The other day NME had an excerpt from an upcoming coffee table book by producer Pharrell Williams in which Jay-Z was interviewed. Here’s that excerpt:
‘Hair bands’ dominated the airwaves and rock became more about looks than about actual substance and what it stood for – the rebellious spirit of youth….That’s why ‘Teen Spirit’ rang so loud because it was right on point with how everyone felt. I have always been a person who was curious about the music and when those forces come on the scene, they are inescapable. Can’t take your eyes off them, can’t stop listening to them. He was one of those figures. I knew we had to wait for a second before we became that dominant force in music. It was weird because hip-hop was becoming this force, then grunge music stopped it for one second, ya know. Those ‘hair bands’ were too easy for us to take out; when Kurt Cobain came with that statement it was like, ‘We got to wait awhile’.
Jay-Z is making quite the statement there, but it’s not entirely accurate. Dr. Dre’s The Chronic came out in 1992 and Nas’s Illmatic came out in 1994. Hip hop didn’t wait a while, they were there and they were talking about the things that made a difference in the inner city. Hip hop was talking about things that were prevalent in the inner city and that people within the inner cities could relate to. Yeah grunge came and kind of pushed things to the back burner, but it didn’t kill it, it enhanced hip hop.
At least for a while it did. Then the wheels sort of came off. It stopped being about those people in the inner city and started being about how much money individual rappers made. It went from being wholly relatable to the average person to being completely unrelatable, except to the one percent. Take for instance the Rick Ross interview in Rolling Stone where they go to a restaurant in Miami and engorge themselves on seafood, steak and champagne. Is this what Jam Master Jay, Tupac and Biggie died for? Is this the legacy of hip hop?
There was always an undercurrent of drug use, but it wasn’t the sole topic, it just facilitated the rap game. Rappers used to talk about crack in the inner cities. They used to talk about how it was ruining their neighborhoods, their lives, their families and putting their friends in jail. The ‘80’s explosion of crack in the inner city, which many think was caused by the CIA’s funding of the Sandanistas in Noriega-controlled Nicaragua and thus pushing it to drug dealers, created rap into a modern day folk music. Like Woody Guthrie singing about Depression-era troubles, the hip hop artists of the 1980’s were talking about police brutality, the need to rise up against a system that had oppressed them for over 200 years and the knowledge that drugs in the inner city were turning people against each other. Black on black crime was at an all-time high and the drug trade was as well.
To think now that those little rocks could create such a devastating effect is mind boggling, but it was the hip hop community that captured that devastation. Then hip hop went mainstream and that all changed. The violence was glorified more than ever and the inner city was shunned for speaking of the riches of being a super star. Jay-Z is now a mogul, Snoop Dogg went from being accused of murder to being revered by housewives and Dr. Dre created Beats by Dre. I’m not complaining about their successes; these are men that pulled themselves up and made something of themselves. That is to be commended, because they achieved the American dream. However, by achieving that dream they’ve distanced themselves from their roots. They haven’t forgotten where they’ve come from, but with so much distance it’s hard to relate anymore to the dealer, the poor or the junked out unemployed person.
The inner city hasn’t just been forgotten by politicians, but in essence by the hip hop community as well. Some of the best rappers today have no experience living those circumstances. Two of today’s best rappers, Theophilus London and Wiz Khalifa have no experience with the inner city at all thus their life experiences differ dramatically from those that spoke of escaping the crack game. It’s a double edged sword. On the one hand it’s nice to see rap diversifying itself, but on the other there is no more of what they called gangster rap. It doesn’t exist and really “gangster rap” label was just a moniker created by politicians to make it scary to the average white bread WASP anyway.
Much like folk music was bastardized in the ‘60’s rap is today. The icons have either been killed or have become so financially bloated that they no longer can speak to the nature of the inner city. Thus today we have a genre that is quickly fading into obscurity. Rap is now pop, an all-encompassing genre of shit that exists to merely cater to the masses by being inoffensive. Being offensive, being edgy, being something that scared people into action was what made rap important and today as we look over the carnage left behind we see the embers of what was once a great movement. We see, perhaps not the death, but certainly the disabling affects of a genre so consumed by riches that it has forgotten about where it came from. Rap has lost its identity and the sadness that comes along with that loss should reverberate into your souls.
This identity crisis is what comes with such a fractured divergence of talent, but also of goals. This isn’t evolution it’s devolution. Once the Fresh Prince came on the scene, people realized rap could be inoffensive, funny, and even catchy. There can be two plains for rap, but those plains don’t exist today. It is all about getting girls, smoking weed and getting rich. What happened to talking about the lives of everyday people suffering under the hands of a police force that was set on keeping them under their totalitarian thumb? The edge that rap once had is dead and if it ever comes back I wonder will anyone notice?