From the book – Hip Hop… Know What I’m Sayin by Kurt Nice (Amazon.com)
This piece was published in the above book, in 2012, but notice how relevant it is today.
What has the present day political culture taught us about society? In America, the political discourse is a direct reflection of the mainstream culture. Whatever values are found acceptable in the mainstream are for the most part used to align politicians with the pulse of America. On the extremes, some politicians try to bully the mainstream over to their way of thinking. It’s the same for rap music.
In 2008, the United States elected President Barack Obama after a political campaign that called for ‘hope and change’. A majority of Americans who vote, all bought in to the idea that maybe, this one man would somehow change the direction of a system that has been in place for almost 200 years. People believed, that this one man would be able to single-handedly, transform the mindset of those that seemingly lord over the masses lives, dictating the boundaries of the society we share. Well not so surprisingly, this grand change did not happen. Things didn’t dramatically change, mostly because the entrenched forces, which “run” things, have too much of a stake in keeping things just the way they are. Also, things didn’t change because President Obama wasn’t actually bent on changing the status quo as much as he was bent on compromising with the ‘powers that be.’ We may never know his true intentions, but we have all learned a valuable lesson as to what a real leader actually is. As it turns out, a leader is most successful, not when he enacts his own plan for change, but when he moves in the will of the people. A President has no power alone. The powers that have been in place for years are too far dug in, to be removed by a single person. It takes pressure from the informed masses to change the everyday operation. This is the same as it is with Hip Hop Kulture.
There is no one individual in Hip Hop Kulture who can turn the prevailing tide from what Hip Hop is represented as today, into something we all can again be proud of. Although we would love to have a savior who could lead Hip Hop back to the promised-land, none will come. Hip Hop Kulture, like American culture cannot be moved by one person. It is a nice fantasy to believe that some figure will come to the forefront of Hip Hop society and set everything right again. It would be great to have a single, powerful voice that speaks sense back in to the everyday discourse. It would be great if anyone would even listen to such a voice. That will never happen though, but so what?
Hip Hop in its best days was never ruled over by one stream of thought. Hip Hop in its best days was a melting pot of original, individual ideas. Hip Hop at its best is when there are a variety of truthful opinions and schools of thought all presenting their best skill. The collective consciousness that results is absorbed into the culture. When Hip Hop was at its best during the Golden Era, conscious groups like Public Enemy, Boogie Down Productions, Brand Nubian and X-Clan shared time with Cypress Hill, De La Soul, NWA, Nice and Smooth, Big Daddy Kane, Rakim, Salt n Pepa and MC Lyte. So in the Hip Hop collective conscious were songs like Fight the Power, My Philosophy, Fuck the Police, Paid in Full, How I Could Just Kill A Man, and Me Myself and I. All of these ideologies were not just part of the individual making the record, but the audience of like-minded individuals who shared the idea. Hip Hop in its best days was like a report of the urban mindset.
More in the past than nowadays, emcees at their best skill level, were able to bring a voice to what everyone around them was thinking. Today, rappers are much more self-centered and speak on issues that the average Hiphoppa will never experience. This shift is not due to the intrinsic values of Hip Hop Kulture however. The shift is toward the mainstream values embedded in the larger society. These entrenched forces are expressed through record company promotion, mainstream media coverage, radio airtime and venue ownership. These forces were dug in before Hip Hop began. These forces already have agendas and quotas to fill. Over time, rappers compromised and conformed to the status quo just like President Obama did in his first four years in office.
It’s not a surprise to see this outcome if you’re familiar with the transformation social movements have taken on over the past 100 years. In music specifically, new trends have always become monetized to suit the needs of the corporate machine. Just like Jazz, R&B and Rock, as Hip-Hop music became more popular, it came more under the influence of the corporate structure of the music business. In this environment, you can’t expect an individual to resist the prevailing force of the mainstream culture by themselves. Rappers, representing only, themselves, will always fold to the pressure exerted by the industry. Only emcees who represent something outside themselves can hope to withstand that kind of pressure.
The mainstream by definition is the amalgamation of previous sounds. The sound is then watered-down to conform to a broader audience. The process of dilution makes the music more palatable to audiences who aren’t used to the raw form. Hip Hop in this way, has gone through the same transformations again and again. In the early 90’s when hip-hop music became patterned after MC Hammer and Vanilla Ice, mainstream hip-hop rejected it. Mainstream hip-hop (unlike mainstream pop music) was represented at that time by the core audience, which was made up of so-called underground Hiphoppas. At the time, groups like EPMD, a mainstream hip-hop group, recorded songs like “The Crossover”, ridiculing pop music culture. Although EPMD would be considered a mainstream hip-hop group by today’s standards, in the early 90’s, the average group was underground conscious. EPMD was considered underground conscious, yet popular enough to be considered mainstream hip-hop, similar to the way J Cole and Kendrick Lamar are looked at now. They have mainstream success and popularity but use an underground consciousness.
Today, mainstream hip-hop music has shifted more toward the pop culture side. Today the average mainstream rapper is pop more than underground. Today, rap music is the reflection of those who desire mainstream success almost exclusively. The lifestyle envisioned by rappers in 2012 (or 2016), is built on a dream of fame, money and excessive self-indulgence, a pattern far removed from the ambitions outlined in the earlier days of rap. Still, the Golden Era was not all void of those wishes. People always had a craving for financial success and celebrity status. What plagues rap music nowadays, is a lack of direction. In rap’s infancy (1970’s), there was a desire to be recognized and confirmed. There was an overt focus on defining ourselves as a culture during the 80’s and early 90’s that was achieved sometime during the second half of the 1990’s. Sometime soon after 1994, Hip Hop Kulture subconsciously recognized that we had made it.
Maybe it was due to the number of Hip Hop influenced mainstream branding innovations that became popular. The movies, television commercials, fashion changes in mainstream culture, language and of course, the huge sums of money Hip Hop related products began to generate. It wasn’t stated publicly or in a press release to all the news outlets though. There was no big party for Hip Hop. After all, there was no Hip Hop board of advisors to call for a press conference. Individually, Hiphoppas began to taste success throughout the 90’s like they had never seen before. Independently, a new strategy of how to succeed in the industry developed. The strategy was about manufactured controversy and celebrity beef. One of the worst lessons learned from the East-West controversy was that one could achieve fame through stirring up drama with another artist. Since that time the number of contrived ‘wars’ is too numerous to keep track of.