Alphabet Aerobics

Nas's Hip Hop Is Dead has inspired a level of fear and introspection not recently seen in the discipline. Doomsayers cite record plummeting cultural influence in their arguments, but for proof that hip-hop lives, they need look no further than the rapper Hip Hop Harry, who single-handedly demonstrates the genre's elasticity and cultural staying power. Wildly popular, he has his own show on cable, preaches a conscious message, and appeals to the next generation of downloaders.

And — oh, yeah — he's a giant yellow bear who raps about personal hygiene:

This is a song about washing hands

Sing it while you wash them as fast as you can

Use the soap — don't forget the warm water

To wash your hands, work up a good lather.

Okay, so that doesn't exactly rhyme. Critics further charge that Harry is soft, and this is true in a literal sense. But in late July, as if to dispel notions he's nothing but Barney with bling, Harry unapologetically brought his act to the genre's cradle. On an East Coast swing that also included shows in Queens and Philadelphia, he delighted an audience of some 500 pre-preteens (mostly repping summer camps) at Haffen Park in the north Bronx. "I think it's time for a good-manners jammy-jam!" he declared. And it was.

Pear-shape, kneeless, and wearing a giant medallion around his neck, Harry hopped onto the stage at 10:30 a.m. sharp. While multiethnic hype kids break-danced behind him, he lip-synched to the music. It was obvious, if only because the mechanism controlling his jaw barely allowed it to move.

Though Harry preaches the values that everyone says hip-hop should be about — doing what your parents tell you — his songs about table manners and going to bed on time came off as a bit patronizing. A 10-year-old in attendance named Raekwon (that's what he said) opined that Harry didn't measure up to his favorite rapper, 50 Cent. Jalesia, also age 10, begged to differ. "I learned water's good for you," she noted.

Hip Hop Harry airs daily on Discovery Kids Channel and TLC. Its creator, Claude Brooks — who also served as the event's MC — says he created the character after discovering his nephew picked up math concepts more quickly if his lessons were freestyled. Rhyming is a precursor to learning, he says, calling Dr. Seuss "the first rapper." Brooks adds, "The show is targeted for the preschool set, but we get fan mail from kids as old as 14." Wave your hands in the air, and clean them like you just don't care.

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Ben Westhoff
Contact: Ben Westhoff