Folk Culture of the End Times – Reflections on Hip Hop’s 50th Anniversary

Image of men holding a boom box stero.

Image by Gordon Cowie.

“Back in the days I knew rap would never die”
-KRS-One – Outta Here, 1993

“All poetry aspires to the condition of hiphop lyrics”

-Greg Tate – The Resurrection and the Light, 2004

Gather yourself around the pallid electric fire of your chosen screen while I tell you the tale of the last living culture to be born.

It was formed from precious fragments and surviving remnants, from junk and pain and neglect, from jewels of tradition well cared for throughout harrowing journeys. Nursed by atrocity and desperation, nurtured by concrete and barbed wire, its seed descended through time across middle passages, plantations, world wars, and piss-reeking alleyways.

That seed arrived just in time for the end of the world. It grew in the cement soil of the South Bronx, where even the armed enforcers of law were loath to tread. Infants weathered a higher mortality rate than anywhere else in the land, gangs of violent hooligans ruled the blocks, tenement fires blazed, and rubble engulfed the streets.

And yet the people there sang and danced. They joked and teased and romanced. Records spun for rent parties. There was liquor, weed, heroin, TV, and LSD. The ghost words of peace-prophets echoed through project hallways. Midnight marauders covered train cars and gray walls with elaborate murals. Disc jockeys hyped crowds in the parks. Youngsters did head-spins on cardboard. These were the forgotten, the downtrodden, the ignored, the hopeless. Yet they lived. And as best they could, they thrived. They made culture in the ruins.

In this desolate land there was a young man named Clive. His family came from the island of dub and dreads. As he crossed the unseen border from childhood into adulthood, he grew and grew until he was bigger and taller than the other young folks around him. With their humanity stunted by oppression into casual cruelty, they dissed him for his difference. It was they who gave him the nickname Hercules.

But he was The One way before Neo. He took the nickname and transformed it and became hood-famous, then world-famous. Everybody knew, Kool Herc played only the best parts of the records on his two turntables. Herc played the Breaks.

It was at a fundraising party for his younger sister when it first went down, and the tellers of tales now call it the birthday of an entire culture. On August 11th, 1973, at 1520 Sedgwick Avenue in the South Bronx, hip hop culture was born.


The best stories tell the truth even when they’re careless with the facts. It’s tidy for soundbite purposes to give a culture a birthday, but it all depends on your definition of culture. After all, people have been drawing on walls for as long as there’s been people and walls. Rapping has been going on since James Brown flipped mic stands, since Robert Johnson stood at the crossroads, since the slave ships sailed, since the griots wandered the landscapes of West Africa, since the first stories were ever told around a fire.

As for the Dance and the Rhythm? They are eternal.


I’m almost an exact contemporary of hip hop’s transition from NYC folk culture to national pop culture—the first rap mega-hit, Rapper’s Delight by the Sugarhill Gang, came out in 1979; I was born in 1980. Throughout the ‘80s, I listened to crypto-racist squares tell me that rap was a nothing more than a passing fad. In the ‘90s I watched name-brand politicians go on TV and pontificate about the evils of this thuggish jungle music.

I was bumping E-40 and Too Short long before they became Bay Area ambassadors. I remember when 2pac was a roadie and when Notorious B.I.G. became the first New York rapper to really capture my ear—two of the greatest poets in American history, both murdered in their twenties.


Some time around ‘85 or ‘86 my parents sprung for cable, which for me meant MTV. I suffered through many hours of tedious commercials and forgettable videos eagerly awaiting the sacred moment when, at last, Run DMC and Aerosmith would arrive at the televisual altar and preach their sermon on Walk This Way, where black rappers and white rockers start off as rivals before breaking down the wall between them and teaming up live in concert.

For a mixed kid in suburbia who was rarely around more than three or four black people at a time, it was like watching the wall come down between conflicting sides of my identity. This is long before I learned that rock & roll was black music, before my ears decoded the DNA of Chuck Berry’s guitar riffs.

The wall, symbolically destroyed by a coalition of white rockers and black rappers… that wall was built by capitalism.


As a kid I couldn’t sing or play any instruments, but I could memorize and spit those rhymes that danced around the beat. I was enchanted, enthralled; I was under the spell. It has never broken.

Having been born a hemophiliac, I was too scared to try breakdancing, though I longed for that grace and power and acrobatic skill. I was too afraid of the law to do graffiti. If someone had put me in front of a pair of Technic 1200s and let me scratch up records I surely would have, but I would end up being well into my thirties before I had a chance to try my hand at it. By 2018 I was skilled enough to ruin the title track on my Bobbie Gentry Fancy LP, doing scratches for a song on my album Spider on the Wall. It was totally worth it.


Since I was an only child and had no real community to speak of, in my childhood hip hop was a solo joy. I missed a lot of milestones—Rakim’s game-changing flows, NWA’s gangsta braggadocio, the excitement of hearing groundbreaking early albums in their entirety rather than just isolated radio singles. Being a Bay Area kid, the first album I ever bought with my own money was, of course, by a Bay Area group: Digital Underground’s Sex Packets… which now that I think about it probably had more influence on my adult romantic life than I’d care to ponder.

