Is Hip-Hop a Dying Breed?
February 26, 2013
Gone As We Know It!
Hip-hop was born in the boroughs of New York, the child of a looped Disco break-beat and a microphone. No Pro Tools, Auto-tune or Beats headphones — hip-hop in its heyday required four simple things: lyrical dexterity, tight flow, a good beat and some swagger.
The wonderful and problematic thing about these four aforementioned characteristics is that there is no specific way to go about accomplishing them; it is simply about the right combination. This allows for the upmost creative experimentalism (i.e. Kanye West.) That’s the wonderful part. However, a$er more than %& years of hip-hop, no one really knows what the genre is anymore. I mean, who is to say “It’s Goin’ Down” by Yung Joc isn’t the same kind of hip-hop as “Dead Presidents” by Jay-Z?
Before the hip-hop heads reading this get mad, let me say this — I am, at heart, a hip-hop purist. I can’t stand the recent trend of Electronic Dance Music-infused rap or the “music” put out by Chief Keef. “at being said, I love Kanye. He’s a genius. I bump Drake, yell “2 chaiiinnnzzz” whenever applicable, quote Rick Ross when I text my mother and I
even — gasp! — know most of the words to Trinidad Jame$ “All Gold Everything.” Hip-hop as it was once known is no longer relevant today. Like Nas said, hip-hop is dead. Just look at the top ten hip-hop songs on iTunes. The first is about going thrift shopping, the sixth is more EDM than Eminem, and the seventh features the lyric “Got a pocket full of dead prez / Attached to your girl like a .jpeg.”
Okay, you say, sure, 2 Chainz is no Big L, and maybe quality has suffered a tad, but hip-hop is still huge! Flo Rida has had five top ten hits in the last three years! Nicki Minaj managed to go platinum in the Spotify era! If you know your hip-hop, however, you know that both Flo Rida and Nicki Minaj began as legitimate hip-hop artists and now the genre of the music is questionable.
Flo Rida grew up working with rappers in the Miami scene like Trick Daddy and Brisco, while Minaj came up in the mix tape world and was known as a #erce battlerapper in Queens. Yet, the songs you hear on the radio from these two don’t sound like their early work. They have names like “Wild Ones” and “Va Va Voom,” and are more likely to be played at a Bar Mitzvah than in Dade County or Queens.
Hip-hop isn’t popular anymore. Society has moved on. The most commercially successful rappers are, for the most part, no longer making rap music. Doesn’t that say something about the genre as a whole? I loved Watch The Throne, but from a purely hip-hop standpoint, the album was not rap. Yes, Kanye and Jay-Z rapped on the album, but they did it over dubstep, and sure they went on a wildly successful and mind-blowing tour, but they did it with Kanye wearing a kilt.
It has become clear that true hip-hop as an art form is losing its commercial relevance. To be honest, if Biggie were to release Ready to Die right now, it would get good reviews, but I can’t say with confidence that it would sell millions of copies. I want back the introspectiveness of Black Star, the crime-tales of Wu-Tang and the coke-rap of Clipse. Why is it that Dr. Dre hasn’t released Detox? His first two albums, The Chronic and 2001, both classics, were huge hits, but both came at times when rap was the popular genre in America. In 2010, Dre tested the waters by releasing “Kush,” a West Coast-!avored song featuring Snoop and Akon, as the first single. It peaked at #34, on the Billboard 100. Then, he released “I Need a Doctor,” a sappy mess with Skylar Grey and Eminem that sounded like every other song on the radio. It hit number #4.
Now, I’m not going to say that hip-hop is totally a lost cause. Kendrick Lamar went #1 with a near-classic debut. Younger rappers (Joey Bada$$, Big K.R.I.T., Freddie Gibbs) and older rappers alike (Pusha T, Big Boi, Nas) still continue to release quality music. But I will say that hip-hop is no longer hip-hop. People don’t want Get Rich or Die Tryin’ or Reasonable Doubt anymore. They want Pitbull. Rappers don’t freestyle battle anymore. They fight on Twitter.
Hip-hop as it was once known is gone and irrelevant, but in its place has come countless sub-genres bearing the ancestral name. I have the same last name as my grandfather, but I am sure not reminiscent in the least of a Jewish-Russian immigrant that worked as a milkman. Hip-hop is the same. If Afrika Bambaataa is the milkman, then Kanye, Drake, and even Flo Rida are his distant descendants, the only connection to their heritage being the name of the genre they’re grouped under.
