If you were born around the ’70s or ’80s, you’d probably remember where you were when you first heard the incomparable Notorious B.I.G. say those groundbreaking words. Perhaps you were trailing through the Bed-Stuy neighborhood and heard it blasting through stereo speakers or perhaps you heard it at a party and quickly noticed every head bobbing to the beat.
Regardless of the time or venue, you remember how you felt when you heard all of its treasures: That warm, rhythmic vibe. The authentic vinyl record crackling sound, the fluid lyrics over Mtume’s iconic 1982 “Juicy Fruit”. By the time it ended, you felt as if it was more of an experience than just another song to listen on your walkman. And I would be remiss to alienate the works of similar artists who graced the world with their own Picasso-esque works of art: Tupac Shakur, Nas, Ice Cube, Jay-Z, Eminem, Q-Tip, Slick Rick, Big Daddy Kane, Biz Markie – the list is endless!
During these times, Hip Hop wasn’t just a genre, it was a thunderous statement. It was a creatively expressive way to give outsiders a colorful perspective of a not so colorful world. With day-to-day struggles like police brutality, racism, drug addiction (i.e. crack cocaine, heroin, etc.), political scandal, gentrification, crime, and a lack of positive structure within the community, Hip Hop was the answer many young black men and women needed to avoid succumbing to the same fate that has claimed the lives of so many.
But with pain comes creativity. When you’ve spent a great deal of your life living in a bleak existence with barely any room for growth, it becomes an unbridled need to have a voice. And with enough pain, struggle, and passion fueling that voice, a young black youth can go from being a simple kid on the block to a revolutionary and his music becomes immortalized as an inspiration for years to come.
During Y2K, hip-hop was still going relatively strong and maintained its supremacy within my community. You couldn’t walk down my high school corridor without hearing such names as Jadakiss, 50 Cent, Juelz Santana, DMX, Kanye West, Lil Wayne, Ludacris and Young Jeezy. Nevertheless, while the offspring of the golden age remained active, there was a new sound that started to gain traction.
The barbaric bass, the uninspired lyrics, the criminally abhorrent lack of humility. It all felt so different from what Hip-Hop originated from. The creativity, for the most part, was still there but that genuine innovative sound that pumped adrenaline into our hearts was in a state of decline, if not completely lost. Sure, at the time, it wasn’t as obvious as it is now. After all, we were just kids, and therefore contempt with having anything we could dance to and easily remember the lyrics. While most of my friends were eager to indulge in this new sound, I couldn’t help but long for a generation of music that I wasn’t even old enough to properly enjoy.
While the kids in my social group were listening to Soulja Boy and Gucci Mane, I was still listening to De La Soul, Treach, Snoop Dogg, Lauryn Hill, and The Wu-Tang Clan (more specifically Method Man, Raekwon, and Ghostface Killah). Naturally, I felt like an old soul trapped in the wrong era. Initially, I considered it to be a flaw on my part by way of the majority. After all, if this new generation of music is the preferred sound over the golden age experience, could it just be a matter of adapting? With Hip-Hop being founded on one’s personal journey and self-expression, is it safe to say any form of Hip-Hop is still Hip-Hop?
As the South Bronx rap legend, KRS One once said, “Rap is something that you do; Hip Hop is something that you live.” That quote alone summarizes my take on the subject at hand. In the past, it would have been easier to make the argument that self-expression is the key ingredient for a rap song to be considered Hip-Hop but that sentiment fails to hold any justifiable ground in today’s generation. While the early 2000s weren’t perfect, the music had one thing going for it: we understood what they were saying!
It feels as if today’s rappers have abandoned the original concept of what Hip Hop stood for and replaced it with this lurid, unintelligible sound that focuses more on administering a fancy beat to get stuck in your head than exhausting any real effort. Some rappers mesh together any word that rhymes without showing any respect for the artistry of it all. The other rappers avoid speaking coherently in general while relying on a cascade of instruments to carry on for three minutes.
Now, it isn’t difficult to suggest that I’m just an old man who is desperate to go back to the “old days”. A close-minded conservative who is incapable of adjusting to the next-gen world. While there may be some truth to this with reference to other aspects of the world, it simply does not pertain to today’s Hip-Hop music.
Back in the early 90s, when the internet was still in its primitive stage and only a chosen few people could afford cellular phones, getting your name and music out to the masses took initiative. You had to know the right people and be in the right places. The various production equipment that is easily accessible now was nowhere to be found in the past, so rappers couldn’t count on their producers to get them a hit record – they needed to have something substantial to stay.
Today, these artists are blessed with so many recourses and opportunities, that the lyrical aspect of the genre seems to have been demoted. This is not to say that every rapper of this generation has completely forsaken Hip-Hop or that every rapper today isn’t worthy of fame. Clearly, some amount of effort was put into their celebrity status for them to be where they are. However, in comparison to that raw, organic sound that serenaded us in the past, we’ve arrived at a dead-end.