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On to the next stage of hip-hop's development

November 24, 2002|REED JOHNSON

Two weeks ago, the hip-hop-punctuated feature film "8 Mile" opened No. 1 at the box office, and a mixed chorus of euphoria and mild surprise went up in CEO suites across the entertainment industry. The movie's star, rapper Eminem, could really act! A movie with a mostly African American cast set in grim, battle-scarred Detroit could attract white suburban boomers and other demographic untouchables (i.e. anyone older than 25).

But the idea that hip-hop can pump up the volume on dramatic storytelling, or that the old-fashioned dramatic elements of acting, writing and narrative structure may have something to teach hip-hop, comes as no surprise to Danny Hoch and Jonzi D. Solo artists who are intent on merging hip-hop's freewheeling sensibility with time-tested forms of stagecraft, they're wary that "8 Mile's" commercial success could cement an already limited, commercial-driven notion of what hip-hop culture is, and isn't.

"I think it's dangerous to talk about hip-hop by always referring to what pop culture tells us hip-hop culture is," Hoch said. When hip-hop began, the Bronx b-boys who started break dancing on scraps of cardboard, and the emcees and DJs who fashioned poetry from lived experience and old James Brown beats, were taking part in an act of "cultural resistance," Hoch said. "Little did we know we'd be selling Sprite 15 years later."

The Queens, N.Y.-bred Hoch and London-based Jonzi D recently were in Los Angeles to perform in "Blazin'," excerpts from last summer's New York City Hip-Hop Theater Festival. Their free Nov. 12 gig at the Ivy Substation in Culver City and Hoch's later appearance at Cal State Northridge with another hip-hop theater artist, Will Power, underscored the way in which hip-hop culture is reshaping the performing arts.

Earlier this year, rapper Mos Def won accolades for his Broadway debut in the Pulitzer Prize-winning play "Topdog/Underdog" by Venice resident Suzan-Lori Parks. A few days ago, "Russell Simmons Def Poetry Jam on Broadway," orchestrated by the eponymous rap impresario, opened to enthusiastic New York reviews.

Hoch's response? It's about time. "The theater community has taken awhile to catch on, but they're starting to realize hip-hop is the dominant youth culture of the world. It's the audience of today; forget about tomorrow," he said over lunch with Jonzi D last week.

Meeting of art forms

The two men had just finished performing for participants in the HeArt Project, a nonprofit organization that facilitates learning and cultural interaction between professional artists and hard-to-reach L.A. teenagers. What surprised some students watching the show was how hip-hop culture's various elements -- break dancing, emceeing, DJing -- can be broken down and combined with traditional dialogue, choreography and set and sound design.

Jonzi D, a gifted mime and brilliant mimic who honed his movement skills at the prestigious London Contemporary Dance School, led off the program. A dreadlocked East London Cockney, he uses rap, humor, graceful athleticism and the metaphors and gestural language of hip-hop to create funny, thoughtful parables about modern urban life and identity.

His work also manifests a sense of pan-African identity often missing from insular American hip-hop. In "Aeroplane Man," this son of Grenadian immigrant parents plays out a jet-hopping odyssey in search of his roots. After encountering a British racist, scornful Grenadians and Jamaicans, a hostile African American and a contemptuous Zulu, he comes full circle and declares that "this brown frame has found its name."

So what advice would Jonzi D give a young rapper or hip-hop artist with ambitions of appearing on stage or making movies? "I'd probably say, 'Go take some theater classes.' "

One student, Stanley Boston, 19, seemed to be taking that message to heart. "You can go on TV and have all this jewelry and cars," he said of the consumerized hip-hop ethos. But after watching the performance, he said, "I'd rather just go on my own. Even if it takes a different path, I think it'd be better."

No dis against Mathers, but for subtlety, polish and provocative content, Hoch and Jonzi D make the Eminem of "8 Mile" seem as white-bread and innocuous as Poppin' Fresh.

Which perhaps isn't surprising. Despite the actors' hard-core performances and Curtis Hanson's smart, visceral direction, "8 Mile" is, at bottom, a conventional-minded Hollywood rap-to-riches tale about the pursuit of fame and material success in the name of art and blue-collar solidarity. Nothing wrong with that story: It's the American Dream, poised on the border of 8 Mile Road, which separates the charred houses and empty lots of Detroit from its upscale suburbs.

But artists like Hoch and Jonzi D believe hip-hop has many other stories to tell. In his set, Hoch revived several theatrical monologues from his show "Jails, Hospitals & Hip-Hop," previously seen in Los Angeles at the Actors' Gang.

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