Recap: Nas, Steve Stoute, Fab Five Freddy & Al Sharpton Talk Hip Hop at VH1’s Tanning of America Screening

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Last night inside The Paley Center For Media, hip hop sat down to talk. The topic of the night was VH1′s latest Rock Doc, The Tanning of America: One Nation Under Hip Hop.

Moderated by Gayle King, Steve Stoute, Daymond John, Al Sharpton, Fab Five Freddy and Nas spoke about the “tanning” of America — a term coined by Stoute and his best-selling book — and how hip hop as evolved since it’s birth in the 70s.

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First, let’s talk about the actual documentary. As a person born in the mid-80s, The Tanning of America doc completely filled in the blanks that my older brother forgot to teach me. The documentary touched on not just the music, but how the entire culture of hip hop grew from early Blaxploitation movies to television shows like The Jeffersons and Good Times to the music out of the south Bronx along with break-dancing and graffiti. The documentary enlightened me, teaching me where the term “shout out” came from. It also delved into how important fashion was, and how Harlem’s Dapper Dan was instrumental to early hip hop. Dan was in the audience, looking — you guessed it — dapper in a checkered blazer and sun yellow tie.

Okay, now let’s talk about the panel discussion. Gayle King is a good and bad moderator. The good is that she’s personable and she makes the conversation easy. The bad is that she was cursory in her questioning and just asking the most obvious questions, which left the journalists on my row all rolling our eyes. Still, it was the perfect place perhaps for an audience in Midtown; an audience that included Jerry Seinfeld and his wife Jessica.

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Daymond discussed the creation of his clothing line FUBU, and the much discussed incident where LL Cool J wore a FUBU hat in a Gap commercial, which eventually led to him making a ton of money. It would’ve been interesting to know if FUBU were created 10 years earlier would Daymond still be considered hip hop, and if FUBU is urban or hip hop, or is there even a difference in his mind? It would’ve also been interesting to know why FUBU isn’t making it’s mark in the U.S. now and why Daymond feels the brand tapered off. Oh the questions I would’ve asked…

Nas, who wore sunglasses indoors the entire time, explained why although he’s been in the game for 20 years this year he still feels like an outsider. “I didn’t see myself as mainstream. I’m just the guy that’s always been around. And I like my position,” he said. Of course, no one else agreed with him, but perhaps he makes himself to believe that to stay true to his art.

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Fab Five Freddy, Nas, Dapper Dan and Steve Stoute

And Steve Stoute took the brunt of one question. Ebony‘s Kierna Mayo asked where the women were on the panel. He pointed to Gayle King, but of course it would’ve been nice to hear a “hip hop” voice to counter all of the male energy on the panel.

Still, Gayle did ask an important question that made me go hmmm. She asked, “Could hip hop exist without the N-word?”

Al Sharton, who provided the perfect balance between the James Brown generation and the hip hop generation, said everyone knows how he feels about the N-word. He has vehemently suggested rappers avoid use of the word. Still, he told this story of how he ran into a rapper in the bathroom while he using a stall, and the rapper just couldn’t help himself and tried to debate him on the use of the N-word. Now, Al said he just kept trying to relieve himself and eventually he told the rapper, “Nigga please! Don’t you see I’m trying to use the bathroom?” Now, that’s hilarious.

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Gayle also told a story of how her son Will lives in China and how many Chinese people he runs into says to him, “What’s up my nigga?” in an effort to connect with him. Of course it takes her son aback, but it’s not used in a derogatory way and so he doesn’t get offended.

I could go on and on with the nuggets learned at last night’s panel. It was so informative and inspirational. And as I left the Paley Center and took the 1 train to Harlem, I walked past Times Square and just so happened to look up. There was a billboard of Nas — the self-described outsider — with a caption: “The further I get the further I want to go.” On the bottom of the billboard was a little bottle of Hennessy. I couldn’t help but to laugh — that was tanning.

VH1’s The Tanning of America, a four-part documentary, airs February 24 at 11 p.m. ET.

Peep the doc’s super trailer:

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The Tanning of America

Photo credit: Getty