THE YEAR OF our Lord Nineteen Hundred and Fifty Seven. Cold War. Atomic jitters. Man has become Death, the destroyer of worlds and the squares are sipping champagne music from Lawrence Welk's accordion.
Across the land, pulpits fulminate with warnings about communism, Armageddon and race music. The Beat Generation on the road with Jack Kerouac, exploring the Coney Island in Lawrence Ferlinghetti's mind and/or digging blue notes in smoke-filled clubs in New York and Frisco.
It was the year that Norman Mailer wrote "The White Negro," an essay about black hipsters and their white imitators.
Hipsters are rebels -- jazz musicians, rogues, and con men -- who drift out at night "looking for action with a black man's code to fit their facts," Mailer says. These urban existentialists live in the shadows cast by life's jagged edges, a world where marijuana is hip, liquor is square; a cat-like walk from the hip is hip, and a bear-like walk from the shoulder is square. Blacks are hip and whites are intrinsically and hopelessly square.
There are no witnesses to the birth of the cool, the nanosecond when hipness was born. Perhaps it happened in Jamestown when America's original slave took two sticks to a log and chanted a melody that confused and beguiled massa's ear. For a long time, hip didn't have a name. Then came jazz. The hepsters of the 1940s, became the hipsters of the 1950s, and the 1980s produced rap and the Hip Hop nation. From Louis Armstrong to Cab Calloway to Miles Davis to Tupac Shakur -- whenever white musicians caught up, black musicians changed their sound.
"Shakur dies of gunshot wounds," the headline screams. Tupac lived to see 25 -- but his epitaph was written long before his birth. Ironically, it was Mailer, a white man, who wrote it, and perhaps he said it best:
"Any Negro who wishes to live must live with danger from his first day, and no experience can ever be casual to him, no Negro can saunter down a street with any real certainty that violence will not visit him on his walk. The cameos of security for the average white: mother and the home, job and the family, are not even a mockery to millions of Negroes; they are impossible. The Negro has the simplest of alternatives: live a life of constant humility or ever-lasting danger. In such a pass where paranoia is as vital to survival as blood, the Negro has stayed alive and begun to grow by following the needs of his body where he could. . . ."
Hipness is subterranean, asexual, anaerobic and self-replicating. No square has been able to stamp it out. Hip abhors a vacuum. Please tell that to Bill Bennett and C. Delores Tucker, and the other crusaders against "offensive lyrics." Tell them that no Pharaoh can hold hip down and no Paladin can slay it.
Hipness is hard to define but it's easy to recognize: You saw it every time Louis Armstrong took a toot from his white handkerchief and every time Cab Calloway, the original "hepster," strutted across the stage singing "Hi-De-Hi-De-Ho!"
You heard hipness with every note Thelonius Monk played, and every time Bebop spewed from the upturned bell of Dizzy Gillespie's trumpet.
Miles Davis added to hip's mystique when he played with his back to the audience, and Charlie Parker's ghost brought hip back from the grave when it scrawled "Bird Lives" in all the places where hipsters congregated.
Nobody knows when hip was born, but one thing is certain: It did not happen when Pat Boone sang "Tutti Frutti" or when Bill Haley did "Rock Around the Clock" or when Elvis stole Big Mama Thornton's "Hound Dog." None of that was hip.
"Knowing in the cells of his existence that life was war, nothing but war, the Negro (all exceptions admitted) could rarely afford the sophisticated inhibitions of civilization, and so he kept for his survival the art of the primitive, he lived in the enormous present, he subsisted for his Saturday night kicks, relinquishing the pleasures of the mind for the more obligatory pleasures of the body, and in his music he gave voice to the character and quality of his existence, to his rage and the infinite variations of joy, lust, languor, growl, cramp, pinch, scream and despair of his orgasm. For jazz is orgasm, it is the music of orgasm, good orgasm and bad, and so it spoke across a nation, it had the communication of art even where it was watered, perverted, corrupted, and almost killed. . . ."
Sometimes you can feel the anger in Miles' music; no words, just blue notes riding on suppressed rage. Miles once said he fantasized about choking a white man, real slow. His anger was born of the Middle Passage and the strange fruit that grew from blood-soaked southern soil.
Tupac Shakur, the hip hopper, said it another way, with words that shocked you like blood in the street after a drive by:
"Grab your Glocks when you see Tupac.
"Call the cops when you see Tupac.
"You shot me but ya punks didn't finish. Now you're about to feel the wrath of a menace. . . ."
Imagine Camus rapping "The Stranger." Then listen to Tupac: "Don't shed a tear for me nigga here/I ain't happy here." The white world calls Camus a great existentialist philosopher. Bill Bennett says Tupac poisons the nation with ghetto filth. The logic: Good, decent Americans do not know and should not know about Tupac's world. No need to know about the anger, alienation, and utter hopelessness of being young, black and trapped.
Mainstream white America says: "Let them kill each other, or go to jail, or just go away. We don't care -- as long as they do it quietly."
Things haven't changed all that much since Jamestown. From Bebop to Hip Hop, it's the same old jazz.
Mike Adams is the editor of Perspective.
Pub Date: 9/22/96