Words by Tony Grands
Believe it or not, there was a time when rappers went out of their way to make socially conscious music that contained positive, motivational messages and lessons for the listeners.
While not all of these artists focused on a singular aspect of uplifting the community-at-large, collectively, the goal was to wake the sleepers and open the 3rd eyes of the Hip Hop culture. If anyone in close proximity happened to intercept bits of knowledge and wisdom as well, so be it. Back then, we didn’t discriminate who caught the jewels that were tossed.
Hip Hop acts were making songs about how much they love their mothers (and some, their fathers), and how good it felt to be a Black. Rappers were dancing and edutaining the audiences. MCs hit the studio and cranked out radio-playable joints about knowledge of self, and the importance of reading between the lines. In fact, my buddies and I wore Ankhs, beads, and African medallions (all of which was supplied by the Korean owned Slauson Swapmeet), trying as hard as we could to be the rebellious young stormtroopers that the music was inspiring us to be. We were yelling “Fight the power!” and “Fuck the police!” because that’s what the music was teaching us. That’s what the music was showing us.
Mainstream America hadn’t yet embraced rap music and Hip Hop culture, but the rest of the world did. For what it’s worth, rap music had become a selling point. TV, movies, sporting events. It was everywhere, because people respected it as art. Living art. Shiftless. Formless. Able to be anything at any moment. Go back and look at episodes of Martin and Married With Children. Two distinctively contrary shows, yet both male teen characters’ bedroom walls were rife with Hip Hop culture. Bart Simpson even had a nominally popular rap song. A quick glance at the types of shows on network television during the 90s will give you a clue or two about the warm reception that Hip Hop received on virtually all levels of real-world coexistence. The good ol’ days.
So what happened? Why the rift? When did everyone else stop loving Hip Hop like we did and still do?
In my opinion, somewhere around that time Suge Knight and Sean Combs respectively injected hip hop culture with a dose of gangstafied consumerism, we stopped telling stories. Stopped spreading good news. Stop dancing. Stopped educating. Hell…in some cases, we’ve begun to stop using complete words and sentences in the music. We stopped making records about unity and community and started supplying anthems for urban terrorism and self-sabotage. Not all, because exceptions exist for every rule, but a nice, healthy handful.
Where there were once DJs standing behind the rappers were now random, menacing shadow figures holding guns and bottles of colored liquid. Glorification of brotherhood and black power were replaced with gospels of gang violence and “gettin’ money.” The songs that once made us want to sing and celebrate life now seemed only to fan flames of organized confusion that are much easier to excite than extinguish.
Not to mention, love songs — in R&B and in rap — appeared to disappear. Or more appropriately, got steamrolled by songs saturated in lust, in effect becoming anti-love songs (yes, I’m looking at you Alsina).
All the while, the influence was/is spreading around the world, thanks to the Internet.
The only people who seem to respect the culture in 2015 (and beyond) are those that are benefitting from the gruesome bastardization that put it in this position in the first place. The average fan — dependant upon the age — may be losing or has lost respect for the music, and yet, oddly, the music and the culture (let’s just call it “the experience”) is more popular than it ever was. This puts older fans and self-appointed aficionados and keyholders in the dubious position of choosing a side. Either stand loyal to the old-ish school that paved the way through a solid foundation of cultural structure, or roll with the new kids on the block, who seem to subsidize rap money with drug revenue and self-agrandized tales of strong-arm robbery with little regard to the history of rap music.
Much to the chagrin of some family, plenty friends, and a few contemporaries, I find myself siding with the new school more than my roots. Perhaps it’s because I have teenage kids, and in an attempt to either out-cool them or keep up with their frenetic generation, I’m more drawn to the snap-crackle-and-pop of today’s microwave music. Snack rap, if I may. What it lacks in caloric, metabolic value it makes up for in momentary appetite suppression…and I’m oddly okay with that. The 38-year-old rap fanatic in me will always hold tight to the yesteryear that carried my musical affluence thus far, but I feel like I’d be short-changing myself if I turned a blind ear to what the future of my beloved culture sounds like. Even if I disagree with its placid, vapid messages and shake my fist whilst I pump up the bass simultaneously. It’s a fine line I walk, but at this point, I know no other way.
The dichotomy of being a grown-up rap fan/Hip Hop cultural enthusiast is hilariously real. And as long as I’m not forced to sit in the back of the proverbial bus, continually re-living Hip Hop’s civil rights movement, I will continue to walk that fine line. It’s kinda like forever taking a rap game field sobriety test, if that visualization makes any sense…
My brother and I got into a conversation about what my opinion of DJ Premier and Royce Da 5’9″‘s group PRhyme was, and I told him I hadn’t heard any of their songs because I’d been too busy listening to Rich Homie Quan and Young Thug’s greatest hits. He didn’t think it was as funny as I did, but the truth usually isn’t very funny at all. I take my music seriously, even if it doesn’t seem to take itself seriously most of the time. That lackadaisical attitude has matured into a self-sustaining force, it quite frankly, Hip Hop doesn’t need ANYONE else to take it seriously but itself. This may be a time to wrangle the power from whatever invisible hands that are currently plucking the puppeteer strings, or not. It’s really up to you.
I did eventually get around to listening to PRhyme, in case you’re wondering, so there’s that.
Words by Tony Grands
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