It wasn’t until high school that I started trading rap albums with friends, all of them white boys, who I would later discover had always been the music industry’s target market for ghettoliciousness. I wouldn’t have cared; if the kid with the Irish last name had the new Bone Thugs & Harmony CD, then dammit I was gonna link with him for a cassette dub.


A couple of years ago I got in a zuckerbook debate with a twenty-something friend who was talking shit about LL Cool J. Listen, I get it that you came of age long after the buff MC in the Kangol hat devolved into a corny cop show actor, but please youngster don’t front; it is your misfortune that you will never ever know how powerful it was to first hear those lyrics beaming through the airwaves—No rapper can rap quite like I can / I’ll take a musclebound man and put his face in the sand! Nothing in the sad cybernetic dystopia of millenials and zoomers has ever hit as hard, and it never will. That time is over. Sorry you missed it.


By the time the World Trade Center disappeared in a cloud of poisonous dust, hip hop culture had already become an international Super Commodity. The Telecommunications Act of 1996 deregulated radio and led directly to all the big media cartels buying up and/or crushing countless thriving independent record labels, then homogenizing rap into Gangsta Shit™. This is the subgenre that had always been most appealing to rap’s biggest purchasing demographic—suburban white kids aged 16 to 24.

I’ll leave the reader to ponder why said demographic would be so attracted to the violent, misogynist, swaggering Sambo caricatures that resulted.


Every time I see somebody put Eminem on a list of All-Time Greatest Rappers, I feel a smothering urge to set something on fire. Don’t even talk to me about 8 Mile.


My political and philosophical leanings are heavily influenced by the work of Derrick Jensen and Hakim Bey, but the anarchic middle finger that I keep permanently raised at Babylon was activated in my teens by Tupac Shakur… the son of a Black Panther.


In 2003 I blundered by chance into what was probably the most vibrant hip hop dance-party scene in Los Angeles history. I was about to graduate college without a clue of how I was going to earn a living, so I took a bartending course. I mentioned this to one of my kungfu brothers, a grizzled ex-marine and construction worker who moonlighted as a bouncer at the Grand Star Jazz Club in L.A. Chinatown. He told me they were looking for a new bartender, then passed me the number of the ancient boss-man Frank (R.I.P.), who answered my call on the second ring and gave me the shortest interview of my life: Can you be here Saturday night at 9:30? Yes. See you then. *click*

The six years I worked at the Grand Star changed my life forever. It was there, at the dance party Firecracker, where I was introduced to the music of the local scene’s patron saint, J Dilla. This was way before YouTube or streaming radio could school you at the stroke of a smartphone. I started collecting vinyl records and self-publishing zines. I had affairs with unreasonably gorgeous women of every ethnicity. I wrote lyrics by the notebook, dropped mixtapes by the stack, and performed at local shows. I became a ninja superhero.

Even in the looming shadow of Hollywood and its attendant bullshit, the legacy of hip hop as localized folk culture lived on at the Grand Star. I was part of something unique and magical, a genuine community—and the best thing was, I knew it.


The dance of rhythm & rhyme is a well that never runs dry. There is no feeling so grand, no rush so satisfying as that moment when the words descend and wrap themselves around drum and melody. It has rescued me from despair, saved me from suicide. I owe my very life to hip hop.


Hip hop as a living folk culture is mostly extinct now, killed by corporate predation and cybertech. When you’ve got more people recording a show on their phones than waving their hands in the air, the party is officially over. Culture has become a digital simulacrum.

Nowadays folks connect with machines rather than building relationships, words lose all meaning in the abyss of electronic white noise, fascism is a popular lifestyle option, and (anti)social media has turned every person into their own Brand™. Times are not exactly ripe for quaint relics like culture and community.

Behold the endgame of Too-Late Capitalism—a cyberverse populated by zero-dimensional zombies, lost in their solitude, consumed by the all-devouring eye of the screen, ignoring or cowering in fear from global warming. Wackness abounds.


For over ten years I gave my best efforts at challenging this mechanical malaise, keeping the local folk culture of hip hop alive by removing the experience of it from technological mediation. It was beautiful.

Then came the plague.


And yet, still I rise. I recently achieved a new milestone on my hip hop journey; after all these years of writing lyrics I finally started producing my own beats, and this summer I recorded a song over the first beat that I’ve ever made entirely myself. Appropriately enough for this sinister era we live in, it’s a take on one of my favorite pieces of dystopian science fiction, the Mad Max series. You can listen to it here.


Averaged out over the years, I’ve barely made pocket change from the total sales of all my (many) rap albums… yet hip hop culture has been paying my bills for most of my adult life. First was the Grand Star, then later I spent six years teaching workshops on hip hop at public schools. Covid killed that, and since 2020 I’ve worked as a security guard; I got that job courtesy of a friend who I met through my brother-from-another, Q-Digs, and I first met Q at a hip hop dance party in San Francisco when I handed him one of my albums.


Can’t stop. Won’t stop.

Malik Diamond is a hip hop artist, cartoonist, author, educator, and martial arts instructor. Born and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area, he is the descendant of kidnapped Africans, conquered Natives, and rural laborers of the Scots-Irish, Swiss, and German varieties. He currently lives in Oakland, California, with two brown humans and a white cat. E-mail: malikdiamond (at) hotmail (dot) com