Hip-Hopology: Rapper Nipplife Has Lived the History of Hip-Hop
CLEO MIRZA DECEMBER 7, 2022 5:00AM
Joe Nipper is the definition of an O.G. Nipplife
Aurora-based rapper and producer Joe Nipper, who performs as Nipplife, considers himself a "hip-hop historian." It's not because of any formal studies, but from witnessing firsthand the genre's evolution since its inception. Raised in Harlem and the Bronx, he was immersed in hip-hop culture from a young age. "You could be somebody who studied and read, but what makes me a hip-hop historian is that I was there from the beginning — from the DJs to the pause tapes, the MCs, searching for breakbeats — to where it is today," says the 58-year-old. "There's a lot of people who can name a hundred rappers, but I lived it."
Growing up in New York in the ’70s and ’80s, Nipper was surrounded by hip-hop's forefathers. At just five years old, he danced on stage with James Brown at the Apollo Theater, and he's played drums with Pumpkin (Errol Eduardo Bedward), the first "hip-hop drummer." By thirteen, he was an MC, and at fifteen, he was freestyling for Kool Herc, the godfather of hip-hop. "The stars were just lined up for me," Nipper says. But by 1988, the crack epidemic was overtaking New York, and he felt compelled to leave. "I figured out a way to sneak on the Greyhound, and I would just ride to different states, because at that time, it was the big crack era," he recalls. "A lot of my friends were getting arrested; there was a lot of turmoil in New York, and I was like, 'You know what? Something is calling me to see the country.'"
Nipper ended up in Colorado, and found that hip-hop fans here were primarily listening to West Coast hip-hop, which he had never heard. "It was a big culture shock, but to me personally, it taught me a whole other side of the hip-hop culture, which was on the West Coast," he says. "I didn't know anything about N.W.A., Sir Mix-a-Lot, none of that. I was like, 'Whoa, this is a whole other vibe.' Being a musician, I heard the different cadences in the music and the samples."
Back then, Nipper was told that Colorado hip-hop didn't have its own sound. While he says that's still the case, he adds that modern hip-hop in general is less regionally distinctive. "Now, anybody can sound like the South or whatever — it doesn't matter now, because every state is doing that. So it's changed, but it's still all over the place. You have people that listen to the West, you have people that listen to the East, old school — and it's in all demographics. For me, it's changed for the better, because it's opened more minds."
But the evolution of hip-hop has had its growing pains, he admits. "I saw where gangsta rap came in and changed everything. It changed the dynamics of where hip-hop could have been. There was always violence, but not violent like it is now. That's the only part I'm not happy with. I was always, 'You should be able to say what you want,' but the wisdom started kicking in, and I started to realize that I condoned a lot of stuff. Not that my music is thuggish or anything like that, but we bought into that. I'm not disrespecting people who have passed away — Tupac or any of them — but that was poison."
Nipper laments how hip-hop took a self-destructive turn, when its influence could have instead been leveraged for good: "It's helped a lot of people, and that's why I wish it could turn more positive — because it really has power. The same power it has to be negative, it has that power to be positive. I think there's going to be something soon where...people will say, 'Hey, why are you putting out this poison?' I think they're going to start being held accountable for it."
He draws a connection between the increasing negativity in hip-hop and the gradual disappearance of the hip-hop groups that dominated the late ’80s and ’90s. "It went from five-man crews, six-man crews, to three. I think a lot of that came from [knowing] one person can make the same money sometimes as four people. They figure, 'I'll just be the rapper, and I can make it all myself.' Everybody wants to be the one to shine rather than start out as a group and then spread out," he says. "I would love to put five females together, five guys, or a crew with five different nationalities. Can you imagine?"
Another foundational element of hip-hop that's gone by the wayside is off-the-dome freestyle. In his 58 years, Nipper has only written one rhyme, and that was actually borrowed from a middle school classmate, Robbie Rock. "I would bang on the desk, and he would rhyme. That was the first time I kind of heard the rhymes. And I said, 'Yo, make me one.' It was 'Hello, my mellows, my name is Robbie, transmitted to you from a third galaxy,' and I just switched my name. That was the rhyme that got me in all these crews. I just had one rhyme! When I battled Slick Rick, that was the one rhyme! But what I had was stage presence. I was able to move the crowd," he says. Nipper credits his rhythm-based freestyle skills to Mark the 45 King, the DJ in one of his first crews, as a youth who first taught him to "ride the beat."The first crew I was in wasn't even named, but I called it Sonic Sound. The guy from that crew was Mark the 45 King. He produced 'Stan,' by Eminem, and 'Hard Knock Life,' by Jay-Z. When I came to them with that one rhyme, I was way off beat. I had never done it to actual music," he recalls. "I didn't understand what they were trying to tell me, but they were trying to say, 'You gotta feel it.' I did it two more times, and on the third time, I nailed it. I figured out how to ride the beat, and that's what makes my freestyles sound good."
