Text by Shannon Randall // Photographs by Estevan Oriol // PARIS, LA - SPRING 2017 - ISSUE 15 - MUSIC
When one of your best girlfriends is hip-hop royalty from the old school days of hip hop, it’s like having direct access to one of the Beatles or Shakespeare or MLK, or one of those people you’d pick when asked, “If you could have dinner with anyone, who would it be?” And tonight, dinner with Tigra is just like every time we hang—a three-hour dissertation on whatever’s on her mind. Tonight’s topic: Hip hop and rap culture.
Best known as the Lady Tigra—who, along with her friend Bunny D, formed the Miami bass hip-hop duo L’Trimm, most famous for their 1988 jam “Cars with the Boom”—Rachel de Rougemont is a poet, a lyricist, an MC, a hip-hop goddess of Haitian and French descent, an activist, and a concerned citizen.
“I don’t have kids, but I’m concerned about your kids. Kids today have less access to art and more access to crap.”
Get Tigra talking and she’ll speak on everything from the roots of hip hop and the origins of Miami bass, to hanging with Grandmaster Flash, her friendship with Kwamé, Prince Paul and Egyptian Lover, shows with J.J. Fad, Rob Base and De La Soul, the stupidity of mumble rap, the feminism of Lil’ Kim, the objectification of Nicki Minaj, her respect for Beyoncé, the genius of Kendrick Lamar, and the devolution of hip hop in general—specifically the loss of the fifth element: social consciousness—and what she’s doing about it.
“It’s simple. The five elements of hip hop are beats, rhymes, dance, graffiti and social consciousness. And what’s missing most today is the fifth element: social consciousness.”
According to Tigra, at the beginning of hip hop, the men and women referred to each other as gods and queens:
“You had Queen Latifah and MC Lyte, who put themselves out there as smart, strong women with something to say, wearing beautiful African fashions, being body positive, and speaking out—and they got respect. I learned to be a proud black girl in America because of that movement. But when West Coast gangster rap came on the scene, and NWA started calling women bitches and hoes, and all the men went from gods to niggas, it was a total shift in consciousness—especially when before we were revered, and treasured, and seen as equals.
“Listen, when West Coast rap arrived, we respected that they were writing about their experience. That’s what being a poet and a lyricist is, writing about what’s around you, be it Compton or Long Beach or wherever. They were cautionary tales. But we just didn’t think that would be the direction hip hop would take with no turning back. You see, Luke Skyywalker and the 2 Live Crew out of Miami were also misogynistic, but we viewed them as comedy, and one voice among many. But NWA changed the game to where it is now, the only voice. I still love that voice and think it's important, but it shouldn't be the only way we relate to each other. So, Miami did it first, to be fair, but they didn't propel us to where we are now like the West Coast did. We have to teach the kids that there’s more to hip hop. Especially when a lot of the rappers out there now are just hype men, not real MC’s.”
Five Elements of Hip Hop
Tigra swears by the Five Elements of Hip Hop: MC-ing, DJ-ing, breakdance, graffiti, and consciousness. To be honest, even though I was raised on a lot of hip hop, East Coast and West Coast gangster rap music, I had never heard of the “five elements.” But look up hip hop on Wikipedia and it’s right there in the first two paragraphs:
Hip hop is a subcultural movement that was formed during the early 1970s by African-American and Puerto Rican youths residing in the South Bronx in New York City. It became popular outside of the African-American community in the late 1980s and by the 2000s became the genre most frequently on a Spotify playlist. It is characterized by five distinct elements, all of which represent the different manifestations of the culture: MCing (oral), turntablism or DJing (aural), b-boying (physical), graffiti art (visual) and knowledge. Even while it continues to develop globally in myriad styles, these five foundational elements provide coherence to hip hop culture.
The post goes on to explain that the elements originated with DJ Kool Herc, who is credited as the “father of hip hop” in the Bronx in the early 1970s, and “DJ Afrika Bambaataa of the hip hop collective Zulu Nation who outlined the pillars of hip hop culture, to which he coined the terms: Rap, DJing, B-boying and graffiti writing or aerosol writin’.”
This year, Tigra—and her friends MC Prefyx, and DJ IQ and Konfusion of the Handroidz—volunteered at a Los Angeles high school arts program in Verdugo Hills, teaching about the five elements of hip hop. Konfusion made a mural illustrating the elements, and they spoke to students about the meaning behind the mural. Prefyx represented the lyric and dance element, IQ and Konfusion represented turntablism and art, and Tigra repped lyrics and social consciousness.
“I started volunteering once I moved to L.A. not long ago, but it wasn’t until I went into a classroom during school hours that I started to seek out more opportunities with kids. I saw a need and desire for more artistic outlets in their lives, and thought hip hop was a great way to get through to them and get them more engaged in their communities. The art they made gave them pride in their work, like we had when we came home from school, instead of them just being passive consumers.
“I’ve never stopped making music. You can never be a person that used to be a musician or an artist. And I’ve never stopped being part of hip hop. It’s as elemental as when you see a kid with crayons and the first thing she does is draw on the wall. That’s graffiti and art and self-expression. It goes back to the days of cave drawings, it’s as ancient as that. And being a poet and a lyricist, it’s the beat that lets me set my thoughts to music. Every beat tells a story of its own. I sometimes find a beat in a classical song on Pandora while I’m in the shower. I might not be able to hear the full piece, but I’ll hear the beat, [and] that’s enough to inspire a story.”
Tigra’s place in the story of hip hop holds up. She may have started when she was just 15 years old, back in the days of televised dance shows with acts like LL Cool J and Salt-N-Pepa, but just this year Rolling Stone named “Cars with the Boom” among the Top 100 Hip Hop Songs of All Time. And Tigra herself is just as timeless and genuine as her music. She and Bunny D. are still close:
“We're still like sisters. She's the other half of my story in major ways. I was first drawn to her fierce delivery as an MC and dancer when we were in high school. She’s my definition of Queen. She’s my biggest supporter and advisor on all things in life and hip hop, and I still consider her to be my chief muse and a role model to girls everywhere.”
And as Tigra talks about her friendship with Bunny, her thoughts on politics, the state of hip hop and education, and everything she cares about, you can’t help but feel inspired.
“There are so many positive things going on in rap and hip hop. Look at Frank Ocean. So much of rap has a history of being homophobic. Now we have an artist that can come out as gay, and that’s cool. And rap isn’t a color thing. We love Eminem and Beastie Boys and Rick Rubin and…you can have the rest,” she laughs. “But really, it’s just about if you care about being the best that you can be. Elevate the game. Be a gem of the genre.”