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Mr. Lif: a new generation's Barbados hip-hop hero. (courtesy photo)

Mr. Lif's eccentric vision maintains the hip-hop ideals of Afrika Bambaataa

The unquestionable holy trinity of hip-hop consists of Kool DJ Herc, Afrika Bambaataa, and Grandmaster Flash. While Herc was the father, and Flash the supreme alchemist, the godfather was always Bambaataa.

Bam was the DJ with Barbados blood whose name (translated "affectionate leader") derived from a 19th-century Zulu chieftain who led his people to victory. On November 12, 1973, he founded the Universal Zulu Nation, an organization intent on eradicating the gang violence that plagued New York City. A few years ago, Bambaataa recalled in a magazine interview: "Seeing all the violence that was going on with the Vietnam War and all the people in Attica and Kent State, and being aware of what was going on in the late '60s, with Woodstock and the Flower Power, the Love movement - just being a young person and seeing all this happening around me put a lot of consciousness in my mind to get up and do something."

By coincidence, another talented MC with Barbados blood, Mr. Lif, is helping to define contemporary hip-hop in the new millennium. Mr. Lif's Enters the Colossus was one of the highlights of 2000, with cuts like "Cro-Magnon," and "Front on This," and also marked his marriage to the Def Jux label. At first glance, Lif is all wild unkempt hair and comes off as the epitome of the term "rap nerd." On wax though, he has created the most significant and challenging lyrics this side of 9-11. "Home of the Brave," from his 2002 EP Emergency Rations, reminds us that "They're killing several birds with one stone/While you're at home with terrorism up in your dome," and concludes "You can wave that piece-of-shit flag if you dare/But they killed us 'cause we been killing them for years."

Such sentiments would surely meet the approval of Bambaataa, whose Zulu Nation celebrates its 30th anniversary this month. Bambaataa's nation clings to the belief that the fifth element of hip-hop is knowledge, and actively educates the masses about the true history of hip-hop culture and its founding elements. In a recent magazine interview, Bambaataa explained: "When we made hip-hop, we made it hoping it would be about peace, love, unity, and having fun, so that people could get away from the negativity that was plaguing our streets. Even though this negativity still happens here and there, as the culture progresses, we play a big role in conflict resolution and enforcing positivity."


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In terms of race, hip-hop has grown from its African and Caribbean roots to a black and Latino New York subculture, through suburbia, toward the 21st century's most articulate example of Jose Vasconcelos' La Raza Cosmica.

Bam confirmed, "Hip-hop is all types of forms. The music itself is colorless, 'cause you can't say, 'I don't like R&B, I don't like heavy metal,' when half the shit that's out comes from all the different styles of records that's out there. So those who don't have a true knowledge of hip-hop, the true form of it, then they just speak from ignorance."

When faced with the prospects we find on radio, cable TV, and through mainstream rap, it's easy to conclude that our greatest artists have passed on or are irrelevant. Innovators like DJ Screw, Jam Master Jay, Biggie, Pun, Pac, Aaliyah, and Big L have left us, and even relatively recent pioneers like the Native Tongues and Public Enemy are largely ignored. The result, based on the charts, is a rap/R&B hybrid without conscience. On the indie level, a curious collection of sensitive white MCs have emerged, prompting lazy journalists to brand them Prog- or emo-rap.

You get the sense that for today's mass media, the fifth element of the hip-hop nation is not knowledge, but fashion. That's why the maverick impluses of a Mr. Lif are especially valuable. In his own eccentric way, he's sustaining the ideals of the Zulu Nation. Somewhere, Bam is smiling. •

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