Today, people on virtually every continent are engaging in all elements of Hip-Hop culture, with the music at the forefront. Whilst Hip-Hop has always been popular on the streets since originating from block parties in the 1970s, the music in particular has reached a new age of commercial success that has prompted many heads to re-evaluate what “real Hip-Hop” actually is.
Since the term was first coined by the likes of Afrika Bambaataa, Lovebug Starski, Grandmaster Flash and The Sugarhill Gang, the culture became recognised as a black, urban experience and a frenetic cadence of poetry over percussion-based instruments. ‘King Tim III (Personality Jock)’ by The Fatback Band, shipped a week before the commercially successful ‘Rapper’s Delight’ by the Sugarhill Gang, is considered to be the first Hip-Hop song released on wax, representing a milestone in music history.
Hip-Hop stylistic diversity of sub-genres — such as disco, funk and soul — pathed the way for the golden age of Hip-Hop in the late 1980s, where the culture gained some notable mainstream success and began influencing artists in other genres. Blondie’s hit ‘Rapture’ was important for been the first song by a non-black artist that exercised a rapping technique on a record; whilst The Beastie Boys and Run DMC began experimenting with Hip-Hop and rock. The term “Gangsta Rap” was also becoming a main feature of the media — particularly with artists such as Ice-T and NWA on the rise — with subject matters such as violence, thievery and drugs echoing the realities and frustrations of the youth.
Today, commercial Hip-Hop music is no longer perceived as the art form it once was, with artists like Lil’ Wayne and Young Jeezy living off the fad of material possession and the egotism that comes with various female anatomy bouncing in their music videos. Arguably, there has always been that desire for Hip-Hop artists to get paid and receive some recognition since the formation of the culture, but never before has it been so much a priority that it overshadows the need to develop one’s skills and earn the respect of the street.
Marketing has always been important within any industry for exposure, though, and artists are obligated to go where the audience is. The nineties were dominated by boy-bands and teen pop, while now much of the youth prefers to listen to Hip-Hop music for entertainment value. Former teen-pop idols Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera and Justin Timberlake have reinvented their sound by working with such cutting-edge beatmasters like the Neptunes, Timbaland and even DJ Premier, helping blur the colour line and pave the way for the mainstreaming of Hip-Hop music. Oppression has been the far cry of the culture for years, and the globalisation of Hip-Hop was always inevitable.
As a result, when talking about today’s Hip-Hop generation, we’re forced to make a distinction between that and the older generation of pioneers who have been involved with Hip-Hop throughout its thirty-plus year lifespan. With the change in value of much of the contemporary Hip-Hop music in the mainstream, artists who still appreciate the true nature of the culture prefer to set up camp independently on the underground scene, with the real heads following.
Artists like Immortal Technique and Tha Truth, for example, have voiced their desire to be in charge of their own production and not allow the mass production of record companies to exploit their music. Even though the “Keepin’ it real” dictums within commercial Hip-Hop music have always been unpredictable, there is still the belief amongst those now part of the independent scene that it is essential for any artist to know the history of the culture and build their skills if he/she wishes to be taken seriously.
Further division exists when the question “commercial or underground Hip-Hop?” is often thrown out there, as if we’re ultimately supposed to pick only one out of the two brands of Hip-Hop music to listen to. A number of the “true Hip-Hop heads”, for example, who I have come into contact with, like to openly dismiss a record without even hearing it, purely because of its commercial status. But by rejecting anything that isn’t “underground” aren’t these people just as ignorant as those who listen to the artists purely on the Hot 100?
I am not defending the majority of today’s commercial Hip-Hop music by any means. Admittedly, there are only a hand full of artists I deem worth listening to that have enjoyed some form of mainstream success recently — take Common and Talib Kwelli, who have both had respectable reigns in the charts — and it is understandable why fans have very little faith in commercial Hip-Hop music when tracks like ‘Crank Dat’ by Soulja Boy are polluting the televisions and radio stations. It does seem to me, though, that today’s semantics of the word “commercial” denote a slump in one’s craft and/or “selling out”.
Ice-T has openly said “No artist wants to live in the ghetto” on the DVD Rhyme and Reason, whilst sitting in front of an exotic shark tank; from which, it seems he is encouraging artists to go out and be successful. I respect him for his honesty; Ice-T has not only achieved commercial recognition but also hard-won street credibility, and is a great example of Hip-Hop in unity.
Due to a lot of Hip-Hop music’s mainstream success in the past decade, the boundaries between Hip-Hop’s heterogeneity have never been so prominent. Looking back now, it’s hard to believe the apparent “bubble-gum Hip-Hop” of Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince was showcased on tour with the likes Public Enemy, considering the often prejudicial nature of many “fans” taking interest in the music today.
(C) Andy Carrington, 2012.