hip hop music

April 24, 2003

Rumors of our Death...

I wrote this a few months ago, in response to a widely forwarded article proclaiming that hip-hop is dead or at least dying. I am reposting it here since j brotherlove, and many others, have wondered aloud whether this may truer that we care to admit.

I meant this to be a part 1, hopefully I will get around to a part 2 sometime.


Regarding the Bennu piece, "A Eulogy to Hip-Hop": there is some truth in what he says, and the issues he raises have caused me much frustration over the years. But to extrapolate from these trends that hip-hop is dead, I see as a gross overreaction.

Hip-Hop will never be what it once was, there's no getting around that. It began as a form of expression that was of us, for us, and by us in many ways that it will never be again. We watched it grow and bloom within our community, then saw it shift into the American mainstream, who now leases it to us with no option to buy (as a friend once put it). For those of us who saw this evolution and experienced both sides of it, Hip-Hop will never again mean to us what it once did.

From its birth in the 70's through much of the 80's, Hip-Hop was basically a self-contained entity within the community that created it. If you were an emcee stepping into the studio to make a record, your target audience was basically your own community.. you were one of us talking to us, and the value of your music came from how it resonated with our own shared experiences. There was no possibility of your song getting regular rotation on any radio station, or your video getting played anywhere but Ralph Mcdaniels' Video Music Box and local public access shows. No chance of your work being acknowledged by any such mainstream outlet, so you had no concern for making music to please those outside ears. All the criteria, all the parameters set for the expression came from within the community that created it. It was a means for us to communicate with ourselves.

But nowadays the playing field is completely different, and we have a completely different relationship with the music, both as producers and consumers. When someone steps into the studio now their success hinges on pleasing MTV, Clear Channel Radio, and the mainstream american consumers that these outlets have made hip-hop's primary audience. This audience is kids from outside of the community the music came from, who do not share the experiences that drive the music. As Mos Def says:

"The difference between '88 and '98 is that most of the people who were fans were also active in the culture in some way. In '88 you'd have kids watching Video Music Box in their living room, working out dance routines. That might seem real trivial, but that is a fan watching these videos to learn these dances created by people in their community, more likely than not, somebody that probably lived on their block. It was interactive. Now the average hip-hop fan is into hip-hop because they like watching somebody else live."

It's become much more of a spectator sport than a participant sport?

"Definitely. I mean, let's be real -- these white kids in the suburbs that buy their first Wu Tang record and lose their damn mind -- they could play an active part in the culture if they wanted to, but that's not why they bought that Wu Tang record. They bought that Wu Tang record to live out their fantasy of themselves as Raekwon or Ghost or Method or whoever. A lot of hip-hop nowadays seems like the primitive prototype for what virtual reality is going to be in the next few years -- live somebody else's life, feel somebody else's pain and frustration."

I don't feel the need to be as judgmental about those suburban white kids as Mos seems here, but the dynamic he describes is undeniably at play. In today's world the ideal hip-hop product is not one that rings true for those who shares the artists' experiences, but one that provides a vivid, cinematic fantasy for those who will never share the experiences conveyed. This has radically changed the creative process, or should I say the manufacturing process of hip-hop, much more than I think even most artists realize. We also touched on these issues in my interview with Q-Tip (click part 6).

So no, hip-hop is not what it once was, and that golden age will never return. And in the last decade that has been damn hard to accept, if you were around when it was still pure. But that being said, I thought the conclusions drawn in the Bennu piece were overblown.


Hopefully i'll get back to this sometime..

Posted by jsmooth995 at April 24, 2003 1:57 PM

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