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My little brother is a ’90s hiphop head. At least once a week we debate the politics of rapdomwho’s got the nicest flow, the illest beats, etc. He’s a sharp kid, and I’m usually pleased with his answersuntil we start talking about history. That’s when he proudly announces that he only listens to rap made after 1992. He’s only 14, so I don’t get too uptight, and unlike most kids his age, he’ll take O.C. over Mase any day. Still, whenever he comes to visit, I blast Public Enemy, Jungle Brothers, and Boogie Down Productions until he begs for mercy.
I’m not worried about my little brotherI’ll blow out his eardrums with the old school before he betrays the breaksbut his attitude toward hiphop’s past reflects the current mentality of much of the rap audience.
Today’s fans didn’t grow up break-dancing or spraying their tags on subway trains. The best of them embrace standard-bearers like Wu-Tang Clan and the Roots but have no knowledge of Melle Mel and Kurtis Blow. The worst of them not only have no knowledge of hiphop’s forbears, they think Mase and Missy Elliot are legitimate MCs. In an article on the pioneering DJ Kool Herc, Jay-Z’s comments about old-school rappers typified the prevalent attitude: “All them cats is bitter. Always talking about what they did for hiphop and never made any real money….That was then; this is now.”
Rap has never been as self-absorbed and ahistorical as it is right now. Rappers never could be accused of being bashful, but the ego quotient of this year’s crop went through the roof. It was nothing to hear MCs brag that they were rhyming not because they loved the art but because they loved the money. Other performers were less direct, simply jumping onto the Puffwagon and lacing their albums with R&B hooks and syrupy tracks. Rappers and fans moved away from hiphop as a culture. Rap, the commercially viable component of hiphop, has been extracted, while the rest of the culture and those who helped create it have been discarded as irrelevant. Increasingly, the art is only important if it can drag a few kids out of the projects or a few kids who claim to be from the projects out of the middle class.
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Once upon a time, MCs prided themselves on being artists. Kids like KRS-One, Kool Keith, and Slick Rick weren’t the plastic creations of overblown commercialism. They were in hiphop because they loved it. Cut any one of those dudes and he would bleed beats and lyrics. They bragged and placed themselves upon pedestals, but they put the art on a higher one. Just as it does today, rap had saved some of them from jail or death, and in return, lyricists like Kool G Rap and producers like Marley Marl raised the bar and subsequently bettered hiphop.
Artistic elevation aside, in the past, rappers defended the art against know-nothing pundits. When critics charged that rap caused violence, KRS-One organized the Stop the Violence movement and helped put together the classic posse cut “Self-Destruction.” KRS primarily rallied the troops against black-on-black crime, but he also encouraged them to defend hiphop. “Today’s topic: self-destruction/It ain’t really the rap audience that’s buggin’,” KRS told the finger-pointers. He bristled at the accusations of rap’s critics, responding, “The way we live is positive/We don’t kill our relatives.”
In 1997, hiphop is still under attack. C. DeLores Tucker is chasing Tupac into the underworld and has made Lil’ Kim her new poster child for hiphop depravity; whenever politicians need a scapegoat, rap is always a candidate. But instead of defending hiphop, today’s rappers piss on the very art that pulled most of them out of poverty (or so they say). We get Biggie rapping, on Tracy Lee’s “Keep Your Hands High,” “Fuck that hiphop, them one-two’s and you-don’t-stops.” We get Jay-Z, on his new album, In My Lifetime Vol. 1, saying, “I ain’t no rapper, I’m a hustler. It just so happens I know how to rap.” Even the normally astute Common says, “Hiphop, you my bitch, and, like a Ford, I’m exploring you.” In a city of narcissistic fools, these cats are running for mayor.
What’s most frustrating is that some of these guys are this generation’s most talented MCs. Mobb Deep’s “Shook Ones” is a classic. Biggie, who before his death told the Source that he was rhyming mainly for the money, was one of the ’90s greatest lyricists. Jay-Z’s snappy punch lines and ill flow demand attention, and critics once hailed Nas as a shoo-in for all-time greatness. This generation has all the tools to elevate rap into the stratosphere, but instead it takes the road to the land of quick hits and cheap thrills.
As if irreverence weren’t bad enough, rapdom also has a serious case of amnesia. For its 100th issue, the Source polled its readers and pulled together a list of best-ofs. Of the five greatest albums, four were made in the ’90s. The list of the top five rappers included Tupac but not Melle Mel, Big Daddy Kane, Kool G Rap, or Chuck D. ‘Pac was also listed as the most influential rapper ever. Kid Capri took best DJ honors, while innovators like Grandmaster Flash (who was first to cut a record on beat), Cash Money (who invented the transformer scratch), and Jazzy Jeff (who popularized it) got pimp-slapped by their progeny. Puffy was voted greatest producer, while DJ Premier, Dr. Dre, and Marley Marl had to take a back seat.
Hiphop journalists have contributed their fair share to rap’s self-absorption. Largely out of a fear of retaliation or an aversion to critical thinking, most hiphop rags have become press sheets for the industry. To its credit, the Source recently instituted a column specifically to deal with the history of hiphop. But honest criticism is still reserved for artists who don’t sell records, while glowing reviews are given to juvenile MCs who know how to market themselves and move product. And while numerous books of essays dealing with rap have been produced, a comprehensive history of hiphop still does not exist.
To some extent, rap’s current absorption with the present is to be expected. At its heart, rap is an arrogant art, and boasting is one of its most salient components. The battle rap, the most practiced lyrical form in hiphop, is nothing more than some blowhard telling you why he’s rougher than the next man.
Furthermore, rap has yet to cultivate an audience for its older artists. Some rappers, like MC Lyte and LL Cool J, have managed to grab more mature fans. But such acts have sacrificed their grittier roots for a pop audience, and almost none of these MCs is respected by hiphop heads. A crop of older fans who appreciate a raw album from an older artist is developing, but the ranks are pretty thin. Until older hard-core MCs get an audience, rap will remain an under-30 phenomenon. And for most kids, historyeven if it’s their ownis largely irrelevant.
Still, three albums this year, one by a veteran and two by his disciples, upheld hiphop’s standard. Rakim’s comeback album The 18th Letter/The Book of Life was glorious. It finally gave the master the production he had always deserved but so often lacked. The album could become a benchmark for older rappers who still have skills but no longer have the mind-set of 19-year-olds. 18th Letter proved the existence of a fan base that will support older rappers who don’t wanna go the R&B route.
O.C.’s Jewelz also bucked the trend toward commercialism. A rugged opus of razor-edged tracks that ultimately didn’t have a hit among them, Jewelz was as raw as it was unheralded. O.C. is perhaps Rakim’s finest pupil. Like the master’s, his album painted a landscape of honeys, hypocrites, and half-assed rappers. Its brooding tone reflected the vision of a man who knows all too well about the dark clouds on the horizon of rap.
The best album this year and the most dynamic rap album in a long time was Wu-Tang Clan’s Wu-Tang Forever. Overseen by sound-wizard the Rza, Forever offered up the most complex production this year. The lyrics of Inspectah Deck, Method Man, and the Gza were crisp and precise. Forever managed to be creative and still go platinum.
This marriage of art and commerce may prove hard for others to imitate in the future. The Puffy sound has the airwaves by the throat, and innovative artists such as O.C. may find themselves out of a job if they can’t figure out how to sell records. Former hard-rock Mic Geronimo has already jumped ship, enlisting Puffy for production on his new Vendetta. Commercially, rap has hit the big time, and folks like Puff, Missy, and Magoo have become its ambassadors. It’s too bad they’ve left their country behind.CP