Listening to the new T.I. album made my heart heavy. The album has some of the best introspective songs and personally moving music I have heard in years but at the same time is a mess in terms of scattered subject matter and song placement (which I think is a symbol of the lack of focus in his career). Ever since his legal issues intensified in October of 2007 I have expected that T.I. would mature as a person and artist and we have seen evidence of that in much of the community work he was forced to do, and that which he voluntarily sacrificed to do, since that time.
Equally true though are the obviously self-inflicted wounds and inconsistent commitment to maturity in his creative work. I believe he had a chance to do something very powerful musically but to date has fallen short, I imagine partly because of the usual pressures to be marketed in a certain way by industry folks who still believe that corporate radio and cable video outlets are how you make and maintain star power. With people thinking like that around them no artist will ever ‘take chances,’ creatively or ‘do for self.’
T.I.’s career and personal life – like so many others in rap music – scream out for guidance and I hope that he will seek that and accept that as soon as possible.
He is a born leader, with incredible talent and I believe a heart full of love for people. His best days are still ahead of him, I think.
For years people have asked me why rap is in the state it is – in a negative sense – in terms of the immaturity of its lyrical content, the lack of innovation in its sound (until very recently), and the inability of its music to generate radical and truly progressive mass movement.
There are three primary reasons I give:
1) Immaturity is bred into the very culture by marketing and advertising influences
2) The culture (especially the ‘conscious’ and political wing) has an economic blindspot and in self-defeating ways is even anti-entrepreneur and Hip-Hop media forfeits coverage of its business side to others outside of the industry
3) There is no institutional memory, mentoring or guidance that the younger members of the culture and industry inherit from the older members, from decade to decade.
On the first point I explain the problem thoroughly in my ‘17-Year Old as the God of Rap’ (https://allhiphop.com/stories/editorial/archive/2010/03/24/22153820.aspx).
On the second point I elaborate in my ‘The Decline of The Conscious M.C.: Can It Be Stopped?’ (https://allhiphop.com/stories/editorial/archive/2010/08/03/22319386.aspx)
The final point is perhaps the key to solving the first two and I have decided to approach it in two ways: with this weekly Hip-Hoppreneur column and through my consulting business – both of which have and will hopefully encourage and groom a new caliber of consumer and artist – entrepreneurial, creatively progressive and activist in nature.
The third problem – the lack of a transfer of institutional memory, mentoring and guidance from one generation to another – is something I think of every time I see or hear Chuck D. (http://www.publicenemy.com/) He is, to me, the best we have ever produced in terms of balancing love for the culture and the people who produced it without losing an appreciation for the business side of the game, and just as importantly – the need to stay current on technological change.
Yet, he is not respected or sought after as he should be to give the culture and industry the benefit of what he has to offer. Some, are even afraid to seek his counsel out of fear of being politically incorrect or labeled in a way that would hurt their chances for advancement in major power centers.
[In some ways Chuck D. is from the Hip-Hop perspective what James Mtume is from the era of Soul music – an individual willing to share his knowledge with others and defend the purity of the art form without condemning those who are younger who take the music in different directions, creatively.
For an example of how it is done watch how James Mtume recently handled music critic and New York Daily News’ columnist Stanley Crouch in a public debate. The footage is properly titled on YouTube, “Composer James Mtume Destroys Jazz Critic Stanley Crouch in a Debate about Miles Davis”: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4OLqid9RABs]
What makes Chuck special to me is that as much as he is political and activist in outlook, he is still a fan and one who appreciates the art form. He doesn’t allow his ideology to cause him to dismiss or diminish the work of others who may not think the way he does.
All of these qualities were on display when he recently shared the following in the Financial Times in an article on what sets the best rappers apart.
“My own history in hip-hop goes back decades. I started out in 1979 as a mobile DJ/MC under a crew called Spectrum City in Long Island, New York. The content of my rhymes was heady because of what I knew. I’d been influenced by big voices like Melle Mel of Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five. I studied the rhymes and rhythms that worked and tried to incorporate my voice and subject matter in a similar manner. I had to be distinct in my identity to propel me beyond the pack.
Lyricism is vital to rap, and because rap fuels hip-hop, this means that lyricism is vital to hip-hop culture as a whole. A rapper who really wants to be heard must realise that a good vocabulary is necessary. Something should separate a professional rapper from a sixth-grader; lyricism does that. Even when a middle-school kid learns a word and its meaning, social comprehension and context take time to master. Even when a term or a line is mastered, the challenge should be how many more peaks a rapper can scale to become a good lyricist. We should all know that the power of a word has both incited and prevented war itself.
Good lyrics, of course, existed before rap. They’re the lifeblood of song: they direct the music, and the music defines the culture. This is true for rap even though some mistake the music as being all about the beat. People sometimes overrate the beat, separating it from the song itself. I ask folks, would they rather just listen to instrumentals? The general response is no. Listeners want to have vocals driving the beat, but – importantly – not stopping it or slowing it down. It takes a master to ride any wild beat or groove and to tame it.”
Someone with this perspective and who is not anti-youth and anti-technology is exactly what rap needs today to provide guidance to the younger generation.
I read these words while listening to No Mercy and just thought to myself, ‘I wish Chuck D. were in a position to guide T.I.’
While many intellectuals in Hip-Hop are quick to speak of a generational divide between the supposed ‘Civil Rights’ generation and ‘Hip-Hop’ generation, these same intellectuals – perhaps because many of them are so old relative to the youngest members of the culture – seem unwilling to address a perhaps even bigger problem; the lack of a progressive relationship between those who are decades apart within the Hip-Hop generation.
Until that divide is addressed and the reasons for it confronted, the culture and industry will never reach the full power of its economic, political, and cultural impact.
People who think this is not a problem are in a state of denial.
How is it that artists who grew up on ‘conscious’ music in the 80s didn’t make that kind of music themselves in the ‘90s? And how is it that artists in the 2000s made the same mistakes in business as those in the 1990s (some even worse)?
We are simply not learning the lessons of history or even worse, not sharing them after learning.
Over time, in certain ways, we have gotten both dumber, poorer, and less relevant and something is wrong with that picture (and sound).
It’s up to us who love Hip-Hop and want to see it survive and thrive, to change its condition.
Cedric Muhammad is a business consultant, political strategist, and monetary economist. He’s CEO of CM Cap where he provides brand management services to Hip-Hop artists: http://www.cedricmuhammad.com/cedric-muhammad-unveils-hip-hoppreneur-%E2%84%A2-advisory-service-for-international-artists/. Cedric is a former GM of Wu-Tang Management and author of ‘The Entrepreneurial Secret’ (http://theEsecret.com/). His Facebook Fan page is: http://www.facebook.com/pages/Cedric-Muhammad/57826974560?ref=ts and he can be contacted via e-mail at: cedric(at)cmcap.com.