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Walt Kneeland
A Critical Approach to Hip hop
W 10:30
[Spring Semester 2003 | BGSU]

TMNT As an Introduction to Hip Hop


Throughout the semester various aspects of hip hop have been discussed, particularly under the question of whether or not hip hop is a true "culture." One topic that has not often come up is what an "ignorant outsider" might think of hip hop. As I have been unable to find a story of a current event in hip hop, for this, I will look at myself in the role of the "ignorant outsider" and how I was affected by the portrayal of hip hop in general media, and explore a bit of what has come since.


Like many people, my introduction to hip hop was through the mainstream-media-fed rap in the late 1980s and early 1990s--particularly MC Hammer and Vanilla Ice. However, perhaps moreso, it was through a team of fictional characters that I feel I really got introduced to rap, and was strung along as to its message.

In 1990 New Line Cinema released TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES, a live-action movie based on the popular black-and-white comic-turned-color-childrens'-cartoon characters. Throughout the movie, the viewers were shown various images of New York City and its inhabitants, as well as various instances of rap music to accompany the scene. One that stands out the most is MC Hammer's "This is What We Do," which plays during a scene showing the excesses to which the young members of the Foot Clan are participating in in a warehouse hide-away. Young teens are shown drinking, smoking, playing pool, playing arcade games, and in general doing and "getting away with" everything that "adults" would try to stop them from doing. Given the context of the Foot Clan as villains, and dangerous in large numbers, that a rap piece plays loudly for the viewer (and in-continuity for the movie, blaring in the warehouse) a sense of menace is gained, giving this rap piece an association with juvenile delinquency and misguided youth.

Due to "This is What We Do" being associated with the teens in the Foot, the audience is shown that for a "gang" of misguided youth/juvenile delinquents, rap music is the sound of choice. For a 9-year old, seeing these teens listening to such music while going against what is taught by a society as being "wrong" gave the impression that rap music was bad--something to be avoided unless one was a juvenile delinquent him/herself.

This example shows one way in which the mainstream media (in this case, a movie) simply using a song to show an attitude or to give a scene a certain tone can carry deeper meaning and longer-lasting "message" about something.

In the follow-up movie, TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES II: THE SECRET OF THE OOZE, the ending of the movie features a scene in which the Turtles' battle with two other mutant creatures carries into a club, with live performance in-progress from white rapper Vanilla Ice, performing what became in-continuity with the movie and real life "Ninja Rap." I recall several individuals my own age interested in seeing the movie simply because Vanilla Ice was to appear in the movie, and in the years since the movie, it seems that if someone remembers anything about the movie, they remember the "Ninja Rap" scene. Through this scene, many who may have been introduced to a negative-feeling side of rap in the first movie saw a lighter side in the performance of this white rapper--perhaps carrying some of the idea that it is the white performer that will and should receive the attention, and works created by minorities are more sinister by nature.

In addition to the second TMNT movie, not long after the original movie a musical production was produced, in which the TMNT went on tour, in a spectacle-show dubbed the "Coming Out of Their Shells Tour" with 10 songs available on the "album" of the same name. One of the pieces, performed by fan-favorite Michelangelo, is a rap piece, in which the party-loving turtle raps about how he and his brothers came to music and how it has affected them. This piece softens the image of rap conveyed in the Movie--after all, if the protagonist/hero is performing the rap, and is himself "good," then there must not be as much wrong with the music as originally thought.

These three "mixed messages" followed the mainstream's image of rap, it seems, as it originally seemed sinister and the stuff of delinquency, though once it gained in attention and popularity, it became OK, and eventually accepted as part of (youth) culture.

Along with the portrayal of rap music in context of the TMNT movies, one can look at the original movie's soundtrack, with such artists as MC Hammer, Hi Tek 3, Partners in Kryme, and Ya Kid K. This soundtrack presented listeners with several rap pieces, and provided a sort of "introduction" to rap, offering several mainstream artists' works, in one convenient package. These pieces also served as introduction for many to the format of music with speaking over it, (Splinter's Tale I and II) as well as the blending of sound clips with existing music (Turtle Rhapsody). One track, "Spin That Wheel" had seemed foreign, though I'd gradually realized that there was interaction (if only one-way) between the speaker and someone handling the music end, with the rapper/singer declaring "Yo! DJ! / Spin that wheel!"


Possibly due in large part to this sort of exposure to rap, I began the 1990s with a negative feel toward rap. Even with Vanilla Ice's rap in TMNT II, I still carried the message gleaned from the first movie, and associated rap with delinquency and undesirable actions, with no regard for reasons why. Additionally, through general mainstream media (television primarily) I accepted the notion that rap was "bad" and intentionally avoided it, and through this aversion allowed it to be the basis of stereotypes in my mind. Through class discussions and readings (Primarily in Nelson George's book, Droppin' Science, and [ANOTHER CLASS BOOK]) I was quickly shown how ignorant I had been, particularly as an outsider looking at something I had virtually no concept of, save what was shown to me in a movie and such.


Two other aspects of hip hop briefly touched on with the TMNT is breaking and grafitti/writing. As with many mainstream media "presentations," breaking was characterized by merely the horizontal spinning motion. In a battle scene with the Foot, Michelangelo comments on that, spinning on his shell to knock out several Foot ninjas. In the 2003 cartoon, one episode shows several individuals spray-painting symbols on walls to draw out the Ninja Turtles--several comments made about how these individuals should know better than to be creating more graffiti for the city to deal with.

In the present, with hip hop having come into its own and become mainstream, it has to varying degrees become accepted by the general public and recognized, and particularly with the attention of late on Eminem, rap is known by a much larger segment of the public than in the early 1990s, and it has lost its mysterious, sinister feel, and has more diversity in the public eye than before.