Driving Downtown to the Mike Brown rally last week gave me the urge to match the overwhelming feelings. My iTunes library spit out Dead Prez, Immortal Technique, the Coup, X-Clan, and more. However, I wanted to hear my voice, which was nowhere to be found. I suddenly became very frustrated, satiating myself with a fallback: Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power.”
“... Yet our best trained, best educated, best equipped, best prepared troops refuse to fight. As a matter of fact, it’s safe to say that they would rather switch than fight.” – Public Enemy, “Fight the Power,” 1989
Almost four months have passed since the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. Tack on another four weeks marking the 25th anniversary of Spike Lee’s magnum opus, Do the Right Thing. Considering the cultural circumstances around the two events, one very real and the other very realistic, there have been significant changes in rap’s approach to contemporary happenings.
Black on black crime remains rampant, on top of continued slayings of young black males by the police. Yet, there aren’t any cuts similar to “Fight the Power,” “Self Destruction,” or “We’re All in the Same Gang,” a trio of tunes released 1989/1990. The latter two included a majority of luminaries of their respective times, an unlikely event today.
Nearly extinct from the mainstream and most of the commercially viable “underground” are artists like Poor Righteous Teachers, N.W.A., and Ice Cube. Rap music once scared the establishment, while simultaneously providing fans of all colors what was tantamount to the “news” from their locales. Once a strong voice for positive effect, rap has become largely a neutered institution, afraid to shake up the establishment, afraid to stand for anything.
And yet, it’s never been more successful or more influential, from continent to continent. Perhaps, rap’s success, or the path illuminating the way, was paved with a twisted form of planned obsolescence. At some point, speaking your mind with intelligence fell out of vogue.
Suddenly, record companies began signing completely non-threatening pop artists with direct mainstream appeal. Count them off: Hammer, Tone Loc, and Vanilla Ice. Further dilution occurred with the gluten-free rap found in dance music, like Freedom Williams’ performances with C+C Music Factory.
The subsequent coastal rap war further damaged the genre by creating a critical point of entropy, as creativity got funneled into further separation. Hold-me-back rap beefs turned into real deaths of two titans (Tupac Shakur and Biggie Smalls). Aside from superlative work from artists like Outkast, most of the material unrelated to the feud took an immediate backseat.
As the spinning compass settled, labels including Bad Boy, No Limit, and later Cash Money ushered in a new focus on extravagant shows of wealth. Out of the confusion came another new reality: neither lyrics, nor the thought process behind them, mattered as much as before. Lack of technical skill was no longer a barrier to entry, because thinking past base wants and needs was no longer required.
“Don’t worry if I write rhymes, I write checks.” – P. Diddy, “Bad Boy for Life,” 2001
Simultaneously, delivery systems experienced overhauls, with the ongoing decline in physical sales as a consequence of the Internet surge and the rejection of bad albums with hit singles. Major labels began to cut budgets on everything deemed expendable in this new era. New artists popped up daily, flooding the web with mostly trash made on their laptops.
Media companies became conglomerates controlling radio and TV in virtual monopolies. This eliminated programming breaking new artists at individual discretion. Both mediums now run strictly on highly advanced metric systems via magic key words.
Combining to create this current bizarro world, almost anyone with a readymade look who rhymes slang for guns, crack cocaine, women, money, and murder (and preferably just those six bon mots in some combination) can get a record deal. Artists with messages using anything other than those six magic words need not apply. With a few notable exceptions, most reality and political rap is immediately codified as “backpack,” “nerd” and “conscious.”
Intelligence remains a negative within this new world, perceived as largely unmarketable. The lower the IQ, the higher the turn-up.
Rap’s inception was centered on being a voice for those who cannot speak, or do not have the platform to do so. It was supposed to represent the realities of despair and disenfranchisement, and finding the strength to overcome the stacked odds. It was supposed to speak for those like Mike Brown, and the black men still being killed by other black men.
Even with a 24-hour information cycle and the prevalence of social media, why does the news now have to be read to rap music?
The art form lies in the middle of an ontological puzzle. It wades comfortably in the quagmire, pacified by the riches of major label advances and festival money sure to follow. It dresses in Balmain and rose gold Rolexes, walks around with rubber-banded stacks of cash. It drives a rented Rolls Royce Ghost, with the windows up, bass beating through.
Rap now demonstrates zero concern for its bloody trachea being unceremoniously ripped out with a rusted pitchfork, overjoyed to not be saying anything at all.
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