Hip Hop Music became a global phenomenon through multiple cultural exports, the most famous of which was emceeing, break dancing, graffiti and deejaying. Yet an often over looked aspect of the movement has been it’s influence in shaping how people talk, with artists constantly reinventing slang words, there are enough rap-isms to fill a dictionary – or even a bible. Perhaps this is what inspired Krs-One to write an entire book entitled “The Gospel Of Hip-Hop“. An apt title given the most common hip-hop phrase of the 90’s “My Word Is My Bond” has a biblical origin. The phrase became so prevalent within rap music we named this website after it – word is bond.
The book of Matthew speaks of the importance of the word and how it relates to a persons soul. But how exactly did a seemingly spiritual term become something uttered by aspiring emcees the World over? The answer lies within the history of hip-hop. From the outset, pioneers such as Afrika Bambaataa sought to infuse the music with a progressive ideology which encouraged knowledge of self. Hip-Hop was about empowerment but it was also about staying true to yourself and being real. Bambaataa called his movement the Universal Zulu Nation which encouraged an end to violence within the African American community whilst borrowing teachings from the Five-Percent Nation.
The Five-Percent Nation held a belief that 85 percent of the World was ruled by an elitist 15 percent, ten percent of whom obstructed the population from true knowledge. Whilst only the last five percent were willing to share the information which would awaken the masses. Despite it being a relatively small offshoot from the nation of Islam, it caught fire within hip-hop in a major way. In an effort to calm down gang activity which was rampant in the 70’s, Kool Herc enlisted members of the Five-Percent Nation as his security team. As much of the first hip-hop recordings were disco inspired party tracks, Five-Percenter terminology was slow to manifest itself through commercial rap in the early 80’s. It wasn’t until emcees like Rakim arrived that hip-hop truly began to reflect it’s foundations.
These lyrics from Rakim’s song “The R”, are a prime example:
“In the Summertime, pockets bulging
Somethings’s happening then I’m indulging
Music is mine, Gucci seats reclined
Gold grill, a paint job will shine..
Pull up in the park and then pop the trunk
Turn up the bass and let the system thump
A block party starts to form, people start to swarm
Loud as a ghetto blaster, word is bond.”
Hip-Hop had mostly existed in New York block parties throughout the 70’s, and Rakim is referencing that culture whilst also ending his lines with a telling finishing phrase “word is bond“, which was undoubtedly a nod to the Zulu Nation and Five-Percenter teachings. And he wasn’t the only one, Big Daddy Kane was another pioneer who can be heard using the term on his song “Smooth Operator”.
“Girlfriend, you been scooped like ice cream
So just swing or fling a gathering, try to cling
Cause It’s a Big Daddy Thing
And I’m lovin em right, word is bond“
As most of the best emcees at the time began using “word is bond” (including LL Cool J), the phrase entered into the public consciousness as a hip-hop term. Although not everybody understood it’s meaning, it would become more recognisable with each passing year. By the early 90’s artists who professed to be Five-Percenters included Q-Tip, Pete Rock & CL Smooth, Digable Planets and Busta Rhymes. However, it was solidified as one of the defining hip-hop terms when the Wu-Tang Clan made countless uses of it throughout there albums. What made the Wu’s use of “word is bond” exceptional was there subject matter being mostly violent, something that may have seemed at odds with the Zulu Nations teachings.
In retrospect, the Wu-Tang Clan were ahead of their time and used the phrase as a way of adding weight to their lyrics, turning heads in the process. Today it is still not uncommon to hear an emcee say it, with it’s beauty being that it conjures up an image of an era, a period when emcees where at their most creative. Whilst it meaning has undeniably evolved you’d be hard pressed not to find a hip-hop fan with fond memories of it’s history.