AllHipHop.com Editorial  

Meditations on Hip-Hop: Of Disposability, Death, and Destiny (Pt. II of III)

nas-7

DEATH

All deaths have

causes … Corpses are cut open, explored, scanned, tested, until the cause is found: a blood clot, kidney

failure, hemorrhage, heart arrest, lung collapse. We do not hear of people

dying of mortality. They die only of individual causes … No post-mortem examination is considered complete until

the individual cause has been revealed. … One does not just die; one dies of a disease or of murder.

—Zygmunt Bauman,

Mortality, Immortality, and Other Life

Strategies (Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 1992), p. 138.

Everybody sound the same, commercialize the game/

Reminiscing when it wasn’t all business/ It forgot where it started/ So we all

gather here for the dearly departed/

—Nas, “Hip Hop

Is Dead,” Hip-Hop Is Dead (2006).

It didn’t take long after Queensbridge

MC Nas declared Hip-Hop dead in early 2006 for the blowback to begin. In those subsequent

days, fans, artists, and even music executives at once sauntered from beyond the

halls of obscurity to register their firm dispute with any such notion that

this music which had dominated public consciousness for over two decades was

approaching death rattles, and on verge of chugging down the final pill. On blog

sites, forums, editorials, columns, radio shows and street-side conversations,

the brash and often crass debates ratcheted.

One side saw Nas as a prophet hammering

down jolting truths that the public deserved to hear nonetheless; another side

saw in him a washed-up pariah pulling a publicity stunt to sell copies of his

upcoming album, Hip-Hop Is Dead. I

still remember the wide-nosed rants of a few friends who, thereafter, swore

never to set hand on another Nas album. But as the debates raged unfettered, it

became clear that, whether the messenger held sincere intentions or not, the

message arrived in perfect rhythm. Eventfully, it also crosshaired the early

hours of the Southern takeover and, consequently, set off far more tantrums

than budgeted.  

Southern rappers were first to fire off,

fingering East-Coast-elitism as prime factor behind any sudden concerns about the health of Hip-Hop. They declared Hip-Hop

alive and thriving, and submitted strong protest against what they considered

the jealousy-inspired suspicions of “Southern Rap.” For them, the emerging

cries from East and Mid-West corners had more to do with refusal to acknowledge

another region’s fair-and-square dominance, than accurate assessment of a

culture on the decline, a culture losing relevance and purpose each passing

second.

(The recent, ill-conceived rants of New

Orleans artist Jay Electronica confirm this much, and so do the condescending

assessments of fellow artists, RZA and B-Real. “How has the South dominated

hip-hop for the last four, five years without lyrics, without hip-hop culture

really in their blood?” asked RZA three years ago, which provoked Electronica’s

tirade last week. RZA worried many Southern artists—and there’s standard

document backing him up—were taking great pride “representing … a stereotype of

how black people are.” B-Real, speaking with AllHipHop a month ago, ran sharper daggers through the heart of the

South, boldly assuring “there’s not that much creativity coming from there.”

And even when a few good men rise up, “[i]t starts to all sound the same. And I

think that’s the problem that’s going on down there.”)

Nas, emerging within this context, was

set up before his lips moved. However well-worded his commentaries would turn

up, many were bound to cast him by the wayside where the long list of East

Coast critics have been dumped by Southern fans and artists.

But the blowback had more going for it

than a few hurt feelings. Artists hailing from diverse regions also had

righteous reasons to dissent firmly: for if Hip-Hop, as a vibrant musical

contribution, was dead or dying, any labor in the fields would turn up futile

in the long run; and if Hip-Hop was dead or dying, any further contact with it,

in a death-detesting society (a society which treats the dead and the dying

with nearly equal disdain), would mark either as creepy or costly. Artists like

Jean Grae, East as the Empire State Building, beat back strongly—

Hip-Hop’s not

dead: it was on vacation

We back: we bask

in the confrontation

However accurate the assurances, and however

desperate the disputes, it’s clear prophets announcing the drying of bones had descended

long before Nas shook the grounds in 2006. Three years earlier, Canibus,

displeased with the current state, lamented:

From an

extroverted point of view, I think it’s too late

Hip Hop has

never been the same since ‘88

Since it became

a lucrative profession, there’s a misconception

That the

movement in any direction is progression

Three years before Canibus, Talib Kweli

saw little complexity surrounding, and recognized serious threat in the onrush

of commercialism inundating fans and alluring artists—

Nowadays, Rap

artists coming half-hearted:

Commercial like

pop or underground like Black Markets

Where were you

the day Hip-Hop died?

