All deaths have causes … Corpses are cut open, explored, scanned, tested, until the cause is found: a blood clot, kidney failure, hemorrhage, heart arrest, lung collapse. We do not hear of people dying of mortality. They die only of individual causes … No post-mortem examination is considered complete until the individual cause has been revealed. … One does not just die; one dies of a disease or of murder.
—Zygmunt Bauman, Mortality, Immortality, and Other Life Strategies (Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 1992), p. 138.
Everybody sound the same, commercialize the game/ Reminiscing when it wasn’t all business/ It forgot where it started/ So we all gather here for the dearly departed/
—Nas, “Hip Hop Is Dead,” Hip-Hop Is Dead (2006).
It didn’t take long after Queensbridge MC Nas declared Hip-Hop dead in early 2006 for the blowback to begin. In those subsequent days, fans, artists, and even music executives at once sauntered from beyond the halls of obscurity to register their firm dispute with any such notion that this music which had dominated public consciousness for over two decades was approaching death rattles, and on verge of chugging down the final pill. On blog sites, forums, editorials, columns, radio shows and street-side conversations, the brash and often crass debates ratcheted.
One side saw Nas as a prophet hammering down jolting truths that the public deserved to hear nonetheless; another side saw in him a washed-up pariah pulling a publicity stunt to sell copies of his upcoming album, Hip-Hop Is Dead. I still remember the wide-nosed rants of a few friends who, thereafter, swore never to set hand on another Nas album. But as the debates raged unfettered, it became clear that, whether the messenger held sincere intentions or not, the message arrived in perfect rhythm. Eventfully, it also crosshaired the early hours of the Southern takeover and, consequently, set off far more tantrums than budgeted.
Southern rappers were first to fire off, fingering East-Coast-elitism as prime factor behind any sudden concerns about the health of Hip-Hop. They declared Hip-Hop alive and thriving, and submitted strong protest against what they considered the jealousy-inspired suspicions of “Southern Rap.” For them, the emerging cries from East and Mid-West corners had more to do with refusal to acknowledge another region’s fair-and-square dominance, than accurate assessment of a culture on the decline, a culture losing relevance and purpose each passing second.
(The recent, ill-conceived rants of New Orleans artist Jay Electronica confirm this much, and so do the condescending assessments of fellow artists, RZA and B-Real. “How has the South dominated hip-hop for the last four, five years without lyrics, without hip-hop culture really in their blood?” asked RZA three years ago, which provoked Electronica’s tirade last week. RZA worried many Southern artists—and there’s standard document backing him up—were taking great pride “representing … a stereotype of how black people are.” B-Real, speaking with AllHipHop a month ago, ran sharper daggers through the heart of the South, boldly assuring “there’s not that much creativity coming from there.” And even when a few good men rise up, “it starts to all sound the same. And I think that’s the problem that’s going on down there.”)
Nas, emerging within this context, was set up before his lips moved. However well-worded his commentaries would turn up, many were bound to cast him by the wayside where the long list of East Coast critics have been dumped by Southern fans and artists.
But the blowback had more going for it than a few hurt feelings. Artists hailing from diverse regions also had righteous reasons to dissent firmly: for if Hip-Hop, as a vibrant musical contribution, was dead or dying, any labor in the fields would turn up futile in the long run; and if Hip-Hop was dead or dying, any further contact with it, in a death-detesting society (a society which treats the dead and the dying with nearly equal disdain), would mark either as creepy or costly. Artists like Jean Grae, East as the Empire State Building, beat back strongly—
Hip-Hop’s not dead: it was on vacation
We back: we bask in the confrontation
However accurate the assurances, and however desperate the disputes, it’s clear prophets announcing the drying of bones had descended long before Nas shook the grounds in 2006. Three years earlier, Canibus, displeased with the current state, lamented:
From an extroverted point of view, I think it’s too late
Hip Hop has never been the same since ‘88
Since it became a lucrative profession, there’s a misconception
That the movement in any direction is progression
Three years before Canibus, Talib Kweli saw little complexity surrounding, and recognized serious threat in the onrush of commercialism inundating fans and alluring artists—
Nowadays, Rap artists coming half-hearted:
Commercial like pop or underground like Black Markets
Where were you the day Hip-Hop died?
Is it too early to mourn? Is it too late to ride?
This was 2000, with New York very much astride the throne, and a very New York artist could deliver Hip-Hop’s elegy without cranky cries splitting out from a thousand quarters, accusing him of applying double standards or calling a boxing match before the loser was dropped toothless. Back then, such criticism was received with maturity, with thoughtfulness (even if fans and artists felt of the conclusions meritless). The age of the internet wasn’t yet upon us, and the instant-message sensibility with which many reason today still had a few years to set foot. Stinging critiques of the direction in which Hip-Hop was veering also failed to receive spiteful resistance because many knew the history of the music they claimed to support, and understood without the foot-in-mouth remonstrations of artists, Hip-Hop music, at each major turn, had little chance of surviving with its soul intact.
