The Power of Hip-Hop: Decora's Story
Rapper Decora has been writing rhymes since he was 13 years old. The New York native started out as a spoken-word artist and member of ReadNex Poetry Squad, releasing his debut album, Bread and Oats, in 2015. Decora comes to Lincoln Center's David Rubenstein Atrium on February 16 to celebrate the release of his follow-up album, Beyond Belief. In advance of the show, the lyrical storyteller spoke to me about his relationship to hip-hop.
Steven J. Horowitz: I read somewhere that you first fell in love with hip-hop when you heard A Tribe Called Quest. Was it all of a sudden or was it a gradual infatuation?
Decora: It was definitely gradual. My first memorable introductions to hip-hop were as a young kid in Brownsville. Hip-hop was everywhere. It was blaring out of speakers everywhere, but A Tribe Called Quest caught me one day on Hot 97 and it was like, "Damn. This is really cool." Over time, I continuously listened. I didn't start writing until I was 13. I didn't perform until I was 18, in college.
SJH: What were some of the specific songs that you remember being inspired by, in terms of storytelling?
D: Interestingly enough, one that comes to mind is DMX's "Slippin'". DMX is an amazing poet. It's entertainment, so a lot of times in entertainment, people focus on the negative of a person and what they do, what they did, and what I like about "Slippin'" is that DMX himself goes so deep and so intimate that he points out all of his flaws himself instead of allowing someone else to fill in that space and tell a story, misinform the public by the way they tell the story. So "I'm slipping, I'm falling, I can't get up," it was super powerful for me. Another one would be Jay-Z, "Moment of Clarity." Really important one. Another one would be Eminem, probably "Stan"; I thought that was really amazing. Another one would be Kanye, "Big Brother."
I love storytelling, and to see someone tell a story like that is really dope. Biggie, and then some of Wu-Tang's stories, like Ghostface Killah’s "All That I Got Is You." When I was a kid, that hit me so hard. "Plucking roaches out the cereal box." That was my life as a kid growing up. I'm raised Dominican although I lived in Brownsville. We spent a lot of time with our family in Washington Heights. Another that was a really interesting one would be Slick Rick, "La-Di-Da-Di." I like the way Snoop did it over, but definitely the original. Another one, without a doubt, would be Ice Cube, "It Was a Good Day." And Immortal Technique's album, Revolutionary Vol. 2. Those are some of the joints, storytelling specifically.
To me, hip-hop is a form of expression that was based out of the ghetto, people who were underserved, underappreciated, and forgotten about, and it became a way of communicating how they saw their environment.
SJH: How has hip-hop's meaning changed for you, looking back on when you first became infatuated with it to where you are now?
D: It's actually pretty much been the same. To me, hip-hop is a form of expression that was based out of the ghetto, people who were underserved, underappreciated, and forgotten about, and it became a way of communicating how they saw their environment.
It evolved into a very large culture with a lot of subsets. It went from the four elements—DJing, emceeing, breakdancing, and graffiti—to now: It's clothing; It's a way of talking. There are schools like Harvard that have the biggest hip-hop library. There are schools that offer PhDs in hip-hop. It's evolved into a way of life.
SJH: What do you think the mainstream music business associated with hip-hop at first?
D: I would say something danceable, danceable movement. I don't think a lot of the mainstream took it seriously at first when it came out. Everything is mathematics when it comes to industry, so once a profit was shown, then I think people started to take it seriously. But when it first came out, the industry probably looked at it like a danceable movement. So many things about it were new. People were using turntables in a way that no one else used them. And then on top of that, they're taking loops and making tracks to it. And then you got someone rhyming over it and someone dancing like they're doing capoeira. I don't even think they knew how to handle that.
SJH: And how about now?
D: Again, it's a numbers game, so the industry is trying to figure out the biggest profit margin in the least amount of time, which is sad, but they do that with every genre, and especially hip-hop, because it's easy to produce. You only need one person, a laptop, and maybe a beat machine, versus a seven-piece band. I feel like they try to find the most trending thing and replicate that until it doesn't work anymore, which is kind of disheartening and saddening. When I say "they," I mean big industry. That said, hip-hop still prevails. There's plenty of independent artists who are at the same level as me and 10 times bigger, 100 times bigger, who are doing their own things that are filling shows, that are putting out albums, and they are anti-industry.
SJH: How has the role of the audience evolved?
D: Now, with a lot of things like technology, people want to know more about the artist, more personal life story of the artist. So it's beyond, "Oh, what did this person mean by this poetic device that they used in verse two?," which might have been 1997 when Biggie spit a line or whoever spit a line. Now, it's kind of like, "Where do they live? How do they feel about this political issue?" It's kind of the like the person as a whole, the audience is getting more intimate with artists, especially because of technology and social media, now that you have access to artists like that.
SJH: Why do you think hip-hop is as worldwide as it is today?
D: I think it goes back to the socioeconomic aspects of hip-hop and hip-hop coming out of poverty. Most trending things in the world—fashion, style, whatever it is—trend out of poverty. There's a saying that poverty breeds creativity, and poverty is all over the world. It's everywhere. When you go to Belém in Brazil, and you go into one of the shacks and ask people to start expressing themselves and they start breakdancing or they start rhyming on a beat, you realize, "Oh, shit, this person is doing hip-hop. This person has the bug." Now, mind you, you go to the Appalachians and you have folk, country, Americana, and a lot of them talk about the same socioeconomic issues but also a lot of it is about relationships, a lot of it is specific to that area. But what hip-hop did was in the very beginning, instead of saying, "I'm really mad about this one particular bar in coal-mining country," hip-hop would say, "Don't push me because I'm close to the edge, I'm trying not to lose my head." Right there, you just touched everyone that has a basic emotion of anger. I feel like what that did was it spread across the world and taught people of the lower echelon that they have something they can use to express themselves. Once people caught that, they took it their own way and made their own rendition of it, and that's why hip-hop spread so fast. It became a basic necessity for everyone.
Steven J. Horowitz is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles.