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What’s Your Meaning of “Dope”?

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Why the Best Meaning of Dope Defers to Hip Hop’s Graffiti Heyday

By AMIR SAID (SA’ID)

In graffiti, you couldn’t fake your way to the top… You had to have skill, knowledge and understanding of color and light, a strong sense of design, and the guts to actually tag a wall or subway train. Necessarily, “dope” wasn’t a loose term bandied about by graffiti writers. “Dope” was taken seriously; it wasn’t a casual word. Instead, it was a reference meant to convey recognition of top quality in the craft.

To the early graffiti writers, “dope” meant something powerful. It didn’t just mean that something looked good; it held several important connotations. If a writer’s piece was deemed dope by another writer, it meant that the writer who made the claim well-understood the art form. It meant the writer understood the fact that various styles gave way to new styles, and that the writer could appreciate the fact that general styles developed off of the styles that came before, and that personal styles developed as writers stood on the shoulders of dope writers before them. Deeply important was recognition of the chief architects and leading practitioners of the various styles. Equally important, it meant that the writer, through his own style and fundamental understanding of the art form, knew how to create an original piece of artwork. Moreover, it meant that the writer knew how to render his own interpretation while still representing the core style he or she was working from. In this way, the word “dope” was guarded, if you will, by the well-recognized and broadly understood importance of knowledge of craft, sense of originality, and dedication to quality. In other words, there was a shared understanding of the word dope among hip hop’s early graffiti writers.

If we were to apply the early graffiti writer’s understanding to the hip hop/rap music tradition, and more specifically, its biggest sub-tradition, beatmaking, could we say that today “dope” carries the same meaning and weight? To be certain, as sub-cultures and art forms like hip hop/rap music make their way into the mainstream, so does much of its language. Newscasts now regularly feature mentions of someone being “dissed”; politicians openly give “shout outs;” and so on. Likewise, terms usually reserved by the actual artisans of the culture become the mainstream public domain as well. Which now means that even the most casual fan of hip hop/rap music can call something dope just as much as someone’s who’s life backdrop is hip hop. Fair enough.

But what then of the meaning and weight of the word “dope”? It’s absurd to say that any one group owns the word. Still, no culture has more claim to the word dope than hip hop. And within that scope, no one has more say in defining what’s dope than the artisans of each of hip hop’s four main artistic elements. Now, every artisan has his own opinion, of course. But certainly, aren’t there some shared characteristics at work when someone calls something dope? Or at least shouldn’t there be? So in the beatmaking tradition, shouldn’t there also be a shared understanding of the word dope?

Let’s think about this. Shouldn’t there be some fundamental characteristics of dopeness that all beatmakers understand, recognize, and revere? Or should it be simply be left alone as one beatmaker’s “opinion” when he or she assigns the “dope” attribution to a beat or another beatmaker?

I suspect that the word dope will continue to borough deeper into the mainstream, and in that regard, beatmakers (and rappers) will not have any say in defining what the word means. However, beatmakers do have a say in defining what dope is in our realm. We can speak up against the loose tossing of the word dope. We can remind each other of the fundamentals of our craft. We can hold the chief architects and practitioners of our craft with the high esteem that they deserve, all the while recognizing that new styles and sounds stand on their shoulders. And we can reject the cheap dismissal of our architects and pioneers by those new music makers who regularly chose to do so. We can draw attention to the elements, factors, components, nuances, and characteristics that have always been considered fundamentally dope in the hip hop/rap music and beatmaking traditions. And we can inform those who are truly uninformed about all of these well recognized and well established elements, or speak out against those who attempt to degrade them. We can remind ourselves that dope is a continuum of our culture and tradition, not a departure from it.

Finally, when each of us deems something to be “dope,” we can all simply ask ourselves, ‘Who else among us would likely say the same, and why?’ When I was writing rhymes and developing my skill at it, I’d ask myself, ‘Would Kool G. Rap, Rakim, or Nas think its dope?’ And when I was making beats and developing my skill at that, I’d ask myself, ‘Would Large Professor, DJ Premier, The RZA, or Pete Rock think its dope?’ Still to this day, when I write a rhyme or make a beat, I still ask myself that same question.


The BeatTips Manual by Sa’id.
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About Author

Amir Said (aka Sa’id) is the founder and Editor-in-Chief of BeatTips. A writer, publisher, and beatmaker/rapper from New York, Said is the author of a number of books, including ‘The BeatTips Manual,’ ‘The Art of Sampling,’ ‘Ghetto Brother,’ and ‘The Truth About New York.’ He is also a recording artist with a number of music projects, including his latest album 'The Best of Times.' Follow him on Twitter at: @amirsaid and @BeatTipsManual