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Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Is the Musicscape for Hip-Hop About to Change?

When I was growing up, music and television were pretty much all that I had.  I grew up on these influences as not only a means of entertainment and a resonance of spiritual feeling and understanding, but also as lessons in life that would shape, at the core, the person that I would become. 

In the 1990’s, I never thought much of music being anything other than what it was at face value at the time.  In those days, hip-hop was a new art form still, taking shape in new form on almost a daily basis.  I was living near the east coast, in Toronto at the time, and the influence there was heavily from New York.  My bff at the time was a New Yorker, so that just resulted in me diving deeper into the good shit and just becoming completely immersed in hip-hop.  Toronto, too, was not too shabby of a place for hip-hop in its own right.  On the weekends, some of the illest shit was coming out of the university radio station.  Illest?  Damn, I have used that word in a long time...

The music though, was what was most important.  Whether coming out from the university air waves, or from the latest Kid Capri mixed tape from the New York underground, the music spoke to us the same.  Back then, the lyrics were gritty and real.  The music was about the streets, and hustling for paper.  They were about accumulating street cred and making sure the haters were kept in check.  There were some like Busta Rhymes, Jeru the Damaja, and Tribe Called Quest that made you think with poetic analogies and smart lyrics. 

I think most people that know hip-hop would agree that the music coming out of New York in the early 90’s was the best of the best.  In an earlier post, I listed out some of my faves from that era, and you can find it here:

That wasn’t all though.  The west coast gave birth to gangsta rap, which was an entirely different animal.  It was ballsy and raw, and it reeked of danger.  You had to listen to it because it was too much force to ignore.  The gangsta rap was good too, and it was as much from the streets as was the east coast hip-hop.  The west coast street culture was (is?) heavily influenced by gangs, so the music connected with the streets and gave that culture a voice.  I suppose I have a unique perspective on both sides, because when I moved back to the west coast in the mid 90’s, tha DoggPound, Snoop Dog, and Dr. Dre were just getting started.

It was a great time for music.  The east coast versus west coast battle was poppin’ off.  Biggie Smalls was the illest.  Tupac came out here and transformed his soul, immersing himself into the gang culture, and in doing so, he made some of the best hip-hop/gangsta rap ever to hit the streets.

Something sad and unfortunate happened though, and I don’t mean the sad and tragic deaths of Biggie or Tupac.  The music changed.  The 1990’s ended, and with it, the great music.  As if the music of the dirty south was not bad enough, the lyrics became as fake and plastic as our economy at that time.  Drinking 40’s gave way to champagne.  Street cred and dope rhymes gave way to a fake ass life of luxury and lessons in pushing the envelope of ebonics.  Every song was about drinking Crystal, driving Maybachs, sporting bling, and flying G6 jets.  What a bunch of bullshit.

Oh sure, we all know that rappers just breaking into the biz are already loaded with enough cheddar to own Gulfstream jets.  Of course it’s bullshit, and that’s my point.  The music was bullshit.  It was not real.  The lyrics were fake, as in pretend, as in total fiction.  It was the glamorization of a life many people in our culture wish they could afford but know they can’t. 

There’s nothing really wrong with that, except when people begin to take to heart.  In reality, it’s fun to sing along with some bullshit songs about the glamorous life.  It’s even fun to dream about such a life.  A lot of great movies and books are about such lives, and while we are experiencing them, it is not only a fun experience, but a harmless escapade for our imaginations.  There is a point that we crossed though, where the musicscape became over saturated with this message of bling, and I think that’s where we are today.

When I look around my city, I don’t see the bling.  I never did.  In reality, only 2% of people in our country are considered rich by the government.  That is only a small number of people.  The music of bling isn’t representing us.  It isn’t representing the streets.  It isn’t representing my neighbors.  It isn’t representing anybody I know.  That’s when you know something is wrong.  In these tough economic times, it is actually depressing to hear lyrics of bling. 

There is hope though.  I was listening to the radio the other day when I heard this song come on, “Thrift Shop” by Macklemore; you can find it here:  I thought that the song was thoroughly entertaining, and kind of a joke, but mostly, I was happy that I was witnessing a change in attitude in our mainstream.  The song is not only about being broke, but it also celebrates being a broke ass.  That song spoke directly to me, and I was digging it.  I’m still not sure that this song isn’t a joke or a spoof, but Macklemore is not a joke.  I didn’t know who he was, but I listened to a few of his songs on youtube, and he raps about deep issues.  That’s cool, and refreshing.

I hope that this is the start of a new wave of music for this decade, and if it is, I will be happy.  Maybe we can get back to listening to ill music again.  Maybe we can start using the word “ill” again?  I’m probably pressing my luck with that one.  Either way, here’s to being broke and happy!


PS. This is a cool site/resource for keeping in touch with hip-hop -both of yesterday and today: