Hip Hop Generation Gap
Once upon a time not long ago When people wore adidas and lived life slow When laws were stern and justice stood And people were behaving like hip-hop was good… -Mos Def, Children's Story Hip-Hop ain't what it used to be. That's a funny thing to say, considering that rap as a recorded genre hasn't even existed for 30 years. Putting it into a larger perspective, rock music between '55 and '85 changed dramatically too, so it's not like change is endemic to rap or hip-hop. Still, even though it's the same genre, what these kids today are growing up with is very different than the hip-hop I grew up loving. I think there are a few crucial elements that typify the change, although they're not necessarily as distinct as I make them here. First, there's the money. I'm not thrilled with the materialistic tangent that much hip-hop has taken, but that's not even my main concern. Brand-dropping has always been a part of hip-hop, although it's become an entirely different monster with the high-ticket items being mentioned. It was one thing when Run-DMC sang My Adidas, or when Chuck D rapped about his Oldsmobile 98 on You're Gonna Get Yours. Those were affordable. Now we've gone from 98 Oldsmobiles to Bentleys. And again, I'm not thrilled with this change, but this is not the problem. It's not the consumerism; it's the money the rappers actually "get." (If you know anything about the way recording artists are paid, you know why I put that in quotation marks.) It used to be understood that a rap record would go gold (500k units) if only Black people bought the album. Everything after gold was the result of other consumers getting in on the action. As a result, gold was the standard. The first platinum rap act was the Beastie Boys. That was '86. Nobody was all pressed to go platinum then. Even as of the early 90's, when Hammer moved many, many units, gold was still looked at as a measure of authenticity. In order for somebody to go platinum, they had to sell out. Now, Public Enemy was going platinum all through there, but the terms 'PE' and 'sellout' are mutually exclusive. Ironically, PE's engagement of the non-Black audience set the stage for what would follow. Much has been written about how for many people, the teen years represent the opportunity to rebel against the values and expectations of the preceding generation. A white teenager can't get too much more rebellious than pro-Black. Until… The next major, major rap album was NWA's Straight Outta Compton, which started the commercial rise of 'gangsta' rap. At this point, rap records were doing a million, maybe 2 if it was really popular. Interestingly, as NWA's sales rose, PE's sales started to show a gradual decline. If the idea about everything after gold being non-Black, then this makes sense. While pro-Black radical politics are certainly counter-cultural for the average white teenager, it's not necessarily all that much fun. NWA offered some minor social critiques (when Ice Cube was there, at least) but for the most part, it was just saying stuff for the sake of saying it. To use cussing as an example, people had cussed on records before Straight Outta Compton. People have been cussing on records for a long, long time. Funkadelic's "Get Off Your Ass and Jam" was recorded when Cube was still wearing Osh-Kosh B'gosh. Even in rap records before SOC, there was cussing, albeit one word at a time, dropped judiciously. In the late 80's, they still beeped them out. (Think BDP's "My Philosophy") When NWA came on the scene, they cussed because they could. I remember the first time I heard "A Bitch Iz A Bitch," I was stunned. I had heard people cuss a lot at school (mostly myself), but never on a record. I think, then, that NWA offered the listeners who wanted a chance to dip off into another culture for a while a much easier alternative than PE. Whereas being down with PE required thinking and some kind of political consciousness, being down with NWA was all about shock value. Even at that, SOC comes across as mild today. To me, Straight Outta Compton is like "Rocky" where Efil4ziggan is "Rocky II." That is, the fight scene in Rocky was a slightly exaggerated representation of a real heavyweight fight. Even when Apollo was jabbing Rocky back to 3rd grade, the action was relatively slow, as one would expect to see with heavyweights. In Rocky II, the action was ratcheted up to an unbelievable pace. It's more fun to watch, but that's just beyond the physical capabilities for a real heavyweight fight. Likewise, SOC was real. The violence consisted primarily of threats against over-aggressive police officers and butt-kickings. The guys even got dissed by girls because they were six-deep in a car, trying to holler. Every dude knows about that. But then, when Niggaz comes out, somebody dies on just about every record. And you know what? Niggas moved more units than SOC. If somebody wants a visceral vicarious experience, then why stop at a beat-down? After Niggas came The Chronic, which kicked open the doors of possibility for sales on rap units. I forget the actual numbers, but I know Dr. Dre outsold Sting (who's 10 Summoner's Tales is a very good album) and several other mainstream artists. The marketability of gangsta rap meant two things: a) rap albums could sell a whooole lotta copies, and b) "keeping it real" became the predominant paradigm. Now, "reality" has long been a critical element of the hip-hop aesthetic. As far back as The Message by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, it was important to tell the story from "our" side. However, for most of the time, it wasn't all about reality, it was about Skills. It wasn't just about the story, but