In Defence of Hip-Hop
Photo by Lisa Leone
Hip-hop is in a degenerative state. Undercover infidels have gained fame by mercilessly throwing the essence of hip-hop in an acid bath, leaving a barely mobile carcass that performs dance crazes not even worthy of the 10th Step Up film.
Nas tried to save it when he said hip-hop was dead. He self-issued resurrection powers, purifying what needed to be purified, clearing the stench. But miracles only come to those who want to be enlightened. The revolution was televised; you switched the TV off and plugged your ears to something empty. Those who killed hip-hop know who they are, and you do to. Still you do nothing but enjoy this shit.
What is the true essence of hip-hop? People will stare directly in your eyes and passionately relay the answer. But look beneath the rhetorical devices and it's mostly superficial knowledge. Most have just bought into an image, whether it's baseball caps or recreational drug use. But, it's not a question that really needs to be answered. Music is there to be created and consumed and we place normative questions out of the urge to find inherent meaning in it. This is fine. The problem is implanting what a prominent minority define as worthy.
Above is a 'would be' sermon from a hip-hop eugenicist. To him/her hip-hop is degenerating from embodying social significance to something devoid of meaning. It's not a new position. The early 90s rap zeitgeist represented political militancy. LL Cool J who had previously been lauded for his cute love songs and vanity was now the active agent in hip-hop's degeneration, releasing 'Momma Said Knock You Out' in response to the hate. In 2006, Ice T said: "Fuck Soulja Boy…I know you're young enough to be my kid but you single-handedly killed hip-hop man…we came all the way from muthafuckas flowing like Big Daddy Kane and Ice Cube and you come with that superman shit." 2012, and an NPR intern unwittingly caused furore by admitting ignorance of Public Enemy. She was taken to the cyber docks. "The state of the youth today…"
At 15, rather than being flushed with 'real hip-hop' I was pouring my energies into perfecting the Soulja Boy dance (I will add that I wasn't alone). But I'm not a pantomime villain and neither is that intern. Frankly, 'I Can't Live Without My Radio' is a hip-hop classic despite lacking a moral edge. None of this points to a gradual decline of the genre. Hip-hop is not degenerative, it's egalitarian; two words that have most certainly been conflated.
Brilliantly yet painfully egalitarian, it's non-discriminatory, 'for the people, by the people'. We pollute its nature by assuming goodness should always equate to success. Idealistic rose tinted tunnel vision; dance crazes are successful because people like to dance. Limited wordplay is successful because most consumers just want to consume, not philosophise. This isn't indicative of degeneration but of popular taste. Most people use music as an accompaniment rather than a catharsis. But both modes of music consumption will always be present as long as people produce it. For every Soulja Boy there is a Kendrick Lamar, it doesn't matter which is more successful as long as there is a choice. If it's any consolation, success through ill-conceived hype is transitory. Success through talent transcends time.
Brilliantly yet painfully egalitarian, eugenicists will argue that success should evenly split lyrical and production excellence; idealistic rose tinted tunnel vision. These two elements vary in importance. Lyrical content is greater in rap battling than the DIY production. But flipping this apparently results in degeneration despite the fact that production is actually fundamental to hip-hop. For every screaming pubescent girl who considers 'Starships' their induction to hip-hop, the truth is that besides the Minaj's rapping it's a barefaced pop song because of its production.
Yes, Waka Flocka Flame's breakout single did begin with the poetically challenged rhyme of 'up' with 'up'. Again, one of the biggest rap songs of this year involves Chief Keef tenuously listing things that he doesn't like. But these songs are unmistakably hip-hop: gritty, slick, fresh; perhaps not to your taste but still hip-hop and still well liked. I'm not absolving the importance of the rapper. To be truly great you must tick all the boxes. But the genre will only cease to exist once people stop making beats. It's the scaffolding that allows hip-hop to change and progress. It's the visionary producers who see sounds as stem cells, creating and manipulating to produce synthetic rawness. The shit producers will be there too; hip-hop is egalitarian but the power of choice is great.
Brilliantly yet painfully egalitarian; the true essence of hip-hop needs to be defended. This prominent minority of hip-hop eugenicists are suffering from 'bad faith'. They didn't see the genre they helped forge being represented by the likes Waka or Chief Keef. It was meant to be Shakespeare. But it's not, and that's ok. It's strange that as critic I should be fine with mediocrity. But I have a commitment to a philosophy that hip-hop is a 'being in itself', much bigger than our limiting perceptions of it. I like what I like and dislike the other stuff but there will always be something to pick. No degeneration, hip-hop is excruciatingly inclusive but full of choice.