Because Nipper came of age in the era of the true freestyle, he finds it tedious trying to write music. But when he just lets it flow, he can make upwards of ten songs a night. "What happens now is, I can write, but once I say it, it's stale to me. Every song I make, I make the music and I go right in there," he says. He spends a lot of time in the studio, releasing three albums this year that highlight his old-school flow: Ican... Wonderful Musical, All I Need and 64.
He's quick to point out that when current rappers claim to freestyle, most of the time it's at least partially written or rehearsed. "The meaning of freestyle when I was coming up was, you didn't write. Nothing was written at all. So now I gotta say I'm the king of the one-take freestyle 'off the top,' because it's not like I rehearsed it," he explains. "How are you freestyling when you're looking at your phone? Those are written. It's an art, as well. That's my gimmick now."
The most unpredictable change in hip-hop by far, he says, has been its mainstream popularity and presence worldwide. "We had no idea that it would be where it's at now. We had no clue," Nipper says. "Nobody believed there would be commercials with little kids rapping. In almost every commercial you put on, there's an old breakbeat we used to rap over. It's huge."
The exponential growth of hip-hop isn't slowing down any time soon, and neither is Nipper. "There's not a lot of people from my era, unknown people, not famous people, releasing as much music as I am. I beat lung cancer in 2019, so I had no idea I'd still be able to do what I'm doing. I'm actually going for the Guinness Book of Records, as the oldest rapper with the most recordings," he says. "I just am hip-hop.
Rapper Joe Nipper Lived the Real-Life Version of The Get Down
RILEY COWING | JANUARY 17, 2018 | 6:00AM
“When you watch The Get Down, picture me as one of those kids in the crew,” hip-hop historian Joe Nipper says.
The Get Down, a Netflix series that premiered in August 2016, tells the story a group of young people chasing their musical dreams in the Bronx in 1977. Nipplife, who was born in Harlem in 1964, came of age with the rise of hip-hop. Like the youth in The Get Down, he danced at discos, emceed and saw pioneering DJ's like Grandmaster Flash perform.
Now living in Aurora, with children and grandchildren of his own, Nipper turned 54 on January 6. He celebrated with the release of a new album, Beautiful Rap, and while he plans to continue making music that retains a hip-hop sound, he says this album is his last effort as a rapper.
Nipp — known professionally as Nipplife — has had a knack for music and performing since he was little. An older cousin, a singer himself, noticed him at age three dancing around the house to James Brown records. The cousin incorporated Nipplife in a dance number for a talent show in Boston, and from that performance on, the boy was hooked.
“The crowd and the way they clapped — from that moment on, I knew that’s where I wanted to be,” Nipplife recalls. “I knew I had something different as an entertainer.”
He practiced, anytime and anywhere. He remembers banging on pots and pans at home, annoying his parents with all the noise he’d make. They’d set him up in front of the record player, where he would listen intently — mostly because his sister had convinced him that singers lived inside the radio, and he was patiently waiting for a miniature James Brown to make an appearance.
His parents took him to the Apollo Theater on the weekends, where he saw his heroes, like the Jackson 5, live. Thanks to a cousin’s connections, at age five Nipper even got a chance to dance with James Brown himself at the famed theater.
“One day I brought my little sticks to the Apollo Theater and was banging along with the band,” Nipp says. “Someone turned around and said to my dad, ‘Hey, he’s got it.’ My dad still really didn’t grasp what he was talking about, but I knew I had it…. [My fourth-grade teacher] took a liking to me and started noticing my dancing talents. She said, ‘Something is really extraordinary about you.’”
Because of that teacher and her encouragement, Nipp was selected for a dance mentor-ship program by talent scouts from Juilliard. His parents were unsure about his pursuit of dance and told him he couldn’t go. Around the same time, his peers began bullying him because of the attention he was receiving for dancing and because he was a small, skinny kid. Nipper suppressed his talents in an attempt to fit in and began hanging out with older guys.