Is it too early

to mourn? Is it too late to ride?

This was 2000, with New York very much

astride the throne, and a very New

York artist could deliver Hip-Hop’s elegy without cranky cries splitting out

from a thousand quarters, accusing him of applying double standards or calling

a boxing match before the loser was dropped toothless. Back then, such

criticism was received with maturity, with thoughtfulness (even if fans and

artists felt of the conclusions meritless). The age of the internet wasn’t yet

upon us, and the instant-message sensibility with which many reason today still

had a few years to set foot. Stinging critiques of the direction in which

Hip-Hop was veering also failed to receive spiteful resistance because many

knew the history of the music they claimed to support, and understood without

the foot-in-mouth remonstrations of artists, Hip-Hop music, at each major turn,

had little chance of surviving with its soul intact.  

It was evident artists had driven this

cultural force off the brink of corporate infiltration countless times, and

this tradition of self-criticism, however premature the gloom-and-doom sermons

often sounded,  had done well in keeping

Hip-Hop the public and provocative vessel of social and creative change it began

as.

6 years before Talib Kweli, the

Notorious B.I.G. struck with equally lethal force—

I see the

gimmicks, the wack lyrics

The sh** is

depressing, pathetic: please forget it

And two decades earlier, when The

Sugarhill Gang was packaged and sold as the first major commercial Rap act,

many howled about this irreparable damage

to the unsullied, non-commodified foundation Hip-Hop culture was built upon.   

The South had legitimate complaint,

particularly in wake of the embarrassing disdain Atlanta duo Outkast suffered

in the mid-‘90s, but equal protest was placed in ’94 when Common, ruminating on

Rap, patronizingly accepted (then rejected) the rising acclaim of West Coast

influence—

But then she

broke to the West Coast, and that was cool 

… I wasn’t

salty she was with the Boyz in the ‘hood

… Talking about

poppin’ glocks, servin’ rocks, and hittin’ switches

Now she’s a

gangsta rollin’ with gangsta bi**hes

Whether of a regional or commercial

inspiration, Hip-Hop has been pronounced dead enough times to rival the cat

with nine lives. And Hip-Hop has each time staggered out of those coffins, and

broke free from the 6-feet mud, to keep relevance till this day. The question,

of course, never concerned the positive and affirming presence of a few acts,

but whether Rap, as the social conscience it initially burst forth to be, still

saw primary purpose as bringing fire to the feet of a society that for many

years consigned inner-city Black and Brown youth as invincible—of no priority.  

At the start of a new millennium where

commercialism reigned supreme, a new millennium which picked up cues from the

stock-market frenzy of the previous decade, many Rap fans and artists could

smell danger ahead. With record label executives quick to shelve the formulas

that only a few years earlier had assured quality music from quality,

time-tested artists, the ringing doubts of a future for Rap had good grounding.

And this fear extended to the broader musical landscape.

In Before

the Music Dies, a 2006 documentary, musicians from all callings railed

against the creeping commercialization and the corporate state-of-mind

dominating business decisions in record label boardrooms: a short-term

investment plan, built against artistic integrity, which no iconic artist—à la

Ray Charles or Nina Simone—would today have found in their interest. There

could never be a Stevie Wonder or Blind Boys of Alabama, many bewailed, because

male acts must be able to swivel their hips, keep perfect looks, and flirt with

female fans endlessly. And no Mahalia Jackson or Odetta could rise in these

dark days of pop-star musicians, whose daily routines require only a good

hairdresser, a good make-up artist, a good personal shopper, and a good

lip-synch coach. Doyle Bramhall II, a Blues-guitarist/singer, who in past years

has been dropped by both Geffen Records and RCA Records after failing to meet

set sales goals (even though being crowned by Eric Clapton heir to the throne),

recounted his many meetings with executives who know “more about Wall Street

than [they know] about music.”