Speaking The Truth
If success can be measured by its diversity of meanings, then hip-hop has achieved success. Hip-hop is one of those fine arts: gra-ffii, break-dance, DJing, rap, dropping science—that is, philosophy. Hip-hop is also a community style: swagger, dress, language, belief. Hip-hop is poetry, music videos, fashion, advertising. #HIP-HOP is a hashtag. Hip-hop is a teacher, unfurling radical lessons and proud ways of living in the world. Hip-hop is necessary, speaking truth to power in a world where dissident voices are not silenced, but simply ignored.
Hip-hop was originally an artistic response to abandonment politics. It was born in New York in the 1970s, after city planner Robert Moses displaced hundreds of thousands constructing the Cross Bronx Expressway, then packed homeless families into a series of new housing projects in the South Bronx.
Ignored by city planners and elected officials, youth of color responded through art. At parties in the late 1970s, a Jamaican kid who called himself DJ Kool Herc quelled gang violence and invented the hip-hop beat by playing two of the same record against each other, extending the moment when the melody gave way to drums. In 1980, Kurtis Blow’s song “The Breaks” defined the metaphor at the center of hip-hop culture, which remixed destruction and turned it into resistive art. Blow’s lyrics described a city’s worth of bad breaks: “If your woman stepped out with another man (that’s the breaks, that’s the breaks) and she runs off with him to Japan (that’s the breaks, that’s the breaks).” But the song also asked its listeners to shake off these bad breaks by dancing it off—breaking it down—to the break beat. This was, and still is, the hip-hop ethos, as novel in the ‘80s as it is necessary today: struggle remixed into self-expression.
Rap’s genius is often mistaken for its sin. Rap spins tragedy into artistry using metaphor. Consider Biggie Smalls’s “Gimme the Loot” (1994), a song ostensibly about robbing but really about rapping. Spitting fast and hard as an automatic weapon, Biggie calls out, “Motherfuckin’ right, my pocket’s lookin’ kinda tight!” Filling his pockets with victims’ money is less important here than stacking the beat: thus boasting about Big’s flow. He fits thirteen syllables into a single four-beat line, loading up not just the musical beats but the “pockets” in between them. Also consider Lil Wayne’s “Mrs. Officer” (2008), which on the surface is a kind of porno revenge fantasy in which the rapper seduces the female cop who pulls him over. But soon Wayne is the one in charge: “Now I’ve got her howlin’, soundin’ like a siren, somethin’ like, Weeoo-wee-oo-wee…Like a cop car.” Already, by likening a female police officer’s cry to the howling sounds of a siren, Wayne has parodied the ubiquitous sound of sirens in the backgrounds of so many rap songs, and, we can infer, in the background sounds of ghettos nation-wide. By seducing the “lady cop,” Wayne is performing control over state surveillance of young black men like him. When the lady cop tells Wayne to “Fuck the police,” Lil Wayne is playfully positioning himself in a long line of protest rap that dates back to NWA’s 1988 song of the same name. Wayne’s sexual imagery is actually a comic send-off of police brutality and abuse of young men of color.
I’ve limited my close readings to rap music, but all five elements of hip-hop are as important today as they’ve ever been. In the United States, the new generation of emcees coming of age is the most diverse cohort we’ve ever seen: Kendrick Lamar, Azaelia Banks, A$AP Rocky, Macklemore, Tyler the Creator, Kreayshawn, Big KRIT. And many more rappers are spitting their truths all over the world. During the Tunisian revolution, rappers El General and Baiti used their words to criticize an inept government and encourage their brothers and sisters in the streets. In Egypt, graffiti writing has been a strong and visible mode of resistance and revolution, even as around the world street art is being treated as fine art in museums and with commissioned murals. In New Zealand, young break-dancers have fused break-dancing with Maori rites, and worldwide the DJ may be eclipsing the vocalists and musicians as musical front men. In the US, hip-hop has stormed the classroom, allowing professors and students to learn directly and collaboratively with the artists and rappers who have been dropping science for over a generation. Courses in hip-hop arecurrently offered at universities across the country, and Arizona State has just created a hip-hop minor. Rap is a voice of protest against urban ills: gun violence, political repression, mass incarceration, abandonment of public works, complacency. And as long as these issues continue unchecked by those in charge, hip-hop artists will continue to spit truth to power-confronting stereotypes and half-truths with their art.