Properly Defining Hip Hop: some Things Gained, and Some Things Lost

When one talks about Hip-Hop, many things have changed.  We went from youth seeking alternatives to gang violence and artistic expression (Bronx, circa 1973) to winning the first Grammy award for Best Rap Performance in 1989 (DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince/ Will Smith).  The whole story of Hip-Hop was based on innovation and […]

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When one talks about Hip-Hop, many things have changed.  We went from youth seeking alternatives to gang violence and artistic expression (Bronx, circa 1973) to winning the first Grammy award for Best Rap Performance in 1989 (DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince/ Will Smith).  The whole story of Hip-Hop was based on innovation and creativity.  The way things would be updated and improved upon.  Hip-Hop always had that outsider status.  Although aspects of Hip-Hop were incorporated into the music business, being a B-Boy/B-Girl was still an outsider status that one would have.  Once Hip-Hop became accepted in mainstream circles, it lost some of its edge.  Different factors became the motivators.  It was no longer about being the ‘Freshest’ it became more of a way to make money.  But this came at a cost.  Compromises had to be made.  Although some of the first really mainstream Hip-Hop records were smash hits (i.e. Sugar Hill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight,” (1979) and Kurtis Blow’s “The Breaks” (1980), there were underground records that got major respect in the inner-cities throughout the United States (and overseas as well).  Fast forward to Brand Nubian’s All For One album (1990) or Nas’ Illmatic (1994), where these albums were playing in every other car that went by as one stood on the streets of New York, but the sales of these albums didn’t reflect that.  This is possibly also where the ‘knowledge’ aspect of Hip-Hop began to slip.  By this point (early through the mid-1990s), the mainstream media (and many music executives) had decided what parts of Hip-Hop that they wanted to sell.  This is where Hip-Hop artists failed as well.Hip-Hop wanted to possess an exception to a double standard:  the artists wanted mainstream access, but they also wanted to have the ability to say whatever they wanted.  This still rings true today.  The only way this was possible was IF Hip Hop artists elevated their knowledge-base.  For example:  When Kool Herc and Afrika Bambaataa  wanted to change the perception about, and the destiny of the community’s youth, they devised ways to give and develop alternatives (i.e. Park Jams, Cultural activities—Emceeing, B-Boys and B-Girls ‘Breaking/ Up-Low Rocking, etc.).  Bambaataa, Kool Herc, and many others not usually named ‘thought outside the box’ and made a far-reaching cultural contribution.  When Fab Five Freddy and Russell Simmons thought that Hip-Hop should be expanded and shared downtown, and throughout the world, they joined with major record companies (and artists) and distributed and packaged Hip-Hop for the masses.  For better or for worse, they expanded the art form.Today, when Hip-Hop is at the height of its power, a lot of MCs complain about how downloads and a lack of radio airplay affects their careers. But Hip-Hop does not have any limits.  The early Hip-Hop founders could have launched a million excuses explaining why they could not succeed.  That’s not the case.  They triumphed and the world knows it.  Where The Problem Lies:  Hip-Hop Developed a Status QuoIt is true that many of the early Hip Hop Pioneers were related or associated with each other by way of geographic location or family relation.  But Hip-Hop always dealt with the best of the best, just like Jazz music did.  Once Hip-Hop had more at stake in a corporate sense, a status quo developed.  Early Hip-Hop records were not held to the same standards as R&B, Soul, or Pop music.  Hip-Hop was not officially recognized as a genre.  One could say that the whole of Hip-Hop was like a mixtape would be considered today.  It was streetwise and groundbreaking.    In the 1980s, R&B groups thought of Hip-Hop as ‘less than music.’  Known artists saw some guys without Instruments and who didn’t even sing, and resented them.  In many cases it was jealously, because early Hip-Hop artists were dominating shows and holding their own against groups like The Commodores (Lionel Richie, The Bar-Kays, Earth, Wind, and Fire, etc, etc.).  Hip-Hop was constantly growing like wildfire.  Two music masters that did recognize and appreciate what Hip-Hop represented were Quincy Jones (founder of Vibe Magazine, and catalyst is getting Will Smith his television show ‘The Fresh Prince of Bel Air) and Miles Davis (whom collaborated with legendary Hip Hop producer Easy Mo Bee).  From roughly 1985, Run-DMC was easily outselling most R&B groups and were one of the few Hip-Hop groups to be on MTV regularly.  Yeah, part of it was marketing, but the other part of it was Hip-Hop’s power and allure.  Once Hip Hop was established as an art form within mainstream circles, the edge began to erode.   