So, describe the book Semtex? “Epic, historic and rich” – three powerful words, because ‘Hip Hop Raised Me’ isn’t just a book. It’s a comprehensive, detailed and almost certainly an essential addition to any hip hop observer, fan and stan alike – a literary collection. Today marks the official release of Hip Hop Raised Me, The Book and we think it’s time to dig a little deeper into the book, talking to none other than the man behind the words, and find out exactly how Hip Hop raised DJ Semtex.
First things first, there almost wasn’t a Hip-Hop Raised Me book at all. Yep, #facts. Writing the book on hip-hop will no doubt come lined with apprehensions: “Originally I was approached to do a book on Hip-Hop and I said no, because I felt like it should be 30 people doing that book. Writing the book on hip hop is like writing a religious scripture, it’s like writing a bible, or something like that, people are never gonna be happy with it, it’s always going to be disputed, there’s never going to be one correct version. So I was thinking about it and one of my favourite joints by Macklemore and Ryan Lewis is ‘Cant Hold Us’ and there’s a lyric in that track that says “what do you expect when Wu Tang Raised You”, I was thinking about it and I was raised on the Psalms of Public Ememy, I was raised on the music of Eric B and Rakim, and then I was thinking about it that I was raised on hip-hop full stop. So I thought, flip the concept Hip Hop Raised Me, I thought about everything that I’d done from dj’ing to working with artists, to working in labels to doing things online, everything’s been influenced by hip hop, so yeah Hip Hop’s raised me”.
It’s what my interpretation is of a culture that’s literally raised me, it’s according to me. It’s what I’ve enjoyed: it’s what I’ve participated in
What makes Hip Hop Raised Me so unique is that it is Semtex’s perspective on hip-hop, and based off the engagement on his social’s daily with fellow stans and fans it’s an experience many relate to: “Hip Hop Raised Me is like everything I’ve witnessed, my perspective on Hip Hop, it can’t really be disputed, it’s what I’ve lived through, it’s what I’ve grown up with, it’s what my interpretation is of a culture that’s literally raised me, it’s according to me. It’s what I’ve enjoyed; it’s what I’ve participated in”.
One thing is clear from the book, is that it isn’t just hip hop in terms of the music, it’s the entire spectrum of hip hop and all the culture it has embodied and created. Semtex thinks back to comments made by hip hop traditionalist KRS One: “There’s a rapper called KRS One, who once said rap is something you do, Hip Hop is something that you live, and I think as DJ you focus on the music, you’re focusing on how things sound, how beats are made, how words work with the beats, how the beats rock crowds. There’s so many different dynamics that you’re focused on that, that with photography you don’t really give it the kudos that it deserves, because you’re focused on one area. For me I was focused on the sonics, I was focused on the sound, I was focusing on what producers were doing what rappers do with the producers”.
But anyone who knows the culture of hip hop will know that it’s more than just the auditory experience, it’s a visual one too. From hip hops earliest inception the visual aspect played and plays a crucial part of hip-hop culture. Indeed in the digital age of 2016 the artwork has lost that physical appeal, and is now rendered a grainy image on iTunes, but it still matters.
“It’s only when you look back, you check through archives that you realise the significance of photography that it captures people in their prime, or it captures moments in history that Hip-Hop either influenced, or been involved with or reflected on. It’s only when you look back that you see the importance of the photos. So selecting the photos for the book kinda worked itself, kinda found itself, it’s like you knew who was responsible for taking shots from that era, and fortunately some people gave us access and showed us a lot of love”.
It’s only when you look back that you see the importance of the photos.
On closer inspection of the book, the sheer magnitude of photography is undeniable. But not only photographs of live shows and rappers, but the artistic side to album and single artwork, every single image of promo’s, albums and singles were originally photographed: “I gotta give a big shout out to Mr Thing, he let us have access to his collection, I sold my vinyl collection years ago because I had 20,000 records and I was using Serrato and it just felt like a fire hazard, so I got rid of it. I ended up buying everything again on CD, and I thought about starting the vinyl collection again but I can’t do it. Anyway, Mr Thing let us use the collection, we just raided it, made his house a mess, he’s got one of the hottest collections in the UK fortunately, so if you ever need to check out a living library of vinyl check out my man Mr Thing. But yeah we took pictures of everything, promo’s, instrumental albums, singles, everything, we’ve documented it. It goes back to what I was saying, hip hop raised me, these are things I was using as a DJ coming up, I used to carry these records all around Europe, all around the UK, I think I got a bad back from it, but it’s all good. It’s vinyl, it’s what got me into it, and it’s what I did as a DJ”.
