Old School, New School, Need To Know This: Hip-Hop’s Last Rites
or the rest of 2005, Stylus will be presenting a series of two to three essays each month in the Pop Playground section centered around an idea or theme related to music. These questions will be open-ended, allowing each writer to make of the subject what they will and to explore it more fully than they might do in a normal review or feature. This month: The Death of Hip-Hop.
Rap was never about fence sitting. This makes both the fear of co-op and the assumption of hip-hop’s near-death quite curious. Historically, hip-hop culture and the rap genre has been a take-what-you-can, make-what-you-need, DIY clusterfuck, but this mentality never lent itself well to an expiration date. The spin of ideas from raw talent to filtered product has turned the Biz into a business and love for the game into Luv for whatever the game can get you. But that’s neither here nor there. You could say this whole thing is Jay-Z’s fault.
He made everything a little too easy. Jay-Z walked in with drug money, tall tales and Chip Fu tongue twisting and left with hearts, minds and the biggest chair in the Def Jam office. But in between all that, Shawn Carter figured something out that changed hip-hop forever. You can have the club, the street, the radio and the suburbs simultaneously—without losing respect. Certainly not the first to think this, yes, but his execution was gangland. Treading the line, bridging the gap, splitting the uprights: Jigga simply treated the rap game like the crack game. Re-up every year, strengthen the product, widen your consumer base. And all of this was done with complete critical acclaim. This is the difference between him and Papoose or Stack Bundles or Murda Mook or whatever mixtape selling point you prefer.
He described his doppelgangers like the candy rappers they are: “Sick of y’all niggas with your Now And Later raps / Rap about it now, hope you get it later.” Jay-Z had ‘it’ on two fronts, not just the platinum one. These people didn’t take the most important thing with them when they bit Shawn Carter’s formula: you have to be good to have lasting influence.
By the same token, Rawkus had their heart in the right place. It sounded incredible on paper in a very Communist way: mash Company Flow, Black Star and RA The Rugged Man onto one label, get respected for your art and make that MTV money. Forget for a second that two white benefactors started the label with Murdoch money and little to no respect for the actual artform. It doesn’t quite matter that hobbyists with no micromanagement skills led Hip-Hop’s Noah’s Ark either. It fell apart, even with the money and the talent, because a label based completely on saving hip-hop is flawed from the beginning. Rawkus figured this out way too late: they lost Co Flow, sold out to MCA, and basically let Mos Def and Talib Kweli get subsidized into the Okayplayer fold, giving credibility to a pointless faux-Native Tongues collective with a false sense of security founded in the accruement of a movement. Kind of a fuck up.
When this happened, no one was more ready to say ‘off with their heads’ than the heads themselves. One of the cornerstones of the genre has been authenticity. Without proximity to realness, an artist is lost to the Vanilla Ice bracket for however long their VH1 I Love The [insert decade] relevancy lasts. Def Jux couldn’t survive unless everyone knew that credibility was all that mattered to them. The way they rose up from the fall of Rawkus was perfect, an orchestrated grab at the old Fondle Em Records faithful, the Rawkus fallout. It was amicable for a few years, but now the mission statement is no longer the older “Independent as fuck” mantra or the more recent claim “Cause motherfuckers are bored.” It’s more about opportunism, it’s selling the bunker before the rapocalypse, it’s gasmask shops after 9/11. Even though Anticon will tell you they aren’t sure what they’re making, they obviously make it because they care about whatever it is they do. With every vanity project that El-P puts out, every cash grubbing acapella record Aesop signs off on, Def Jux kills hip-hop.
Then again, if you think like a tarot card reader, hip-hop has died four or five times in this article alone. Death is simply rebirth, a new beginning. If anything, music is cyclical, so those expecting a true-school phoenix move would better think again. If people would stop worrying about saving rap, they might come up with constructive thoughts towards melding the music into the shape they prefer. Hip-hop isn’t something that can die permanently and it isn’t supposed to reassure you of this fact. It isn’t about who’s doing it or what’s being said or who’s profiting from it. It isn’t about anything. It’s about everything. That’s the whole point.
By: Rollie Pemberton
Published on: 2005-03-02