Part of that error was in how Hip-Hop always took things and improved upon them.  It doesn’t seem like that could be an error, but this is why:  when early records were sampled, it was a matter of convenience.  It wasn’t strictly based on being just a way to get paid.  Young Hip-Hop producers didn’t necessarily have readily available bands to collaborate with.  And DJs always had MCs rhyming over a record’s ‘breaks.’  So it was natural for the next generation of producers to utilize the never technology (samplers and drum machines) as the prices dropped, and loop breaks to be rhymed over.  Yeah, Sugar Hill Records had their artists rhyming with bands. And so did Kurtis Blow.  But eventually, probably starting with Kurtis Blow, the sampler became more and more a tool that could be used to make Hip-Hop songs with little manpower and resources/ dollars.  Sampling also showed the world what Hip-Hop artists could do if they were given the chance to work with established artists too.  But the most important fact of the matter was in how Hip-Hop didn’t want for that to happen.  Hip-Hop made the music Happen first with two tables and a microphone.  That concept was the basis of how Hip-Hop always elevated itself with what it could apply, being that circumstances were never optimum.  And it just went on and on from there.also,   The  world was shown through Hip-Hop that those that were often labeled as worthless and permanently delinquent were actually intelligent enough  to make something out of nothing. Even today, it is difficult for many to accept the phenomenon of what Hip-Hop has done for itself.   Messages of worth were being spread by those that had suffered under the  Presidential Administrations of Richard Nixon on up to and past Ronald Reagan’s era.  So in this art form we call Hip-Hop,  many will say how, ‘when ‘money’ came into the picture, things changed.’Once Hip-Hop artists began to take big recording advances from labels, they were held up to a different set of standards, and existing  in ‘survival mode.’  They had to produce (and sell) at all costs.  It was/ is nothing for a Rap artist to take some information they get, package it, and sell it as their own.  Subjects that were spoken on were not necessarily things that the founders of that information wanted on record (i.e.  Nation of Gods and Earths, Nation of Islam, Hebrew Israelites, Free-Masons, etc.)  But in the name of looking and sounding real, there were no set protocols of how things should be done.  That was one level.  At another level that was more corporate, most of the producers sampling records had no knowledge of royalties and the music business. And even with sampling, the rules of what could be done were changed once Hip-Hop began to use samples the way it did.   But still yet, making a good hard hitting record made was the most important thing in the 1980-1990s overall.  Sure, some wanted to get paid, but it was not the same attitude as today.  Today, a record deal means a lot more than it did then.  The average ‘age’ of an MC was different in 1980s and early 1990s, and their goals were different.  They might have wanted the material things then too, but today these things are at a totally elitist level.  An artist would live at his parent’s house and be fine with a new car or SUV.  And some gold jewelry, etc.  That was more than Hip-Hop had even manifested, or imagined possible at the time. Now, we’re talking about Bentleys Lamborghinis, Jacob Watches, Mansions, etc, etc.  In the past, Platinum wasn’t an issue. Gold was attainable by anyone. And at one point, African Medallions held almost as much weight/clout as jewels. And while young future moguls in the 1990s bragged about this ‘ice’ on their sleeves, they were gaining some hard lessons themselves, signing short-sighted label deals that ended up not being what they made us believe, as their danced around with bottles of overpriced champagne in their hands—seeming to taunt the very audience that made this possible.  Some of the things Hip-Hop artists strive for today are almost totally unattainable for the common man. Rap once did commercials for 40oz. beers.  Today, artists are investing in their own alcoholic brands.   Taking desperate measures really became the underlying theme of Hip-Hop artists, as they continued on a quest to get more and more money and power, at almost any cost. Whereas Hip-Hop was once static, with it’s constant change.  Now, one can go to a club and hear the same songs and the same themes.  You go to a Hip Hop club and will hear the same breaks and the same songs (James Brown’s “Funky Drummer,”Apache, etc, etc.).  And you will see the DJs there all comfortable and with their fat stomachs.  Gluttonously full from the alcohol, girls, and take-out Mr. Chows—For the New York elite Hip-Hop moguls.  Who’d want to change that?    Hip Hop has spoiled many people.  They often have a sense of entitlement that the public is supposed to support, based on sub-par art.  People have responded by not buying the records being released, and in New York, but totally writing most of these artists off as unimportant.  The youth took a lot of information that wasn’t new and repackaged it as their own because it was an experiment.  