By Matt Duelka
Hip-hop first developed in the 1970s when traditional Jamaican “toasting” (freestyle poetry over backing music) was introduced to New York City. Afrika Bambaataa, leader of the Black Spades, a group of Bronx youths known their role in founding street gang culture, started using electronic drum machines and synthesizers to create his own beats, rapping over them and effectively bringing hip-hop to the streets of New York. Rap battles and break dance competitions began replacing actual fights and gang wars. Inner-city violence decreased in parts of the city where hip-hop music was taking over. Hip-hop became a way of life, a way to express frustrations and beliefs without having to use violence.
In the 1980s, rappers like Kurtis Blow and Run DMC paved the way for hip-hop to become the equalizer that marginalized minorities were looking for. And it wasn’t until the late 1980s and early 1990s that hip-hop started to become a source of political movement. Artists like Public Enemy broke into the scene with a new sound—politically charged lyrics rapped over fast beats, and even guitar riffs. The song “Bring the Noise” was almost like a black power anthem, with lyrics that were direct shots at race related attacks from police officers on young black people.
Hip-hop was their means of exposure; they wouldn’t be listened to any other way. By becoming certified platinum with It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, Public Enemy proved to fledgling artists like Nas and Common that hip-hop could get their voices heard.
Hip-hop has progressed tremendously over the last 20 years, becoming, arguably, the most popular music genre in our generation. In the Billboard Top 20, ten of the albums are from the hip-hop/R&B genre. Success has come, but at what cost? Would the fathers of hip-hop really be proud of their successors? Would politically conscious rappers like Doug E. Fresh and Grand Master Flash be proud that the future of hip hop lies in the hands of artists like Lil’ Wayne and Fat Joe? Even though both of these artists have albums in the Billboard Top 20, I’m sure M-1 of Dead Prez is shaking his head in disgust at what the genre has come to.
Back in the day KRS-One and a Tribe Called Quest, both artists that came from poor neighborhoods, gave those in similar situations hope. Today, 50 Cent is the role model children look up to. And the worst part is that there are rappers still writing about important issues; people would just rather hear G-Unit rap about girls that they’ve screwed while on tour (“Girl you look like someone that I’ve done fucked before/Girl You look like someone that I done fucked on tour” from Groupie Love). Artists like Dead Prez, Dilated Peoples, and Jurassic 5 are making records that deal with the issues of today, but it’s just not what most people want to listen to.
Veteran rapper Common stated the problem with conscious hip-hop simply: “It is more difficult to try and make the masses buy it.” Bill Stephney, the co-producer for early Public Enemy albums, believes that today’s hip-hop is a serious exaggeration of the criminal aspects of black youth culture. “Not all black kids out here are slinging cocaine and shooting at one another,” he says. “What about the black kid who just goes to church with his grandmother on Sunday? I don’t hear their story in any of these records.”
Groups like NWA started the evolution of hip-hop into a violence-obsessed art form. With songs about sex, drugs, and violence, hip-hop started steering away from songs written to provoke awareness about societal issues in poverty stricken neighborhoods, and drove straight into emphasizing the negative stereotypes that hip-hop was created to avoid. Stepheny believes that the modern day obsession with the negative aspect of stereotypical “ghetto” life leads back to the mid-80s when the rising crack trade changed the focus of many youths—idealizing the materialistic lifestyles that eventually turned hip-hop over to the dark side.
Whether or not hip-hop is dead depends largely on the definition of hip-hop. As a culture, I believe hip-hop died a long time ago. When an artist like Jay-Z, arguably the biggest name in hip-hop, comes out of retirement to produce a less-than-mediocre album, you know hip-hop is on its last legs.
Even an icon like Nas clearly believes hip-hop is dead—his new album, titled Hip Hop is Dead, set to release in December. This doesn’t mean that there isn’t something else ready to be unleashed on the world though. Young Artists like Lupe Fiasco, Blueprint, and Little Brother, as well as established acts like MF Doom, Talib Kwali, and Mos Def, are fighting the trend with their own conscious and poetic takes on the genre. Unfortunately, their efforts, though critically acclaimed, have yet to begin selling like Diddy does.
Maybe real hip-hop culture has died. It’s in a better place now. But the music that once defined what hip-hop was all about is still being played, you just need to turn up the volume a little to hear it.
Matt Duelka is a sophomore TV-R major who, after carelessly pumping up the volume, is suffering from acute tinnitus. Email him at mduelka1 [at] ithaca.edu.