Seems like lately, everyone wants to know where you were when Hip Hop died.
Though I'm not convinced it's time to "pour liquor" on this continually commercialized element of urban culture, I can, however, recall where I was when I realized Hip Hop was critically ill. I was listening to Talib Kweli's song, "African Dream" (Reflection Eternal, 2000), during which he utters what may be considered one of the most profound (and often quoted) lyrics in recent memory: "These cats drink champagne to toast death and pain/Like slaves on a ship talkin' 'bout who got the flyest chain."
Whoa. I had to make sure I had heard it right.
"... Like slaves on a ship talkin' 'bout who got the flyest chain."
Suddenly, I thought about the ubiquitous images seen on most Hip-Hop videos. You know the ones: scantily clad women, iced out young men, designer urban apparel, expensive cars, etc. It occurred to me that this was not the same music that I grew up with. Hip Hop was indeed dying a slow, painful death -- perhaps from a lack of oxygen to its collective brain.
But perhaps not all is lost.
I was talking with a sister who I ran into at the Greenwich Tavern during a recent poetry set sponsored by Atlanta-based RaRa Enterprises. We were commenting on the positive vibe felt throughout the evening that featured a number of regional artists and poets including Zebra Killah, Embrya, Olufemi, rapper Pryzless, and the night's headlining act, the Watusi Tribe. We both shared the perspective that there was a certain comfort in hearing artists who spoke from the soul, mostly unencumbered by the conformity and materialism that plagues popular music today.
Yet, why is it that artists with "conscious leanings" do not enjoy the same degree of media exposure as more mainstream artists? Is it the unnatural juxtaposition of Western values (i.e., capitalism and consumerism) onto the Afro-Latino tradition of Hip Hop that results in conscious Hip Hop's absence from mainstream pop culture? Or are media powerbrokers determined to create barriers preventing messages of self-knowledge and empowerment from reaching a broad audience?
Author/rapper/activist Sista Souljah is quoted in Angela Ard's 1999 treatise, "Rhyme and Resist" (The Nation), as stating, "It's very difficult to mix education and consciousness with capitalism. And most people, when confronted with an option, will pick money over everything else." Wu Tang issued the same warning back in 1993 when they declared that "cash rules everything (around me)."
An industry outsider, I often envision a scenario at a large, Manhattan- or L.A.-based media company/record label where a fiercely talented (and broke) lyricist enters a meeting rocking a hoodie, baseball cap and a worn copy of The Isis Papers tucked into his back pocket. My hypothetical emcee emerges after several hours of contract negotiations wearing platinum fronts, large diamond studs in both ears, and diamond-encrusted Air Force 1's (let's not forget the $50,000 advance which is actually a loan against the sales of his debut CD). While this scenario might represent an overly simplistic portrayal of what is actually a complicated business, my instincts tell me that I'm probably not far off the mark.
It appears as though many rappers are plugged into what I refer to as a Hip Hop Matrix (HHM), where unseen, powerful gatekeepers mold the direction of the music we are given to choose from. Similar to the concept popularized in the 1999 sci-fi blockbuster, this Matrix creates an artificial landscape where the rewards for "keepin' it real" include fast cash, cars, diamonds, women and other "tools" of the commercial hip-hop trade.
A recent issue of Source Magazine dedicated an entire article to Hip-Hop big spenders; yet instead of addressing the pervasive materialism in the industry, the article read more like an eight-page infomercial. Fortunately, there are artists operating outside of the ominous reach of the HHM tenaciously reciting rhymes about culture, politics and self-knowledge. Most of the poets and artists featured at the Ra Sessions poetry event represented such a noble effort.
So there I sat, amid the swirl of nag champa incense at the Greenwich, nodding my head to Watusi Tribe's pre-classic "Kold Krush," as lyricist Vibe One declared, "Dummy rap/What's the fun of that?/People get ya money back /With us there'll be none of that." For that moment, I was at peace knowing that there is a glimmer of hope for conscious Hip-Hop culture. We need to jealously protect this thing and support our artists -- locally and nationally -- who are holding it down in a positive way before it's too late.
KEVIN BRITTON is a freelance writer residing in Cincinnati with his wife and their 2-year-old daughter. This article is one of several essays appearing in his forthcoming collection about positive Hip Hop culture.