Hip Hop Part 3 of X : A virus let loose on the English Language

Ingerlish – The beginnings
I mentioned briefly in the last blog (part 2) that one of the tools subverted by the hip hop phenomenon was the English language itself by the rappers and scene members. Not all musical scenes when they burst forth have a verbal equivalent that is also brought into being at the same time. Rock and roll didn’t really change the way people talked – dressed and acted – ok – but not really the vocabulary. It wasn’t the pantheon of patter that came out of hip-hop.

Hip-Hop was different.

Remember that the English language isn’t first generation stuff – it’s derived from languages that went before. In 1786 William Jones, a British judge in Calcutta, announced to a meeting of the Royal Asiatic society that his studies of the Sanskrit language (ancient core Indian language) led him to believe that it was a a cousin of Latin and Greek. He further stated that he thought there were great similarities between these three languages and Celtic, Gothic and Persian and that must have all came from the same source. This single people had brought and carried their language as far as Ireland and India where it eventually diverged into modern tongues. This single people were called the Indo Europeans and their homeland is what we now know as the modern Ukraine. 8000 years ago they left their homelands and having mastered the horse they managed to get around a bit. Genetics has also backed up this movement by tracing genes and variations.

Now languages can change for a number of reasons. The invading men kill all the other men and take the wives….words get blended together as do genes. The new language is associated with a new technology – in the case of the Europeans it was the horse and farming that peppered the language and as the technology was spread so was the language.

We can skip over the Greeks, Romans and development of English in what is now known as the UK – essentially by around 1500AD the UK was moving over to English in politics, law and as the common tongue. The Irish, Scots and Welsh had to bow to the pressure of both the military and the commercial concerns of the South and eventually English was established in the Isles as the primary tongue. Ireland still has Gaelic today but it’s dwindling, Scotland has hardly any and the small numbers of the Welsh were at least smart enough to ensure that legislation was passed to keep the Welsh language alive. The rest of the empire in India, Africa and Australia was co-erced to follow suit. English has won the war of the tongues or at least made a bloody good stab at it.

USA – the Baby is born
So that’s the British Isles…what about across the pond? The birth of hiphop? America was spawned from mostly European aspirants and a mixture of slaves taken from the southern hemisphere. It was inevitable that the language of the masters would dominate in America – and that was English. btw – can anyone tell me how Columbus discovered America when it was populated already – he was really just a violent tourist…anyways…America, the new baby, had been born and it had it’s own fair share of input to English to give.

White folks added a variety of words or alternate words like : trunk, truck, ranch and crap like that aswell as mis-spellings and changing ‘ise’ to ‘ize’ however in my mind there is no such thing as American English other than what resided in the vain minds of the American. The volume of differences is nowhere near great enough.

Black folks were adding to English aswell and the vernacular and delivery style of Hip Hop came out of the prisons, army camps and segregation – similar breeding ground for blues and gospel. Black music invariably contained feelings and words about hard times but the difference with HipHop is that it wasn’t couched in the comfortable language of the past. Hip Hop didn’t eulogise past glories or wish for better ones in the future – instead it talked of how to do it now. It wasn’t a way of just thinking – it was a way of being.

It’s all in the Delivery
Now English is classified as a non-tonal language and that means that generally when you speak it in different pitches (higher or lower) it means the same thing. That’s not to say that you can’t use English with tonality for example “you BOUGHT a James Blunt record?” – by stressing the word ‘bought’ by maybe saying it louder or in a higher pitch we convey our incredulity and surprise – the devliery adds new meaning. Most languages in Africa are tonal (except Swahili and Fulani) but as to their full effect on hip hop I’m not sure. There are a number of studies done on the influence of African tongues and tonal languages on rap but I aint really buying much of it. People talk about how rapping can be traced back to roots of poets singing or telling stories over drums – thing is – nearly every culture did this – it’s a truism of humans not a genetic group.

I think that the expressiveness of hip was born of a performance style, a political state a mentality and of a time – all done in English or ‘phreaked’ English.

The words and the delivery of the words were inseparable. It was futuristic, coded, and extremely rhythmic. Sometimes the rappers only made use of a few notes in the musical scale with which to ‘drill’ their rap home. The melodies of the raps were very simple – tweaking up and down at the beginning and ends of sentences and always pushing and playing with the groove. Radio Dj’s, comics, wilful mispronunciations and the bubbling groovy language of disco and funk also got thrown into the mix. The subversion of the language was spawning out of control like a virus. Young people didn’t want the cure and the old folks couldn’t think quick enough to come up with an antidote.

Unlike in the past where a war was needed to give a language a leg up the radio and TV stations did all the conversion very easily.

A generation was being shut out. Hip Hop Culture was codified. It was difficult for outsiders to pick up although it was really just ‘phreaked’ English.

Covert Operators
Black folks had a lot of covert talking to do in America and it’s inevitable that slang would be coded into the language. It allowed you to talk about those controlling you without them taking your head off.

