Hip-Hop Fridays: The Irrelevancy Of Hip Hop Lyrics
Aside from my usual intake of spiritual and self-improvement audio tapes, since September 11th, I have pumped all of the most popular Hip-Hop albums and mixtapes. From the new releases from Jay-Z and Fabolous; the no-longer-so-new albums from Beanie Sigel, Jadakiss and others; and the new mixtape series' of Funkmaster Flex (The Big Truck Series Parts 1& 2) and D.J. Clue (Stadium Series Part 2& 3) my reaction has pretty much been the same. For all of the enjoyment and recreation that I get from listening to Hip-Hop albums (more often from mixtapes than whole albums) the vast majority of what I hear is totally irrelevant to current events.
As a result, for the past week, I have been listening to 2 mixtapes with instrumentals of all of the most popular Hip-Hop songs.
The possibility that Hip-Hop lyrics have become increasingly meaningless became woefully obvious to me immediately after the September 11th terrorist attacks. Of course I place artists like Common, Mos Def, Dead Prez, Talib Kweli and others to a degree in a different category than the "platinum-plus" artists of the moment, but considering Hip-Hop music collectively, over the last five years, in particular, I could not find much relevance in the combined efforts of Hip-Hop artists (lyrically) with the most important events of today and after September 11th in particular.
Sure, there are passing references to terrorism and the evil side of this country - commonly referred to as "Amerikkka" by several artists. And of course there are the at-first witty, but increasingly tiresome analogies made in reference to what happened at the World Trade Center in 1993 and Oklahoma City in 1995. But very little in the way of commentary, and instruction, much less insight
Now I am among those who do not, at this stage, expect the same behavior and articulation from Hip-Hop artists that I look for in spiritual leaders, historians and teachers, in the formal sense. However, I do accept Minister Farrakhan's identification of Hip-Hop artists as the "world's youth leaders". Therefore I do believe that Hip-Hop artists do have a responsibility, as the Minister explained, "to take care" of the flock that "takes good care of them".
Indeed, "platinum-plus" Hip-Hop artists, materially speaking, are very well compensated or "taken care of" by their millions of consumers or "followers". As a 29-year old black male who grew up on Hip-Hop and who learned so much from the artists who "led" me from 1982 and beyond, I can honestly say that many of the artists that I grew up on like KRS-One, Public Enemy, Big Daddy Kane, Rakim, Poor Righteous Teachers, Queen Latifah, Ice Cube and Stetsasonic took very good care of me, as I purchased their albums through the years.
However, that is because I was blessed to be alive and to have matured, in a great way, from 1987 to 1991 when most of the aforementioned artists created some of their best work. But when I compare what I received from 1986 to 1991 from my "youth leaders" with what those who have grown up from 1996 until the present have received, I see a tremendous decline in not only the consciousness of Hip-Hop but more importantly its relevance, in the deepest sense of that word. By relevance I mean having the quality or ability to connect one with the context and conditions (those which can be readily seen and those which can't) in which we live.
Sure, one can say that much of the Hip-Hop that was written in the last 5 years has related to an aspect of life for some that are Black, Latino, young and live in the inner-city. But the interesting paradox that exists in comparing the two time periods, is that although the economy, communications and technology has connected Blacks, Latinos and White youth, at an unprecedented rate, the substantive quality of lyrics in Hip-Hop music doesn't reflect that type of globalization, nor do they connect today's youth with the context and conditions in which they live and the forces which are influencing them for good or evil.
Said another way: although there were no all Hip-Hop radio stations; no popular use of the Internet, e-mail, cell phones or two-way pagers; no massive bookstore chains with coffee shops and CD sections; no list of Hip-Hop videos being played on MTV in regular rotation; no Hip-Hop clothing lines in Macy's; and no televised airing of the Grammy award for Hip-Hop or "rap" album of the year; from 1987 to 1991 Hip-Hop was more globalized and relevant to its listeners than it is today, by far. While the genre and industry promoted materialism, misogyny, and graphic accounts of sex and violence like exists today, it did not disproportionately do so, or in a manner that reflected an imbalance like that which exists today.