In 1974, when he was ten, his older friends approached him, put something in his backpack and told him to take a cab from one part of Harlem to another. “They just told me, ‘Don’t look.’ I knew it was drugs of some type, and now I know it was heroin, but I didn’t know that then,” Nipp says. He delivered the drugs and received $100.
He used the money to buy toys that he took to school. His teacher noticed the toys and alerted his parents, who connected the dots. Within a month, his family left the projects in Harlem and moved to the Bronx, hoping for a better environment. “If we had stayed, who knows what road I would’ve gone down?” Nipp muses.
He remembers the heavy Jamaican influence on music and culture in the Bronx: “They brought a lot of record stores and their speakers.” He also remembers the first time he heard hip-hop, around 1976. At the time, he notes, the saying was, “Manhattan keeps on making it, Brooklyn keeps on taking it, Bronx keeps on creating it and Queens keeps on faking it.”
That year, he attended his first hip-hop jam, where he saw DJ Breakout and the Funky 4 perform. After watching the Emcee's rhyming back and forth and hearing James Brown sampled by the DJ, Nipper knew this was what he wanted to do. He mustered the courage to join his first crew, Sonic Sound. Although he was only with the group for two months, he learned how to make his words flow with a beat. Later he joined the Fearsome Crew, and his interest in hip-hop grew.
“We were doing parties, shows, and everything was going great,” Nipp says. “‘I’m an Emcee now; this is hip-hop.’ We [bought] equipment and [built] our own speakers. We went to parents’ houses to get every vinyl record we could get. It was like a treasure hunt, going to your friends’ houses and seeing what vinyl they had. It was an amazing time. So innocent, and everyone was doing it.”
The older members of the Fearsome Crew eventually tired of the jam scene, seeing it is a passing fad, and moved on to college. In 1978, Nipper reconnected with a childhood friend, DJ Greg Ski, and the two continued performing. Ski, a well-connected DJ, gave Nipper the chance to share the stage with DJ's like Kool Herc and Grand Wizard Theodore.
Nipplife recalls the stifling impact of crack on the hip-hop scene. “Before crack, it was cocaine, and it was an exclusive thing,” he explains. “You were looked up at, like you’re a great person because you can afford to sniff cocaine. You were elite…that was always accepted. When [crack emerged] and they saw how it was done and how it started affecting people, that was looked upon as not good…. That’s when you started seeing rappers and people you know just done…. You had some mainstream guys that made it, but my era, you knew that was it, that their career was mostly done. Now it’s more sad than when we were in it. It really caused a lot of havoc, I think.”
To escape the drug-incited chaos in his home town, Nipplife left New York in 1988 at age 28 and traveled the country by Greyhound bus. A fellow passenger encouraged him to make a stop in Colorado, and he decided to stay. In 1993, he returned to New York for about a year and half. During that time, he saw his friends performing and working as sound engineers. Seeing them reignited his desire to produce his own music. In 1994, he returned to Colorado with a newborn son and raised his family in Fort Collins. He bought his own music production equipment and dove in.
His newest album, Beautiful Rap, reflects on his life. A lot of songs on the album aim to combat bullying, a topic he is still passionate about.
To this day, Nipplife has only written one rhyme. Instead, he freestyles.
“That’s my whole thing: King of the One Take,” Nipp says. “I make the beat, put on the headphones and get on the mic. What you hear is from right then and there. I don’t go back and edit it. I just put it on, and boom.”
He hopes that as the genre continues to evolve, hip-hop artists will acknowledge the power of their platform and offer positive messages with their music. Nipplife remembers rap’s content becoming increasingly negative and violent when gangsta rap first appeared in the late ’80's and early ’90's. He sees traces of that negativity in rap today, and hopes the culture will move in a more positive, uplifting direction.
“When [hip-hop] started, we weren’t talking about killing people,” Nipplife explains. “It was basically just bragging like, ‘I’ve got two Cadillac's.’ Even if you battled somebody, it was never about killing…. Then it started getting worse and worse, to where it is today. I mean, I listen to all kinds. I’m not trying to point anyone out, but it’s not the most positive thing now telling kids to take pills and drink cough syrup.”
Riley Cowing has been writing with Westword since July 2016. She is originally from Kansas City and graduated from the journalism school at the University of Missouri-Columbia. She enjoys connecting with local artists, drinking all types of espresso and loves any excuse to watch The Devil Wears Prada.