Hip-Hop Now Sucks?

What does that even mean?

“Hip-hop sucks nowadays” – you’ve seen it on various local Facebook groups and blogs. Whether that’s true or not, it lacks specificity. The proclamation suggests an inferred knowledge of hip-hop’s anthropology, but we never remember things quite as they were before – even if we were around to experience them.

The problem with these contextual matrices of blame gaming and “rap just ain’t like it use to be”-isms is that they aren’t factual. It’s sort of an honest lie some of us “heads” say to be ‘in front’ of something. You’ve had the conversation even if it’s about other genres. It becomes circular because we don’t look for the core. The core is essentially assumed.

Chuck D (left) and Flava Flav during Public Enemy’s set at Fun Fun Fun Fest in 2011 (Photo by Shelley Hiam)

Public Enemy No. 1, Chuck D, told me something in an interview last year that lodged in my brain, because it actually goes beyond rap:

“[MCs of my generation and before] weren’t born into rap music. We were born into black music: Motown, Stax, Atlantic, Philadelphia International. Singer-songwriters like Bob Dylan. AM radio. If you grew up with black music, you grew up with black history, and black culture – the blood, sweat, and tears already woven into the music. If you just study hip-hop, you’ll get a window [into the culture that created it], but you end up going back no further than what it is.

“That’s problematic.”

By the time we’d arrived to Dr. Dre’s The Chronic (1992), NasIllmatic (’94), and Outkast’s ATLiens (’96) rap had turned over on itself. Kool G. Rap and Rakim had already (largely) propagated the intricacies of rhyming. LL Cool J and Big Daddy Kane had already become sex symbols. Run DMC and the Beastie Boys, with Rick Rubin’s production, had already concocted rap/rock. Marley Marl and DJ Premier had already demonstrated how to chop samples. Scarface and Too $hort had already documented life away from rap’s more heralded metros.

Once the law intervened – Grand Upright Music v. Warner Bros. – the sampling on which virtually all rap music had been built upon became a treacherous wall to the non-moneyed. This ruling made most producers of the late Eighties and early Nineties, like the Bomb Squad, who helmed all of Public Enemy’s seminal albums, forcefully obsolete – the quietest, utterly cataclysmic event in music history.

Of course, samples get “cleared” all the time, but the sonic collages of yesteryear disappeared. After this significant severing of a base tool, a scramble event occurred, and new producers filled the void. However, the damage (or improvement, depending on your standpoint) had been done. Rap had suffered silent disfigurement, for which yearners of a bygone era still grieve.

While those aforementioned meaningful, incredibly well produced albums added epic pages to rap’s colorful lore, it had long ceased being new. In others words, the first generation of rappers listening to other rapper had unknowingly commenced the task of refinement and recovery of what had already been created.

An additional idea to consider extends into Chuck’s thoughts. Rap, as a concept, is no longer slave to its surroundings, because they were eliminated with our assistance. In another unusual, largely unheralded turn, the roles of rap and soul reversed. R&B has somehow become accompaniment to rap music.

R&B tracks featuring a rapper became rap tracks featuring a vocalist. And the vocalist usually wanted to be a rapper. This started partially with Mary J. Blige, and LL Cool J’s Mr. Smith album, but progressed exponentially as rap became the commercial breadwinner early this millennium. Producers aren’t using today’s R&B to create tracks, because R&B – save D’Angelo, Jill Scott, and some notable others – is merely rap for singers.

The unending difficulty lies in rap’s lost intangibles: vanquished soul, guttural feeling, and emotion. We didn’t take the time to value it, to save it. It’s not so much that rap has changed. That was inevitable. It’s that the cultural and social constructs around it have evolved.

Simply put, if you wanted rap to maintain some semblance of what it was, we should not have ignored R&B (or blues), and in turn, should not have lost our collective soul in the process.

Rap became sexualized and asexual. It wants “No New Friends,” so it’s self-conceiving. Rap stopped being a confluence of critical events and became the event itself, primarily because as the money machine chugs the genre forward, what it was built upon is no longer being created, or has been left to the wayside.

It’s not a complete answer, but it’s true. And that’s our fault – all of us.

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