how you told it-- could you flip a phrase? What kind of rhyme patterns could you create? Could you flow or was your delivery swift? Any good punch lines? Certain things, like biting (taking ideas, styles, or rhymes, aka plagiarism) were not permissible. With the onset of gangsta rap, however, "reality" became as important as Skills, and would gradually become more. I put reality in quotes because the reality many of the rappers describe is the same reality that Hollywood puts forth: the solution to every problem is sex, drugs, money, violence, or some combination of the four. That formula had been generating movie revenue for a long time, and then it started to take over hip-hop. As the sales increased, so did the artists' status in mainstream media. Back when Skills was the most important thing, hardly anybody who didn't listen to rap knew anything about it. If you weren't into hip-hop, you wouldn't have known who in the world Rakim was or how to say his name. With the onset of "reality" rap, the media started to get involved, always in a negative sense. When NWA dropped Fuck Tha Police, the FBI started to keep tabs on them. Later was Body Count's Cop Killer. (And before I say another word, anybody who counts this among rap records, even John McWhorter, whom I like, is either crazy, or so ideologically focused that they're unwilling to differentiate between genres. It's not a rap record just because Ice-T made it. When Garth Brooks took on the pseudonym Chris….whateverhisnamewas, that didn't make it a country record. Amazing Grace wasn't an R & B record, even though that was Aretha's primary genre, so just stop it. Cop Killer is a rock record, speed metal (I think) at that. Whatever it is, it's not rap!) Then, just as Doggystyle dropped, Snoop got charged with murder, making the cover of Newsweek. With one of his songs being entitled "Murder Was the Case," the press had a field day. While the attention may have had a negative tone, there's a saying that no publicity is bad publicity. Particularly when the whole image is based on being a gangsta. That just proves how "real" he is. Of course, this just pushed the sales figures higher. And so with the influx of cash, record companies sought to capitalize on the trend, which glutted the market with gangsta rap. I think that The Chronic, or maybe Doggystyle represented the end of the first generation (second generation, if you go back to the days of Melle Mel and Kool Moe Dee). After that came Biggie and Tupac. Now, Biggie was a throwback. He would have done well at any time because he could flat-out write. He was like Ice Cube in that sense. I don't think it's a stretch to imagine Biggie at 30 or so starting to write movies. His visuals and attention to detail were clear like that. He had magnificent storytelling prowess. Tupac, on the other hand, benefited from being where he was when he was. Tupac came to personify that gangsta lifestyle and "keeping it real" as his life began become indistinguishable from his songs. Only thing was, his skills weren't there. Don't get me wrong, Tupac was nice, but he wasn't like that. His popularity was a combination of media attention, persona, and looks. Put it like this—do you think 'Pac would have as many fans if he looked like Biggie? I don't. Biggie had skills. 'Pac had personality and attention. To put it another way, nobody was talking about Tupac being the greatest rapper of all time when he was alive. He wasn't even top 10. Once Biggie and 2Pac came on the scene, the Skills paradigm was relegated to the Underground. Mainstream artists were all about the aforementioned Hollywood values, and it became a vicious circle. Gangsta rappers (or hustlers, if they're from the East Coast) were the ones making money, so that's what the record companies signed, which is what got most media attention, which makes more money. Now, almost all rappers present some element of a gangsta or hustler image, even if that's not what they're primarily about. Remember Nas started calling himself Nas Escobar? Jay-Z's whole rap persona is based on his days as a hustler. (Eazy-E started Ruthless Records the same way, but you didn't hear him talking about that all the time.) Now, all this time, there has been and there will always be an element of hip-hop that is entirely unconcerned with the commercial aspects. That is, they want to sell records, of course, but they are more interested in putting out quality, thought-provoking content. The difference between now and before is that there's so much money to be made and the money is concentrated in so few hands that there's almost no chance for the "conscious" hip-hoppers to get any attention. From a record company's perspective, it's all about the bottom line. If Mos Def went double-platinum, he'd be on the radio 50 times a day and the record companies would be trying to find carbon copies. Instead, because dudes like Li'l John are moving units with that foolishness they put out, they get all the radio play and attention. Making matters worse is the fact that radio stations play the same songs over and over and over until the listener starts to think the song is good, even when he knows it's wack. Even more bothersome to me than the historical elements of hip-hop's decline is the fact that young kids today don't know nothin' and don't wanna know nothin'. I know kids that don't even know who Rakim is and swear up and down that Tupac was the greatest MC ever. Maybe I'm getting old, but it used to be better than this. Still, there's hope on the horizon. With cats like Kanye West, Mos Def and Talib Kweli, there's always the chance that people with something to say might start moving units. Here's to hope.