Pop Playground
The "Death" of Hip-Hop



for 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.

Everyone loves a story. The problem is that every person’s story is its own truth, omitting and observing the facts as they see fit. Oftentimes hip-hop is forced into this literary structure, a dramatic arc from rise to fall to eventual death—and a shot at redemption. This classicist story is linear, a dialectic approach of dominant ideologies reacting to outdated modes of thought. Old school begot hip-pop begot gangsta begot native tongues begot bling-bling. It is a story of the rise, fall, and eventual death of rap music. (The story often concludes with redemption (i.e. the “underground,” where the old spirit is kept alive.) In actuality, hip-hop is a large and contradictory animal these days, and it defies such generalizations.

There seem to be a couple dominant themes that surface in the critiques of modern hip-hop, and for the most part, they are inherently conservative. Things were better in some imagined past and these old values have been compromised. Hip-hop is merely a slave to capitalism, misogyny, or violence. These descriptions of the genre today are, in part, accurate. The problem is that they imagine a fictional past of well-behaved politicos with either leftist or moralist agendas writing “positive” rap music while kids breakdance in the parks. There are all kinds of variations on this theme, but they all seem to deny the real history behind hip-hop’s rise. It came from violence and it came from the streets, it came from drugs and crime and although lots of it was positive, the idea that the music has since fallen from grace seems to deny the facts of its origins, origins that these days seem washed with the brown wood-panel tint of nostalgia.

So it started in New York, thanks to the mobile DJs of Jamaican sound system culture, MCs getting the party hype while the kids threw on party records. And it spread, and capitalism was involved from the second it spread, from the moment a rhyme was laid to wax capitalism was there. We can’t separate capitalism from the history of hip-hop as recorded music because capitalism was always there. If capitalism killed hip-hop, it was an abortion. Eric B and Rakim were Paid in Full. Rappers were gonna “make money money make money money money.” Likewise, politics were there but never defined the music; writer and R&B; enthusiast Aaron Fuchs was quoted in David Toop’s legendary Rap Attack about his disdain for the “message rap,” arguing that it was “a capitulation to the adult norm who can’t accept the music on its own terms” (120). Hip-hop was inherently political; it began as the music of marginalized peoples, poor urban minorities whose cultural capital was relatively small. Explicit attempts to be political, while sometimes musically interesting, tended to have a superfluous impact. It was significant in more dramatic ways on a cultural level.

The real story of hip-hop isn’t a dramatic rise and fall, a linear tale of revolution and consolidation, of hardcore rap rejecting pop or “positive” Native Tongues rappers rejecting gangsta; hip-hop’s story is regional. Its rise is regional because of how differently it has been interpreted from place to place—from its beginnings in the boroughs of New York, moving across the country—hip-house in Chicago, bay area pimp shit, LA gangsta, and of course the massive conglomeration of styles that worked their way across the south, from Miami bass in Florida to the screw music of Houston and everywhere in between—rap is a highly adaptable music form, and as a result is extremely democratic. You don’t have to follow New York lyrical rules and you don’t have to make southern club anthems; the cultures of each geographical region would completely redefine the sound of hip-hop both at a regional level and, very often, on the pop charts.

Follow this idea further—hip-hop is worldwide. It has exploded beyond national boundaries with the same groundswell of partying and rapping. Worldwide rap is dance music that retains the edge of the streets and drugs and violence and love and sex and dancing and death and everything else that makes up the life of poor, young, and marginalized peoples. This may sound romantic to some people’s eyes—but it’s not. Where rap comes from sucks but it is also beautiful, and this is how it has always been. The slums (“favelas”) of Rio are not idyllic, they’ve got many problems, but they also are exploding with creativity and vitality, kids throwing together sounds using available technology and imitating imported rap stars (see 2004’s Favela Booty Beats compilation for an excellent example). 50 Cent is one of the biggest stars in the world, from Kingston to Capetown, and whether or not you like 50 is irrelevant; he’s a mythic figure who has attained a cultural relevance so massive that it is hard to comprehend from our perspective. Rap’s cultural capital is larger than ever before. A mixed blessing, because in the United States, and many other countries, cultural capital doesn’t translate into social justice, economic justice or any kind of justice—it’s just another opportunity.

Hip-hop as a genre is not dead, but perhaps hip-hop as a signifier is; we need to redefine the term, extend it, and make it more practical. Hip-hop’s romantic past is over, and the current understanding of hip-hop will soon be too diffuse to be useful. Current chart rap music is too influential, too strong, and too popular to follow obsolete descriptors. Its characteristics have become dependent on the location, time, and the cultures that continuously shape and reshape it. Hip-hop is really youth culture plus the basics: rapping and beats. Hip-hop is worldwide, and whatever you call it—favela funk, dancehall, Miami bass, hip-house, grime, kwaito, sleaze, freestyle, desi—it is polyglot street music, populist reinterpretations of American hip-hop informed by the culture of its geography, the technology of the time and beats that still shake your chest. “Hip-hop” is dead; long live hip-hop.


By: David Drake
Published on: 2005-03-16
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