Fresh is the Word

The Bay hosts its own Hip-Hop Honors week.

In the same week that Atlanta rapper T.I. got arrested on gun charges and Chicago emcee Lupe Fiasco allegedly dissed A Tribe Called Quest, three events happened in the Bay Area that suggest the culture isn’t dissolving, it’s evolving.

Both incidents, which happened during VH-1’s “Hip-Hop Honors” week in New York, seem dubious. Note to T.I.: Never trust a bodyguard who has the time to arrange the purchase of assault weapons behind your back, instead of watching your back. As for Lupe’s fiasco, should it really surprise anybody that the “Kick, Push” guy, who grew up in the ghettos of Chicago, listened to N.W.A., not Tribe, as a youth? If anything, it’s to his credit that he sounds more like Q-Tip than Ice Cube, given his background.

As the Lupe/T.I. drama reverberated through the blogosphere, the Living Word Festival and the Hip-Hop Chess Federation’s King Invitational were busy enriching young minds. You know hip-hop is serious when it takes over museums, as the Living Word Festival did recently when pioneering NYC MC Grandmaster Caz held court at SFMOMA, joined by Oakland’s Ise Lyfe and author Jeff Chang.

A much smaller crowd than the television audience who saw the VH-1 event got to hear Caz (ironically, sporting a “Hip-Hop Honors” jacket) explain the culture’s continued relevance: “Hip-hop is free. The essence of hip-hop is free. You don’t need a membership card, you don’t need to be signed to a label, you don’t need to be hot or nothing to participate.”

Caz broke down plenty of game about the early days of hip-hop. But still, he had to give kudos to Ise Lyfe, who came so real with his. At one point, Caz took off his dark shades and paid rapt attention to the youngster’s story about rhyming for the first time at a postmortem cipher for Tupac during a seventh-grade rec-room dance.

The discussion illuminated how hip-hop culture has been passed down to younger generations, to be absorbed but never duplicated in exactly the same way. Coming on the heels of a B-boying competition featuring DJ Q-Bert on the wheels of steel and judged by Rock Steady Crew’s Popmaster Fabel, a showdown between pop-lockers and Brazilian dancers, and informative panel discussions aimed at high school students, one had to wonder who was honoring hip-hop the most: host Marc Bamuthi Joseph and the grassroots organizers behind Living Word Festival, or the corporate suits over at Viacom (who own VH-1)?

That night, the festival took things a step further during a fete at the Shattuck Down Low. Local artists threw down renditions of the classic hip-hop songs which inspired them, backed by house band AguaLibre. Ise Lyfe performed Gil Scott-Heron and Eazy-E songs, while the Attik tackled Outkast, Pabon murdered a KRS-One medley, and Papa Zumbi (of Zion-I) revised Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five’s “The Message.” Afterward, Fabel and some local B-boys traded footwork outside the venue, while AguaLibre did a full set, with vocalists Destani Wolf and Pabon bringing down the ceiling.

The next day’s event, the Hip-Hop Chess Federation’s King Invitational, was just as fresh. Imagine watching RZA and GZA of Wu-Tang Clan play chess against each other, or your favorite local rappers, from Paris to Sunspot Jonz to Casual, face-off across the 64 squares. Now add Josh Waitzkin, the subject of the movie Searching for Bobby Fischer, as the play-by-play announcer. This may have been the quietest, most well-mannered hip-hop event ever. But when RZA scored a surprise checkmate from his back rank after being poised for certain defeat in the title match, the excitement level was as huge as, say, Jay-Z beating 50 Cent in an MC battle. Except his opponent was a Wu-Tang associate named Monk.

According to RZA, here’s what went down: “What happened was, my competition, I know him. So I psychologically beat him …. I bet that he was gonna move too fast and he was gonna fuck up. And he did it,” he laughs.

Now that hip-hop has extended into the fine art and chess world, where can it go from here? Chess panelist Rakaa of Dilated Peoples believes “it can go worldwide.” “I just got back from two European tours, and from Johannesburg,” he said. “Everywhere I’m going, I’m telling people the next thing I’m doing is the Hip-Hop Chess Federation.” It just goes to show “that chess is not an elitist, nerd game. It can be played by elitist nerds, but it can also be played by people in the streets.”

Hip-Hop Chess Federation founder Adisa Banjoko says his intent is to “break down the stereotype of hip-hop.” “When you see black men in white T’s fully absorbed in the world’s most storied game, it can’t help but scrape the psyche a bit, in a good way,” he said.

Fittingly, Grandmaster Caz gets the last word: “Everybody uses hip-hop to get their point across — to reach the kids or to reach the youth. …. There’s nothing more powerful on the planet today besides hip-hop, except the Internet. Those are the two biggest global dynamics on the planet right now.”

Go on, hip-hop, brush your shoulders off. You’re still fly.

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