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Did Hip-Hop Deliver, and Inspire, in ‘09?

Editor’s note: The

views expressed inside this editorial aren’t necessarily the views of

AllHipHop.com or its employees.“Reflection is a collection of memories/

Definitely: this is how Hip-Hop is meant

to be/

—Talib Kweli, “Memories Live,” Train of Thought, 2000.

I wouldn’t bore the reader with a recap of

‘09 through the vantage point of Hip-Hop—you’ll have to wait for Skillz’s

annual ingenious offering for that; but I’ll like, if only for a few moments,

to meditate on the last year and acquire your thoughts and critiques, as fellow

fan and observer, of Hip-Hop in the year of 2-0-0-9.

Almost a year ago, I wrote

that if Hip-Hop would regain its rightful place as society’s conscience and

thermometer (or transparent glove),

it would have to make a clear distinction between “socially-conscious Rap” and

“prophetic Hip-Hop”—suggesting that the latter does more than indict a society

for its wrongdoings and shortcomings, but goes further in producing usable

models and concepts to correct such society and redeem it. It was critical a

distinction be made because, I believed, with prophetic Hip-Hop, “the years of

industry-sanctioned Black-on-Black violence—be it verbally or physically—can be

finally laid to rest, and washed away over the oceans of memory. Prophetic

Hip-Hop can also help stop the bleeding begun by corporate executives of record

labels, and begin a genuine healing process for female Hip-Hop listeners.”

And, in closing, I prophesied: “A New

Year should herald a new phase and a new beginning. By the end of this New

Year, there would be no doubt as to whether Hip-Hop survives as an art-form or

devolves into the commercial enterprise it is becoming.”

Well, 1000 beefs, 2,000 arrests, and

3,000 Auto-Tune songs after, there seems to be very few ambiguity left to work

with.

In ’09, one of the more depressing

series of events witnessed was the arrests and incarceration of artists once

thought of as Teflon or impenetrable. What it revealed, which many fans and

artists might be uncomfortable admitting, is that the days of Hip-Hop artists

as Savior and Messiah of the music industry—valuable property of record label

executives—might be over. Once upon a time, a successful, commercial artist

almost had to stab five different men in broad daylight, right in front of the

empire state building, while hurling terroristic threats, in the nude, via a

megaphone, to the president and every pentagon official, before being arrested

and, if at all, sentenced to a few years behind bars.

In the last decade Hip-Hop fans saw

their favorite artists beat charges even some rich white men could never elude.

The message was clear: these artists were precious commodities, and protected

as such by the music industry’s lords of capital. Murder charges. Robbery

charges. Attempted murder charges. You name it. Even money laundering. Like an

acrobat hurling through hoops of fire, they emerged unscathed. But that era is

far gone. In the last year alone, dozens of prominent artists have not only

been arrested on charges—charges which 5 years ago wouldn’t stick like Jell-O

on brick—but also sentenced to serve multiple years.

The age of immunity is over.

No more are Hip-Hop artists granted

carte blanche to do whatever they please without excessive ramifications to

match their exuberance. And the devil might, as always, be in the details—the

numbers. How unremarkable is

it that the top 5 selling Hip-Hop artists of ’08 barely squeaked out 6 million

copies combined? In the last decade Hip-Hop sales have fallen over 50%—about

the same percentage of people, surveyed

in 2006 by The Associated Press and AOL Black Voices, that regard Hip-Hop a “negative

force in American society.” So we have the double whammy of declining album

sales—due in part to the disposable crap force-fed down the throats of fans—and

a growing, national backlash—due in part to both genuine angst and antagonistic

resentment (resentment of a rich, young, Black minority)—against Hip-Hop.

And major labels couldn’t be more

thrilled. Though they find the future filled with ever

gloomy promises, most executives understand that, with Hip-Hop artists, the

game is never over. New Rules, as

Bill Maher might put it, can always be manufactured, last minute, to bound and

gag artists who haven’t been explained to the insidious

intricacies of the music business. Like worms in the rain, they keep appearing.

There is simply no shortage of uninformed—violable—artists—more so in an age

when the political capital Rap artists once had no longer exists.

But 2009 was also more special than

others in recent memory because it produced perhaps the most depressing

catalogue of mainstream artists. Never before have there been so many replicas

of a failed brand sold to fans without any sense of remorse or shame. These I, Robots, all singing similar tunes and

promulgating equally pernicious values, were marketed as different and diverse.

Scores of artists, using the same machine, adopting the same tempo, crafting

the same dance steps, were trotted out one after the other—to the

disillusionment of a once vibrant fan-base. In a twist of unintended

consequences, though, this scheme successfully put to bed, forever, the laughable

claim that labels were still

in the business of artist development or creative promotion. Lights out.

The delays and postponement of long-awaited

projects from prolific artists like Lupe Fiasco (LupE.N.D.), Talib Kweli and Hi-Tek (Revolutions Per Minute), Nas and Damian Marley (Distant Relatives), and others, did well

to remind fans that their artists still

lack the autonomy and agency those who came before them also did. The only

redeeming moment, in terms of album releases, seemed to be Raekwon’s Only Built 4 Cuban Linx II—a reassuring

masterpiece.

