Wednesday, August 22, 2007

"Reminiscin' When It Wasn't All Business": Hip Hop's Preoccupation with Yesterday

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 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.


Unknown said...

I think the whole "nostalgia" infatuation with hiphop is played.

I actually think it serves as an ongoing critique of the current state the culture, music industry, quality of music is at, but nostalgia can be productive and unproductive with hiphop practitioners:

In it's productive form, it is a reminder of where the culture is, its roots, and proposes values or standards that hiphop should continue to do "keep real" or watch for fakin the funk, or sellin out.

As an unproductive form, someone's critique on what hiphop is and where its going may not reflect what someone's else's definition of what hiphop is and can be pretty imposing, prescriptive and destructive to other legit forms of hiphop. Reminding someone of hiphop's cultural roots in New York City could be something totally irrelevant if you from the South, if you don't breakdance, if you don't beat juggle, or if you don't know who sampled Apache.

The other reason why it is unproductive is that it creates a hesitation on pushing the boundaries and everyone and their mom's is waitin on "the next level shit" Who's to say we should wait, and hype up other artists who're next level when 1000s of artists---dj's, bboys, MC's have built a genre that is entirely next level, do your homework, these are artforms well established but never completed until people take it personally upon themselves to create what is next level. GET OFF your Computer and I-POD and stop lookin for something that speaks to you and create it.

Hiphop is constantly changing, reinventing itself on the local level, commodified and told to sing and dance by the industries. Hiphop has been declared dead about five times now--1980 when hiphop went all-city in NYC, 1986 when breakdancing died, 1988 when gangsta rap was on the horizon and samples had to get cleared, 1996 when Puffy kidnapped it, 2000 when Dirty South made it's mark, and so on.

To me, hiphop has always been the strongest at the local community level. And there are many underground hiphop artists who really rely on "bein real" when there content & delivery are wack as Fergie. Bein underground is now a commodity.

I think we lost music's true voices when the 1995 Telecommunications Act allowed companies to buy up multiple radio stations and national playlists took over. The challenge is for us old heads to create spaces where we have alternative music & arts, and teach younger generations its bigger than them, its bigger than hiphop. But it won't take us so long to notice the next gen creatin something totally fresh down the block..or down the youtube..

To tell you the truth, I'm old school now so I don't know what the next generation even thinks.

MV said...

Boogaleo, you speak troof!

"To me, hiphop has always been the strongest at the local community level. And there are many underground hiphop artists who really rely on "bein real" when there content & delivery are wack as Fergie. Bein underground is now a commodity."

Oh, yeah i've been to too many self-righteous underground (usually white) hip hop shows, and they sucked. It'd be different if they shit was hot. So props to those independent artists who can speak troof and also make good music.

"Reminding someone of hiphop's cultural roots in New York City could be something totally irrelevant if you from the South"

Well this issue is big because of this whole narrative of New York City as hip hop mecca. We are now knowing more and more about Westcoast roots (origins of the pop, for example) and Jamaica's role in hip hop (Jeff Chang does this in the beginning of Can't Stop Won't Stop, and in the audio supplement). The dominance of NYC is great in many terms, but it is also dogmatic in other terms.

Thinking bigger, now we have to re-think the idea of U.S.-based hip hop, and how U.S. national identity can be colonial, trying to impose a certain U.S.-brand, NYC-based hip hop in other nations. How many times have we talked shit about rap in the Philippines? Germany? How many times do U.S. artists go to other countries to get that paper, and love their women? There's nothing wrong with that in some respects, but if the attitude is of arrogance and superiority, then the U.S. nation state is asserting colonial power through hip hop.

Well anyways in the realm of b-boying, other countries are kickin' our ass.

Unknown said...

yeah, it's crazy ironic how US hiphop identity can get sucked into hegemonic US colonial culture (money talks, kapital reigns supreme over nearly everybody)

I have much much love for the international hiphop scene, I'm reminded of the strong underground hiphop movements in Cuba:

and in Palestine:

As for bboying, check this clip of Florida's own Mind 180 v. Rivers Crew in Korea.

The cultural dynamics of how you should rock a Cypher are all up in the air.

Unknown said...

correction..that's Florida's own Mind 180--Kuso, Kurious, Beastmode with Canadian all-star Casper, Texas' Milky and Keebz.

Overall Battle: Mind 180

Anonymous said...

i like Common's "I Used to Love H.E.R.". I agree with Nas..

Anonymous said...

man mark.. i love the way your brain thinks. =) hip hop man.. it's crazy. its music, its culture.. its an emotion. i love it and i don't know what i'd do without it. i do favor the "older" hiphop songs.. but nothing stays the same. change is a good thing, it must happen. I spoke to someone who was really upset that some of the greatest music he has heard in his life doesnt get played on the radio and that many people have never even heard of the artist. Now i consider myself to really love hiphop.. i feel it in me, i dont just say it and act it bc i think its cool. it really is a part of me. ... but i admit, i dont know a lot of artist either. but when i hear something good.. i respect it and i share it. it would be nice if "real" hiphop was more pulic, but its not.. and thats reality. at least is exist.. and we know where to find it. the world is all about money.. and thats never going to change. but i dont think we should be so bitter about it. i am blessed that hiphop is STILL ALIVE... and it is us.. the people.. the fans.. that keep it alive, not just artist.. and its not dead just bc we dont hear it on the radio.. or bc now there is a shift and new genras are evolving from it. it's all still hiphop. ... some of the wackest songs on the radio talking about nothing but money, rims, and women.. have the doppest beats. and some the greatest "real" hiphop songs with words that inspire... have the lamest beats. it's all balance. but i think its all still.. hip hop.

Unknown said...

It was interesting to read this article. It made me remember that things in this world are ever changing. there is no way to keep something the same over a vast period of time. Not only do we as people change, the music that we listen to must grow and change with us.

I am not saying that hip hop now a days is good, cause i swear this music on the radios is all about capitalism, but i am saying that maybe we need to envision a new form of hip hop and not relish in the once was.

check this song out. We R In Need of A Musical Revolution by Esthero. this is what i mean. we need change.