What is happening with the underground Hip Hop movement now? There is something fundamentally wrong with the things on the scene. For generations there’s been some sort of a control over all things in the entertainment industry. When there were gladiator fights in ancient Rome or revolutionary songs in the young Soviet Union of the early 20th century, entertainment was used to control the masses. When post-impressionism art entered the scene it was the next natural step in development of the entire movement. When Elvis, The Beatles or even Jim Morrison drove the crowds mad, it was the ultimate scream for freedom in music played in the US. When Tupac brought the lives of the East LA into music heard by the middle class all over the country it showed everyone something new. John Singleton wasn’t far behind.
So what is going on with Hip Hop now? Is there a hidden message in what is said in its lyrics? Are the catchy beats of the top 40 helping all develop better? To be just, this is not just an issue with Hip Hop. Many believe that ever since Kurt Cobein blew his brains out and Eddie Vedder got on the cover of the Rolling Stones magazine, rock music had also died. There are a few distinct differences between Hip Hop and other music genres thou. Adopting other music genres is fairly wide-spread in Hip Hop. From Snoop’s music influenced by BB King (Pay Da Cost to Be Da Boss) to Eminem writing rhymes to Aerosmith song remixes (Sing for the Moment) Hip Hop has definitely been open to recognizing the world outside of itself. There have even been some revolutionary collaboration efforts, from classics created by Run DMC and Aerosmith to the more comical attempts at the same by Tim McGraw and Nelly.
Still, Hip Hop has not changed much in the past 20-30 years of its existence. For better or for worse everything evolves. Amazonian women died out as they had refused to move on. Prehistoric Homo Sapiens are shopping on 5th avenue nowadays in their present form. Hip Hop is still talking about the gruesome realities of the lower class African-Americans (G Unit) or rapping about the ‘bling’ (just about everyone). Major music labels stepped in to regulate the situation and… are happily getting rich off of acts like Rhianna and Cassie, Chris Brown and Cham and so on. The truth remains hidden behind all the bottles of Crystal, courtesy of P. Diddy, and bulletproof cars, courtesy of 50 cent.
It is no doubt that Hip Hop music is predominantly displayed by the African-Americans community. While there are some exceptions, Eminem remains just that – an exception. Hence it is rather natural to assume that the issues with Hip Hop are mostly the issues with the African-Americans. Not to get overly political and go off on a tangent, but what is happening there? Of course, in the past couple of decades the entire community experienced spurs of immense growth. There are African-Americans doctors, lawyers and prominent politicians. The current administration alone had brought this country Condoleezza Rice and Colin Powell. If the reader is feeling more Democratic, perhaps Barack Obama should be mentioned. Still, their political success gave very few youths in Hip Hop a source of inspiration. Lyrics remain about violence, drugs, alcohol and degrading the female population. Biggie put on his Versace suits and crowned a local street prostitute the ‘Queen’ of his team; it was new, bold and brave. Masses rejoiced and gave him the credit he deserved. A decade later 50 cent put on a bulletproof vest on stage and got 2 bulletproof Mercedes cars. People’s reaction was very similar. There was no forward movement. The reality of the streets of Queens does not only echo in Mobb Deep’s hits of yesterday. It repeats itself with less finesse and more swagger in their new album. Wu-Tang’s Ghostface and Method Man talk about the difficulties their music faces in the today’s society. While they complain, all critics agree that their music simply failed to evolve.
There are almost none (or perhaps none at all) Ivy-league educated African-Americans running Hip Hop music labels. Instead of trusting their own and others’ knowledge base they go with their gut when making business decisions. While loyalty is one of the most important factors when it comes to Hip Hop it is constantly ignored to make that extra buck. Look at Dame Dash and Jay Z. Look at Bow Wow and Jermaine Dupree. Look at 50 cent and The Game. Business decisions do not need to make sense when it comes to Hip Hop music. Why? That is a truly rhetoric question. Labels need to almost rob their artists of money made off of their music. Bad business decisions cost big money. Making a 10% to 20% profit is not good enough for them. Dame complained that Jay was making 60% off of his albums right before he took the label over. Well, in most other industries a 40% profit is considered unbelievable. Even with all the marketing costs, it’s still a very hefty profit margin.
The absolute prevailing majority of artists in Hip Hop have no college education or any plans for what to do if their rapping careers don’t work out. It wouldn’t be so bad if the number of rappers equaled to the number of sports players and if the Hip Hop industry had the same demand for fresh faces as the sports industry. Yet, so many African-American kids focus on rapping as their career choice that the ‘industry has got a problem’ as J Hatch says. Hip Hop has become the only true aspiration for too many clueless and talentless kids just trying to get out of the hood. So why not just stay in school? Artists back in the day used to at least try to inspire their audience. Now everyone is just trying to get rich and isn’t even willing to die trying, Hip Hop is not a .com bubble. It’s a music which gained its popularity as the voice of people.
Sitting in NYC’s BB King’s bar and grill during the 4th Underground Awards ceremony I felt uneasy. The club was absolutely packed with people. Different height, size and shape they had one things in common. Underground Hip Hop. Still, they were not there to rejoice and celebrate. They were there to complain and get upset. Someone’s baby mama scratched her way through the bouncers to make herself known. Lady Blade was practically in tears because her mike was not adjusted properly. Jazz from Black Buddafly didn’t know who and when she was to announce her part. Big Lou couldn’t get backstage although he was to perform that night. Chaos or celebration? Perhaps both?..
“Hip Hop is not dead”, said one of the hosts of the night. “R&B is not dead.”
Yes, they are alive. The question is whether they are represented properly. Most Hip Hop artists alienate everyone who isn’t making them money or who didn’t grow up with them. That’s not evolution. That’s regression or just sublimation. Labels seem to be blamed for everything and artists take no responsibility on their own. Like it or not, but Jay Z and 50 cent made it on top as a result of hard work. Jay was about to be dropped from the label back in the day, according to Dame. M.O.P.’s popularity got stuck in the 90’s. Even the G Unit affiliation did not equal their resurrection. Mobb Deep’s made more albums that didn’t sell than made classics by now. Just look at Blood Money. Wu-Tang has not evolved either. They always have around a 100 people on stage with them during any performance with 2/3 of them being there just to say ‘I was on stage.’ From BIG to Camron to 50 to even Ja, they were all in the drug game before they were in Hip Hop. What to expect? Extinction finds all who do not change. From dinosaurs to the Soviet Union. Darwin was right. It is taught in middle school.
Is there a hope? All over the country, through the clutter surrounding Hip Hop, new fresh faces emerge. Unfortunately they do not make it onto the scene. The Roots and Nas are with Def Jam Left. That label was created for artists like them. Melle Mel is a marketing icon for low level clothing brands. Grandmaster Caz spins at clubs like 40/40. Jaru is DJing in Tokyo. At the same time DJ Premier is producing Christina Agulera’s last album and Mannie Fresh became a free agent to work outside of Hip Hop but hasn’t done that ever since. Nas’ new album is titled Hip Hop is Dead…
Glass half full says that old school artists are still around and some even have solid label representation. Well known producers are branching off to do other work and some are succeeding. Glass half empty says Hip Hop and R&B nowadays are either pop music like Cassie, Rhianna and Chris Brown while Rick Ross is Rapping about cocaine and T.I. is proud to be a kid out of control. Or perhaps Nas does have a point.
I just hope to be writing a very different review after the 5th Underground Awards ceremony…