In order to see my point, allowing for certain important variables, just imagine the reaction of the Hip-Hop community and its leading artists and opinion leaders if an event of the magnitude of what happened on September 11th, 2001 had happened on September 11th, 1991. Not only would artists have demonstrated the compassion and charity that many have in recent days, but they also would have provided explanatory power and insight to their confused, frightened and ignorant fans/followers.
On September 12th and beyond, the majority of what I have heard on radio stations with significant Hip-Hop playlists in Philadelphia, D.C. And New York in the effort to educate has largely been awkward and uninformed communications by unqualified hosts and D.J's. These hosts and D.J.s and guests weren't unqualified because they aren't intelligent. They are unqualified mostly because the music that they have played and performed and which they spend as much as 10-12 hours a day listening to lacks relevancy to a world beyond materialism and individualism and a shallow form of love that really more closely resembles infatuation and lust.
As a result, what could we all do with ice and a thong on September 12th? Just viewing and listening to the seriousness of what happened on September 11th and then witnessing how woefully unprepared Hip-Hop and R&B radio stations and Hip-Hop artists and D.J.s (in general) were in the way of offering any substantive insight on events, is an indictment on the industry and community's leadership, which abdicated its responsibility in many cases since the 911 attack. And we are not going to mention, but for this moment, how disappointing it was to see how unprepared BET was in the first 24 hours of the attack to inform and educate its audience.
Certainly R&B and Hip-Hop outlets and artists are not expected to be as deft with world affairs as a news anchorman or woman or a political scientist. But certainly D.J.s, artists and show hosts should be able to connect the artform and culture with current events. And because the most successfully promoted and marketed music in recent years has glorified an intense preoccupation with scantily-clad women, jewelry, pimping, hustling and being a gangster it was an extremely difficult task to connect the creative works of the most successful artists with current events, especially after September 11th. For that reason, some of our criticism of radio personalities has to be qualified and limited.
In June, Minister Farrakhan warmly told the Hip-Hop artists that he spoke to in New York City that they would have to begin to read the newspaper and become more cognizant of current events so that they could skillfully weave the "news" into their raps. He also advised them of how they could gently and gradually guide their fans into a higher level of consciousness. But as I listened to him give the artists a strategy by which they could become more relevant to the basic need and want of their audience for knowledge and understanding, in a manner that would allow these same artists to maintain their mass appeal, I was struck by the simplicity of what the Minister was laying out and how far Hip-hop had come, or degenerated from 1986. The Minister would have never, in my opinion, had to instruct the artists of that era to "read" and become more aware of current events. In fact, the artists that influenced me from 1986 to 1991 influenced me to read.
By no means do I think that the artists of that bygone era were perfect and I am the first of those who grows tired of the "old-timers" who think that every athlete or entertainer of a bygone era is better than any athlete or entertainer of the present. As an example of how ridiculous I think that type of thinking is, I can't think of any opinion more silly than that held by some of the older basketball fans that want me to believe that Boston Celtics-great Bob Cousy, who could only dribble the ball with one hand, is better than all of the point guards in the NBA today. When I speak of the greatness of Hip-Hop from 1986 to 1991, I do not speak with that type of romantic and imbalanced mentality.
I do not want today's rappers to imitate the rappers of that 1986-1991 era. We don't need imitation and more tired rhetoric. And in fact, part of the problem that I have with some of the so-called positive rappers of the current era is that they are so in love with the 1960s and the rhetoric that surrounded it that they are not paying attention to what is happening today. So , even though they may speak of Africa's independence movement, socialist worker's struggles, and the Black Power and the civil rights movements, to me, they are just as ineffective in moving their fans to greater knowledge, understanding, progress and activism because they are still irrelevant. They aren't using their creative works to connect their fans with a greater understanding of the context and conditions in which they live, today. Romanticizing about the 1961 is not going to raise us in 2001.
To give the history of 1961 and comment about how it is relevant to 2001 - that, is what is needed.