From the hedonistic to the happy, the provocative and pure, hip-hop artists have secured some of the most iconic album artwork in modern music history. Everyone has their ultimate iconic album cover, from Biggie’s afro-rocking baby to Outkasts mock comic book cover, everyone has a favourite: “I think the most iconic album artwork and my favourite album artwork is the cover of Main Source. It’s just crazy, it’s the colours that were used on it, I remember the day that I bought that album, and the sound, the knock of drums, and it was the epitome of boom bap at the time. It was the first time I’d ever heard Nas on ‘Live at the Barbeque’ – so yeah Main Source that’s my most iconic album covers and one of my favourite albums of all time.”
Semtex recalls a memory that reminds me of the opening sequence of Brown Sugar, When Did You Fall In Love With Hip-Hop? A memory for Sem, that on retrospect, evokes a sense of reverse foreboding, almost immortalising his future. “There’s a picture in the book of Public Enemy in front of Manchester Apollo and I think it’s in 1990, and I’m in that picture and it’s crazy looking at that now. It’s like that film, The Shining, at the end when you see Jack Nicholson’s face in it and he was there years ago, it’s really weird seeing it looking back at it. Basically I didn’t have a clue what was going on. All I knew was, my favourite artists Public Enemy were in town, you can see from the picture it’s pretty pathetic I’m just trying to stand next to them and be a stan. That day when I was trying to meet my idols, my hero’s, all I heard was this loud mouthed photographer “Oi you, move out the way, move out the way, move” – this southerner, this was probably my first experience with a Londoner and he was mad rude, he was shouting at all the kids, “Move out the way, Move!” and I was like who the fuck is this guy. I didn’t even get to meet them, because the security rushed them off, but we got into the show and that show was a key turning point in my life, it changed my life that show”.
“It’s a crazy story, crazy long winded story, and me and Normski have been friends ever since, and despite the fact that when we first met he was telling me to get out of the way, we’re actually good friends now and he contributed a lot of shots to the book, we couldn’t have really made the book without him because the shots he took in the late 80’s and early 90’s are invaluable, nobodies got shots like he’s got – so big up Normski!”
When you think about it, penning a book about a genre, movement and culture like hip-hop, it’s kind of daunting imagining how you would categorise the segment. Semtex takes a sectional approach, from chapters entitled ‘Fear Of A White Rapper’ to ‘Obamanation’ and ‘The Purple Era’, he departmentalises the debates, issues and subjects in hip-hop. “Regards to the chapters in the book, it was really easy to do and the titles kinda found themselves, because these are just things I talk about everyday. Whether its on my show, whether it’s online, whether its on my tweets, whether its outside the club, just talking to other hip-hop stans, it’s like it’s everything that we debate, break down, analyse and it just ends up going nowhere. You could find the meaning of life, and crack the code about how life works, but once you separate and go your separate ways, it gets forgotten about. So with these chapter’s it’s all of that basically, it’s years in the making. I think each one is significant in it’s own write, each ones got it’s own depth, each ones got its own meaning”.
As Hip Hop fans we’re kind of guilty of that, we wanna see our favourite MC trash the other guy, finish his career, end him, dead him – it’s the same language.
Something that has propelled hip-hop culture throughout the ages is feuds. In the Internet age Twitter and Insta is ablaze with beef and squabbles, and regardless beef is intrinsic to keeping the hip-hop world spinning. “I think the Beef chapter’s important because it’s the DNA of hip-hop the conflicts, MC’s battling, I kinda go into how it can go too far, how it can go wrong, how it can go right, how it benefits the culture. When things go wrong in hip hop everyone blames the MC’s, everyone’s like it’s this person, it’s that person, when really the fans have got as much to blame, they’re the ones who fuel it, they’re the ones who encourage their favourite artists to go at it, to take out each other. It is like gladiators, it is like in Rome, and in ancient Rome when gladiators were fighting, people wanted to see people get killed, they wanted to see people get stabbed, mauled to death. As Hip Hop fans we’re kind of guilty of that, we wanna see our favourite MC trash the other guy, finish his career, end him, dead him – it’s the same language. So when you look at it like that it’s pretty foul the whole concept of rap beef, and I think it’s good that you’ve got situations like Jay-Z and Nas, where they brought about some of the greatest diss tracks of all time but as men they came together and they’re friends, they worked together, they progressed and moved along from it”.
