Dutch hip-hop artists continuously invite us to their neighborhoods and districts through their music. What do we hear when we listen to the language of the streets?
No – the hip-hop trope of the Westside does not solely belong to US American hip-hop artist Tupac. Since the very beginning of the Dutch hip-hop tradition in 1989, which started with the emergence of the West Amsterdam hip-hop group Osdorp Posse, Dutch hip-hop artists have copy-pasted this trope onto their own situation. Combining sharp rap lyrics with rhythmic beats, they narrated their life on the streets and in the hood, representing their posse: their family, friends and their ‘alternative’ family, meaning Osdorp residents. Soon, another Westbound group, West Klan, also started to make music. One of their most popular songs, ‘Language of the streets’ (1995), begins with a voice clip of a journalist, who addresses the coarseness of their lyrics. West Klan asks her, ‘Do you know how I live?’, implying that she knows very little about it. They explain: ‘You’re missing the message’, and encourage her to pay closer attention to what they are really saying in their rap: ‘listen carefully to the language of the streets!’. This message is still relevant in 2019 – I’ve encountered similar messages numerous times in contemporary Dutch hip-hop.
‘Taal van de straat’ by West Klan.
Both globally and in the Netherlands, hip-hop is the dominant form of contemporary youth culture. Although originally an American genre, in the Netherlands, especially Dutch rap is popular: today, eight out of ten music streams in the Netherlands are of Dutch hip-hop. This unprecedented popularity of Dutch hip-hop raises the question of how Dutch youth from different backgrounds seek and (re)define their identities against a local background. Responding to West Klan’s appeal of listening to the language of the streets, my research investigates this question.
Hip-hop emerged in the 1970s, on the streets of the South Bronx in New York. This historical context translates almost directly into its content: hip-hop has a distinct focus on sociocultural issues related to spatial awareness and identity. This focus allows hip-hop to adjust itself to local needs and priorities in new contexts. Hip-hop is a glocal culture. As the names of Osdorp Posse and West Klan illustrate, in Dutch hip-hop, the expression of local identity has formed a central element from the very beginning.
DinDin’s rap session on 101Barz.
As hip-hop artists act as representatives of these places and spaces, and create representations, both the hip-hop scene and academics have defined expressions of local identity in hip-hop with the ungrammatical term ‘represent’. Representing happens through rapping about the streets, a neighborhood, a district or city, through the use of specific slang, alluding to area codes in lyrics or artist names, or through displaying distinctive buildings in music videos. In his 2018 rap session on the hip-hop platform 101Barz, Dutch rapper DinDin represents by naming parts of his district Amsterdam-West: ‘Slotervaart, Osdorp, Chassé, GV, Bos and Lommer, get the Kinker to Admiraal, before you know your doors have [no locks] [Slotermeer]’. By rapping that the listener should ‘stay away from his neighborhood’, DinDin both marks off his territory, and protects it – a message that seems to conflict with his earlier ‘invitation’ in his 2010 track ‘Welcome in West’, in which he welcomes the media and politicians to his perspective on his neighborhood. The popular hip-hop artist 3robi uses his platform on 101Barz to portray this district as the ‘Wild West’, an image that was already created on his other track ‘Westside’ (2017), in which 3robi’s verse is introduced with a ‘news report’ on a number of robberies committed in Amsterdam-West. In the music video, we see rappers use the hand sign of the letter W. This symbol is also used by upcoming rapper Lucass to represent Amsterdam-West in the music video of his song ‘No Worries’ (2019).
‘Geen Zorgen’ by Lucass.
With this hand sign and the terms ‘Wild West’ and ‘Welcome in West’, Dutch hip-hop artists also refer to the aforementioned hip-hop legend Tupac (and Dr. Dre) who used these symbols and terms in their song ‘California Love’. These references serve to both showcase their knowledge of the American hip-hop tradition and to pay homage to it. Moreover, by displaying these signs, they are comparing themselves with this legend, enforcing their own authority: they do as he did. Hip-hop artists represent to claim authenticity and authority, which entitles them to make statements and tell stories about street life (De Roest 2017, cf. Mose 2013, 113).
‘California Love’ by Tupac and Dr. Dre.
Authenticity is one of hip-hop’s core elements, as hip-hop is all about keeping it real (Campbell 2007, Balaji 2012, 317). However, although a strong impression of realness is created, it is important to keep in mind that hip-hop is an art form that challenges youth to play with language, imagination; with poetry, prose, theater, music; fiction and non-fiction. Rappers take the stage and express themselves in hip-hop. Hip-hop, as performance, is all about convincing the public of its realness in order to gain street credibility. The paradox of hip-hop, as Michael Eric Dyson puts it, is that these ‘stories don’t have to be real to be true’ (Perry 2004, 88). Rappers are ‘artistically authentic in borrowing the lives, experiences and stories of others as the grist for [their] powerful rap narratives’ of ‘urban woe and social neglect’ (idem).
Listening to these narratives, told in the language of the streets, it becomes clear that the coarseness of the lyrics often aligns with the coarseness of street life, which, if we believe the rappers’ representations, is characterized by crime, violence, and poverty. This coarseness could also be considered as a stylistic device to protect the neighborhood against those who ‘wouldn’t understand this life’, such as the media (as we see both in West Klans and 3robi’s tracks), politicians, and police. These tracks illustrate how hip-hop artists use represent to call attention to the distinct character of their streets, neighborhood or city (Forman 2002, 89). In hip-hop studies, represent has therefore often been defined as a defensive reaction in which the boundaries of local environments are denoted.
