Hip Hop as Modern Mythology

Shout out Matilda one time.

Miss Honey, you can really get it. I mean for real, girl you know I had to do it for ya.

Miss Honey, you can really get it. I mean for real, girl you know I had to do it for ya.

The 1996 film adaptation of Roald Dahl’s Matilda inspired me to devour the entire children’s section of Burrows Hall Library by the time I turned 10. With nothing left to read, I wandered over to the History aisle and discovered the Greek Mythology section. With a flashlight under the blanket, I pored through centuries of wisdom distilled down to fantastical stories of gods, goddesses, heroes, heroines and mythological creatures. And nothing was the same.

Those stories served a didactic, moral and utilitarian function growing up. Dramatic analogies complimented life lessons from my parents: Greed (Midas), Curiosity (Pandora), Vanity (Narcissus), Regret (Orpheus), Planning (Theseus), etc. With vivid extrapolations of virtues & vices and behaviours & attributes, Greek mythology allowed me to rehearse multiple scenarios that I would experience throughout life.

DMX: The God of Chaos.

I was introduced to hip hop in Grade 7. In Mr. DiLeo’s English class, Natasha popped in a VHS recording of a BET countdown, but didn’t rewind the clip far back enough to play the Thong Song music video she had chosen to show the class for a music comparison assignment. When she pressed play, instead, the television assaulted my virgin eyes with the final minute of DMX’s Whats My Name music video. There I sat, in sheer awe of this frenzied and growling man bathed in an ominous red light, draped in the most flamboyant leather track suit, swinging a sledgehammer into speakers while surrounded by scantily-clad gyrating women.

Confession: I keep my pair of suede Phat Farm ankle boots from 2005 on standby in case baggy tracksuits (velour or leather) come back in style.

It was ridiculous. It was amazing. I had never seen anything like it. Or had I? The personification of volatility, DMX was channeling Eris the God of Chaos with the aggression of Ares the God of War. Once I established that connection, there was no stopping the volley of “aha!” moments — Diddy became Cronos, eating the careers of his children The Lox, Mase and Loon; Beyonce became Aphrodite, the embodiment of love, beauty, desire, and pleasure; The Game became the Trojan Horse, laying dangerously dormant before collapsing the G-Unit empire from the inside-out; J.Cole became Icarus, the boy who ignored the counsel of old man Daedalus (Jay Z) and burned much of his hype. The comparisons are endless. To me, hip hop looks like a beautiful, complex tapestry growing outwards from a core of Greek mythology.

There is no such thing as a new idea. It is impossible. We simply take a lot of old ideas and put them into a sort of mental kaleidoscope. We give them a turn and they make new and curious combinations. We keep on turning and making new combinations indefinitely; but they are the same old pieces of coloured glass that have been in use through all the ages. — Mark Twain

 Greek Mythology (Remix)

jayz

Jay Z channeling Denzel Washington’s portrayal of Frank Lucas in American Gangster (inspired by The Godfather, derivative of both The Succession Myth and The Hero Myth). In a roundabout way, The Odyssey provided the blueprint for Jay’s own Blueprints.

It’s like the arrow in the FedEx logo — once you see it, you can’t unsee it: Hip hop is the modern retelling of age-old stories dating back to 800 BC. Hell, story arcs in everything from Spiderman, Breaking Bad and WWE Monday Night Raw are derivative of Greek myths. These tales owe their recurrence in part to being among the first out the gates but primarily because of their simplicity and accessibility.

Films that continue to influence hip hop such as Scarface, Menace II Society, Boyz N The Hood, The Godfather, New Jack City and King of New York, share a reciprocal relationship with the culture — art influences culture and in turn, culture influences art. What we’re seeing in hip hop today is 2nd and 3rd degree derivatives of Greek mythology, permutations drawing from works like Training Day, American Gangster, Django Unchained and The Wolf of Wall Street. And the cycle will continue indefinitely.

Hip hop has become a crucible of culture, cooking an endless remix of stories dating back to the Geometric period.

The Labours of 50 Cent

16 years after beginning my love affair with Greek mythology, I find myself on the eve of a trip to New York to knock 2 things off my bucket list:

  1. HOT97’s Summer Jam
  2. 50 Cent live in concert.

On one level, I’m going to participate in a massive nostalgia-fest – a moment in the culture where thousands of fans congregate to celebrate their love of the music. But on another level, I’m going to watch a new act in the Myth of 50 Cent aka Rap Game Hercules. Trying to win over his aging and disillusioned fan base is the last of the Labours 50’s been undertaking in atonement for falling off over the years. This is precisely why I find hip hop so compelling. It’s deeper than rap…it’s more than the music…it’s storytelling — the fundamental unit of human understanding.

It’s been 10 years since 50 was in his prime. I need a reason to lionize the man as I once did, and I’m hoping I’ll get one at Summer Jam 2014. Will 50 rise to the challenge like Hercules? Or is he to be condemned to the Underworld of irrelevance, performing at Casino Rama someday?

At Summer Jam 2014, I’m going to learn what to do (or not do) if I ever find myself languishing in obscurity. Through the narratives in-and-around hip hop, we can rehearse multiple scenarios of conflict, power, competition, greed, pride, violence, retribution, etc. In two ways, hip hop becomes educational:

  1. On wax, analogies, metaphors and symbolism provide the soundtrack to hustle and struggle, two common denominators of the shared human experience.
  2. And in studying the business, politics, culture and lives of the legends, we are provided with memorable blueprints and cautionary tales, forming an updated body of myths and teachings for new audiences.

It’s not enough for me to hear the music anymore. I have to watch the interviews, consider the opinions of /r/HipHopHeads and other curators as well read MediaTakeOut, Complex, Noisey, etc. to create context for the albums and live performances. With 50 Cent, I need to know why he’s doing whatever he’s doing in order to have the optimal experience at his performance. His set will be but an event in a much larger narrative — a single story in a new and constantly evolving canon: Hip Hop as Modern Mythology.

This post was originally published on Medium.