In the Rubble of Hip-Hop…
Posted by jeffwbaird on September 23, 2012
In 2006 when Nas claimed, quite controversially, that “hip-hop is dead,” he was on to something. One of hip-hop’s purest lyricists, Nas grew to fame in the early ‘90s through his poetic rapping and political subject matter—qualities that had become largely extinct from popularized hip-hop in the early 2000s. Hip-hop grew to prominence as the voice of disadvantaged America, but had become dominated by label executives; tastemakers prioritizing simplistic lyricism and rhyme schemes (along with incorporating the catchy choruses of pop music), and simultaneously degrading the quality of an art form.
Over the past decade, I have watched hip-hop become increasingly saturated, as pop culture continues to endorse formulaic hip-hop, typically including repetitious and easily accessible hooks, and raps using simple A-B rhyme schemes that delve lightly into a number of prescribed topics, such as the desire for fame, women, braggadocio, and partying. This sub-genre of “party rap” became widely popular in college environments, and seemed to promise any student with an aptitude for parties and a junior-high vocabulary the opportunity to earn a remunerative career as a rapper.
Through the surplus of undergraduates-turned-rappers, a new sub-genre, often coined “college rap,” began inundating blogs and steadily saturating the industry. These upstarts idolized the popular artists of the time, basing their craft off the lackluster wordplay and superficiality that dominated college radio playlists. When Asher Roth’s single “I Love College” rose to prominence in 2009, this movement hit the limelight, and suddenly students stopped studying law and medicine to follow their newfound dreams of being the next Mac Miller or Sammy Adams.
What is highly underestimated, however, is the amount of skill required to be an emcee of Nas’ caliber. If you take the time to listen to his first album Illmatic, Eminem’s Infinite, The Roots’ Phrenology, or any number of ‘90s or early 2000s records, the sophistication of the lyricism, content, and rhyme schemes is staggering. Becoming a prominent emcee used to require being sufficiently educated on the English language, as rappers constructed multisyllabic rhymes infused with alliteration, internal rhyme, and other complex literary elements. Just listen to Kinetics in his recently featured song, “Chris Nolan,” where he raps, “I spit sinister symbolism that’s killing all these silly simile single syllable singing simpletons.” Eminem has said in interviews that he used to study the dictionary as a child. If you listen to “Lose Yourself” closely, you can note that there is not a single word in the song that doesn’t rhyme with another. The reason it’s problematic to equate him to Asher Roth (besides the fact that it’s just rooted in race), is because Em rose to fame because of his pure lyrical power, and Asher made it off of artificiality.
The “change in leadership” that Nas referred to in interviews surrounding “Hip-Hop is Dead” highlighted that as the preferences of record companies have shifted, the music has changed with it. Political, socially conscious hip-hop is no longer seen as profitable, and thus labels won’t promote it. The biggest controversy surrounding this power battle occurred in 2008, when Atlantic Records shelved Lupe Fiasco’s third album for almost a year because of his defiance when asked to make a “radio-ready” single. Unfortunately, our Lupes are few and far between, and the majority of my favorite emcees are a far cry now from the substance-driven music they initially created. It doesn’t take long in the industry to understand what type of music is advantageous for one’s career, and it seems all but a few choose money over message. In this sense, rapping has become quite like corporate law; individuals work exceptionally hard to excel at a practice they believe in only to abandon their values in pursuit of a more lucrative opportunity.
I have always loved hip-hop, and that passion will always persist. But I want to live in a world where I don’t have to search for underground rappers to convince a friend that all hip-hop isn’t violent, misogynistic, and devoid of content. The reason that it became such a red flag for white, suburban kids to listen to hip-hop is that our mainstream culture assumed we were only listening to the 2 Chainz and Chief Keef’s of the world. No wonder they didn’t understand. Most critics of hip-hop have never heard It Was Written, Midnight Marauders, or Like Water for Chocolate. They haven’t paid attention to Macklemore on the new XXL Freshman List. Instead, they have seen Machine Gun Kelly and Roscoe Dash.
I’m not asking for you to agree, or to all of a sudden change your preference, but I’m asking us to be conscious of what we consume and what type of hip-hop we’re promoting when we share it. Our choices ultimately get reflected in who’s in the magazines, who’s on the radio, and even who’s getting a record deal. I’m always careful to promote new artists who have something special to share (see Kendrick Lamar, Macklemore, Blue Scholars, Logic, Kinetics, Dylan Owen, Accent—just to name a few), and I’ll continue to do so. But many of hip-hop’s forefathers are on their way out, and it’s up to us to make sure the right artists of this new generation end up on top.