It was evident artists had driven this cultural force off the brink of corporate infiltration countless times, and this tradition of self-criticism, however premature the gloom-and-doom sermons often sounded, had done well in keeping Hip-Hop the public and provocative vessel of social and creative change it began as.
6 years before Talib Kweli, the Notorious B.I.G. struck with equally lethal force—
I see the gimmicks, the wack lyrics
The sh** is depressing, pathetic: please forget it
And two decades earlier, when The Sugarhill Gang was packaged and sold as the first major commercial Rap act, many howled about this irreparable damage to the unsullied, non-commodified foundation Hip-Hop culture was built upon.
The South had legitimate complaint, particularly in wake of the embarrassing disdain Atlanta duo Outkast suffered in the mid-‘90s, but equal protest was placed in ’94 when Common, ruminating on Rap, patronizingly accepted (then rejected) the rising acclaim of West Coast influence—
But then she broke to the West Coast, and that was cool
… I wasn’t salty she was with the Boyz in the ‘hood
… Talking about poppin’ glocks, servin’ rocks, and hittin’ switches
Now she’s a gangsta rollin’ with gangsta bi**hes
Whether of a regional or commercial inspiration, Hip-Hop has been pronounced dead enough times to rival the cat with nine lives. And Hip-Hop has each time staggered out of those coffins, and broke free from the 6-feet mud, to keep relevance till this day. The question, of course, never concerned the positive and affirming presence of a few acts, but whether Rap, as the social conscience it initially burst forth to be, still saw primary purpose as bringing fire to the feet of a society that for many years consigned inner-city Black and Brown youth as invincible—of no priority.
At the start of a new millennium where commercialism reigned supreme, a new millennium which picked up cues from the stock-market frenzy of the previous decade, many Rap fans and artists could smell danger ahead. With record label executives quick to shelve the formulas that only a few years earlier had assured quality music from quality, time-tested artists, the ringing doubts of a future for Rap had good grounding. And this fear extended to the broader musical landscape.
In Before the Music Dies, a 2006 documentary, musicians from all callings railed against the creeping commercialization and the corporate state-of-mind dominating business decisions in record label boardrooms: a short-term investment plan, built against artistic integrity, which no iconic artist—à la Ray Charles or Nina Simone—would today have found in their interest. There could never be a Stevie Wonder or Blind Boys of Alabama, many bewailed, because male acts must be able to swivel their hips, keep perfect looks, and flirt with female fans endlessly. And no Mahalia Jackson or Odetta could rise in these dark days of pop-star musicians, whose daily routines require only a good hairdresser, a good make-up artist, a good personal shopper, and a good lip-synch coach. Doyle Bramhall II, a Blues-guitarist/singer, who in past years has been dropped by both Geffen Records and RCA Records after failing to meet set sales goals (even though being crowned by Eric Clapton heir to the throne), recounted his many meetings with executives who know “more about Wall Street than [they know] about music.”
By the mid-‘90s, it was clear vocals were out and videos in. The spectacle of video could override any vocal deficits. And any half-witted video director, with millions of dollars dropped at his doorstep, could afford enough special effects on set that saved artists the trouble of inserting complex plots and narratives into their work. For Hip-Hop the blow hit harder, as many suburban teens, raptured by this cultural force in which they found source for rebellion, “saw it as being easier to go to the mall and pick up a tape and learn about the culture that way, or they could just watch Yo! MTV Raps in the comfort of their living rooms and copy the culture that way.” [Chuck D, Fight the Power: Rap, Race, and Reality (New York: Delacorte Press, 1997), p. 114.]
Hip-Hop’s descent into the inferno of commercialism sped up at the start of the new millennium, and while many wouldn’t go so far as Kweli, widespread concerns rung loud. By mid-last decade, doubts of survival only increased in volume. (The simultaneous rise of Southern Rap—merely coincidental.) A few from the East might have harbored deep antipathy toward acts they considered impure and alien (if not downright illiterate!)—as many around the country, lovers of all music types, feel of the South—but most meant well in their criticisms. They saw the musical form of their culture suffering from the greed of corporate oligarchs whose perennial jump from fad to fad had landed Hip-Hop in their clutches. Detroit artist Invincible makes the point with pith in ShapeShifters—
Quality control … Quantity is sold
Based in mediocrity: monotony’s the mold
At this intersection, the number of Rap records with no meaning matched the number of companies embedding Rap mannerisms, slangs, songs, dances, and artists in commercials and ad spots, on banners and billboards. Rappers became proxy to reach the millions of youth worldwide who looked to them as messiahs of sorts, saving souls and offering renewed identities. Only now, rather than inspiring young people to resist the felicities of a market society, to seek self-discovery as greatest of all commandments, rappers had one message for this mass: buy. Buy cars, buy clothes, buy shoes, buy watches, buy bracelets, buy sodas, buy credit cards, buy fast-food, buy liquor.
Am I a victim or just a product of indoctrination?
