Hip hop just died this morning
Posted by metaphorical on 21 March 2007
Regular commentator digglahhh, who happens to be my nephew and one of the few people who can consistently beat me in Boggle, rightly takes issue with Brookynite’s brilliant March Madness poll for its treatment of hip-hop.
But even before that, I had asked my homeboy to set down some thoughts on the subject. Back at the beginning of the month, I had read a Poynter Institute article that asked the question, “What is Killing Rap?” That article itself took as its starting point an AP article that looked at declining rap music sales. I asked him what he thought about it, and whether it was possible that it was just a less than stellar year for the music itself. The answer, he argues, is a little more complicated than that.
Herewith, digglahhh’s thoughts.
So, according to the Associated Press’s March 1st article, Out of Rhyme, 2006 marks the first time in 12 years that no rap album was among the top 10 sellers of the year. But, curb your enthusiasm for a sec, Mr. Cosby, there’s more!
A 2005-06 study by the Black Youth Project, one of the most comprehensive ever to focus on young African-Americans, shows that a majority of youth between the ages of 15 to 25 think rap has too many violent images. Additionally, in a poll of African-Americans by The Associated Press and AOL-Black Voices last year, 50 percent of respondents said hip-hop was a negative force in American society.
All the criticisms of hip-hop music have always been valid; they just haven’t outweighed the artistic and cultural merit of the music. “Gangsta Rap” pioneers N.W.A. made violent and misogynistic music, but did so in a political context, whether intentionally or syllogistically. Is contemporary mainstream hip-hop more explicit or offensive than early Ice Cube, 2Pac or Mobb Deep? I doubt it. But, the violence or expletive quotient is not the issue at all, the context is. Rap music started out as as social commentary on behalf of the marginalized, but over the course of almost three decades it has been gutted, and it retains only the graphic imagery and language, stripped of its larger social meaning. It is a gruesomely mangled carcass with no war or cause to attach it to.
It’s no accident that this shift coincides with the takeover by Warner Music and the other large media conglomerates—by and large rich white people —of the distribution of rap music, a cause as well as an effect of rap’s meteoric ascent up the Billboard charts.
When the producers of the product become detached from its financial base, they in effect give
s carte blanche to outsiders to manipulate the music and imagery of a culture. Blues, Motown and jazz, three musical forbearers of hip-hop, were ripped off all to hell and back (just ask the average Led Zeppelin fan if she knows who Robert Johnson was), but not nearly in the way that hip-hop has been. Through artists like Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington, and Marvin Gaye, these genres held their authenticity even as white musicians covered their songs and borrowed their styles. Early hip-hop did as well; but today, prep school kids in Iowa just aren’t close enough to the culture to differentiate between the real thing and a forgery. Swing down to Canal Street and take a gander out how quickly those fake Louis Vitton bags move if you doubt me…
Nowadays, any one can claim him/herself a rapper; that’s a long way from when the legendary Nas told us he was “too scared to grab the mics in the park.” Today, Kevin Federline fearlessly grabs mics at large venues.
Firmly in the driver’s seat of hip-hop music, white corporate America began to mold it to its purposes and audience. The first stage was commercialization of the music and culture. However, there is something far more insidious in the process of exploiting hip-hop than using appropriated hip-hop culture to sell soft drinks. Hip-hop artists’ self indulgent images have always been products of an art form that is ultra-competitive and strongly centered on the individual (qualities that made the art ideally suited for consumerist appropriation). But, Slick Rick’s gaudy jewelry and Biggie’s ostentatious Coogies (sweaters) don’t compare to the clownish fashions and shameless materialism of today.
What mainstream contemporary hip-hop is, and how it got here, represents the willful minstrelization of the black culture and celebrity. You can sugarcoat it and say that the art simply “jumped the shark” or became a caricature of itself. But that’s not what I believe. What you are seeing now is what the hegemony wants hip-hop to be, a destabilizing force in minority communities that glorifies assimilating into mainstream culture as opposed to empowering one’s own community. It is the reason why you won’t hear Dead Prez or Immortal Technique on the radio. It is the reason why Flavor Flav is given enough face time to help erode the legacy of Public Enemy, one of the greatest political voices in the history of hip-hop.
Nas’s most recent record, “Hip Hop is Dead” is quite appropriately named. The title track and lead single begins with the wailing of “Hip hop just died this morning.” Clarification, hip-hop did not die; like all other powerful, pro-minority forces, it was willfully destroyed. Getting rich in the process was just a fringe benefit.