Artists such as Jay Z, Nas, Eminem and Missy Elliott have become household names, while the production talents of P Diddy, Dr Dre and Pharrell Williams are in constant demand. Nor has this impact been solely confined to music. The ‘uniform’ of low-slung jeans, Timberland boots, expensive trainers and designer tracksuits has become de rigueur among youth from Brooklyn to Brixton.
However, this apparently inexorable rise has not been without controversy. Hip-hop has long been associated with an excessively hedonistic and macho materialism that celebrated guns, gangs and ‘girls’ (this last is probably the least offensive term used to describe women). One of the most negative consequences of this has been the incarceration of huge numbers of artists, often for violent or sexually aggravated offences, as highlighted in the current issue of hip-hop magazine Source. Perhaps rap’s darkest days came in 1996-97 with the murders of two of its brightest stars, Tupac Shakur and Christopher Smalls aka Notorious B.I.G.
Today it is argued, by among others Voice columnist Tony Sewell, that the malign influence of hip-hop channel MTV Base is a key factor in the underachievement of black boys in schools. The suggestion is that these youngsters are being encouraged to adopt a negative ‘ghetto fabulous’ lifestyle rather than one that values education, and domestic and civic responsibility. In the wake of such claims commentators have clamoured to issue the last rites to hip-hop. Even the normally dry, dull and barely read political journal Prospect got in on the act with a feature in its March issue on the demise of hip-hop.
Politicians too have been quick to attack rap stars when seeking to deflect the blame for society’s ills. Way back in 1992 US presidential hopeful Bill Clinton’s campaign included a diatribe against Sister Souljah that was clearly aimed at appealing to racist voters. Similarly, in the aftermath of a tragic New Year’s Eve shooting at a Birmingham party New Labour’s culture minister Kim Howells issued a tirade against ‘macho idiot rappers’.
The truth is, of course, rather different. Hip-hop first evolved in the early 1970s out of the huge block parties organised by Bronx DJs such as Kool Herc and Afrika Bambaata. Partygoers were encouraged to improvise lyrics in the instrumental breaks of the classic tunes the DJs played on their massive sound systems. Rap music was thus a playful escape from, and a creative response to, the poverty and alienation that blighted the lives of young black people in the inner city ghettos.
Inevitably over time the major record companies latched onto its commercial possibilities. Initially in time-honoured fashion they sought to promote ‘white’ forms of the music. Punk rock band Blondie had a hit with a song called Rapture which included an appalling rap by Debbie Harry but which did at least have the merit of namechecking some of the legendary black rappers that the band mixed with in the New York underground scene. Elsewhere these labels manufactured their own bands and wrote lightweight lyrics for them. Eventually, however, groups such as Run DMC forced their way into the charts – though they needed a little help from white rockers Aerosmith.
Today hip-hop and its close cousin R&B account for fully 25 percent of all record sales in the US. The companies that retain these artists therefore have no great desire to change a winning formula. In addition many other companies have rushed to exploit the potential for lucrative tie-ins and have encouraged performers to plug their products in their songs and videos. Meanwhile record buyers are encouraged to believe that with a little lyrical wordplay they too can live the dream, or at least mimic the lifestyle by sporting the right gear. It should be noted that there have always been artists that have sought to stand against this stream. Public Enemy, KRS One and Michael Franti and latterly The Roots, Mos Def and Talib Kweli are among those performers who have achieved a degree of success by carrying a more socially conscious message. However, these voices have usually been drowned out by those that vocalise commodity fetishism.
The short life of Tupac Amaru Shakur is particularly revealing. His single mother had once been a member of the Black Panther Party and he was named after a group of Peruvian revolutionaries. Tupac was a brilliant young poet whose early lyrics raged against the racism and injustice of American society. This approach got him virtually nowhere. While in prison he was offered an alternative path to fame and fortune. He chose to adopt that archetypal ‘thug life’ but it was to prove a self destructive one which led to his own violent demise. Yet even here it was not simply a straightforward case of selling out. He clearly remained a deeply troubled and tortured individual. Thug Life, he once explained, was an acronym that stood for ‘The Hate U Gave Lil Infants Fuck Everybody’. In other words it too was a response to the seemingly hopeless alienation of black youth in a racist society. It is precisely this bitter sentiment that he spits out in songs such as Trading War Stories and Hellrazor. For sure Tupac was a seriously flawed individual, but hip-hop lost something it has never been able to recapture when he was gunned down in September 1996.
Nevertheless reports of the death of rap music are wildly exaggerated. Clearly it remains hugely popular, and at its best it can be wonderfully inventive and exciting, edgy and enraged. The hip-hop story is not yet complete but it is in desperate need of fresh ideas and impetus.
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