Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Hip Hop is Dead

I've been arguing, with limited success, to my nephew that hip hop music is artistically stagnant.  He reminds me that I don't really know, which is true, since I don't listen to much hip hop and tend to avoid it rather than seek it out.

Also true, however, is that I'm part of the hip hop generation.  In 1986, I bugged my Mom to buy me the Beastie Boys Licensed to Ill LP.  With the neighborhood kids, we used to listen to Eazy E and 2 Live Crew tapes long before the PMRC popularized the "Explicit Lyrics" sticker.  We roller skated to Bust a Move.  For a couple of months, we thought MC Hammer was actually cool.  (I was in Junior High.)

After a while I lost interest, though.  Rap took this gangsta turn that I didn't like and couldn't identify with, and I moved on.  Fast forward 20 years and not much has changed.  Kendrick Lamar comes out with an album about life in Compton and the kindest thing the aficionados have to say is that it's as good as Nas's Illmatic, which came out in 1994!

The obvious contrast to draw would be with rock music, which is basically irrelevant these days, but was the world champion of popular music for nearly 50 years.  Part of the reason, I think, is that each new generation remade it in their own image.  Musicians were not only inspiring other musicians, but were also reacting to them.  Elvis inspired the Beatles.  The Beatles' studio wizardry inspired Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin.

Consider: Jailhouse Rock and Black Sabbath's debut LP are separated by 12 very short, revolutionary years.

In the 70s, tired of 10 minute solos, the youth rebelled and created punk rock, inadvertently sowing the seeds for New Wave and later, Grunge, which in and of itself was also a rebellion against hair metal.

Indeed, the history of rock music can be marked by trends, rejections, rebellions, by cross-breeding and mutations.  It evolved.  It survived.   It had a Darwinian genetic diversity that allowed it to thrive in multiple environments over multiple generations.

Hip-hop, on the other hand, is an artistic monoculture.  It's been mining the same territory it always has:  the street.  It's obsessed with cultivating an inauthentic "realness," which since it's so fake, manifests itself in affectations:  the lingo, the walk, the sagging pants.  Since conformity is key, there will be no rebellions or deconstructions in hip hop.

For rap fans, the premiere match-up of the 56th Grammy Awards was between Macklemore, of infinitely played-out "Thrift Shop" fame, versus Kendrick Lamar, whose major-label debut, good kid, m.A.A.d city, cemented a landmark narrative within the genre, frequently compared to Nas's '94 classic, Illmatic. Radio Disney bop-fun versus nihilistic, sex-fueled correspondence from the wrong boulevard in Compton, California—guess which LP the Grammys voters preferred?
A better question is which LP would hip-hop fans prefer?  More nihilstic, sex-fueled stuff from Compton --the same territory mined by Eazy E in 1987-- or the white guy who did songs about thrift shops and gay marriage?

It seems like the "Mackelmore wins a Grammy" controversy exposes for all the world to see that hip hop fans want more of the same and cannot reject fast enough the non-conformist white guy.  That's not to say that race is much of a factor here.  If Mackelmore rapped about the acceptable subject matter and adopted the necessary affectations, it wouldn't be a factor at all.

Woe to the hip-hop fan, stuck in the same mode, twenty years spent still looking for the next  Illmatic.  

1 comment:

KickinAssTakingNames said...

Interesting you bring this up, as I've been in rap mode lately. Finally got around to reading a stack of Rolling Stone mags a friend recycled to me a few months ago. The cover story from one year ago was "50 greatest hip-hop songs of all time". Nearly all the picks were from the heydey of the late 80's early-mid 90s, as they should've been. A few late 90's/early 2000 exceptions by artists I think deserved to be on the list, although I didn't always agree on the song choice. Overall I agreed with the majority of the picks, but there were a handful that, in my opinion, simply didn't belong (I'm talkin to you, Kanye).

Anywho, point being, they just don't make 'em like that anymore. For the most part. I don't see Macklemore as the next coming of Eminem, but I don't mind him. "Thrift Shop" is a good tune and catchy and the horns make it as far as I'm concerned, not the "rapping". It's "pop rap" to me, which is what I consider a lot of what's out there today. And it's not the same. Very little new stuff can compare to what Run DMC, Public Enemy, Beasties, Eazy E, Rakim, etc. did.

If you haven't read that article, see if you can find it online. If you enjoyed that era, you will have fun reading it. It will bring back a flood of memories. It made me get out my Erik B/Rakim albums and rap along like an angry fool from the school of hard knocks. Still remember all the words! For the stuff I didn't have on vinyl (or other format), I actually looked up/listend to each song on youtube and had a good ol' gansta time.

One last thing...if you are not familiar with the album "No One Can Do it Better" by The D.O.C., please look it up. In my opinion one of the best rap albums of all time. A collaboration of some of the greatest rappers ever. I'm pissed D.O.C. got no props on that top 50 list. That's just wrong.