It was a community based movement—Hip-Hop.  It became fully corporate later on.  And becoming corporate didn’t have to be totally bad.  When we say corporate, we are speaking of how we are really just doing business with these corporations.  Hip-Hop is still an ‘outsider’ art in too many ways to name.  Because many are good at what they do, they are dealt with.  If the achievement stopped, Hip-Hop would be strictly back in the park for free again.  Or at a nostalgia showcase on a festival summer stage.  The focus of Hip-Hop got bigger and many did not prepare for it.  Hip-Hop is  limited to rhyming mostly now.  But there are successes in many different areas of Hip-Hop business.  It was always important for artists to see this and to take their business seriously.  Many squandered their opportunities and hold others to blame.  Nothing is written in stone, but there is enough blame to go around for anyone involed in an experiment that Hip-Hop was/ is.  The error of Hip-Hop was in not giving credit were credit was due, and failing to keep reaching for new artistic ground.  Some got wealthy enough and it doesn’t affect them.  But the nature of Hip-Hop is to take, and reshape.  But then again, it is not, because it was always wrong to ‘bite.’  One could not just steal.  Samples were a complex issue, and Hip-Hop artists never denied what records they used.  Hip-Hop artists gave a lot of music new life and make it popular again..  Sometimes it was taking.  But what do you expect someone to do when experimenting with no business knowledge, while pushing the envelope of artistic expression?  Once educated, agreements had to be made and comprehended, and they were.    Today, artists will do, and are almost forced to do anything to maintain their affluent lifestyles.  Look how quickly crews fight over finances today.  That makes us no different than everyone else, and Hip-Hop is always above the low-level standards of everyone else.  Music or otherwise.  The KnowledgeThe real downfall of Hip-Hop is how MCs, etc, are not as smart as they think they are.  How much research goes into a song?  How much wisdom?  How many college credits have been attained?  How much real life experience?  If it is just music, let it be that, but much of what is being said does not feed the public anymore.  No true direction is offered.  One’s favorite conscious MC is average in my cipher. Or many other dormant ciphers on the East Coast, and nowadays throughout the globe.  The flow may be tight, but the knowledge lacks.  Hip-Hop forgets.  There was a famous MC that got on TV once and said the world was  going to end in a few weeks because of explosives that would detonate at a pre-determined time.  His song was great, but his knowledge lacked.  How much credibility do you think he has as a knowledgeable individual? Many are educated beyond high school now, and what’s being said isn’t that real to an adult anymore.  Emcees were the beacons of the Hip-Hop culture.  They led the youth.  But study must be done.  And when someone comes along with knowledge, they will be knocked down in order to preserve market share.  In plain words, no one wants to see competition coming, and Hip-Hop goes out of its way to destroy those that threaten the status quo we’ve created.  The public catches on eventually as well too.    In a time where the world is waiting and willing to see the best Hip-Hop has to offer, few answer the call.  The media and the record labels are what they are.  The media’s lack of coverage never stopped Zulu Nation.  Or Kool Herc and the Herculoids.    Or the Southern Rap Movement.  We can’t support you just because you rhyme.  The knowledge being spread is limited.  Or plagiarized.  It’s not yours just because you heard it and said it.  Credibility is giving credit, and sometimes there are things that are not supposed to be spoken on in records.  At the barbershop it’s accepted, because that audience can be regulated, but early DJs never told everyone everything about the records that they were playing.  Even here, in Hip-Hop, we know what I’m saying, so I won’t name every name in every situation.   Be we could. I will protect the wrong here.  If called upon to do so, I have all of the documentation to back up everything you see here written.The Cold, Hard TruthThe cold, hard truth is that one that is in the music business has to bring more, for less.  What did DJs start doing? They made mixtapes. They started booking shows around the world.  And they often started doing something else in Hip-Hop that gave them a more rounded career:  they managed artists, or produced music, etc, etc.  MCs are also measured by how many people they brought up and developed.  Much of what we call Hip-Hop is a business, and many never expanded their staffs/ artist rosters, etc.  When artists had the attention of label executives, they were not able to capitalize on that.  They did not see that they should be getting an A&R position at the label—and bringing in real talent, and not just their crew.  If you roll with the corporate sector, there are rules to it.  The record buyer can’t bail you out of recoupment and lack of business accumen forever.  