Every couple of months or so, an article appears bemoaning the lack of “conscious” hip-hop, or declaring that “Hip-Hop Failed Black America“. While Steve Stoute and VH-1 were quick to declare that hip-hop was the key ingredient in The Tanning of America, the underlying truth about hip-hop – be it rapping, production, deejaying, dancing or aerosol art – is that it’s a essentially a competitive sport. In that way, as much as sports such as football or basketball have become commercial institutions with their own associated cultures, so has hip-hop. And yet why did anyone expect a combative discipline to save the world?
The spirit of competition has forever been ingrained in rap, and so its most important aspect will always be having the hottest song or sound of the day. There’s no denying that Public Enemy and X-Clan brought important ideas to the table, but the only reason that anyone listened to their message is because they were producing cutting edge music with some of the best beats of the era. While Yo! Bumrush The Show made some noise, it wasn’t until the Bomb Squad heard Rakim’s ‘I Know You Got Soul’ that they went back to the lab in an attempt to making something better. The result was ‘Rebel Without A Pause’, which was as sonically revolutionary as the verses that Chuck D delivered over them.
KRS-One’s famous declaration that “Rap is something you do and hip-hop is something you live,” is all well and good, but what exactly does it really mean beyond creating a distinction between the perception of those rapping for a living and those “living rap”? If you’re the type who likes to indulge in a breakdance showdown before lunch, paint a top-to-bottom whole car in the afternoon before hitting the stage to perform an hour’s worth of rhymes while you breakbeat ‘Nautilus’ before bed, doesn’t that just make you the same as the dude who plays four different sports every week?
As AG told me the other week, “This is a bloodsport,” so while he also emphasised the importance of delivering “conscious” material, at the end of the day the most important thing is being the best in your chosen field – otherwise you’re just wasting everybody’s time. With that in mind, Drake is really nailing that whole “sensitive emotional rapper dude with all the feels” to a tee, while Rick Ross has mastered the “former correctional officer who consumes infinite crab meats” zone.
In this type of environment, how can hip-hop be expected to have a social responsibility? Even when established artists take the time out to address deeper topics, does the message actually get through? Or does it just provide an opportunity for their fans to have a self-congratulatory moment and pat themselves on the back for supporting an artist who can cover more than just clothes, cars and hoes? As much as rap music has been able to provide a thrilling soundtrack to the trials and tribulations of the ‘hip-hop generation’, it’s important not to blame it for when things don’t work how everyone hoped. And if you feel that the nihilistic and materialist aspects have taken centre stage for too long, make something hotter – otherwise no one will listen.
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