Friday, 13 November 2009

Is Hip Hop Dead?

Maybe I'm a bit late on this, but the other day I was reading an article about Jay-Z, and the same old question raised it's decayed hand, with a four finger ring attached. Is Hip Hop dead? I pondered on it for a second, my mind awash with the same cliched arguments and images: Kanye West, Skinny Jeans, Bling, The Black Eyed Peas, 'Real', Gats, Timberlands and appalling fake platinum chains. The type you'd find on Oxford street.

Is hip hop dead, what do I know? I'm in my 30's and when I hear some 'underground' music I generally don't like it, and most of the music on my itunes are simply downloads of old albums I have on vinyl. Maybe that's the answer I thought. I've finally grown out of it. Hip Hop was a movement created by the youth for the youth. Maybe Hip Hop's like the characters in 'Toy Story'. It freezes and dies when it's exposed to adult eyes. But Hip Hop's nearly 40 years old now, so it can't be the Peter Pan of musical genres. It's captured the world's imagination and it's a multi-billion dollar industry. So it's definitely got a pulse, but how strong is it?

I flicked through some of my play lists for inspiration. As I read names like Black Moon, Nas, UltraMagnetic Mc's, Black Sheep, Raekwon, Ghostface, and Ice - T, I realised that I didn't really listen to Hip Hop at all. At first glance, the above tried and tested line up with their critically acclaimed credentials, could be seen as a who's who of Hip Hop. But I'd challenge anyone to scratch beneath the surface of any of their songs to find the Hip Hop.

Ever since Nas sampled 'Wildstyle's' 'Subway Theme' for 'Genesis', the opening of his debut 'Illmatic' album, we've known he respects and loves the past. He even schools someone who comments, 'Yo Nas what the fuck is this bullshit on the radio son.' But soon the album moves on to familiar blunts, crack and gats territory. The first line of the next song is 'Straight outta the fuckin' dungeons of rap'. Even a seminal group like UltraMagnetic Mc's aren't very Hip Hop. They were part of the so called 'Golden Era'. Rough, chopped up breaks, big programmed beats, gold chains and braggadocios lyrics. But the 'Golden Era' spawned 'Rap', and Rap wasn't a misty eyed sentimental fool. It left Hip Hop beat down in a graffiti daubed Bronx ally way,
checked it's beeper, wiped the blood from it's Gucci sneakers and left to conquer the world.

Maybe Hip Hop had it coming though? The culture and the music, although crated from old records, always had it's eyes focused on the future. From Graffiti to break dancing, it was always about being innovative and creating new styles. To talk as a purist, you could say Hip Hop could look and sound like anything it wanted to. You just have to look at an example of Hip Hop in it's prime. Afrika Bambatta and the Soulsonic Force sampled 'Kraftwerk' and dressed up like the village people, which was inspired by P-funk's colourful stage shows. Another example of a forward thinking, innovative black musical genre. Hip Hop was meant to be about positivity and creating change. But like a cocky teenager, Rap thought it knew it all and didn't want to hang out with or dress like it's parents.

In 1998 Rap did have a little dabble with the old skool. The Rap super group 'Def Squad' covered Sugar Hill Gangs 'Rapper's Delight' and the video featured Eric Sermon, Redman and Keith Murray dressed in Shell toes and kangols. I remember being thrilled to see break dancers again, but also sad at how pop and weak the track was, for 3 such talented and 'hardcore' Mc's. A nod of respect to Hip Hop I thought, or rather a calculated way to sell out without being branded pop while cashing in on the recent success of Jason Nevins' remix of Run Dmc's 'It's like that'? Who's own video also featured old Adidas and break dancers. But when did Run Dmc ever feature breakdancers? They were the arguably the first hardcore rap group and one foot in the grave for Hip Hop.

A couple of years later I made my first trip to Hip Hop's birth place, New York in the year 2000. My friend and I travelled from trainer shop to record shop, and were amazed at the scorn that our old skool trainers got. Even though I felt a bit dissed I still bought a pair of dunks for $20 from Athletes foot. New York wasn't interested in the old skool, it had moved on, and the 'Def Squad' track was the cash cow I thought it was. Back at our midtown hotel we tuned into Hot 97. We expected Funkmaster Flex cutting it up, but it just sounded like a radio 1 talk show with a puerto rican accent. The clubs there were
banging out Jay-Z, and one party we went to was a strictly champagne and designer dresses affair. Rap was certainly still thriving, but it was a little older and richer now. Rap's lure is a hard one to resist. By the end of our trip we had made our way to Nike town to upgrade our kicks.

The 21st Century was a rocky time for Rap. The fashion was getting back to the street, as the tailored suits it had used to get into the clubs were no longer needed, as it now ran them. Bling culture was in full effect. An updated and diamond glad version of it's 80's gold rope counterpart. The music too was reminiscent of the 'Golden Era's' programmed beats, but this time they were louder and synthesised with a pop chorus. Time had passed and the face of rap had changed again. Rap was not just happy with being spread worldwide, it now wanted the pop charts. This also caused the 90's generation of rap fans to dig deep and proclaim the likes of 'Mobb Deep' and 'Biggie Smalls' as 'real Hip Hop', further confusing the term and the music.

Now we're a decade into the 21st Century and the confusion about Hip Hop is still with us. 90's rappers are bringing out new albums, on the back of a wave of nostalgia, awash with lyrics that could be straight from episodes of HBO's 'The Wire'. Whilst they grumble about keeping Hip Hop real, from subject matters to fashion. But their simple raw productions are not enough to get them chart exposure, or propel them to the cristal heights of the late 90's. Jay-Z recently gave a disgruntled speech at a MTV awards show. He proclaimed that although he was happy to accept the 'Best Urban Artist' award, he longed for a day when music could just be called music. It seems Jay has seen the error of his ways and luckily for him, he's ready to reinvent himself again on the backs of Artists like Kanye West and Kid Cudi. Two artists that have come under fire from the 'Hip Hop'
community for not being 'real' and for wearing skinny jeans. But it seems the success of an artist like Kanye West can only be put down to the freedom he has to experiment with his image and his sound, while other rappers are trapped in the creative ghetto that rap has landed them in, and Hip Hop always strived to escape. As much as it pains me to say it, I'd consider Kanye West more Hip Hop than say, Raekwon the chef. So as we enter a new phase, I'd proclaim Hip Hop well and truly alive after playing the long game, but Rap sadly dead and left out in the street.

1 comment:

  1. Dave, well written buddy. I agree with you but kind of think that hip hop/ rap goes full circle and will continue to do so as each trend comes into prominence. For instance, the current UK scene mirrors the original hip hop scene in many ways. It started with the bare beat party style (grandmaster flash/ wretch 32), the gang lyrics (ice-t/ newham generals) and moves through intelligence (bdp/ wiley) and into commercialisation of previously underground artists (nwa/ chipmunk). There are many other similarities but I won't bore you...
    We have seen many changes in the original and for you and I it will always be the best as it was so new, original and groundbreaking. We have become less impressed and surprised maybe as we've seen all the trends before. We must sound a bit like our parents when they moan about current rock bands not being like The Stones. Sadly, hip hop is dead to us but to a new generation it will be as edgy, interesting and un-parent friendly in all the ways and for the reasons that we first fell in love with the genre.
    Long live Stetsasonic, BDP, Ice-T, NWA and all the others that gave us an interest in a complex form of music but let's also pass the baton onto the new. You never know, somebody listening to Tinchy Stryder's cover of Express Yourself may want to hear the original and then realise that we are right and hip hop is not dead, it's just reincarnated and the original was better.
    Peace Out