An Open Letter to Those Complaining About the Current State of Hip Hop
(Yes, it’s long, but read the whole thing. There’s science in this letter; and because an opinion piece complaining about something without offering a solution is just sounding off, I’ve included a “What can we do about it” section. It’s not a cure-all but it’s a realistic place to start vs doing nothing).
I want to start by saying that as a Hip Hop head since the ‘80’s, I have absolute love and respect for the Hip Hop elders and pioneers; these are the souls that influenced an entire CULTURE, and should be revered as such. As much as I love and respect these legends, I disagree with some (not all) of what has been said lately by a few regarding the current state of Hip Hop. My primary point of contention is that a lot of the music and rap they are referring to in their commentaries is not reflective of the Hip Hop culture, rather they are the by-products of appropriation; entertainers who use rap as their medium to achieve mainstream success. We must remember that while all emcees rap, not all rappers are emcees. A lot of you already know and understand this, but allow me to explain for those who don’t know: Hip Hop originated as a COUNTER-CULTURE, much like the punk culture. When Hip Hop was born, it was never intended to be “mainstream”, although there are some genuine emcees who have achieved mainstream success. The mainstream music, dance, fashion, art, etc… didn’t represent or connect with the urban communities in the boroughs, so these communities created their own music, fashion, dance, and art, which they related and belonged to. The elements of Hip Hop were innovative, creative, and sincere; they were an expression of real life as experienced by those who weren’t part of the mainstream, not merely a form of entertainment (although fun was definitely a huge part of it). As the Hip Hop culture gained more exposure, others who were not a part of that culture, from the “other side of the tracks” so to speak, were attracted to it. As often happens when those who do not have a strong sense of culture themselves encounter a culture that is rich, meaningful, and deep, they were not satisfied with simple observation and appreciation; their focus becomes appropriation.
Appropriation has happened to every counter- and sub-culture out there (like mass-produced “punk” clothing now being found in Hot Topic stores in every mainstream mall in America, being worn by suburban kids who know nothing about the origins of Punk culture). Our beloved Hip Hop culture is no exception. We’re dealing with 2 types of people here: those who are not a part of the culture who are appropriating it for fortune and fame, and those who are a part of the culture but are so desperate for fortune and fame (or to get out) that they will gladly sell-out or co-sign the appropriation. As these entertainers (I won’t use the term ‘artist’ here) gain attention and fame, the music industry sees an opportunity to profit wildly because of the major appeal of the music. The industry executives recruit these fake representatives and sign them to labels, because they are SAFE, and they won’t tell the record executives to go fuck themselves when they are instructed to dumb shit down, dance on a string, sign contracts giving up ownership of their own creativity, and perpetuate stereotypical caricatures of their people (such as over-sexualization, glorification of violence and drugs, and a general attitude of not giving a fuck, essentially painting a picture of an entire culture of vapid animals incapable of intelligent thought and behavior). This isn’t just conspiracy theory bullshit; there is a real agenda behind the mainstream. This is the role that the entertainers and the executives play.
The consumers of mainstream so-called “Hip Hop” play their own role. Appropriation sells because people who lack a strong sense of culture want to feel like they belong to something they see as “cool”; it’s sometimes referred to as “strategic anti-essentialism.” Strategic anti-essentialism is defined as “the calculated use of a cultural form, outside of your own, to define yourself or your group”. When the majority culture attempts to strategically anti-essentialize themselves by appropriating a minority culture (such as Punk or Hip Hop culture), they must take great care to recognize the specific socio-historical circumstances and significance of these cultural forms so as not to perpetuate the already existing, majority vs. minority, unequal power relations (source- George Lipsitz).
AND THAT IS THE REAL PROBLEM. These executives aren’t “about that life”, so they can’t truly recognize and appreciate the socio-historical circumstances and significance of the Hip Hop culture, therefore they have no genuine interest in protecting it. Appropriation has served to increase unequal power relations within Hip Hop (the scripted mainstream music being passed off as “Hip Hop” is far more profitable and gets far more attention and recognition than the Hip Hop culture itself).
Contrary to what many have been saying, the problem is not the “sound” of the music; there is no hard and fast set-in-stone definition of what Hip Hop sounds like. Remember, Hip Hop was born of innovation and creating something entirely new and different. Some of the change in the sound of a lot of current Hip Hop is simply evolution and expansion; exploring new ways of using sounds. There is still a great need and respect for Boom Bap and the classic sound that was perfected in the ‘90’s (and will hopefully be kept alive forever), but that doesn’t mean than there isn’t room for more or “different” as well; Hip Hop music has multiple sub-genres, and that’s OK. Remember, Hip Hop music was originally heavily influenced by DISCO music, and it doesn’t get more “pop” or “cornball” than disco, but in Hip Hop, it worked, because Hip Hop music is influenced by great sounds, regardless of genre; and Hip Hop moves and adapts because it is a living entity. Just because some old school cat doesn’t like the way a new style sounds, that does not automatically make it “wack” or preclude it from being included in Hip Hop, nor does it mean Hip Hop is “white-washed” (it’s the mainstream industry that is “white-washed”).
