Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Portland, Oregon Hip Hop: Four Essays on Style and Place

Portland, Oregon Hip Hop: Four Essays on Style and Place
By Martha Grover
PO Box 14871
Portland, OR
97293, USA

This fantastic zine takes a look at each of the four elements of hip hop (graffiti, break dancing, deejaying and emceeing) and how they’re represented in Portland.

Grover’s well written essays discuss how each of these elements exists in “one of the whitest major cities in the [USA]”, and how those involved in the scene there struggle with “keeping it real”. Through interviews, explorations, and memories Grover tracks how hip hop culture has grown, and in some cases thrived, in her city.

The first piece, on graffiti, originally appeared in “The Raven Chronicles” (whatever that is), and is presumably the inspiration for Grover to go out and find out about the other parts of hiphop. She talks with graffiti artists and discusses the idea of graffiti as a type of hidden conversation between multiple parties. She gains, and communicates, an understanding of tagging that I had never comprehended before (I love graffiti, but have never gotten the quick tags people put up). Plus she wanders around an abandoned building. Awesome.

The next piece focuses on break dancing, or b-boying, and continues in the same format. She goes on a trip with a long time break dancer, who has played an influential role in getting Portland on international break dancing maps, to tour the many practice locations his crew have gotten kicked out of, interspacing it with information gained from interviews and research.

She discusses the idea of break-dancing as an incredible technical thing where slight variations and difficult moves can only be appreciated by people who know what’s going on and breakdance themselves. (I experienced this last summer when I saw a battle in San Francisco. Some of the other people watching would ooooh and aaaah over things that didn’t look that impressive, but were presumably difficult to pull off.)

The other two pieces are similar: she interviews people who are involved in different parts of the scene and tries to understand why they have committed their lives to them. I won’t go into them too much here, as otherwise I will just go on forever.

Near the end Grover asks questions that I, a similar white hip hop fan, cannot answer: why do we (white people) listen to, and connect with, white rappers like Aesop Rock and Sage Francis while ignoring tracks by black musicians? By asking this question I feel she disregards the many, many white people who do embrace black music (look at the music charts to see), but she was probably thinking of the hipster/indie/alternative people who don’t listen to pop music.

My only complaints are fairly minor, there’s some typographical and punctuation errors that only stand out because the rest of the package looks so good, a few photos, especially in the graffiti section, would have been nice, and the piece on emceeing doesn’t go quite as in depth as I would have liked. But as Grover admits that in the piece I can’t really complain.

This zine is well worth checking out if you have any interest in hip hop or even subcultures in general. You might even discover some new artists to check out, I did.

(Look! An interview I did with a break dancer in Thailand. Seemingly one of the only of my print journalism pieces that's still online.)

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