By the mid-‘90s, it was clear vocals

were out and videos in. The spectacle of video could override any vocal

deficits. And any half-witted video director, with millions of dollars dropped

at his doorstep, could afford enough special effects on set that saved artists

the trouble of inserting complex plots and narratives into their work. For

Hip-Hop the blow hit harder, as many suburban teens, raptured by this cultural

force in which they found source for rebellion, “saw it as being easier to go

to the mall and pick up a tape and learn about the culture that way, or they

could just watch Yo! MTV Raps in the

comfort of their living rooms and copy the culture that way.” [Chuck D, Fight the Power: Rap, Race, and Reality

(New York: Delacorte Press, 1997), p. 114.]

Hip-Hop’s descent into the inferno of

commercialism sped up at the start of the new millennium, and while many

wouldn’t go so far as Kweli, widespread concerns rung loud. By mid-last decade,

doubts of survival only increased in volume. (The simultaneous rise of Southern

Rap—merely coincidental.) A few from the East might have harbored deep

antipathy toward acts they considered impure and alien (if not downright

illiterate!)—as many around the country, lovers of all music types, feel of the

South—but most meant well in their criticisms. They saw the musical form of

their culture suffering from the greed of corporate oligarchs whose perennial

jump from fad to fad had landed Hip-Hop in their clutches. Detroit artist Invincible

makes the point with pith in ShapeShifters—

Quality control

… Quantity is sold

Based in

mediocrity: monotony’s the mold

At this intersection, the number of Rap

records with no meaning matched the number of companies embedding Rap

mannerisms, slangs, songs, dances, and artists in commercials and ad spots, on

banners and billboards. Rappers became proxy to reach the millions of youth

worldwide who looked to them as messiahs of sorts, saving souls and offering renewed identities. Only now, rather than

inspiring young people to resist the felicities of a market society, to seek

self-discovery as greatest of all commandments, rappers had one message for

this mass: buy. Buy cars, buy clothes, buy shoes, buy watches, buy bracelets,

buy sodas, buy credit cards, buy fast-food, buy liquor. 

Am I a victim or

just a product of indoctrination?

They exploit it

and use me like a movie with product placement

In a sense, Rap artists became purveyors

of the same culture (of rancid capitalism and neoliberalism) that constantly

evoked terrible childhood memories, the same culture that had inspired so many

of those rage-filled rhymes lashing against the soullessness of a society that

calculates human worth with financial modalities. And fans, who could demand

better from artists and the companies sponsoring them, found more use nitpicking

vocal styles and stifling artists’ complex personalities. Many of them, ensconced

in the underground, refused to engage Hip-Hop in public forums.   

The underground boomed with pure and undefiled acts, and this gladdened the gatekeepers, but the

ever-narrow criteria used for evaluation never sat well with public artists

like Talib Kweli, whose music and message had to travel through all corners of

the world, beyond the isolated quarters of narrow-minded bases bent on keeping

Rap one-dimensional and inorganic—

Kweli, you

should rap about this, you should rap about that

Any more

suggestions? You in the back

… You should

rap more on beat, you should rap more street

And never ever

get your mack on, please

Others, like Jean Grae, took less casual

tones when addressing the sorry state of self-satisfaction lapped up in the

underground—

You don’t like

the way I flow: “She needs more emotional”

I’ll give you

emotion: it’s you holding your broken nose

Death, here, not only came by a laissez-faire

state-of-affairs, but also by smothering and inhumane expectations that no true

artist can ever feel comfortable with. And all talk that Hip-Hop cannot be dead

if the underground still produced artists-with-a-conscience fell flat because

Rap, in public form, was eclipsed by the commercial, corporate junk promoted on

major radio and TV stations. The face of Hip-Hop wasn’t socially conscious

artists addressing the broadness of the world with well thought-out rhymes, but

half-naked, fully grown men and women entertaining humanity with tales of

drug-dealing, promiscuity, and extreme materialism.    

