What do you call it? (Part 2 of my over-sensitive defence of hip hop)
There are times in our lives where we overhear a discussion, usually in one mundane environment or another. It might be the barbershop or the dentists but there are always a couple of citizens who choose that kind of setting to engage in an inappropriate discussion which they riddle with ridiculous opinions. “YEAH I saw it to Jay-Z rides Pluto to Pluto to convene with the illuminati, he’s the Rothschild’s lapdog you know”. A statement like this gives you one of two options. If you are wise you will simply slip on your (noise cancelling) headphones and pretend they do not exist. If you reach breaking point you will delve into the foolishness until you work yourself into a quivering fury, unable to leave the public space without getting the last word and thus missing a portion of Countdown.
Now, at times we are all unavoidably dragged into the latter scenario against our will. There is often a “trigger” which sparks the frenzy deep in your abdomen, causing a rush of blood. For me, my trigger lies in the public perception of Hip-Hop/Rap music in general and the basic and casual way in which it is disrespected. Every genre has divisions and sub-divisions…apart from rap music apparently. Rap is coalesced into one massive genre, “with those few delightful artists who don’t talk about guns, God bless em” by the vast majority. This is despite, particularly with the rise of the machines/internets, almost everyone and their embryonic sister becoming an MC.
Why has this happened? In its infancy rap music was seen in America as a harmless trend, funk and disco with mumbling nonsense. In the mid 80s the incredible levels of competition fostered by the new genre coupled with its popularity caused the almost simultaneous emergence of what are now the old school legends. The level of competition provided a monumental jump in the quality of the music between the originators and, those who were then, the new jacks. KRS One, The Juice Crew, LL Cool J, Big Daddy Kane, Main Source, Kool G Rap, Rakim, NWA and many others all ushered in vastly different perspectives of life in America for the youth. Despite how incredibly different genre wise, even at this infant stage, rap music was, it was here that the genre conflation began.
An incredible example of said conflation appears in the form of NWA member Ice Cube who, after NWA’s sophomore effort, went solo. Ice Cube is often considered as the quintessential Gangster rapper, the original talentless gun toter, when in actual fact he was arguably one of the first socially conscious rappers. His classic second solo LP, Death Certificate, was split into two halves. One half illustrated where black America was at the time and the second largely dealt with critiques and ways in which society might improve. It was a visceral effort for sure, but it was the product of a visceral time in American history, one which Cube actually alluded to on the record (the culmination being the LA Riots).
I would argue that the nature of this misinformation is one based around institutional racism and classism. This is obviously not to say that people who are of the opinion that rap music is insular and thus worthy of little artistic merit are all racists. People merely hold onto embedded prejudices which are rooted in a time where race and class relations were poorer. However, the issue arises in the ignorance of the opinion. People generally form their opinions of rap music around current music. As with any genre that has been violated callously by a record label, this is only representative of a sliver of an entire genre and only a mote of an artist’s catalogue (assuming they are not a one hit wonder). Consequently it has become acceptable to pretend that an opinion can be formed on rap as a genre through a pop lens, which by its very nature warps the nature of a genre into something unrecognisable. This is disingenuous.
Perhaps more worryingly the debate on subject matter detracts from the music itself. Rap music and artists are almost exclusively dismissed from serious music debate. Rappers are neither considered poets nor musicians and producers are portrayed as hijackers of “real” music. Now firstly, in any art form, the subject matter although important should almost always come second to the quality of the music itself. If this was the case then arguments on foul language would not be considered a talking point, particularly considering that foul language has been ingrained in the vast majority of society since human beings learned how to grunt in dank caves. Foul language and violent imagery are rife in the film industry for example. Pulp Fiction is arguably gorier than any sub-genre of Hip Hop aside from Horrorcore! Ultimately, one is not attracted to music primarily due to the message as messages are more intelligently put together by people who are paid to provide informed opinion; Ill fated forays into the political arena by some artists has produced some Obaminable moments.
Secondly, the attitudes towards the capability of rap artists are another example of opinion in ignorance. One particular event has always reflected this issue starkly. At my former sixth form music tech students were encouraged to cover any track they would like aside from any rap music. Therein lays the institutional prejudices I mentioned earlier. If anything, the technical nous required to produce rap music, whether as a writer or beatsmith, is empirically provable (I’ll prove this later). The problem and solution can be found in the cultural gap which, particularly in rap’s rise, was seen as threatening.
Today, more and more people from a variety of backgrounds are aware that Eminem is not the alpha and omega in rap; they are now aware of his influences (Masta Ace, Nas, Redman) and the fact that the artists that influenced him all have considerably superior catalogues. The internet has played a massive role in providing a great lake (or is it cloud now?) of music which is now accessible to young people of different backgrounds. People from wealthier backgrounds are now contributors to the genre and have provided different perspectives on the genre. Things are changing but as long as the media and record labels funnel their crap into the public consciousness and sell it as rap Eminem and Tupac will be considered by default rather than merit as the Greatest Rappers ever.