By: Daniel Hodgman and Gus Navarro
Fellow hip-hop heads:
Where is hip-hop at right now? Where does the culture stand? For a movement that is now over 40 years old, what can we as a community tell everyone else about hip-hop’s presence in 2014?
It’s only appropriate to first acknowledge some things that seem to plague hip-hop’s growth and reach. For one, hip-hop is still being defiled and extorted to the masses in the most upsetting ways. Many mainstream hip-hop records are being sold to millions without a conscious tone. These are records that not only emphasize the simplistic nature of partying and sex, but also reinforce negative stereotypes of black males and minorities, violence against women, homophobia, hyper-masculinity and negative stereotypes of hip-hop culture in general. Record companies are literally teething at the aspect of a gun-toting, woman hating, high-crunk hip-hop record, because they know it will bring in millions. Artists such as Future and Rick Ross put hip-hop on this shallow pedestal, with aspirations to bank on these characteristics that wither the culture as a whole. With this, these companies are taking bits and pieces of hip-hop and ringing them out to dry until they get something desirable to the consumer. In turn, these artists and records are considered the best, merely because of their record sales.
As it has come to evolve over the last decade-plus, conscious hip-hop now has the label of being somewhat condescending and out of the mainstream circle (even if a conscious artist is part of a mainstream label).
The problem is that this is a compounding force on an even bigger issue. When certain hip-hop artists and executive producers became more business oriented in the 90s, certain ideals were thrown out of the window, and different business tactics within hip-hop started to expand exponentially. Now hip-hop, at least on the mainstream level, has become a bloated version of what the 90s introduced, with thousands of artists striving to make the big bucks by degrading their music to sound waves plagued with negative stereotypes instead of worthwhile content on hip-hop’s topical and worldwide level.
At this point hip-hop has become synonymous with popular culture. On Super Bowl Sunday you can see Dr. Dre cooking it up in the studio with Kendrick Lamar. Dre’s new portable speaker, The Beat Pill, helped them figure out that the beat needed more drums. Pitbull not only consumes Dr. Pepper at parties but also Bud Light. You can hear “23,” the caricature of hip-hop culture by Will Made-It, Juicy J, Wiz Khalifa and Miley Cyrus bumpin’ across college campus drinking holes. Another pop-icon, Katy Perry, utilizes elements of boom bap on “Dark Horse.” Justin Bieber appeared alongside artists such as Ludacris and Snoopzilla (FKA Snoop Lion, Snoop Dogg). Childish Gambino is actually Donald Glover, and was one of the funnier actors on NBC’s Community. Jay-Z is the face of the Brooklyn Nets and has made Brooklyn a destination again in the eyes of yuppies all over the world. Questlove can be seen every night on Fallon, has a Bud Light commercial, has his own Nike Dunks, wrote his autobiography and was voted Time magazine’s coolest person of the year. It’s not just the Grammy’s, Macklemore has been controversial because of his participation in hip-hop. What was something that existed outside the mainstream has become engrossed within popular culture and dictates much of what we see and hear on the radio, television and internet.
Since a majority of people are introduced to hip-hop by way of the mainstream, the most money goes, and most notably, stays within this ring. With these sales, mainstream artists will continue their path feeding this content to the consumer and it will all come full circle–rinse, wash, repeat. It’s all cyclical.
Tricia Rose, author of The Hip-Hop Wars, talks cynically about hip-hop, as if it all falls under one platform. Although she is wrong in this aspect, the following excerpt would be perfect if she added “mainstream” after “hip-hop” in the opening sentence:
“Hip-hop is not dead, but it is gravely ill. The beauty and life force of hip-hop have been squeezed out, wrung nearly dry by the compounding factors of commercialism, distorted racial and sexual fantasy, oppression, and alienation. It has been a sad thing to witness. I am not prone to nostalgia but will admit, with self-conscious wistfulness, that I remember when hip-hop was a locally inspired explosion of exuberance and political energy tethered to the idea of rehabilitating community.” -Tricia Rose
Tricia Rose is not entirely correct here–limiting hip-hop to such a broad view–but by ways of mainstream hip-hop and its influence on our culture, she hits it squarely on the head. The thing is that this goes without saying that there are many artists breaking the mainstream with worthwhile content and stories that feed hip-hop culture its flair. Artists such as The Roots, Kendrick Lamar, Nas and even Talib Kweli (he’s on Capitol Records), are examples of such artists doing justice in the mainstream. But would you consider any of them “mainstream?” The Roots have continued to put out quality music since joining forces with Jimmy Fallon. It is clear that having a true rehearsal space has made their music that much better but do you hear The Roots on the radio? What about Talib Kweli? If anything, everyone considers Talib Kweli an underground artist simply because he’s a conscious MC. And this is the problem: for the most part, the radio, record sales and award nominations–mainstream’s biggest outlets–are plagued by artists with music that fuels the “mainstream” stereotype, and they’re the face of this branch.
