Pop Rap versus Hip Hop

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Rap music of today, filled with the newest trendy sound and contemporary mindset, is a far cry from what the seasoned Hiphoppa would prefer, content-wise. Today’s music is the reflection of a fantasy world that exists mainly in songs or music videos, not in reality. When that reality does cross over at times, it’s usually a clash of Worlds which shows a sharp distinction between the two. In the fantasy, the bad guy gives everyone ‘the finger’ and gets away. In reality, bad guys and rappers pretending to be bad guys, get locked up after their songs are used against them in court. The mental bubble, in which rap music exists is in opposition to the foundation of Hip Hop cultural principles it was created on. The idealistic principles of Hip Hop at its core are Peace, Love, Unity and (safely) Having Fun. They are expressed most often thru qualities like Originality, Concept and Skills in rap, b-boyin, deejayin, graffiti art, fashion, language etc.


Originality was the lynch pin distinguishing us from them, Hiphoppa from non-Hiphoppa, originators from biters. Originality was a clearly observed rule at one time in hip-hop music. Concept, in addition, is what drives a person to make a song. In the beginning of rap music, the concepts were admittedly weak party rhymes. They were made mostly of catchy phrases and trendy rhetoric strung together in rhyme to keep a party-goers limited attention. Then, “The Message” performed by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, solidified the idea that rap songs could have a concept beyond partying which also had mass appeal. This became the most powerful aspect of a rap song. Rap lyrics have the ability to convey a message and provide a formerly unheard of perspective, to those immersed in the mainstream. It was a way for those in the mainstream to see what took place in the minds and lives of those in the Hip Hop Kulture. When a rapper spoke about his surroundings, he was speaking for a whole community and not just himself.


Lastly, Skills is what separates the dope emcees from the average rappers. Skills, is what makes Rakim, Biggie, Pun and Nas legends of wordplay. Skills separate those who do rap from those who should be rapping because of their gift. Skills, is the difference between a professional and an amateur. In the underground, skill is a basic requirement for survival.

Rap music today, and in the past several years, is more akin to pop music. It has absorbed the watered-down concept and fake overtones of any generic pop song. The lyrics are inconsequential and the beat that drives them are either prepackaged for modern reuse or so trendy that it only sounds good during a small window of time. This is the state of rap since the idea that “ain’t no future in your frontin” was proved wrong. This was around the same time that “fake it till you make it” became a good thing. Back in the day, “crossing over” was a bad thing, not that it always should have been, but people were more idealistic at first. Crossing over meant selling out to the popular mainstream ideology. Hip-hop music had a certain need to be separated from the mainstream in order to define it in the beginning. Its practitioners understood that. True Hip Hop practitioners during the Golden Era were always considered underground. At the same time, there was acceptable mainstream rap which was represented by the bling-bling rappers; those who talked mostly about selling drugs and getting money. In that group, there was still originality, concept and skillz exemplified by artists like Biggie Smalls, Jay-Z, Nas and Pac yet they were typical of mainstream rap during that era. One of Tupac’s main accomplishments might be solidifying gangsta rap as mainstream commercial music.


Still, as hip-hop music aged and became more lucrative, the mainstream value system began to dominate the art. So, rather than Hip Hop Kulture as art, rap became the music business and from there just business music. Little by little, so-called rappers have left their creativity and originality behind to pursue fame and money instead. Whereas crossing over used to mean selling out, some Hiphoppas realized that they could earn a living creating hip-hop products (which in itself is not a bad thing). So, crossing over took on more of its other definition, which is to become popular and have mass appeal. Crossing-over, selling out and having mass appeal are similar phrases with slightly different meanings.

In becoming popular, rap music lost what made it truly Hip Hop Kulture and settled for what makes it more acceptable to a mass audience which does not care for depth or distinction. Pop music has always been that. It is meant to appeal to the widest audience thru generic, surface level concepts which borrow from other genres. Today’s popular rap does this by borrowing from hip-hop music. This goes against the ideas of originality and concept because the pop artist seeks only to appeal to the formulas which have already proven successful. That, by definition is unoriginal. That is biting. The concepts themselves, however unoriginal, are most-times focused exclusively on the artist rather than what may interest the listener. The personal, drug-induced fantasies of rap pop-stars don’t preserve the principles or qualities of hip-hop music, Hip Hop Kulture or Hiphop consciousness, too often, so it mostly sounds like pop music to me.

During what the Gospel of Hip Hop defines as the Platinum Age (1991-2001), “Hip Hop benefits from the foundations laid in previous ages. True Hip Hop goes underground and Rap music becomes mainstream.”

Thus, to some people’s disbelief there was a future in frontin. Pop music has always benefited from the progress of other genres of music. Pop music by definition, absorbs whatever is popular at the time and makes it palatable for mass consumption. This always requires the original message to be watered-down to basic elements that the casual observer can understand. The messages are usually not very intricate, so that younger unfamiliar minds can absorb them easily. People like Sean “Puff Daddy” Combs, who received fierce hatred from the underground at the beginning, ended up a winner in the eyes of the pop music fans in the end. True Hiphoppas have always considered Puffy somewhat of a faker and poser; he hung with gangstas but he’s not a gangsta. He fashions himself a producer but is not at all known for making beats. And as a rapper, his most telling line reveals his interest in being a lyricist, “don’t worry if I write rhymes, I write checks.” Therefore, Puff becomes the proof that you can fake it till you make it. He has been able to ride a pattern of success built on appealing to the mainstream.


Seeing the example of Puffy and others, it seems financial advancement won out over idealism and purpose. Now, for better and worse we have what is called today’s rap music, developing through the push and pull of popular culture. This is entirely normal and could have been for seen by observing pop music’s impact on jazz, rock, punk etc.. The problem True Hiphoppas have with today’s music is that, it’s steeped in today’s mainstream culture more than what defines Hip Hop Kulture as something unique. Today’s mainstream rap music is filled with mainstream ideology rather than Hip Hop ideology. Mainstream ideology is pervasive thru all walks of life. Today’s Rap music is no different. Because again, “rap is something you do, Hiphop (consciousness) is something you live.” Hip-hop music started because it gave a voice to the voiceless. Now rappers use it as a hustle. Rap is something to make some money and fame off of. It’s something to stimulate a rapper’s ego, like buying new clothes and looking in the mirror. Rap is looked at as an easy income, somehow even though it’s not. The top ten songs of today, are for the most part, freestyle rhymes without a detailed concept. They more so sound good, more than mean anything.

Kurt Nice

Kurt Nice aka Kurtiss Jackson is a behind the scenes pioneer in the Hip Hop Kulture, creating the first nationally distributed video mix tape series, Shades of Hip Hop, in the late 1990s. Since touring the country with the Stop the Violence Movement and the Temple of Hip Hop as KRS-ONE’s National Marketing Director, Kurt Nice has been a constant commentator on conscious Hip Hop and its relevance to the new rap music of today, through radio and cable appearances. contact Kurt at info@hiphoplives.net

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