Hip-Hop Fridays: The Big Lie Of Political Hip Hop By Jay Smooth of Hip-Hop Music.com (October 11, 2004)
The worst thing about all these 30th Birthday Hip-Hop retrospectives is how many of them are perpetuating the "real hip-hop=political hip-hop" mythology. Like this one from Kristi Turnquist of The Oregonian:
Hip-hop Has Transformed Pop Culture -- and Vice Versa
When it first boomed out of New York's South Bronx more than 25 years ago, hip-hop was bare-bones but expressive, made by young men too broke to buy instruments. With turntables, microphones and words, they made music that, at its best, spoke out against poverty and injustice. Early milestones such as Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five's "The Message" and Public Enemy's "It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back" established rap as a new form of protest art...
...But now, with a few exceptions, mainstream hip-hop is more party than politics, defined by videos featuring artists rapping about their cars, their jewelry and their booty-shaking women -- the all-American materialism of Madison Avenue.
Ugh. What kills me this time is how Todd Boyd tries to help this writer see the error of her ways, and she even includes his quote, but still clings to her fantasy in the rest of the piece.
"People seem to routinely agree that hip-hop was political at one point, then it became gangsta, then it spiraled downward in terms of its significance and importance," says Todd Boyd, professor of critical studies at the University of Southern California School of Cinema-Television. "That is not true."
As Boyd points out, the 1979 single that started it all -- Sugarhill Gang's "Rapper's Delight" -- wasn't what you'd call deep (not with such lyrics as, "I said a hip hop the hippie the hippie to the hip hip hop, and you don't stop").
"What is sillier than that?" asks Boyd. "You can't make hip-hop into something it's not. It's not politics. Hip-hop, at the end of the day, is about beats and rhymes."
It's about beats and rhymes. Why is that so hard to understand?
Why has everyone become so attached to this fairy tale that hip-hop was all about "socially conscious" lyrics in its early days? That it was only when rap went commercial that everyone started bragging and boasting and kicking party rhymes? And that those party rhymes are inherently less valuable?
Anyone who is at all familiar with hip-hop's history knows that is a bunch of baloney. It is a lie that not only distorts our history, it demeans the art form and all of its pioneers by assuming that hip-hop is not important or valuable as a musical form and that its value derives only from the content of its lyrics, the subject matter it chooses to address.
I've said it before, and I'm sure I'll have to say it 1000 times again: this is the biggest lie that's ever been told about hip-hop.
Hip-hop is important because it is great music. Period. All the "conscious" anthems these writers exalt would never have mattered one iota, if they were not delivered within a musical form so compelling that it forced the world to listen.
Hip-hop's influence has extended far beyond the music, but it's always been the music that made everything else possible. And that music can be equally valuable no matter what topic the emcee chooses to discuss. "Ante Up" and "Who Shot Ya" are every bit as important to me as "The Message" and "Dear Mama." Because they speak to me musically in ways that no concrete verbal expression ever could.
That is the essential power of music, and hip-hop's pioneers knew this. They understood there is no greater purpose, no goal more noble for any man, than a commitment to rocking the party. It's a shame that after 30 years, so many people still haven't figured that out. They all must lead such drab and grooveless lives.
Jay Smooth is the founder of The Underground Railroad Radio Show which airs Saturday nights at midnight on WBAI 99.5 FM in New York. This piece appeared on www.hiphopmusic.com on October 11, 2004.
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