That is why we spent so much time writing about COINTELPRO and how it is relevant to Hip-Hop today. Interestingly, our work offended some (not all) Hip-Hop intellectuals and writers, who claim to know the 1960s inside out but who continue to write and edit for Hip-Hop magazines that promote the materialism, individualism and sexism that the men and women that they claim to admire so much, went to war against. Some even claimed that we were trivializing COINTELPRO by making it relevant to the Hip-Hop industry. But it is that same Hip-Hop industry that is currently under the surveillance of the NYPD. This surveillance is a known fact reported by MTV and other media outlets and publicly acknowledged by the NYPD. It is a legitimate news story and not a conspiracy theory spouted or concocted by BlackElectorate.com. Neither is the fact that ATF agents and undercover NYPD officers were following Biggie's car at the very moment he was killed. Of course we think that these facts alone are worth a cover story. Why don't our radical, progressive, positive and conscious intellectual "leaders" who write and edit for the major Hip-Hop magazines feel the same? And if they agree with us, why are they so powerless to do anything about what they think? What good is an encyclopedic knowledge of the 1960s if one can't see its relevance and instruction for today?
Why wouldn't The Source magazine make the NYPD's surveillance of Hip-Hop artists a cover story? The magazine is filled with brilliant writers and editors who know about COINTELPRO and the 1960s.
We were told by someone in the know, that The Source magazine was preparing to prominently feature, in its next issue, the various feuds and "beefs" in Hip-Hop, but was forced to radically change its edition after the WTC and Pentagon attacks.
The person who informed me, who is also very concerned about Hip-Hop's problem with feuds and "beefs" encouraged me, if I chose, to publicly oppose what The Source was preparing to do. I told this person that I would not have to, and that one day soon, if they did not change, The Source would soon go out of business. I told this person that people will not give a you-know-what about ice and thongs and "beefs" once this country heads into World War III. The Source and the Hip-Hop industry would be destroyed by their own irrelevancy as long as they continued to devote their resources and influence to the superficial, materialistic and sexist elements within Hip-Hop today.
In just a few days, all of those in Hip-Hop who influence public opinion, artists or otherwise, will not be able to eat from their craft unless they become more relevant to the audience that feeds, clothes and follows them.
As a sign, I think that the Hip-Hop industry should consider that the 2 weeks since the WTC and Pentagon attacks were the worst in the recent history of the movie box office. People seem to care less about entertainment when their lives flash before them and when they are groping to understand the world they live in. Silly entertainment just can't satisfy the need of the human being to know and understand in such a critical time.
Again, on September 11th what the hell could we do with all of the ice, thongs, 20- inch rims, and "beefs" that we had accumulated over the last 5- 7 years?
With each passing day the gap between Hip-Hop music's dominant subject matter and its irrelevance will continue to become more glaring. Those that adapt will become more popular, loved and "wealthy" as they satisfy the Hip-Hop audiences need to know and understand. Those that don't will become obsolete.
A small sign, for the wise, of this transition period that we are all going through was evident in Jay-Z's freestyle, which opens up D.J. Clue's brand-new mixtape " Stadium Series Part 3" :
Bootleggers, bombin', Bin Laden, I'm still crackin', I will not lose
I simply refuse
I drop the same date as the twin towers
I show power.
Still I show compassion for others - sent money and flowers,
Devote hours, I live in the struggle,
I'm addicted to the hustle
I'm conflicted because, du'(de), America, this land of mine
is filled with prisoners with the same plans as mine,
So I'm a walking contradiction,
On one hand I love my position, but easily I could have been in that prison,
And no I am not a Christian, though I believe in God
but I don't believe in the devil, my beliefs are odd.
If we the people was given freewill from God, how could He give the people freewill without giving you E-vil?
We will hold it together believe in the Roc, long after you leave the spot,
Long after my breathing stops,
My spirit remains vibrant I will lead the flock,
And that's the tip of the iceberg.
You might hear Christ's words in my scriptures,
But I only write it for my niggers.
For Jay-Z and all of us, the evolution continues...
Friday, September 28, 2001