Hip-Hop Generation Gap, II

Last time, I talked about the monetary aspect of the hip-hop generation gap, which I think is the primary divider. If it weren't for the tremendous sums of money to be made, there would probably be much more diversity within hip-hop—or at least a more recognizable diversity. Cobb linked to the post and mentioned the party rap of the early 90's, groups like Kid & Play and whatnot. To be honest, I hadn't even thought about them, but that's an important point. Back in the day, there were all kinds of rappers with all kinds of topics. Now, again, because the gangsta/hustler stuff is what moves units, that's almost all you hear. So I think ultimately, it all goes back to the bottom line, which is that if we (hip-hop consumers) want to hear something different, then we have to support the artists that are putting out good product, and not just download it or burn a copy or whatever. Now, one thing that I'm noting is that lots of people try to talk about hip-hops "value system," as if it's different from the prevailing worldview in the US. Before I even start, I need to point out that I'm not arguing that much of what's being said in records is right or legitimate, but I do get bothered when somebody points a finger at hip-hop like it's the source of a particular ideology instead of just being another messenger. If anything, what you see and hear in hip-hop is a naked reflection of what Americans really value—not ideologically, but what we value in terms of what we will spend our money on. Hip-hop caricatures the emperor based on what he's really wearing, not what he thinks he's wearing, and not the clothes laying across the bed that he plans to wear. The principal difference between the rap of today and yesteryear, aside from the degree and frequency of cussing, is the decline of quality MCing. There's a difference between a rapper and an MC. Fred and Barney rapped on a Fruity Pebbles commercial. Cookie Monster rapped on Sesame Street (and yes I did like that song, "Healthy Food."), wearing a big gold chain and a Godfather hat, like Run-DMC. That don't make him an MC. A rapper can spit rhymes, but an MC crafts lyrics. So to go to one of my favorite examples, I think 2Pac was probably the best rapper ever, but I don't know if he's in my top 20 MCs. At some point, I might break down a rubric for evaluating rhymes so we have a common standard by which to judge. Of course it's gonna be subjective, but I think that with some tweaking, we can make something that may be of some use down the road. Maybe I shouldn't say that there's a decline in quality MCing, but there's a decline in there's a decline in the visibility of quality MCs. Even Jay-Z says,
I dumbed down my lyrics to double my dollars They criticize me for it, yet they all yell "holla!" If skills sold, truth be told, I would prob'ly be Lyrically—Talib Kweli.
One of the areas where this is easiest to see is in the battle. Back in the day, the battle was always, always, always about lyrics. In There's A God On The Mic, Kool Moe Dee's version of the top 50 MCs of all time, he breaks down some battle laws. Law number one is, "On wax, the best rhyme wins. Many emcees forget that a battle, first and foremost, is about lyrical skills." This is important. Back in the day, even when there was violent content, it was understood in a lyrical context. To get mad and turn to a physical confrontation was to concede defeat. Once people started acting 'hard' and proving how 'real' they were, the battle dynamic started to change with the rest of it. For instance, one of the most famous battles was between LL Cool J and Kool Moe Dee. It spanned at least three albums per artist and even more songs. While the mode of dissing ranged from physical appearance to general "you-can't-rhyme" material, the only violence was figurative. Peep Kool Moe
…Make him feel the wrath/beat him down and laugh/and when I'm finished, then I'm gonna ask him who is the best/and if he don't say Moe Dee/I'll take my whip and make him call himself Toby.
Only somebody with absolutely no understanding of the battle paradigm would take something like that literally. An important thing to note, however, is that Moe Dee's regular content was not violent, so it was easy to distinguish between lines he meant to be literal and those he meant to be figurative. On the other end of the battling spectrum was the beef between Tupac and Biggie, which unfortunately grew off wax. Although Biggie's Who Shot Ya? was ostensibly about Tupac, there's no conclusive proof. Tupac came back with Hit 'Em Up, which was unquestionably about Biggie. Lyrically, there's no comparison. Hit 'Em Up was trash. It basically amounts to a recorded threat with some rhymes thrown in. The most substantial "lyric" was "I fucked your wife, you fat bitch." Ooooh, he must've really worked a long time to come up with that one. Contrast that with Biggies, "your heartbeat sound like Sasquatch feet/thunderous, shaking the concrete." Probably not his best lyric, but the metaphor and details are solid. But even at that, there's a line in there that keeps it centered in the rap realm—"Niggas know, the lyrical molesting is takin' place." Unfortunately, it's not about lyrical anything anymore. It wasn't, at least. In Jay-Z's battle with Nas, on the notorious Supa Ugly, he raps, "…don't let the nine, homey/put you out your mind, homey/just rhyme, homey." Wish people would just do that…and stop making all these doggone strip club records.