even sure what the contemporary equivalent to a lyric like “….argue all day about who’s the best MC, Biggie, Jay-Z or Nas” would be. That hunger to be the nicest on the mic doesn’t seem to drive today’s MCs in the same way.
EBONY: “Hip-hop is dead” is an old trope, but when would you pinpoint when things became decidedly less interesting in the culture?
SSH: I dislike that “hip-hop is dead” trope because it’s clearly alive to somebody. I think cats of our generation who suffered through the sideways looks from our elders when we were banging Rakim, or Public Enemy or N.W.A are hardly in the position to look down upon young cats for the hip-hop they’ve come up with. Hey, I’ve got my hip-hop, you’ve got yours. At the end of the day, disenchantments are personal and subjective.
That said, I guess my own cultural disenchantment traces back to two moments.
The first is something I’ve only realized with the passage of time, and that’s the deaths of Tupac and Biggie. I don’t think any of us could have understood then. How could we? It was such a double-hammer blow it left you staggered before you realized how hard you’d been hit. But just look back. Within five years of their passing, the kind of archetype that Big and Pac represented—fully rounded artists with passion, technique, and substance—was a dying breed. And yes, it’s fair to cite Jay or Eminem, not to mention Nas, as counter to this charge. But I would argue that by ’02 or ’03, both of those guys were in their own stratosphere of outlier success, while hip-hop, at its most mass, marched in another, less lyrical direction, away from what Big or Pac represented at their best. I’d challenge anyone to play me a hip-hop record post ’97 that exhibits flow and lyricism more powerfully than Biggie’s “Kick in the Door.”
The second disenchanting factor for me is not so much about the music itself as how technology has altered the way we experience it, especially since the advent of "iEverything" in the ’00s. Technology created today’s individualized world of niche choice and music on demand. But it destroyed the communal listening experience that was once synonymous with hip-hop. Paid in Full drops in ’87: I heard that album for the first time with a roomful of high school homeboys. Low End Theory drops in ’91: I marveled at that record in a dorm with my college crew. Hard Knock Life drops in ’98: Dame Dash comes by my office at The Source with the advance tape and everyone bugs out to Jay’s new stuff. That idea of “slip the tape in and gather folks to listen” is an old tradition, as ancient as the art of oral storytelling itself, the impulse to gather around the fire to share a tale. Today, that communal experience has been exported to Twitter and the inter-webs. Which, I suppose, represents progress. But it’s forever changed an essential part of how we once experienced hip-hop. And that can’t help but slowly color your attitude as well.
EBONY: Were you able to steer BET at least slightly in a different direction than the course it was on in 2005?
SSH: Far be it from me to claim solo credit in steering anything anywhere. I was part of a crew of cats—Nelson George and Touré among them—who Reggie Hudlin brought on in ’05 at BET. For three years we busted our collective butt, along with a lot of other folk who were already at the network, to do good work. We had our successes. And we took our lumps. People will make their own judgment, but as far as I’m concerned, the successes won out. In terms of my little piece of the programming pie, I think the Hip-Hop versus America town halls made a difference. I think the news and documentary shows, from The Chop-up to The Truth with Jeff Johnson, made a difference. In the end, you just hope to leave a place a little better than how you found it. The first thing I helped produce at BET was the aid telethon after Katrina. The last thing I produced was the live coverage the night Barack Obama was elected president. That’s as good an arc as one could hope for.
EBONY: So what’s next?
SSH: Well, the last few years for me, since BET, have been about making a complete transition from journalism to dramatic writing, particularly in the comic book and screenwriting space. I’m excited that a lot of that work will bear fruit in 2012. Vertigo starts publishing Dominique Laveau: Voodoo Child on March 21, so I’ll be busy writing and promoting the series as the year goes on. And, fingers crossed, I’ll have some exciting news on the film front soon, so