"Hip-hop was not in the dictionary before we went to the universities," the part-time Atlanta resident recalls. "I used to pull out the Oxford English Dictionary and say, 'Look, you know hip-hop exists; you see it all around you. Yet it's not in the academic world.'"
Then something changed -- and not just the frequency of college speaking engagements taken on by folks like KRS-One and Public Enemy's Chuck D as their record sales declined.
"Around 1998, hip-hop showed up in the Oxford English Dictionary," KRS-One recalls. "I have no idea what happened -- I can't take credit for influencing that -- but I do know it wasn't in there before."
And that's not all that changed. In the last half of the '90s, as hip-hop secured its place at the forefront of youth culture -- and, perhaps more significantly, as it approached its 20th birthday -- insiders and outsiders alike embraced a newfound self-consciousness. Colleges now hold events like the University of Wisconsin-Madison's annual Hip-Hop As a Movement conference. Ivy League brains such as Cornell West represent for the hip-hop-to-bow tie set. And new-jack intellectuals like Bakari Kitwana drop book-length treatises with titles like The Hip Hop Generation: Young Blacks and the Crisis in African American Culture.
But wait, there's more. Last summer, hip-hop's most distinguished and visible businessman, Def Jam Records founder Russell Simmons, began what looks to be the subculture's most sophisticated effort yet at harnessing its nascent political power. Simmons organized a Hip Hop Summit, which brought together artists, record executives, politicians, religious leaders and intellectuals to network and develop an agenda. From that came the Hip Hop Action Network, a political action committee that, among other initiatives, just last week helped bring 20,000 people to New York's City Hall to protest proposed budget cuts in education.
In case anyone missed it, hip-hop is no longer invisible -- it's ubiquitous. But, somewhat paradoxically, there's also a flipside to all this. As folks like KRS-One and Simmons live out a natural impulse to institutionalize and legitimize what is important to them, they may be hastening hip-hop's death by neutralizing its anarchic, youthful power. Are they killing the very thing for which they're trying to empower?
Beyond the academic and political coming of age, there's one more component -- call it hip-hop's spiritual blossoming. In that, KRS-One is the self-appointed majordomo and primary metaphysician -- hip-hop's Timothy Leary, Bob Dylan and Wavy Gravy all in one. After establishing himself as one of rap's best pioneering MCs in the '80s, KRS turned his attention to establishing recognition of what he calls Hiphop Kulture (capital H, no hyphen, as is his preference), "an inner-city movement that seeks victory over the oppressive routine of inner-city life." He's the founder and de facto high priest of the Temple of Hiphop, self-described as an organization aimed at "decriminalizing Hiphop's public image through concerts, lectures, articles and interviews."
"At the Temple of Hiphop," reads the group's website (www.templeofhiphop.org), "Hiphop is practiced as an alternative behavior capable of transforming subjects and objects in an attempt to manifest our collective consciousness. Hiphop is a state of mind."
There are actual "temples" -- meeting houses set up in a few cities, where discussion groups meet and courses are taught on hip-hop's nine elements (called "refinitions"): break dancing, rapping, graffiti art, DJing, beatboxing, street fashion, street language, street knowledge and street entrepreneurialism. One such temple existed in Atlanta for several months last year at 670 11th St., where KRS-One himself held weekly meetings.
But more than its physical presence, the Temple of Hiphop also claims to function as a "Hiphop preservation society that seeks to define and teach the accumulated wisdom of Hiphop." To that end, the temple has not only founded a Hiphop Appreciation Week -- most recently held May 13-20 in Atlanta, New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco -- it also has issued a "Hiphop Declaration of Peace," which outlines hip-hop culture's collective beliefs across 18 "overstandings." The 17th Overstanding, for example, reads like this: "Hiphop is shown the highest respect when Hiphoppas respect each other. Hiphop Kulture is preserved, nurtured and developed when Hiphoppas preserve, nurture and develop one another."