Wednesday, August 22, 2007
Is hip hop dead? Or is it just malnourished and underfed? This has always been on the minds of hip hoppers. In Nas's song "Hip Hop is Dead," he mourns the death of hip hop, which he rhymes as being one thing in the past, and now has changed into something he loathes (or at least has ambivalent feelings about). He raps that hip hop
"Went from turntables to MP3s,
From Beat Street to commercials on Mickey D's"
Nas, "Hip Hop is Dead"
I was going to write how I noticed many hip hop songs coming out TODAY concern missing the "old" values and pleasures of hip hop culture. For example, Joel Ortiz's "Hip Hop" and KRS-One and Marley Marl's "Hip Hop Lives" transport us back in time when trains were bombed with graffiti and kids did babies on cardboard. There are many more examples out there from CURRENT hip hop that express "hip hop nostalgia" and long for the days of old. The reason for rap's decline (according to some artists, like Nas) is the growing popularity of the hottest rap out today, i.e. Southern crunk.
Joell Ortiz, "Hip Hop"
Then, I thought of many other songs from the 90s (not only today) that articulate this nostalgia for the old days and (usually) the scorn of new music. I mean, the Black Eyed Peas built their early career on hating on new music coming out, claiming they were "real" hip hop. (And it's very ironic that will.i.am produced Nas's "Hip Hop is Dead" song, isn't it?)
In many of these songs, hip hop is constantly personified, sometimes taking the forms of a woman ("on my second marriage, hip hop's my first wifey" according to Nas, or "hip hop you're the love of my life" according to the Roots), some kidnapped dude, or a corpse. Take "One Day" by Jeru the Damaja. For Jeru, the flashy, catchy, and hypersampled hip hop of the Puff Daddy years was kind of like the Southern rap of today. In "One Day," hip hop is a kidnapped dude that Jeru and Afu Ra try to save from Bad Boy and Suge. He raps,
"If I recall correctly I last saw hip-hop down at Bad Boy
We'll see if Puff knows whassup
Cuz he's the one gettin' him drunk and fuckin' his mind up...
So we went to L.A. later that evenin'
When we got there, everything was aaight
And we brought Hip-Hop back home that night.
In another example, for Common Westcoast rap was like the Southern rap of today or the Puffy rap of 1996. In "I Used to Love H.E.R." (1994), the artist personifies hip hop into this woman who is "unpure" because of the way she has been tainted by the gangsta, Westcoast culture. "Boy I tell ya, I miss her," Common reflects. Westcoast rap used to be denigrated! How things have changed (for hip hop in general and Common himself)!!
Hip hop personified exemplifies artists' tight, intimate relationship to the culture, so much like a women or a friend. But a deflowered female, a kidnapped dude, or a corpse also shows artists' perception of hip hop as property and/or powerless, having little agency without the artists' help.
Common, "I Used to Love H.E.R."
In his newest album, Nas laments that real power has been taken away from the artist; the rapper no longer has the freedom to be creative and go in their own direction. Hip hop is dead.
But, some artists are reclaiming power in the non-mainstream arena. Again, this isn't anything new, and the "underground" scene has always thrived from its critique of capital gain and scrutiny of the formulaic, predictable, and non-creative way that the mainstream music industry operates. From Hiero to Lif to Kweli J-Live, there is no scarcity of material that underground artists can rap about because the music industry and capital go hand in hand.
Relating this to Filipinos and hip hop, the infatuation with the "original" and "old school" elements of hip hop culture has always been strong in this community (with turntablism and b-boying as the obvious elements Pinoys are immersed in). And their rep in the rap game is more on the underground side. I'm not saying that Filipinos keep hip hop "more real," because, in all obviousness, there are too many examples of Pinoys that create and support the mainstream genre.
But some artists, like Blue Scholars, provide good material to challenge the idea of the loss of power in the hands of the artists (and people in general). In "Southside Revival," Geo raps,
"Let your hands be the pillars that be holdin' up the sky.
I heard a few heads say that hip hop is dead.
No it's not, it's just malnourished and underfed"
Blue Scholars, "Southside Revival"
So what is this debate about? Sure, we can always remind ourselves that WE as regular, non-celebrity people have power. But does Nas also have a point in saying that power has been taken away and hip hop is dead? Is penetrating the mainstream really necessary to create meaningful, lasting change where hip hop is concerned? Or is creativity and power only possible in the underground? And if by chance the lyrics expressed by underground artists is made more accessible in the mainstream, will people of color (and not just white college kids) even listen to it? A classic debate.
But anyways, I'm curious to know other songs that reminisce about the good old days and/or point out how current music sucks. Certainly I think that critiquing new, strange sounds is a staple of popular music culture. For hip hop, which emphasizes "realness," the old school, the golden days, the boom-bap era, back when hip hop was "real" will always be an issue as the culture moves forward. But in this era of MP3s, MPCs, internet access, globalization, hypercapitalism, hip hop as mainstream (because it used to be in the margins, remember?), hip hop in video games-- do these nostalgia songs have a new meaning than when Common used to love her? Is it more urgent?
Anyways, for the b-boy/girl, he/she could care less about the latest hip hop jam. Diggin' that funk is where it's at.