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If hip-hop is a nation of millions, then what does it stand for?



"Is hip-hop not as American as baseball and apple pie?" – Katt Williams

Last week's BET Hip Hop Awards broadcast was hosted by a stand up comedian, but didn't open with a traditional awards show monologue. Instead, funnyman Katt Williams delivered what can only be described as a hip-hop State of the Union address. He said all of the right things to please the crowd, paid homage to the founding fathers, gave proper respect to the reigning monarchy, and presented all of the right slogans about the hip-hop era, including his genuinely soul-stirring remark: "I do not stand before you as a man who likes hip-hop. I like pizza -- I live hip-hop."

Similarly, West Coast elder statesman Ice-T opened the third annual VH1 Hip-Hop Honors two weeks ago, remarking that his message was not just about music, but that "It's about hip-hop and how it's changing the world right now. How this culture affects politics, business, fashion, the arts, and the way we see ourselves." Well stated. But as Jerry Maguire (Tom Cruise) once said, "It was only a mission statement."

As I watched Ice's speech, I was reminded that hip-hop is quintessentially American. Not just because it represents what rock & roll used to -- the irresistible force to your parents' immovable object -- but because it is at a crossroads. Hip-hop is both a free market, where anyone can get in with two turntables and a microphone, and also a caste system, where the elites and taste makers present only a very narrow spectrum of what the music and the culture have to offer, and those who want more have to go out and find it for themselves -- just like in all walks of American life.

Hip-hop is as American as apple pie. It is also materialism, the n-word, and general double-talk. So now that hip-hop has solidified itself as the dominant youth culture of our times (enough that BET and VH1, two networks owned by the same company, both have competing hip-hop broadcasts), the question hip-hop nation must ask itself is if it only wants apple pie, or if it wants to have a meal first?

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