Zombies and Hip Hop

When I first saw this trailer for Hilltop Hood’s upcoming DVD release Parade of the Dead I wondered why no one had thought to do something like it sooner. The video seems to be a spoof of the zombie film genre that also functions as a DVD collection of music videos for the Hilltop Hoods songs. It’s an inspired idea, even if the  cross-over between hip hop and zombie films is not completely self evident at first glance. Hip hop and zombie films, I am here to tell you, actually often address quite similar themes.

It’s a reasonably well accepted fact that many Zombie films are meant as subtle (or not so-subtle) critiques of the mindless state of modern urban living. The empty streets of 28 Days Later and the lone figure within them act as a visual metaphor for social isolation and alienation, themes often explicitly addressed in hip hop. The chorus of Sydney hip hop collective The Herd’s song “State of Transit” touches on the impersonal nature of the daily commute:

Same line, same day, all on the same track
We cross paths but barely interact
You got no time to chit chat, you’ve got a schedule to keep
Shooting straight across the city and your’re dodging the sheep
It’s the same line, same day, all on the same track
We cross paths but barely interact
One more 24 hour stretch from daylight to dusk and dusk down to desk

In zombie films, we are shown the worst traits in  people and it’s a truism of the genre that at some point friends and travelling companions will turn each other in order to save themselves. The line that ends up on many T-Shirts and stickers notes pithily that, “I don’t have to outrun them; I just have to outrun you”.

The nihilism that often results from the post-zombie-apocalypse world – where the changed-up rhythms of life often drive one to distraction, or worse – can provide the impetus for the kind of brazen egotism we see in zombie films. We often see characters blowing off steam by destroying or damaging things, and watch as they try and come to terms with their new position near-top-of-the-world in the social order (this is by virtue of the fact that there often is no social order anymore). This ‘King of the World’ mentality is one that also finds a foothold in much hip hop culture and music.

It hardly needs demonstrating, but the Sydney group ‘Horrorshow’ tap into this kind of triumphalist egotism in the opening track ‘Uplift’ from 2008’s The Grey Space. It is tempered, however, with a series of sad admissions of weakness and the track is peppered throughout with this duality of egotism and humility. It’s like Solo can’t decide if he’s happy or terrified with his new position as King of the World:

Welcome to the manifesto of a man who stood the test of time…
…In this cold barren land that I call home I’m just a man searching for the strength to walk alone…
…I’m a national icon in the making here to get my vibe on…

The Hilltop Hoods have a song called ‘Fifty in Five’ off the same State of the Art album from which the track at start was taken. It also deals with apocalyptic themes, covering the through-line of horror and atrocity that spattered the latter half of the twentieth century:

Generation X and generation Y,
And the generation next will degenerate and die,
Cause we got holes in the ozone that we put there ourselves,
Now the poles are a no-go, earths cooking itself…

The anger and activism often expressed in hip hop (and Aussie hip hop in particular) is what initially drew me to the genre. The Herd were my first experience with any kind of political engagement that had a strong sense of justice – of right and wrong – which may in fact help explain it’s attractiveness. For a generation of young materialists who have grown up in the shadow of post-modernity and the politics of spin, this kind of certainty around injustices is exactly what we needed. The Herd’s 77% remains the epitome of this angry revolutionary ideal.

Hip hop has a long tradition of sampling from films, which makes the strange Sean of the Dead-like pairing of the Hood’s music and a zombie apocalypse further comprehensible. The DVD, clearly based on their one song ‘Parade of the Dead’ off the State of the Art album, demonstrates in the chorus many of the themes mentioned above. And it should be noted that the setting of the song as implied in the chorus makes the zombies-as-social-critique even more pertinent, with it’s overtones of poor city planning:

They built my city on top of a grave
Now the dead roam the street like a rotting parade
They poured gasoline on top of a lake
And then they set it on fire so nobody escaped

The last section of the final verse leads into the refrain from the bridge section, setting the scene for the reappropriation of the ‘heads shoulders knees and toes’ children’s song. The image seems straight out of the Dawn of the Dead remake where a pair of chainsaw-equipped busses is driven through a crowd of zombies.

…And just for the fun of it, I stole my neighbour’s Hummer
Put spikes out the side and tied a chainsaw to the front of it

I cut up heads and shoulders, knees and toes
Knees and toes, knees and toes
I cut up heads and shoulders, knees and toes
Knees and toes, knees and toes

I’ll conclude with this stunning video tribute to zombie films, set to The Hilltop Hoods ‘Parade of the Dead’. You can’t help but wonder if this video itself didn’t half inspire the upcoming DVD.