Check the words out to swing Low Sweet Chariot – the old gospel tune. (My South Indian Band did a version of this on 100 Fields – due out in the last quarter of 2006). Some say this song was a code too and that the Sweet Chariot was in fact a freight train that would take them north and away from the slavery. Thing is – if you start singing about the 3.15 leaving tomorrow it’s going to work out bad for you. At least the coded versions could be sung out loud and felt inside. The secret language and delivery had been getting honed for years in the black community. As African families had been pulled apart and fragmented by their uprooting and placement in America – old traditions and language were difficult to keep up outside of a home influence. Native tongues of Africa were discouraged with sticks as it all sounded conspiratorial to the rightly paranoid slave owners.

Phreak Techniques
Slowly black America was absorbing the English language and developing it with a rhythmic delivery unseen before – drawing out words to extraordinary lengths and swooping the pitch up and down like long trombones. Code words and fun words were shoehorned in. The idea of ‘proper’ went out the window and rightly so – the African Americans delighted in chopping, shafting and ripping English and putting it back together to suit themselves again. There was a singing in it too – it had started to develop tones and nuances. English the stress language was moving into tonal territory via the performers. The sentences were being played like instruments and drumkits. Words were repeated for a machine like delivery and emphasis – the digital age of chopping and splicing had entered the words. Growls and roars were in the delivery.

There is no single moment when things like gospel became blues became soul became disco and funk then electro and hiphop. It just tends to happen same way rivers meet up. It was the same with the language – it absorbed all that its developers gave it and kept going.

Louder than a Bomb

In Hip Hop specifically African Americans stamped the culture heavily. They showed everyone what could be done with the English language when combined with a metronomic delivery. It was the sound of the inmates taking over the asylum they should never have been in. It was the sound of the human bomb. It was the terrordome and it was the truth of the world. It was as poetic a moment in the English language as when James Joyce wrote the first modernistic novel ‘Ulysses’. Chuck D and James Joyce would have had great crack in the pub together – they both speak the language of fiery romance and for my money Nation of Millions or Fear of A Black Planet are as equal as some of the finest artist statments rendered in the West.

When those hiphop wagons rolled into town they might as well have been the Ukranians riding in on horses – the spoken word was irrevocably changed in the 80s. Like the horse had propelled the roots of English around the world – the new technologies of digital and the burning street poetry of African Americas were changing the lexicon daily.

Ebonics and the Wild West

There seems to be an idea that there is some sort thing called Black English – Ebonics is the proper term. It’s academic home is Oakland, California – the same place I recorded Elemental (yes that’s a plug).

I have to laugh at the Ebonics debate and all the pious bullshit associated with it from both sides. English is a sponge and it doesn’t yet seem to have stopped absorping influence. I think the whole Ebonics gig does black folks a disservice – let time decide which aspects of English changed in our time will be kept….that’s how it’s worked for centuries. Linguistic policies of divide and conquer only end up dividing.

The Ebonics gig at root is from a mindset that wants to separate and show distinction – in reality it’s a competition. Who ever delivers ‘meaning’ or ‘achieves’ results the best in the language wins….they become most effective and therefore psychologically dominant. The winning flavour of the language swallows encompasses or bloats the existing one.

The idea of the Queens English or owt like that went long ago – it’s not the state that regulates the language it’s Hollywood and iconism now that rule the verbal roost. With every young person born in Europe, America and India the manner in which English is being spoken is changing. Every country I have been in Europe put a premium on the young talking English – many define a class status in India on being able to speak English.

The black peoples in America have put their colour in the English mix – it’s inseparably mixed now and rightly so. Ebonics is like trying to separate two tins of mixed paint – a waste of time when you could be painting

Burroughs used to say language was a virus and he was right. HipHop was an outbreak. English language was the host.

Yeah – it’s like that.


  • Black folks absopred the moment in the 80’s and created a lexicon. Hip hop shagged the crap out of English and had a baby called rap.
  • Vernacular also sprung up because of segregation and the need to be covert,
  • Wilful overloading of words and incorrect context usage was a ‘fcuk you’ to the originators/keepers of the language.
  • Repetition and stuttering and non-linear effects were expressing the digital machine age.
  • Ebonics is a red herring or a black trout or whatever
  • There is no such thing as American English

We owe a debt to Hip Hop in showing us how we can express and improvise on our feelings. The hip-hop that mattered to me was the hip hop that was the call to justice. The cause worth dying for and not stupidity and moron bravado…..of course, funny and rude is a good release valve for stories crammed with sadness. hip Hop does all of this and more which is why it hit me like a truck or is it a van?

Rap is how the poets must have spoken before great battles in the past – how people were led to freedom. We will get justice today. We will not accept the way things are.

The tempo of hip hop makes you want to get out of your seat and move to action – while the lyrics of hip hop give you a reason.

A powerful combination – birth of a nation.



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