In an article entitled "What the Bling-Bling Is Going On" from The Black World Today, writer William Reed suggests that Hip Hop had become the "expression of a new generation squeezed between the fading promises of civil rights era policies and inner city blight."
Last week I saw Barney Rubble rapping about Cocoa Pebbles in a television commercial. I could swear I also saw a commercial featuring a bottle of Snapple wearing a Kangol and a fat chain, but perhaps this was just a bad dream.
Now, if no one were paying attention to Hip-Hop music and culture, I'd likely be complaining that the art form wasn't being recognized as a legitimate cultural phenomenon. But now that I see Hip Hop everywhere -- and I do mean everywhere -- I'm finding it difficult to adjust to mainstream America's sudden embrace of a music, style and culture once (and still at times) seen as synonymous with criminal activity, violence and greed.
How many of us recall when NWA, Ice T, Luke, Too $hort and other artists -- some of whom were labeled "gangster rappers" -- were singled out for their lyrics and image? It seemed as though Rap music had become the scapegoat for all of the shortcomings of America's wayward youth (academic underachievement, underage pregnancy, drug use, etc.). Yet despite the tenacious admonitions by C. Delores Tucker-types, we ate it up.
Ten years later, Black Enterprise magazine calls Hip Hop "America's greatest cultural export." Moderately budgeted straight-to-video films starring rappers wanting to be actors are too numerous to mention, plus there are Hip-Hop studies courses at Ivy League universities, Hip-Hop videogames, Hip-Hop potato chips, Hip-Hop reality shows, a Hip-Hop nighttime drama series and countless Hip-Hop-oriented candy, soft drink, automobile, deodorant and clothing ads. Even Elmo spits a rhyme on one of my daughter's Sesame Street videos.
Is it possible that Hip Hop has become so inextricably interwoven into the fabric of American popular culture that the two have become one in the same?
The good news is that Hip Hop's uncanny ability to continually reinvent itself has contributed to its longevity over the course of the last 25 years. Still, there's the risk that the art form could lose its cultural and historical significance due to commercial overexposure, a risk advertising and marketing professionals are unlikely to consider as they pitch ideas for the next big Hip-Hop-oriented ad campaign.
And rarely are the suits molding the image of Hip Hop so that America sees the same individuals who served as the architects of the culture. In the now defunct Blu Magazine, writer Pravasan Pillay poignantly reminded us that the popular advertising campaign slogan "Just Do It" really meant "use what little money you have and spend it on (their) version of what was your idea in the first place."
This quote recently came to mind when I noticed how suburban mall retailers were selling the skullies, bandanas, retro-style baseball caps and other accessories popularized by Rap stars over the past year or so. Apparently, someone on Madison Avenue has been doing his or her homework.
But what happens when the art form and culture collectively known as Hip Hop becomes so diluted that the bling turns to blah? Nas tells us to "save the music," warning that once Hip-Hop music and culture ceases to produce the billions it does now, it might be abandoned like ... Disco. Don't laugh: If the originators of Hip Hop fail to preserve it as a bona fide cultural legacy, fickle fans will turn their backs in the blink of an eye while marketers search for yet another underground, untapped phenomenon to pillage.
So as I prepared to invoke Public Enemy's rhetorical question, "Who stole the soul?," I stumbled upon a locally-produced cable documentary about Scribble Jam, held in the Cincinnati area since the late '90s (the most recent version taking place just last week). The piece, which covered event highlights over the last several years, featured a then-unknown battle rapper named Marshall Mathers as well as other lesser known emcees, dancers, turntablists and graf writers united in a celebration of pure, unpretentious Hip Hop.
By the way, Barney Rubble was nowhere to be seen.
KEVIN BRITTON writes about Hip-Hop music and its impact on popular culture. His column appears monthly in CityBeat.