They exploit it and use me like a movie with product placement
In a sense, Rap artists became purveyors of the same culture (of rancid capitalism and neoliberalism) that constantly evoked terrible childhood memories, the same culture that had inspired so many of those rage-filled rhymes lashing against the soullessness of a society that calculates human worth with financial modalities. And fans, who could demand better from artists and the companies sponsoring them, found more use nitpicking vocal styles and stifling artists’ complex personalities. Many of them, ensconced in the underground, refused to engage Hip-Hop in public forums.
The underground boomed with pure and undefiled acts, and this gladdened the gatekeepers, but the ever-narrow criteria used for evaluation never sat well with public artists like Talib Kweli, whose music and message had to travel through all corners of the world, beyond the isolated quarters of narrow-minded bases bent on keeping Rap one-dimensional and inorganic—
Kweli, you should rap about this, you should rap about that
Any more suggestions? You in the back
… You should rap more on beat, you should rap more street
And never ever get your mack on, please
Others, like Jean Grae, took less casual tones when addressing the sorry state of self-satisfaction lapped up in the underground—
You don’t like the way I flow: “She needs more emotional”
I’ll give you emotion: it’s you holding your broken nose
Death, here, not only came by a laissez-faire state-of-affairs, but also by smothering and inhumane expectations that no true artist can ever feel comfortable with. And all talk that Hip-Hop cannot be dead if the underground still produced artists-with-a-conscience fell flat because Rap, in public form, was eclipsed by the commercial, corporate junk promoted on major radio and TV stations. The face of Hip-Hop wasn’t socially conscious artists addressing the broadness of the world with well thought-out rhymes, but half-naked, fully grown men and women entertaining humanity with tales of drug-dealing, promiscuity, and extreme materialism.
MTV’s standard department could, for instance, rebuff Invincible’s remarkable video, “Ropes,” which chronicled the mental health trauma plaguing young people, complaining it contains “suicidal undertones” and might be “problematic on the channel [mtvU] it was accepted for.” But this channel wouldn’t shy, and never has, from proudly exhibiting the sick and senseless reproductions of violence (verbal, sexual, and physical) from so-called artists for whom Rap music is merely an economic venture.
“Death, when it comes,” Zygmunt Bauman instructed two decades ago, “will brutally interrupt our work before our task is done, our mission accomplished. This is why we have every reason to be worried about death now, when we are still very much alive and when death remains but a remote and abstract prospect.” (p. 4) Those who hoped to rail Nas over red-hot coals for speaking prematurely had missed the point entirely. For of what use is a prophet whose doom-filled exhortations only arrive once the deed has come and passed. Hip-Hop—Is Dead, Nas said. Hip-Hop, however, wasn’t dead but losing significance; in short, dying. And the burden of restoring Hip-Hop back to rightful place as the speck in the eye of society fell on the backs of all those who treasured the righteous rage of a young generation caught off from the benefits previous generations had enjoyed.
But this message failed to arouse critical engagement because, besides resentment over timeliness, guilt overwhelmed many who hadn’t held up their weight of the bargain. And, on this issue, the South felt most targeted. The whole world seemed to have its fingers directed downward; and like the murderer who quietly jumps out the back window of his victim’s bedroom, only to discover the whole neighborhood gathered around, a good round of reverse-psychology mixed with unqualified and unprovoked defensiveness was last hope to bail out the assailant(s).
“Unlike our distant ancestors and ‘people unlike us,’ we do not discuss cruel and gory matters,” wrote Bauman. “We are abhorred by the flashes of realities we have chased down into the no-go cellars of our orderly and elegant existence, having proclaimed them nonexistent or at least unspeakable. Death is just one of those things that have been so evicted.” (p. 129) For a culture stuffed to the teeth with tales of death and death-defying deeds, a culture made sensitive from the annual deaths of rising stars, the messiness of death-talk irritated many immediately. Plus, if Hip-Hop was dead, the South figured, the culprits most likely would be placed somewhere close to the scene of murder; and no other region could at the time boast as great a regional command.
No doubt a deficit in intelligence prevented a good deal of fans and artists from answering the clarion call to run faster and work harder to keep Hip-Hop socially relevant and publicly useful. What for them marked black attire, veils, grave diggers, mud, flowers, and teary eyes, should have inspired a new awakening and resilience of spirit and hope for better days. The Hip-Hop Is Dead declaration, if critical thinking had found greater use, would have regenerated effervescent commitment from fans and artists, for as Bauman announced:
Once the diffuse and inhuman prospect of mortality had been localized and ‘humanized,’ one need no more stand idle waiting for impending doom. One can do something, something ‘reasonable’ and ‘useful.’ … One can, in other words, be a rational agent in the face of (in spite of) the predicament that bars rationality. (p. 153)
Regretfully, the decade-long obsession with infantilism had produced such deleterious results that criticism, once lifted over one-dimensional ceilings, shot fast above the heads of those into whose hands is entrusted the future of Hip-Hop. God, save us.
[Next week’s editorial will attempt a conclusion to this series, and strive to steer hope for an indecisive future.]
Tolu Olorunda is a cultural critic whose work appears regularly in various online journals. He can be reached at: [email protected].