MTV’s standard department could, for

instance, rebuff Invincible’s remarkable video, “Ropes,” which chronicled the

mental health trauma plaguing young people, complaining it contains “suicidal

undertones” and might be “problematic on the channel [mtvU] it was accepted for.”

But this channel wouldn’t shy, and never has, from proudly exhibiting the sick

and senseless reproductions of violence (verbal, sexual, and physical) from

so-called artists for whom Rap music is merely an economic venture. 

“Death, when it comes,” Zygmunt Bauman

instructed two decades ago, “will brutally interrupt our work before our task

is done, our mission accomplished. This is why we have every reason to be

worried about death now, when we are still very much alive and when death

remains but a remote and abstract prospect.” (p. 4) Those who hoped to rail Nas

over red-hot coals for speaking prematurely had missed the point entirely. For

of what use is a prophet whose doom-filled exhortations only arrive once the

deed has come and passed. Hip-Hop—Is Dead, Nas said. Hip-Hop, however, wasn’t

dead but losing significance; in short, dying. And the burden of restoring

Hip-Hop back to rightful place as the speck in the eye of society fell on the

backs of all those who treasured the righteous rage of a young generation

caught off from the benefits previous generations had enjoyed.

But this message failed to arouse critical

engagement because, besides resentment over timeliness, guilt overwhelmed many

who hadn’t held up their weight of the bargain. And, on this issue, the South

felt most targeted. The whole world seemed to have its fingers directed

downward; and like the murderer who quietly jumps out the back window of his

victim’s bedroom, only to discover the whole neighborhood gathered around, a

good round of reverse-psychology mixed with unqualified and unprovoked

defensiveness was last hope to bail out the assailant(s).  

“Unlike our distant ancestors and

‘people unlike us,’ we do not discuss cruel and gory matters,” wrote Bauman.

“We are abhorred by the flashes of realities we have chased down into the no-go

cellars of our orderly and elegant existence, having proclaimed them

nonexistent or at least unspeakable. Death is just one of those things that

have been so evicted.” (p. 129) For a culture stuffed to the teeth with tales

of death and death-defying deeds, a culture made sensitive from the annual

deaths of rising stars, the messiness of death-talk irritated many immediately.

Plus, if Hip-Hop was dead, the South figured, the culprits most likely would be

placed somewhere close to the scene of murder; and no other region could at the

time boast as great a regional command.   

No doubt a deficit in intelligence

prevented a good deal of fans and artists from answering the clarion call to

run faster and work harder to keep Hip-Hop socially relevant and publicly

useful. What for them marked black attire, veils, grave diggers, mud, flowers, and

teary eyes, should have inspired a new awakening and resilience of spirit and

hope for better days. The Hip-Hop Is Dead declaration, if critical thinking had

found greater use, would have regenerated effervescent commitment from fans and

artists, for as Bauman announced:

Once the diffuse

and inhuman prospect of mortality had been localized and ‘humanized,’ one need

no more stand idle waiting for impending doom. One can do something, something ‘reasonable’ and ‘useful.’ … One can, in

other words, be a rational agent in

the face of (in spite of) the predicament that bars rationality. (p. 153)

Regretfully, the decade-long obsession

with infantilism had produced such deleterious results that criticism, once

lifted over one-dimensional ceilings, shot fast above the heads of those into

whose hands is entrusted the future of Hip-Hop. God, save us.

[Next week’s editorial would attempt a

conclusion to this series, and strive to steer hope for an indecisive

future.] 

Tolu Olorunda is a cultural critic whose

work appears regularly in various online journals. He can be reached at:

Tolu.Olorunda@gmail.com.

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