No art form is ever static. As time goes on, new influences affect the art which cause it to grow, evolve and develop. Theatre is, of course, no different.
Making Hip Hop Theatre by Katie Beswick and Conrad Murray is the essential guide to the new synthesis of hip hop and theatre. With the huge success of Hamilton, Barber Shop Chronicles, Misty, Black Men Walking and Frankenstein: How to Make a Monster, hip hop theatre is more popular than ever. In this guide, you can learn from the best: hip hop theatre pioneer Conrad Murray.
Covering vocal technique, use of equipment, mixing, looping, sampling, working with venues and dealing with creative challenges, this book is a bible for both new and experienced artists alike, offering a personal look into an exciting new form of theatre.
Here, in this extract, Murray breaks down the key ‘Principles of Hip Hop’: explaining the terminology, offering actionable tips, and clarifying why ‘authenticity’ is so important… after all, “no one is fooled by a copy”.
Making Hip Hop Theatre concerns Conrad Murray’s practice, so he sometimes wants to address you, our readers, directly, in his own voice. When he does this, the text below appears in italics and he refers to himself using ‘I’.
Principles of Hip Hop
Hip hop is a cultural, philosophical and historical movement, as we explained in the introduction. But hip hop is also an aesthetic. It has a specific feeling: there is a hip hop style and set of tastes, guided by certain principles. In other words, you know it when you see it. Finding ways to be inspired by the principles of this aesthetic in your practice can enrich your work, add detail and connect you to the history.
Below are the elements of hip hop that we’ve distilled from the Introduction – taking the theory and telling you how it impacts our practice. These are things we think of as fundamental to the hip hop aesthetic and that we embed in our work. There is no definitive bible (although KRS-One has written a hip hop gospel) or official key principles carved in stone, and that’s a beautiful thing. You can follow the principles we’ve outlined below or pick and add your own.
Imagine the streets of New York. The projects, graffiti on the walls, people dancing and breaking, a mat on the floor with a crowd cheering as some B-Boy busts out a gravity-defying feat in the newest, freshest Nike tracksuit. ‘Rapper’s Delight’ blasts out from a boom box. The full fourteen minutes, thirty-five seconds of it. Or maybe fourteen minutes, thirty seconds of it. Batteries were expensive and would often run out, leaving the B-Boys and B-Girls with nothing to dance to, the emcees nothing to rap along with.
Then, out of the shadows, a mysterious figure appears. They are wearing a red hooded top with matching sweatpants, the latest Adidas Superstars on. Slowly cupped hands raise to pursed lips . . . Boom boom chica tee boom boom tee chica chica! And the whole project starts dancing, people continue to rap fly lyrics.
Or something like that.
The four elements
Deejaying, rapping or emceeing (speaking to or over a beat), graffiti and B-Boying (breakdance) are considered the ‘four elements’ of hip hop. Most people specialize in one area, but many hip hop heads dabble and take an interest in them all. Certainly, any production that considers itself as ‘hip hop theatre’ will feature at least one of these elements.
‘Knowledge’ is the ‘fifth element’ of hip hop. Sharing, learning, paying forward, staying alert to injustice, connecting deeply with other people, building on what your teachers gave you and keeping the history alive is an important feature of the hip hop theatre ethic. Finding ways to embed knowledge into your making is important – especially if you are teaching or working with groups who are new to the genre. Sharing our introductory chapter might be one way of introducing the history to a class, but you can also suggest documentaries, films, albums and books, or watch and read them together (see the Further Resources section). You might also foster knowledge by inviting local experienced hip hop practitioners to run sessions in your classes. It is always important to make space for discussions about social and political issues that are important to the communities you are working with – and to acknowledge the importance of race and class in the formation of the hip hop movement.
Sometimes considered an additional ‘element’ of hip hop, beatboxing – creating beats with your mouth – is an example of the importance of resourcefulness to the hip hop aesthetic. Hip hop culture has always relied on resourcefulness – on Black and working-class people being able to make something from nothing, or from very little. We will explain the basics of how to beatbox below. But it’s important to understand that one of the main reasons beatboxing came into existence was that it is free and can be created anywhere.
One of my earliest memories of hip hop culture was getting Breakdance, the movie, on VHS (if you haven’t seen that film, then you have to watch it). It tells the story of two male street dancers called Ozone and Turbo, who meet up with a female contemporary dancer, Kelly. She tries to get them to fit into her mainstream upper-class dance world. Eight-year-old me was blown away by a rebellious speech from Ozone in the movie:
We don’t care if we don’t step on our right foot. We do what feels good. We don’t do it in the classrooms either. We do it on the streets.
When I created my first theatre company or my record label nobody was waiting for me to do it or asking for it to happen. When I was asked, ‘Do you want to help to lead something new called the BAC Beatbox Academy?’, there was a part of me that was scared. But I thought, ‘F**k it’, and just did it. Turned out all right. I had to bet on myself, jump in and give it a go. The spirit of the cypher – where you take a risk and perform – is part of hip hop culture and runs through everything.
