‘Da’ What is Hip Hop? – Five Steez of Jamaica (Editorial)
We have taken you to New York, “the Birth place of hip hop”, a few times for ‘Da’ What is Hip Hop? but now we are taking you to where the founders of hip hop got their ideas! Jamaica. If hip hop was born in New York, it was conceived in Jamaica. Five Steez is an emcee from Kingston trying to rep hip hop to fullest in a country where Reggae and Dancehall rule. He listened to all of the classic hip hop that put hip hop on the map, both within America and abroad, but living in Jamaica, Five Steez took to the online community far before so many of us did. This is a really interesting read about growing up a hip hop fan when those around you are not. Hip hop provided a community of sorts of Five Steez and also isolated him in a way too. For a full look at the hip hop seen in Jamaica, Five Steez’s personal history and more of his music, hit the jump!
“Hip Hop, to me, is the realest and most open form of expression I have ever heard. I came into contact with Hip Hop at an early age too. I was born in 1986 and I can vividly remember hearing songs and seeing videos from A Tribe Called Quest, Public Enemy, Run DMC, EPMD etc in the early 90′s. I have two older brothers, 7 and 9 years older, who were into Hip Hop (one of them moreso than the other) so naturally, I was around them and was exposed to it.
In my youth, I also listened to a lot of other genres including Pop, R&B and of course, Reggae and Dancehall. Music is almost everywhere in Jamaica, especially the capital, Kingston, where I live. All sorts of genres are played on our local airwaves, however, the indigenous Reggae & Dancehall were dominant in my youth. Radio has changed a lot since then but the preferred genres of the masses are still the indigenous forms… Reggae has taken a backseat to Dancehall in recent years (although there is currently a ‘Reggae Revival’ underway) and Trinidadian Soca has established a firmer grip on some audiences.
It wasn’t until I got closer to my teens that I gravitated more and more towards Hip Hop. I had bought Rakim’s 18th Letter and KRS One’s I Got Next in 1997 and I had loved those albums. I had also fallen in love with Wu-Tang Forever. Being 10/11, my brother provided me with an edited copy, full of sound effects that replaced the words. I actually miss hearing those versions because the effects were so cool to me. Funnily enough, I was also listening to Bad Boy and No Limit at the time, although I never owned their releases (maybe I never liked it as much? I really can’t remember and I’m not sure). At around this time, I wrote a few rhymes but I don’t remember it being that much of a hobby to me. This progressed over time, however.
In a year or two, I lost considerable interest in Dancehall. The music began changing and lost some its endearing qualities. I went through a “Cash Money phase” at around 13 like some of my closest friends then and I began considering myself a rapper. I eventually started posting some of my rhymes in a message board on Bolt.com and one day, I was dissed for being wack (which I was). Whether I was invited or not, I ended up visiting another message board called Channel Zero, which I believe was run by the same person that called me wack. This message board was dedicated to MC’s and that’s where I began to frequent from then on. I posted my rhymes, got feedback and learnt from other MC’s posting online. The lyricism and knowledge I was exposed to during that period jolted me back to some of my earlier memories of Hip Hop and that was when I began to understand what Hip Hop was. I started listening to a lot of Canibus, Talib Kweli, Common and others as well as all of the older material I remembered as a child.
My exposure to Hip Hop from a young age made me different from most of my friends. While many Jamaicans may be familiar with Hip Hop and it is popular among the people (to an extent), it is not a dominant genre and not everyone had the same exposure I had for a variety of reasons:
1) My older brothers introduced me to it at a young age
2) I got cable (with all the popular American channels) before it was widespread
3) I began using the internet before a lot of people my age began learning the computer (my brothers were also into computers)
This made me somewhat of a lone soldier. Some of my friends wrote rhymes while we were in our “Cash Money phase” but they never began studying it like I did and taking it seriously. I would write rhymes at school and would even rap for my friends. At times, I would join a “clash” at school. A clash is pretty much a dancehall version of a battle. In the school setting, it would be guys beating on the desks and spitting their favourite dancehall lyrics (usually a “gun tune”) against each other. As a rapper, I stood out because the style is so different. Strangely enough, I would defeat my opponents or at least gain respect because although I was freestyling, I was able to fit in something witty or incorporate something from the dancehall aesthetic to get a reaction.
Hip Hop was a hobby for me and a form of expression but it also impacted my life in the most meaningful ways. It was from listening to Rakim and Wu-Tang that I studied Islam, the Nation of the Gods & Earths and the Zulu Nation. Aside from a Reggae artiste like Sizzla, it was the rappers that I was listening to that were pointing me in the direction of certain knowledge. Because of Hip Hop, I studied so many other spiritual movements before I even studied Rastafari later on when I was 16. That made me unique and gave me a wider perspective… I never claimed Rastafari like some of my friends began to, partly because I was exposed to so much more… so much that I just had a thirst to know and felt not to categorize myself or trap my beliefs in any one box.
Hip Hop opened me to up to a lot and in many ways, made me who I am today. Through Hip Hop, I’ve connected with many like-minded individuals right here in Kingston and even internationally by promoting my music online.
My story isn’t the typical Hip Hop story because of where I’m from…and neither is it the typical Jamaican story. It just is what it is.
Locally, Hip Hop is very much woven into the music nowadays. Dancehall has lost its original sound and is now mimicking Dance/Pop music with Hip Hop/R&B elements. Reggae is experiencing a ‘Revival’ at the moment and some of its frontrunners used to be rappers (who changed or fused genres partly, but not solely, because of the lack of local support for genres outside of Reggae & Dancehall). You still hear the Hip Hop influence in their music, however.
Locally produced Hip Hop is still underground in Jamaica. It just so happens that the entire local music industry is built around Reggae & Dancehall and no space is provided for anything else and no consideration given to it. Those of us getting some attention, whether locally or internationally, are few and far in between. There are not many opportunities and outlets, however, we have been changing that in recent times. Things are looking better than ever as we are putting on our own shows, using social media and gaining the respect of the local media and even international outlets. For us, it’s only right. We believe that Jamaica has a claim to Hip Hop as being the nation of DJ Kool Herc, the culture’s father, and the place that birthed the sound system culture, which is essentially what Kool Herc brought to the Bronx. Looping up the record and talking over it… that’s what was done in the early Dancehall. For that reason, I see Kingston, Jamaica as being the “First Coast” of Hip Hop. We’ve influenced it in numerous ways over the past few decades. Now, it is time for MC’s straight from Jamaica, to be recognized everywhere. The movement is now underway. And in this global digital age, it cannot be stopped.” – Five Steez