who most need to be thinking about it. "I think that's wack if there's people out there whose only connection to hip-hop is via the Internet," he says. "That's not good. And then those are usually the same motherfuckers that be comin' out acting like they're like experts and shit. And ain't even never been booed. Or never been in a battle. Or never been to a rowdy hip-hop show. To me, the Internet's just a tool to enhance certain things."
Such as personal experience. But, as Mr. Supreme asks, "How can you have experiences if you're not there? Even if you read about it, or watch a documentary or something. . . . You'll learn, but it's not like being there. It's not like the real thing."