About a month ago, the legendary Erykah Badu went public with her opinion on the current state of hip-hop:
“How y’all gone stand by and let our music turn into pop techno cornball ass music. We don’t own our music no more. Come to think of it, did we EVER own it?”
In the commercial sense of hip-hop, Badu is spot on here. However, even what Badu is saying is problematic. In all honesty, we don’t disagree with her stance on the current state of pop-culture hip-hop, but there is more to it.
Up to this point, it may seem that hip-hop is solely about commercialization and getting paid. However, this would be to deny the whole story. At the most basic level, hip-hop is about liberation, struggle, education, collaboration, identity and has given a voice to so many. Hip-hop artists keep this idea alive and make it possible for people to connect across racial, economic, social, political and religious lines. What connects us? The love of hip-hop. The best part is that it could mean music, dance, film, fashion, writing such as poetry and/or art. These are ways for people to come together and learn about new places, ways of knowing and language. Hip-hop’s true influence and characteristics can be seen on a global scale.
This past year, Pierce Freelon and Apple Juice Kid of the University of North Carolina allowed us a glimpse into the emerging hip-hop world of places such as Fiji, Ethiopia and Panama.
Just last week German label, Jakarta Records, released Sawtuha. This record brings us into the world of the modern Middle East but from the perspective of women who are actually from Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and Syria and have lived and continue to live through what has become known as The Arab Spring. You won’t hear this on the news.
Being signed to a record label is not a marker of selling out. Independent labels like Brainfeeder, Dope Folks, Duck Down Records, Fat Beats Records, Jamla Records, Mello Music Group, Rhymesayers, Stones Throw Records, Top Dawg Entertainment and many more strive to push hip-hop from the heart and hip-hop worth mentioning.
On an educational level, you now have hip-hop education centers all around the country, and hip-hop artists actually committing full albums to educational topics such as science (GZA). The Urban Arts Academy in Detroit for example, is a program that started ten years ago that fuses hip-hop into learning, self-awareness and violence prevention. Here kids focus on multi-media, song production, gang prevention, STD prevention, engaging as a community and engaging as one family.
Sam Seidel, author of Hip Hop Genius: Remixing High School Education, is one of many hip-hop education leaders pushing hip-hop involvement in the classroom. In Hip Hop Genius, Seidel goes in-depth on how classrooms can take the hip-hop movement–a local phenomenon that turned into a global force–and relate that to new ways of thinking, teaching and leadership. Seidel also pushes student empowerment through project-based learning, a hearty alternative to an education system that’s battered and inefficient:
“If we can give students the skills and confidence to conceive of, design, and complete a project, that is a huge gift. If someone can say, ‘I’d like to be able to do this in my personal life or create that product,’ and then they know how to go about doing the research, learning, putting in the work to complete it — this is what will allow them to succeed in life. It might be in an entrepreneurial sense or in more traditional academics, but they know how to build, design, write, or perform something. That’s huge.” -Sam Seidel
Elsewhere, there are more Bboy and Bgirl spots for communities surfacing in cities such as New York City and Orlando, graf artists taking to bigger and grander murals to push social and political action and DJs defying musical odds to help make hip-hop a worldwide view.
The Bboy Spot, in Orlando, Florida, was established in 2008 as a website that quickly rose to prominence among the Bboy/Bgirl communities around the world. In 2010, headquarters in Orlando was established, and it became the first ever Bboy/hip-hop-operated community center in the world. The Spot holds events, workshops and fundraisers, and their motto is “By the Community, For the Community.”
Up until 5 Pointz’ whitewash, artists from all around the world would congregate and use the complex’s many murals to showcase art that expressed many hip-hop emotions. It was a community in-and-of-itself, and it was cherished by graf artists all around the world, linking everyone together as a singular force.
Last year, Yasiin Bey underwent a trial run of Guantanamo Bay force-feeding. In the blink of an eye, he was no longer a critically acclaimed artist and actor. Rather, he was denigrated down to a powerless individual showing the world what hunger strike prisoners in Guantanamo Bay are haunted with every day of their lives. In the video, Bey showed us all the physical and psychological harm of force-feeding, and this action was another example of hip-hop opening our eyes. It was, in the clearest sense, hip-hop on a scale that was bigger than hip-hop itself. It was a testament to the power of resistance and action, the power of voice and the power acknowledging and revealing the truth.
These examples are just a small fraction of positive hip-hop happening everyday. Folks, this is what hip-hop is. Hip-hop is a group of students tackling project-based assignments and learning life skills for the future. Hip-hop is The Beat Making Lab, and their continuing push to expand hip-hop on a worldwide level, and to use love and music to bring people together. Hip-hop is Sawtuha, and many other records that reflect stories from those fighting through struggle, oppression, fear and evils tarnishing this beautiful land. Hip-hop is a Bboy/Bgirl community center. Hip-hop is the Detroit Urban Arts Academy and the hundreds of other programs around the country. Hip-hop is Mello Music Group. Hip-hop is Rhymesayers. Hip-hop is Stones Throw. Hip-hop is educating ourselves everyday to better our minds, our peers, our family and our community.
Hip-hop is love.