Rap music has undergone drastic changes in the last 20 years. Considered the golden era of the music and culture, the ’80s to mid-’90s, is when many Hip Hop purists came of age.
Fans of that era blissfully reminisce of the days when one could tune to BET’s Rap City in the afternoons and view videos by seminal “Gangsta” rap group NWA, but then be sobered by the anti-violence message in a video by KRS-One.
Local urban radio stations would spin Too Short’s edited pimp tales and the politically-conscience rhymes of Erik B. and Rakim in the same play list. And for every head-turning, sexually-charged stage show of The 2 Live Crew, there was Public Enemy offering balance in the rap universe with their socially-conscious songs.
For some “old-school fans,” such days are long gone.
Silencing positive messages
Some Hip Hop purists argue that there was much more balance in what was seen in heard in rap’s golden era.
As one group of artists wove tales of sex and violence, there were also those MC’s who promoted a sense of social responsibility, family values, and the fervent quest for knowledge.
Purists maintain that today’s consumers are being bombarded with music perpetuating moral degradation while positive messages have become few and far between.
Today, urban radio chart toppers such as Lil’ Wayne’s “Lollipop” and Usher’s “Love In This Club” openly suggest that it’s cool to engage in sexual acts in public places.
Have major labels and distributors given up on artists with more substantial messages?
According to Hip Hop historian Davey D, the answer is yes, and it’s being done intentionally to silence strong, progressive voices looking to uplift black people.
“For some reason, people have forgotten that the struggle, and people’s willingness to oppress you, still continues,” he said. “What is going on in 2008 is connected to what took place in 1988.”
Not only did the positive voices in rap from decades past help create enlightened ideas, argues Davey D, but they also provided guidance and awareness for youth seeking direction.
Rappers became the new leaders, picking up where the black power movement of the late 1960s into the ’70s had ended. Artists successfully endorsed street gang truces and called for an end to all forms of subjugation, like police brutality.
“Once groups like Public Enemy started coming under scrutiny-and it was discovered that they were really the followers of (Minister Louis) Farrakhan, and people were following Farrakhan because of them-then these major record labels were like, ‘Nah, we aren’t going to pay for that no more,'” said Davey D. “‘We’re going to pay for something else.'”
He contends that socially-conscience rappers faced the same systematic attacks on their message as did leaders of the civil rights and black power movements.
“It showed up in the form of radio stations suddenly not playing these groups, even though they were playing them much before,” he said.
This, Davey D argues, is the reason why certain TV network programming was phased out.
“It might have showed up in the form of MTV taking their #1 show, which was Yo! MTV Raps, and just saying, ‘We’re not going to do that no more,'” he said. “It might have been BET just saying, ‘Let’s get rid of Teen Summit.’ These are touch-points that these groups enjoyed, and it allowed them to talk to the masses.”
So, while groups such as Public Enemy, X Clan, and KRS-One’s Boogie Down Productions were not outright slaughtered and incarcerated as were the leaders a generation ago, they faced a “media assassination,” Davey insists.
Even NWA, he argues, was targeted when, in 1988, they spoke out against police brutality.
“The record F*** Tha Police, which got them on the radar with the FBI, definitely caught the eye of law enforcement,” he said.
Davey D further claims that today’s multi-million dollar rappers, such as Jay-Z and P Diddy, are safe because they haven’t really challenged the system. Meanwhile, politically-candid artists such as Dead Prez and Immortal Technique receive little or no radio airplay.
Is Hip Hop-the movement-dead?
Chuck D predicted Hip Hop’s transformation in his 1990 classic single, “Welcome to The Terrordome.”
“When the ’90s were coming in, a whole bunch of different things were happening in society that rap music was answering to, which showed itself as being a diverse art form,” he recalled. “Therefore, the threat of black people having something to say, with their large vocabularies through rap music, was something that kind of threw the media on its side for a minute. So I saw this coming.”
As a result, the culture lost more than it gained, Chuck D contends.
“Because you see a few people make financial gains, [that] doesn’t mean that the entire movement and people were catapulting forward,” he said. “That’s what I saw at the end of the ’90s-somebody was defining us before we could define ourselves.”
Rappers, Chuck D added, began to do anything for money, such as glorifying drug dealing.
“People started giving drug dealers props. I’ve seen neighborhoods wiped out by drug dealers for like a 15- to 20-year period. It’s very easy to take advantage of black people because it’s been done for 300 years, and we’ve learned to love the abuse.”
Because today’s mainstream rap music relishes materialism and sexism, the music is disdained by many music lovers. That’s caused some within the genre to ask, “Is Hip Hop, the movement, dead?”
Some say yes, as did rapper Nas, who dedicated his 2006 album to that theme, sparking an ongoing debate in the Hip Hop community.
Davey D, though, says it’s a misconception to assume that the culture is dead-consumers and listeners only have to look harder for music with more substance to it.
“The consumer is led to focus their attention only on MTV and BET, because that’s all under Viacom. You’re asked to only listen to the Clear Channels, Disneys, ABCs and Radio Ones of the world. We’re taught to only look for what comes out of the four major record labels. If it doesn’t exist in these distribution points, then it doesn’t exist,” he explained.
Web companies such as YouTube, MySpace and iTunes, however, have eagerly welcomed this new generation of positive artists and their fans, providing an outlet for networking and exposure.
“A lot of cats are out there doing it on the web and all over,” said Chuck D. “They’re just not placing their career in the hands of some major corporation.”
Davey D sees this as giving artists and their messages more independence.
“This means more people are in the game than there was before. So instead of 100 groups you have 1000 groups,” he said. “You might not have been able to get in the game 10, 20 years ago. It’s just that some of these groups are now a little bit more on your radar.”