Now that the Jesus of the genre has been so kind as to drop his instant classic, Thank Me Later (the obvious, hands-down winner for album of the year) it is time for the rest of the industry to step it up or face some of those harsh realities that 50 Cent once warned us about. Hip-hop, as we knew it, may be in need of a funeral service. Nas, being the prophet that he is, called it in early in 2006, but the doctors are now giving up hope and sending for the coroner. Let me tell you how I know: There was a time (specifically 2006) when things were getting so bad that Nastradamus proclaimed that it was all over. The difference was that there was someone left to dissent. And that is what we have lost.
After a while, the voices of the people who wanted to see hip-hop survive got drowned out by those who didn’t really care about the music, the culture, the people, or really anything besides the damned money. What happened to us? We used to stand for something. But the entire rap genre has somehow transformed into a corporate liaison where albums are audio commercials for brand name clothing, jewelry, alcohol, and vehicles. Concerts have become the catwalk for these airheaded clowns to parade themselves and their crews around in the items that are available for sale. Have we really gotten to the point where the stuff you hear on the radio is actually what we’re all about? Do people really pay money to see Drake perform? Is it really possible that labels are bankrolling blogs? Something is rotten, word to Hamlet.
But this morning, it hit me. That isn’t death in the true sense. In reality, the inception of hip-hop was the beginning of a movement that represented a culture of lack. This thing that we love is the auditory representation of the people that it caters to. It was the music of the “have-nots” but we have seen it bent, stretched, morphed, and disfigured to encompass the many people who wanted the style without the struggle. And that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Hip-hop doesn’t have to always be grimy. It doesn’t always have to be about life in the street. But what it must be, by necessity, is representative. It must embody the state of its people.
When cruising the troubled blocks of Los Angeles’ city streets listening to 2pac, one can see and feel the culture. If you happen to be on the right block, the same is true of the New Boyz as youngsters in the Fairfax district “Jerk” to their heart’s content in acid-washed skinny denim . A few years ago, looking out onto Lake Michigan and rubbing shoulders with Chicagoans, I could genuinely feel that College Dropout was truly the music of people. Sadly, I can’t say the same about much of the music by many of the artists that attempt to live under the hip-hop banner today. I would argue that the inordinate number of drug kingpins who are allegedly trafficking kilograms of cocaine daily at wholesale rates according to self-aggrandizing mixtape lore (See: Trap or Die) represent a farce that relates to hip-hop but is so far from true that the hyperbole is laughable and embarrassing (Bawse). The same is true of the non-criminal braggadocio of the highest success stories of the urban music scene. Maybe one day, rapping about international flights that garner millions of dollars in purely legitimate profits will be generalizable to this culture of ours. But that day is not today; not in the America where an oil spill was the biggest thing to hit the trap since Katrina.
In truth, the music that most call Rap or Hip-hop today is actually Pop, Top 40, or Club/Dance music. And sadly, even within that genre, it is still less representative of its people than that of Lady Gaga, The Ting-Tings, Miley Cyrus, and David Guetta; all of whom actually sing about situations that could legitimately happen to a person (if they were a sophomore in High School) and don’t aspire to do anything more than make people dance.
But don’t stop reading just yet. There is a silver lining.
The fortunate side effect of rebranding fake rappers as pop artists is the same as blowing away chaff to reveal the wheat. Hip-hop, the remainder after we divide the fake from the authentic, is alive and well. If you believe KRS-One, we will be here forever (and ever) but if you need a little more assurance than that, I have a plan. Much like the blowback against Wal-Mart when people became informed of their business practices, I think that we will find that the way to combat being force-fed the empty falsehoods of the corporate, urban music landscape is to buy local. Imagine the impact on your favorite local artist if your region had decided to spend its 13 dollars on their project rather than squandering it on a pretty package of lies from across the country. I bet his next LP would be easier to find at Best Buy.