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
Talib Kweli, Memories Live, Train of Thought, 2000.
I wouldnt bore the reader with a recap of
09 through the vantage point of Hip-Hopyoull have to wait for Skillzs
annual ingenious offering for that; but Ill 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 societys conscience and
thermometer (or transparent glove),
it would have to make a clear distinction between socially-conscious Rap and
prophetic Hip-Hopsuggesting 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 violencebe it verbally or physicallycan 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
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 industryvaluable property of record label
executivesmight 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 industrys 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 chargescharges which 5 years ago wouldnt stick like Jell-O
on brickbut 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 detailsthe
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
salesdue in part to the disposable crap force-fed down the throats of fansand
a growing, national backlashdue in part to both genuine angst and antagonistic
resentment (resentment of a rich, young, Black minority)against Hip-Hop.
And major labels couldnt 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 havent been explained to the insidious
intricacies of the music business. Like worms in the rain, they keep appearing.
There is simply no shortage of uninformedviolableartistsmore 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 otherto 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 Raekwons Only Built 4 Cuban Linx IIa reassuring
In 2009, we also learned that anyone
remotely critical of HOVA is an automatic hateror Jayter, as some endowed scribe recently coined. Even for
legitimate reasons like the great ones
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. Thats fine. And his
many millions also do well in convincing them the impossible is never so.
Thats 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 dont 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, couldnt 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. Its 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 isnt; 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 Detroitwholl likely blow to smithereens the first 7
rappers on your top 10 list and make mince meat of the last 3also 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
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,
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 runningor has utterly run outof 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 hasand, I can only assume, always will. The
recent National Geographic panel put together by Nas and Damian
Marleywhich assembled DJ Kool Herc, Rakim, King Jammy, and DJ Red Alert in the
same roomis a firm reminder of why Hip-Hop (and its ambassadors) should never
be counted out. So is Lupe Fiascos performance in Howard Zinns 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-Hops possibilities are infinite. And if anyone needs more convincing,
a few underground artists showed what true, collective Hip-Hop agitation looks
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.