As a voice for a culture 40 years in the making, hip-hop continues to be one of the most powerful movements in music history.
In the opening strains of his inaugural project, “Black on Both Sides,” the mighty Mos Def (now Yasiin Bey) answers the million dollar question: “Where is hip-hop going?” His response: “Ask yourself, ‘Where am I going? How am I doing?’” The premise being: wherever we are as a culture, that’s where hip-hop is going.
For those on the outside, it’s hard to nail down exactly why we, the hip-hop lovers, are so committed to fighting for our right to party by any means necessary. Hip-hop is the soundtrack to the revolution, our comfort food after a long night. It’s a place we retreat to when our loved ones die and where we go to hear experiences told by age-old orators who turn tragedy into triumph.
If the culture is thriving, evolving and ever-encompassing, we as purveyors of the genre collectively do the same. If the culture is teeming with change and acknowledgement of the variables that led to the flourishing of its sound, fashion and braggadocio we love, then hip-hop is exactly where we need it to be.
Sure, there’s the squabbling between so-called “hip-hop purists” and the lovers of trap rap, but that’s never going to change. The boom-bap/backpack rap heads will forever rail against the newness of the genre, but we’ve yet to see anyone strangled with the strap of a Jansport over hi-hat staccato rap hits making up radio trends — and that’s a good thing.
We’ll see more photos of Jay Electronica parlaying in exotic locations before he’ll ever put out a full-length project and Dr. Dre may never release Detox— and that’s ok. Dre is on track to be hip-hop’s first billionaire due to his business prowess which he learned no doubt from his time in the rap industry.
Artists like Kanye West and A$AP Rocky push the boundaries of fashion in the genre and the antics tend to pay off. A$AP’s sophomore release “At Long Last A.S.A.P” topped the Billboard 200 its first week of release selling over 146,000 copies. Selling records is almost unheard of in the current consumer download era, yet rap artists are continuing to put numbers on the board.
It’s 2015 now, and the music, fashion and approaches to the marketing of hip-hop couldn’t be more different than past times of when New York City was still the hub of everything cool. Drake is arguably the most relevant rap artist in the game and he’s from Toronto, not usually a city considered a hot bed for hip-hop. Yet and still he’s made huge strides in the world of streaming (he’s reportedly in talks with Apple for a guest DJ spot on iTune Radio to the tune of a whopping $19 million) and the art world after curating an exhibit at famed Sotheby Gallery.
Hip-hop music is not the brussel sprouts to a sophomoric palate (besides, brussel sprouts are good for you); it’s an anomaly of words, sounds and artful determination that only grows stronger with a continued unity. We’ve even allowed others to play in the rap sandbox. Just take a gander at the classic hip-hop records remixed and sampled into sizzling, seizing electronic beats. Waka Flocka, a rapper whose name is taken from the onomatopoeic sound of a machine gun has played countless shows with dance legend Steve Aoki and has no plans of slowing down.
Despite how much things change, there are certain truths that will always remain the same.
We remember the moments of trembling trepidation when Tupac was gunned down, fearing who of our rap diplomats would be taken from us next. Our world was rocked when the Notorious B.I.G. was indeed the next to go. We held our collective breath while Guru of Gangstar took his last. We are the witnesses to the growth of a beautiful galactic, troublesome child that grew our vocabulary, our sense of style and our rebellion.
We know The Roots will remain the most important hip-hop band in history (rivaling only OutKast).
… and the Wu-tang Clan will forever be nothing to fuck with.
The tenants of hip-hop culture are alive and well because we the people who are governed under the four pillars of hip-hop are eternal. MC’ing, deejaying, break-dancing (bboys and bgirls) and graffiti will forever be the foundations bringing people to the dance floor, driving the forces behind the expression of the ghetto experience.
We live this culture and we love it, despite its perceived inconsistencies.
Hip-hop matters because it’s the cat with more than nine lives and despite its faults, we’ll never let it die. During the week Baltimore burned, sounds of hip-hop could be heard behind the images of people using riots as the voice of the voiceless. As the Infamous Mobb Deep put it: “Ain’t such things as halfway crooks” — and if there’s one thing we don’t do in hip-hop, it’s half-step.
But as it continues, we’re still demanding equal representation of women in the industry, are working toward more integrated connections in the gay community and continue the fight to be taken seriously in the media. Nothing is perfect, and therein lies the beauty of this imperfect rose growing from the concrete.
Again, as Yasiin Bey muses on “Black on Both Sides,” hip-hop isn’t the “giant living in the hillside.” It’s the fire in our hearts, the drums beneath our feet and the undying soul of a broad group of outcasts.
As long as we continue evangelizing and spreading the good gospel of the rhymed word, not only will we emerge from the cocoon of the olden days, we will fly. As Kendrick Lamar (hip-hop’s favorite savior) speaks on his ferocious sophomore release “To Pimp a Butterfly”: “We gon’ be alright.” And you gotta love that.
– by Ru Johnson