In 2009, we also learned that anyone

remotely critical of HOVA is an automatic “hater”—or “Jayter,” as some endowed scribe recently coined. Even for

legitimate reasons like the great one’s

betrayal

of his old neighborhood, or the unimpressively mediocre comeback attempt,

anyone who dares challenge his divinity could end up paying costly fines. I get

it: Most middle-class Hip-Hop fans (especially Black males) over the age of 35

see Jay-Z as the only relatable voice

speaking to issues of maturity and evolvement in Hip-Hop. That’s fine. And his

many millions also do well in convincing them the impossible is never so.

That’s great. But I like my coffee like I like my Hip-Hop: Strong, Black (not

necessarily in terms of Race), uncompromising, trust-worthy, humble,

courageous, non-corporatist, and unflinching. I don’t need my coffee beans

telling me, or the Hip-Hop artists I like, how many millions of endosperm cells

it has and why, on that basis alone, it deserves all the respect (and fear)

zygotes can buy. As a well known TV and Radio host recently wrote to me, “I

just wish the ni**a would stop reminding everybody how broke they are.  All the ‘off that’ talk is real corny in an

economy where so many fight on the daily just to provide food on the table.”

An ’09 reflection session could never be

complete without the WWF beefs that had many hanging their heads in shame. Yes,

beefs sell records. Yes, many of these artists are truly tender-hearted and

simply pander to the demands of executives that they keep the brand alive by

any means necessary. Yes, far too many fans, raised on terrestrial radio and Black Evil

Television, couldn’t tell the difference between what took place when

Joe Budden and Saigon were at it from when Joe Budden and Raekwon were… well,

we all know how that ended up. All above are true. But this gimmickry crap is

one step over the line. It’s a ploy, successfully executed, that effectively

absolves labels of their responsibilities to promote artists responsibly and

meticulously, and instead uses cost-free (minus the occasional homeboy smoked

inadvertently), media-hyped supercilious spats to fill the gap.   

If this was all ‘09 offered, though, the

future of Hip-Hop might be in great peril. Not to say it isn’t; but in 2009

such exceptional artists like Jasiri X

emerged, somewhat, in the mainstream, with levels of creativity and resilience

unheard of in recent Hip-Hop history. It took a few years but, finally, the genius of

this brother is being recognized in circles beyond the neo-Black nationalist,

underground, back-pack cocoon great talents like Jasiri are usually smothered

and suffocated within. The irreducible

Invincible from Detroit—who’ll likely blow to smithereens the first 7

rappers on your top 10 list and make mince meat of the last 3—also afforded

much comfort to those who hope Hip-Hop still rewards artists with the greatest

skills and grimiest work ethics. And the ascendance of creatively engaging

artists likes Minnesota MC M.anifest, part

of a larger African collective “stormin’ into the Hip-Hop world,” provided

a good deal of promise for a Hip-Hop future free from narrowness, parochialism,

and provincialism. 

Incandescent releases by Mos Def (The Escatic), DOOM (Born Like This), the peerless J Dilla (Jay Stay Paid), Q-Tip (Kamaal/The

Abstract), KRS-One and Buckshot (Survival

Skills), Marco Polo & Torae (Double

Barrel), amongst others, helped supply some fuel of hope to keep keeping on

even when the commercial realm of Hip-Hop tells

the world the culture is running—or has utterly run out—of ideas. Book

releases by KRS-One (The

Gospel of Hip-Hop), The RZA (The

Tao of Wu) and the golden Nikki Giovanni (Hip-Hop

Speaks to Children: A Celebration of Poetry with a Beat) also brought

much intellectual provision to the table.

But a handful is never enough.

So, all things considered, Hip-Hop

failed to deliver. But Hip-Hop did not fail in inspiring me profoundly, as it

always has—and, I can only assume, always will. The

recent National Geographic panel put together by Nas and Damian

Marley—which assembled DJ Kool Herc, Rakim, King Jammy, and DJ Red Alert in the

same room—is a firm reminder of why Hip-Hop (and its ambassadors) should never

be counted out. So is Lupe Fiasco’s performance in Howard Zinn’s The People Speak,

which aired last night on the History

Channel. I demand much from a culture that changed the way millions of

people around the world looked at young Black and Brown people, then changed

how millions of young Black and Brown people looked at themselves and the

world. Hip-Hop’s possibilities are infinite. And if anyone needs more convincing,

a few underground artists showed what true, collective Hip-Hop agitation looks

like last week: http://www.michiganhiphop.com/2009/12/07/1210-mu-today-u-tomorrow-benefit-concert/.

Tolu Olorunda is a cultural critic whose

work regularly appears on TheDailyVoice.com

and other online journals. He can be reached at: Tolu.Olorunda@gmail.com.

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