In many ways the art of hip-hop is the art of alchemy. It's transforming material into new forms of expression, culture, and music. In a post-civil right's era America, a vacuous space of identity and culture sucked men into prisons and boys into crime. It took hip-hop's forefathers to excavate what was left, and recreate a new form of expression from the ashes of adversity. In this quest for the Philosopher's Stone of music, a Golden Age emerged from the most unlikely of places; the ghettos. The Geto Boy's "Street Life" puts 1990s African Americans’ situation into words,
"You know the streets is all I know
This is my way of survival
You know I've been dealt some bad cards
But I gots to play them
What else am I to do, look for a job?
But until then my family will starve and be broke
So I resort to the streets
I'm stuck here"
Young men were left to juggle the radioactivity of gang life, the heavy metals of poverty and were asked to make something of it.
Hiding in their musical laboratories, the Golden Age alchemists started to dig, knowing somehow that going deeper into themselves and their history was the key to finding the Philosopher's Stone. Whether by accident or design, hip-hop's forefathers found the ancient wisdom of the funk masters, the jazz men, and the holy chorus of soul music.
So the alchemy began, transforming the heartfelt soul-bop of an obscure Wende Rene's "After Laughter Comes Tears" into a menacing anthem in Wu Tang Clan's "Tearz". Could Wende have known when she cried,
"I'll try to hide, hide my sorrows
I wonder can i hold them till tomorrow
Maybe ill hold them for a year
But they keep saying
After your laughter
Now you will see those wet little tears"
That the Wu-Tang would release her sorrow through their mystic methods of sampling and poetry nearly 30 year later?
Did Tupac know he would popularize the ideals of Afeni Shakur and the Black Panthers on African American woman in "Keep Ya Head Up"?
Were the gangster rappers, from Snoop Dogg and Dr. Dre, to Nas and Notorious B.I.G., playing sleight of hand by rapping about their life of crime as a way to escape it ?
Did NWA know that obscenities in "Fuck Tha Police" would rise to the Supreme Court and protect the sacred nature of speech?
Perhaps this is where hip-hop's fascination with wealth and violence comes from. It isn't easy to smash apart a heritage of music and ideas, and build it back together anew, shining like gold.
The Golden Age mixed the most unlikely of elements in a search for transcendence. While it may have begun of necessity, it quickly became a quest to speak truth to power. The Philosopher's Stone may never have been found, as close as some may have come, and the magic recipe for eternal life remained as elusive for Q-Tip as it did for Newton. But in the annals of music it remains, boldly declaring its elevated consciousness, political awareness and creative expression, and for this, it is so much more than gold.