Within the Hip Hop culture, some of the determining factors for what is and is not Hip Hop music include lyricism, style, delivery, and content. These are all extremely important, but these are also subjective; what you consider dope lyricism may be corny punch lines to someone else, or what some consider fun might be considered ignorant by others. And not everything is going to be ‘conscious’ all the time because part of Hip Hop is story-telling, and we tell our whole story, and let’s face it, even those of us who are activists aren’t activists every damn day, and even within the Hip Hop culture, we don’t all have the same experiences (for example, the region we grow up in often affects what is “real” to us). Basically, Hip Hop is multi-faceted. In addition to lyricism, style, delivery, and content, there are objective measurable focus-points one can also consider, primarily the “artists” themselves: Are they genuine and sincere: are they representing what they really know, or are they playing a character talking about made-up things to seem legit or make sales? Who is benefitting from what they are doing: are they lining the pockets of some fat cat executive who lives in the Hamptons, or are they improving the quality of life for their families and those who are part of this culture on a daily basis? What motivates them: money and fame or the love of Hip Hop culture and connecting to those who can relate? This isn’t to say that real Hip Hop artists shouldn’t want to have success and be able to feed their families doing what they love; and we would be assholes to begrudge an artist enjoying that success. But if they are playing a character, or money and fame are their primary intent, they’re just an entertainer. If they are signing to labels that have no real interest in the betterment of their communities or culture, they are selling out.
What can we do about it, though?
Focus on the REAL artists: Instead of singling out these fake-ass mainstream entertainers and using them as examples of what is wrong with Hip Hop, why don’t we instead take to the ‘Innanet’ and comb through the underground Hip Hop blogs and websites and make a real effort to discover the true gems that are out there making REAL Hip Hop music, and start singling THOSE artists out? You might be surprised. Those who have influence in the Hip Hop community due to their success or status could use that influence to SHINE A LIGHT ON WHAT’S RIGHT, instead of just droning on and on about what is wrong. I’m not talking about hand-outs here; I’m talking about positive reinforcement. Stop thinking the golden era of Hip Hop began and ended with your prime, because it doesn’t have to be that way. Take the time to actually LISTEN to other artists outside of your inner circle or comfort zone, stop over-looking regions that have been over-looked for far too long (like the mid-west), stop excluding those ‘unknown’ artists out there who are genuinely living this Hip Hop culture, and stop being selfish with the knowledge and influence you have. If we truly love this Hip Hop culture and want to (re)gain control over it, we have to put in the effort and support those who are busting their ass to keep it going.
And stop giving a shit what the mainstream is doing – WE know most of them don’t represent Hip Hop culture. Let’s focus on our own: educate the younger members of our communities as to what the Hip Hop culture really means, take them to Zulu Nation events (explain to them the significance of the Universal Zulu Nation in Hip Hop culture), introduce them to the works of genuine artists, put music on their iPODS they may not be otherwise exposed to, sign them up for workshops (don’t have rap/production/DJing/graffiti/ dance workshops in your area? Talk to the local artists and see about organizing some). Get familiar with the local artists in your area and take the time to go to their shows/events, buy their music and merchandise, give them feedback or even some advice, post their links, tweet about them, show them that you believe in them and support what they are doing (again, positive reinforcement). Don’t just TALK about it, BE about it. Remember the 5th element: We can’t all be emcees, DJs/ producers, dancers, or graffiti artists; but we can ALL spread the KNOWLEDGE. And let’s not forget to focus on Peace, Love, Unity, and HAVING FUN.
Peace, Love, and Light,
P.S. I know you’re thinking “who the fuck is E Ru?” and that’s fair, but that’s part of the problem. So many people only listen when something is coming from someone who is well-known, and let’s face it, a lot of well-known people aren’t really saying much and are doing even less right now. I’m just an ordinary person who loves Hip Hop: I was introduced to Hip Hop in the early ‘80’s through family who lived in NY; I grew up in Hip Hop and it was my first love (Music was my first language; Hip Hop was my dialect). I’ve also been working in the industry as a consultant for the last 18 years, and have worked with many great artists, both known and unknown, and I am a member of the Universal Zulu Nation, Chakra Zulu Chapter. I won’t name-drop because it’s lame, and I have confidentiality contracts that I take very seriously, and also because I want you to focus on my words, not me or who I know. This isn’t about me, this is about HIP HOP.
Disclaimer: Although I am a card-carrying member of the Universal Zulu Nation (real Z’s show IDs) these views are my own and are not an official expression of the viewpoints of the UZN.