‘The cypher’ is a sharing circle where you jam and support each other. Be it dance, rap or beatbox. Throwing in ideas without judgement, everyone excitedly showing support for moments of magic and pure flow. There is no failure in the cypher. Everyone takes a turn to show something and improve their skill.
In popular culture, there is a fascination with and fear of failure. There is no such thing as failure when it comes to creativity. You are taking risks. What you produce won’t be perfect or fully formed. The point of the cypher is to learn not to be afraid. Be fearless. Create. Now. Throw it out there because no one is waiting for you. This is a spirit that you can carry with you through many different creative and decisive moments. Letting go and accepting is a key to be being a truly creative artist. The only failure is not taking that risk.
My collaborator, Gambit Ace, is one of the greatest freestyle rappers in the world. Gam can freestyle using any stimulus around him – I’ve seen him do it waiting in the line at clubs in Kingston to impress the girls before we got in. Or when taking subject matter from audience members and twisting a suggestion he has just been given into a dope rhyme. He can use a design on an audience member’s jacket as an impetus to deliver an impromptu metaphor. Gam has used these skills not only to impress girls, but to also create the most exciting hip hop theatre. Weaving audience members’ hopes and dreams into raps before their eyes. There is something immediate and ephemeral in the creation of words, syllables and sounds being fused together by a genius mind. Dreams and hopes are great material for a freestyle.
Freestyling is when you jump into a situation, be that a cypher, a performance or a competition, with no plan for what you are going to do: you have to be totally alive and perform in the moment. ‘Freestyle’ is the spirit of improvisation and play that informs the cypher, but can also be applied beyond it. Freestyle rap is one of the purest and most technical forms in hip hop. Taking any subject and weaving and stitching the words together in a rhyme, the brain is on the fly creating cadences and meanings in a tight flow.
The concept of the freestyle is an idea that runs through all kinds of hip hop practice, but it is also connected to the spirit of spontaneity that informs a lot of UK devising theatre. There are connections between hip hop principles and the theatre practices we are taught in drama classes at community centres and in schools, universities and conservatoires.
The first ever rap hit record, The Sugarhill Gang’s ‘Rapper’s Delight’, included a sample of Chic’s ‘Good Times’ and was mad groovy. This innovative creation actually involved them replaying the original song with a live band. They made it something new, something fresh. Instead of the nostalgic feeling you get when you hear a cover version (which plays on a feeling of familiarity – that is, you feel like you know the song and it just has a new singer), sampling feels fresh and exciting.
Sometimes a whole groove will be sampled, but sometimes it will be a break, some horns or drums. It takes a skilful ear to know what sounds will go with what. Sampling is not just using musical ideas, it is also sound design. Sampling is about an aural aesthetic.
Sampling is used in many different ways, and is a form of referencing. But it can also be understood as form of transport and time travel. You bring a listener to a whole different city and generation with a particular sample, yet it feels new and current.
Sampling is taking something (a beat, a lyric, a melody, a spoken phrase, a theme tune) and reappropriating it to make something new. Almost all hip hop tracks reuse, re-appropriate or reference something else. Hip hop culture works as ‘improvement’ – sampling and re-appropriating things to make them better than or totally different from the original. For example, the baseball cap – now an iconic fashion item associated with hip hop and street culture – was initially an item of sportswear worn only by players in baseball games. Across the world it is now worn by those who affiliate with street culture and use their sense of style to signal this affiliation. Although they are still worn by baseball players, outside of North America baseball is not the first association – hip hop is.
Style and authenticity
Fashion is part of a shared language and attitude: it creates unity and community. Different generations have different connections and references. LL Cool J rocked the Kangol hat and made it hot. Jay-Z claims to have made ‘the Yankee hat more famous than a Yankee can’. Wu Tang had the super baggy jeans and in the UK Dizzee Rascal and other emcees pushed the New Era fitted cap. These things are often cyclical, and some elements stick around, such as jewellery.
When I was creating DenMarked and staging Frankenstein, which were hip hop shows, there were supposed theatre ‘experts’ saying that fitted caps weren’t professional on stage and that the audience needed to see my ‘beautiful face’. This was in performances primarily based on sound. There was a deep prejudice against an aesthetic of the street. As a performer and artist, you have to hold your ground. The way you present and clothe your own body is part of your aesthetic, and these gate keepers and racists have to be shut down. Early.
From TdC to Frankenstein, I have felt that it was important to have a strong street aesthetic when it comes to the clothes in the shows. This allows the audience to be part of something dangerous, hard and loud. They can immediately step into the club or onto the estate. And you can play with preconceptions and prejudices if you stay true to yourself.
It looks cool, too.
Authenticity, or ‘keeping it real’, has long been considered an essential part of hip hop culture. Of course, authenticity and style are separate things, but we consider that your style, or how you present yourself – your dress, accent and how you relate to others – are core to your authenticity. You have to be genuine, true to yourself, and trust that what you are, where you come from and how you show up in the world is good enough. No one will be fooled by a copy, and even if they are you will be left unfulfilled and unhappy if you try and make yourself what other people want you to be.