Hip-Hop is about growth.  Many in Hip-Hop had the doors of opportunity opened and didn’t do what could have been done.  Again, blame can be shared by many, in Hip-Hop.Mixtape CultureFrom recent events, ever the mixtape culture has taken a bad turn.  Mixtapes were once the refuge of MCs that didn’t get a chance to be on the radio or television.  It was for those that didn’t have recording deals yet. And they could come with their raw and uncut rhymes.  But after a while, record labels saw a way to create some ‘buzz’ for their artists and took mixtapes over.  Many, many mixtape stars were being manufactured.  And even today, the relationship between DJs and record labels has not clearly defined. Either the song was leaked or it was given to a DJ to release.  Those terms should have been clear.  But record labels don’t want to admit that they are  pushing a street vehicle (mixtapes) with the power of the dollar   What was once the playground for the raw talent of the streets, and a chance for known MCs to speak freely, became a mostly promotional tool for upcoming releases and newly signed artists.    At one point, one had to pay to be on a mixtape.  It wasn’t based strictly on skill.  It was the same as the consultation fee that was often rumored to be  required, in order be on radio.  Right NowHip Hop’s MCs left the public to fend for itself and find something else that was benefiting the audience.  Competition is strong from DVDs, video games, and MP3 trading (and bootleggers).  The future is actually very bright for a new level of Hip-Hop. Those that are selfish will not benefit from it.  Real knowledge is the foundation of all Hip-Hop, and it always has been.  Hip-Hop demonstrated how youth could become contributors to a global phenomenon and generate opportunities for people in every field.  This is a trivial example, but it’s real.  On can see the difference of when one walks into a luxury automobile store, or other similar places.  The sales people respond, because Hip Hop has made more millionaires (relative to its existence) than any sport or form of entertainment.  One could be 4’11 and fat and the salespeople at a Mercedes Benz dealer will run up to you like you have Hip-Hop money.  I have been in these places before Hip-Hop (or drugs) were so  huge in he community, and I see the difference.   Few have that fact fully understood.  But that doesn’t change that fact.  Hip-Hop has power that some fail to maximize.  MCs lack in that way more than anyone.  Artists act like they can’t make strong records, and often times they can’t because it will affect their relationships with their labels.  The cash might stop.  Artists say otherwise, but the economics drives the art more than the music does.  Again, MCs are not as smart as they think they are today.  That’s the real problem.  Music downloading isn’t the real problem.  The problem is content.  MCs act like the radio and these record labels control Hip-Hop music.  They don’t.  There are a few artists that are fully intelligent, with too many being inconsistent in how they move.    Each day, people want to hear realness and knowledge being displayed in only a way that Hip-Hop can do.  Hip-Hop was always the news to the streets.  And of the streets.  That isn’t going on right now.  It’s the same old song, and people are responding to it with their dollars.  Hip-Hop is truly global for many reasons.  And it is about to renew itself.  Not just lyricism, but in knowledge.  We are in an Age of Information, and Emcees lack in that way.  That’s not saying everyone has to be a ‘conscious rapper.’  But they do have to be more conscious of their actions and the messages that they give.  This is where the East Coast has failed Hip-Hop.  The leader is not leading anymore, due to a lack of knowledge.   That’s a whole other discussion in itself.  But it is true that many MCs/ rappers, et cetera have limited knowledge and have not come to grips with that.  Don’t say something real, and when asked about it on MTV, back up from the original statement. One can’t always get on another artist’s record as a guest, just because the fee was substantial.  Of course this is a standard for many Hip-Hop producers, but it’s not supposed to be that way for MCs. Stay real, or you won’t get your respect.   At least five examples could be named of who has done this, and we all saw it, but it is better to move on and look at things introspectively. We can all improve.  But the Emcee, especially, is not carrying his position correctly right now.   Don’t get on a record and speak on confidential subject matter, and then want to claim street realness. Emcees get in interviews and say ignorant things, or can’t articulate their ideas effectively. These Emcees I’m speaking of end up being an example of what a lack of study does to one in an intelligent setting.  People remember this, and may not even realize why that particular Emcee is not important to them anymore.    If those and other standards can’t be lived by, time will pass these artists by just like it has done others in the past.  Things have changed, but some don’t see it.  The outer limits of Hip-Hop are beyond a simple definition.