However, although it may seem as if hip-hop artists want to keep others out at all cost, putting their music on YouTube ensures that others will have access to their localized stories. Represent thus offers a unique opportunity to ‘lyrical innovators’ to review, re-imagine and re-present their home environments to a growing audience (Forman 2011, 217).
Lucass and his posse pull the Westside sign.
From this perspective, the defensive language and attitude in the Dutch raps lays bare feelings of misunderstanding and/or disenfranchisement. Through represent, the hip-hop artists mentioned above, who are of multi-ethnic background (mainly but not exclusively Moroccan-Dutch), (implicitly) address discrimination or racism, for example by the police (in 3robi’s words: ‘fuck the police friend, I’ll keep silent, no matter what’), and a lack of economic chances, (as Lucass raps: ‘I wasn’t wealthy’). Representations of the worrisome and harsh street life lead to an exclamation of wanting to succeed in life: ‘one day I’ll be rich and worry-free’ in order to help your posse escape: ‘I run for my mom, my sisters, my brother, the whole gang must be safe’. Critique on the neighborhood, and pride on how the residents keep their head up in difficult circumstances alternate, just like feelings of displacement and belonging. Despite everything, hip-hop artists stay loyal to their hood: ‘you can find me in the Westside’.
A growing public of Dutch youth listens to such stories, appropriating them, (re)creating them, and producing themselves. Their production process doesn’t differ that much from that from West Klan in 1996, who rapped: ‘I started writing and I made some beats, with a pen a computer, and nothing else at all.’ Youths start spitting on the streets, recording and producing it directly with their iPhones, sending it into the world through social media. As the public’s influence increases, they’re able to claim a platform that was previously denied to them by gatekeepers, such as radio DJs or record labels. This democratization of the Dutch hip-hop scene makes voices heard that were less likely to get a stage elsewhere.
‘Welkom in West’ by DinDin.
My research thus builds on the assumption that hip-hop offers a platform, and alternative access, to identity constructions of Dutch youth, specifically of those ‘with whom direct contact is very limited’ (Lepianka 2015, 278-279). It claims that represent is no longer a sign from artists to local inhabitants or fans. It has become an open and collaborative practice within the Dutch hip-hop community at large. I investigate how, in the digital era, the practice functions both as a performance of local identity and as a strategy in which multiple markers of identity can be tested, developed, and expanded in a global perspective. ‘Welcome to West’, say rappers such as 3robi, DinDin and Lucass – listen to the language of the streets. A conscious or unconscious invitation to their lives, to hear what they have to say. With my research I accept their invitation, and I dare you to accept it too.
This blog post is based on a lecture held in commission of the municipality of Amsterdam (district West).
Balaji, Murali. “The Construction of ‘Street Credibility’ in Atlanta’s Hip-Hop Music Scene: Analyzing the Role of Cultural Gatekeepers.” Critical Studies in Media Communication 29, no. 4 (2012): 313-330.
Campbell, Kermit E. “There Goes the Neighborhood: Hip Hop Creepin’ on a Come up at the U.” College Composition and Communication 58, no. 3 (2007): 325-344.
De Roest, Aafje. “Buurtvaders: een kritische lezing van de performance van represent door vier Nederlandse hiphopartiesten.” Unpublished master thesis (2017), Utrecht University.
Forman, Murray. The ‘Hood Comes First; Race, Space, and Place in Rap and Hip-Hop. (Music/Culture). Middletown: University Press, 2002.
Forman, Murray and Mark Anthony Neal. That's the Joint! The Hip Hop Studies Reader. London: Routledge, 2004 (2011).
Mose, Caroline. “‘Swag’ and ‘Cred’: Representing Hip-Hop in the African City.” Journal of Pan African Studies 6, no. 3 (2013): 106-132.
Perry, Imani. Prophets from the Hood: Politics and Poetics of Hip Hop. Durham: Duke University Press, 2004.
 ‘Taal van de straat’. In Dutch.
 ‘Weet jij soms hoe ik leef?’
 ‘Je mist de boodschap’.
 ‘Luister toch eens goed naar de taal van de straat!’
 Which includes rap music, language, fashion and other art forms such as graffiti and dance.
 ‘Slotervaart, Osdorp, Chassé, GV, Bos and Lommer, krijg de Kinker tot de Admiraal, voor je het weet hebben je deuren geen Slotermeer’.
 ‘Blijf uit me buurt’.
 ‘Fock de blauw mattie, sowieso ik zwijg’.
 ‘Ik had het niet breed’.
 ‘Op een dag ben ik rijk en dan heb ik geen zorgen’.
 ‘Ik ren voor m’n moeder, m’n zussen, m’n broer, heel de gang die moet safe’, in which ‘running’ is a metaphor for committing small, often drugs-related crimes.
 ‘Je kunt me vinden in de Westside’.
 ‘Ik begon te rappen en ik maakte beats, met een pen, een computer, en verder helemaal niets’.
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