While it's relatively easy to point the finger at record labels and radio stations for a perceived decline in quality of mainstream rap music, one of the basic principles of business is that businesses must identify a demand in order to supply it. So we must first ask ourselves are we ready to appreciate good rap music in 2013 as much as we claim we sp desperately want to see it made? With a Black president in office who supposedly is “down” with hip-hop and even adopts its mannerisms for moments of code-switching comedy, have we as a people been lulled into a sense of complacency where we feel that hip-hop no longer needs substance or passion behind it?
For centuries, people of African descent have excelled at the alchemy of turning seemingly insurmountable struggle into fine art. Consider Black gospel, for instance. American slaves were separated from their tribes, identities, and beliefs and forced to recognize a foreign religion, something that eventually developed into what would become a cornerstone of the Black community. The repetitive elements of early gospel songs came about as a means of including and welcoming participation in worship from those who could not and were not permitted to read, just as Bible study was used as a subversive means of teaching slaves to read. Some even used religious songs as code for escape plots.
In the early 20th century, the earliest incarnations of jazz came along, with Black Americans again taking foreign ideas (European instrumentation, form and harmony) and appropriating it to African sensibilities and Black American lifestyles of the time. In 1968, James Brown released the call-and-response anthem “Say It Loud – I'm Black and I'm Proud” which held the #1 spot on the R&B singles chart for weeks. A direct response to the racial climate of the time, Brown wanted the song to inspire Black youth to grow up with pride, despite rampant prejudice. The call-and-response and consciousness of the song and Brown's general style was something that not only inspired the listening public then, but would later inspire the early and ongoing stages of hip-hop as well as specific acts like Public Enemy, who adopted the same message of pride, though the message was more complex.
Hip-hop was a genre birthed from the experiences of Black and Latino youth in inner-city New York and though it would be a discredit to the art-form to attribute its origin solely to poverty or struggle, it does make sense to say that the Bronx block parties where hip-hop originated were probably a welcome, albeit brief, respite from society's ills. Early hip-hop was largely party-oriented, with parties being its primary audience without the help of television or radio. As the focus shifted to the MC and his subject matter, hip-hop became more of a platform for social commentary, which was timely considering the rising crack epidemic.
The horrors of crack seemed to fuel a rich landscape of diverse voices in hip-hop and even spawned genres that didn't previously exist. On one hand, there were groups like N.W.A., from LA, where crack first began being used on a large scale in 1984, according to the US Department of Justice. The birth of "gangsta rap,” as it was dubbed, inadvertently became a means of reporting the harsh realities of violent inner-city life, minus the conscience, to the point of glorification. Similar to how the Hughes Brothers and John Singleton shocked mainstream America with Menace II Society and Boyz N Da Hood, respectively, gangsta rap did the same in the world of music. As a counterpoint, socially-concious rappers like Brand Nubian emerged as an opposing voice to the perpetuation of violence and drug culture, bringing a message of social consciousness and knowledge of self.
Though these voices were very different from one another, both at one time coexisted on music video shows like Yo! MTV Raps and on urban radio, giving listeners the full scope of hip-hop and the experiences it documented. It wasn't unlikely to hear Snoop Doggy Dogg's gangsta party staple “Gin and Juice” alongside Arrested Development's “Everyday People” within the same radio program within the same hour with no segregation between what was considered “conscious” and other songs with less positive influences. By the 2000s, Black radio had devolved into a homogenous blend of similar sounds and content, with little room for variety or experimentation. While acts like Odd Future might exist to upset the norm, it does not come across as genuine, instead coming off as an immature and rather offensive play for shock value. Without a major co-sign or pre-existing fan base that's proven to shell out the big bucks, there's little room for those that don't fit sonically into the mold.
So the question bears asking: have we (society, the hip-hop community) become too comfortable, complacent, and/or "safe" to actually appreciate authentic and quality rap music that critics have been lamenting for the past ten years or more? Is it now harder to muster up M.O.P.- or Onyx-worthy levels of anger with a Black president in office? Has post-racial propaganda rocked us to sleep to where we're no longer receptive to messages of Black pride in our music? udging by the top five rap songs on your local radio, you'd think life was one big party, despite the recession and long-standing ills of ghetto life.
While some would argue that Kanye West's Yeezus brought substance to the forefront, anyone who has followed West's progression up until this point would counter that West is currently at his least effect and least substantive. Though West's voice started out as a very refreshing addition to the genre, West (perhaps inadvertently) seems to be more fascinated with shocking people than actually reaching hearts and minds and his very public persona and extravagance makes it difficult to look at him raging against the so-called machine without a tongue placed firmly within cheek. Chief Keef comes to mind when considering anger as an element of current rap music, but as is to be expected for a teenager, there's no indication of what the anger is directed at or why, on top of the repetitive, uninspired and overwhelmingly negative nature of the music he creates.
Today, many rap fans seem content to consume products packaged for the here and now, as opposed to art designed to stick with the listener for years. While one could simply attribute this shift to the attention span-destroyer that is the internet, to do so would indicate one does not truly understand the nature of hip-hop and its origins. Hip-hop in the 1990s reflected an urban Black experience from many different angles, while what we see in the mainstream today is an exaggerated reflection of lives that only a small percentage of people actually lead, Black or otherwise. This prevents people from making any real connection to the music, rendering it forgettable, a flash in the proverbial pan.
For example, many would name Drake as one of the biggest stars of the last five years, but it's hard to imagine seeing the same reaction to "Started From The Bottom" as you currently see to Notorious B.I.G.'s "Juicy" whenever it's played, almost 20 years after its release. While "Juicy" was a party song by tempo, there was also a story there of struggle, overcoming it, and appreciation for the journey. There was something there to relate to, something to stick to the listener's ribs, so to speak, not to mention the fact that the “bottom” B.I.G. speaks of is the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood in Brooklyn, while we have no choice but to assume that Drake is referring to…DeGrassi High? Despite the story he's trying to tell, there isn't anything to relate to for the average listener.
Unfortunately, there's no across-the-board solution or call to action here aside from preaching to the choir and asking that discerning listeners seek out, appreciate, talk up and support the scores of authentic musicians who are operating under the radar. For artists, it's a little trickier. One must decide whether they want to take a risk and make art or simply go the safer route of making what's already on the market and has been proven to be profitable.
Sadly, I don't believe there will ever be another era where authenticity and diversity will be as strongly upheld in hip-hop as it was in the 90's. At this point, the business has superseded the art, with labels asking for as little heart and soul as possible from their artists in favor of following protocol for selling records. Selling a fleeting feeling is encouraged as opposed to putting an experience on record and allowing the pieces to fall where they may. Not only are artists too comfortable making forgettable, uninspired music (because it sells), listeners within the 18-25 age bracket and younger aren't used to much else and will continue to perpetuate a watered-down mainstream, to the point we'll be looking back at the period after 2000 and wondering why we can't remember anything that came out during that period.
The substance and texture of hip-hop in the 80's and 90's was progeny of the civil unrest of the generations that fathered those who created it. Perhaps we now have too many things to distract us from the social issues and injustice that should still have us angry enough to make and appreciate inspired, authentic rap music.
Shaka Shaw is a writer in Washington, D.C.