“Unfortunately it wasn’t the case for Biggie and Tupac and all of these cases of beef are documented, how it started, the run up to it, the role that the media played in it, because back then with Tupac and Biggie and you can see from the magazine covers, they weren’t trying to slow it down, they were trying to fan the flames of tension. Today it’s the same, it’s like social media, blogs, websites, everyone’s to blame, everyone encourages it, especially with Meek Mill and Drake, 50 Cent and whoever, Instagram has a lot to answer for when it comes to rap beef. So it’s one of them situations where it’s never gonna stop, it’s never gonna change and technology just enhances it, it doesn’t make it any easier, just makes it every worse. So yeah it’s interesting putting all of it down, because I don’t think it’s been done in such detail. From my perspective it was like cool to document some of these”.
Hip-hop has struggled, there’s no denying that. When it began in the 70’s there was no foundations or institutions, rappers were forced to become entrepreneurial in order to survive. They had to be fresh, innovative and resourceful. The result 30/40 years later? A multibillion dollar industry that’s created rappers-turned entrepreneur billionaires, all holding a very strong leverage in the game. “When you look at what Jay-Z’s done, he got dropped in the beginning, you got to remember there was a point where nobody wanted to sign him, there was a point where Jay-Z couldn’t get a deal. So from doing Roc-a-fella Records and having all that success, to then branching out and doing Roc Nation Records and then buying Tidal streaming service, he’s gone from providing the oil, to owning the pipeline, which delivers the oil. It’s unprecedented what he’s done as an artist – he’s the business. If you look at Dr Dre it’s the same with what he’s done with Aftermath, from NWA to Death Row, to Aftermath, what he’s achieved as a businessman, the careers and the artists that he’s put on, it’s unprecedented. It’s the same thing, you sign to Dr Dre you’re privileged, as an MC you have the privilege of being connected to everybody on the West Coast, everybody in Beats 1 and Apple Music, it’s levels – that’s Rap Privilege – it’s good if you can get it!
“There’s a lyric in one of Jay-Z’s tracks where he says ‘I put my people on, my people put their people on’. So if you’re signed to Jay-Z, you’re getting a look, you’re getting a bring in that most other artists that aren’t signed won’t get. So for instance, you’re more likely to get played straight away, you’re more likely to get blog coverage straight away, Just Blaze and Kanye West and more likely to into the studio with you straight away, than if you were trying to make it on your own. It’s a privilege, you sign to Jigga it’s Rap Privilege – that’s it – like you’re getting a bring in, you’re getting a hook up. Kanye West signs someone to G.O.O.D Music, they’re getting that privilege, they’re getting a double Rap Privilege, because they’re getting the privilege from Kanye West, and everything he brings to the table and then it’s ‘meet Jigga, meet Jay’ with everything he brings to the table”.
“So it’s a legacy that extends and it goes from strength to strength as the lines from the tree extend and it works two ways, because not only do you benefit from the association with Jay-Z, Jay-Z benefits from the association of working with new artists. It’s the Rap privilege, it works, it flows”.
“You can’t be in the culture, you can’t be a participant, unless you’re a fan”
Hip-hop has been fascinated with story-telling, from the process of artists writing lyrics, to penning books. The need to historicize and immortalise hip-hip and its legacy in popular culture is vital. We’ve had our artists immortalize their words, from Common’s ‘One Day It’ll All Make Sense’ to Jay-Z ‘Decoded’, but the voice of the fan, is the one that will remain relatable. “First and foremost being a fan of hip hop is what gives you the advantage, you can’t be in the culture, you can’t be a participant unless you’re a fan. Unless you were there from the beginning, unless whatever format you listen to music on – you listen to your favourite artist day in day out, unless you’re a fan you can’t really comment on the history or the legacy, unless you’re that stan, unless you know your favourite artists history inside out. So whether you’re going to get into MCing whether it’s dj’ing, whether it’s any other aspect of hip hop, it’s like being a football player, you’ve got to know the best players that came before you. You’ve gotta know what the wins were, how they did it, what you need to do, how to be a star, how to excel, how to move forward”.
Hip Hop Raised Me, The Book by DJ Semtex is available to buy now in the UK on Amazon and at all good bookstores including Waterstones, Rough Trade, Urban Outfitters and Foyles.