If you haven’t read Matt Zeitlin’s post on hip-hop as a political movement, you really should. Well, if you aren’t reading every post Matt writes already, you really should, but this one is especially good. A few notes are in order, though:
Matt is right to take the task those who want hip-hop to consist solely of Mos Defs, Talib Kwelis, and Commons; as he says, “most of the hip-hop that is celebrated as ‘complex’ or ‘socially conscious’ has an audience with similar demographics as Arcade Fire fans.” But the conscious/gangsta isn’t as clear-cut as it once was. Back in 1990, there was a clear difference between the De La Soul and N.W.A wings of the genre. Lyrically, they couldn’t be more different; one group was positive-thinking and Afrocentric, the other more focused on sex, drugs and violence. Production-wise, one used soulful jazz samples and lazy rhythms, the other synths and P-Funk samples. One got the critical acclaim, with 3 Feet High and Rising and 3 Years, 5 Months & 2 Days in the Life Of… winning the Pazz & Jop album of the year award, and the other sold well, with All Eyez on Me and Life After Death reaching Diamond status.
But in the 2000s, things get murkier. Take Kanye West. West has the background of an alternative hip-hopper; his mom was a college professor, and he had an upper-middle class childhood in the suburbs of Chicago. But he got his big break producing for Jay-Z, who grew up in the Brooklyn projects and dealt coke in the late 1980s. He’s still on the label Jay founded, Roc-A-Fella, and writes tracks like “Big Brother” in his honor; his dramatic, sample-heavy production style recalls Dr. Dre more than Q-Tip. But while his production style is more gangsta in orientation, his lyrics aren’t centered on drug use or violence in the slightest. Indeed, he makes his similarities to alternative hip-hop artists very explicit at times, saying he has “a new state of mind / a creative way to rhyme without usin’ knives and guns” (“Family Business”) and “the fans want the feeling of A Tribe Called Quest / But all they got left is this guy called West” (“Last Call”). Kanye has also transcended the sales/critics dichotomy; Graduation sold almost a million copies in its first week, and has an average score of 79 on Metacritic. If the public at large has grown more accepting of “safe” hip-hop, then critics have grown more fond of gangsta too. The best-reviewed rap albums of 2006 were Clipse‘s Hell Hath No Fury (Metacritic: 89) and Ghostface Killah‘s Fishscale (Metacritic: 88), both of whose lyrical content was almost entirely focused on cocaine dealing. So I don’t think it’s enough to say that critics love conscious rap and the public loves the violent stuff; both of them have a taste for each genre, and a successful hip-hop political movement would play off of the public’s desire for conscious rap. But as Matt points out, most hip-hop fans are white suburbanites anyway, so the trends in which subgenres are in and out of favor with the public don’t have much bearing on organizing black youth.
All this talk of hip-hop political organizing has me wondering: has a genre of music ever succeeded at effecting significant political change? “Blowin’ in the Wind” didn’t end Jim Crow, “Everyday People” didn’t end prejudice, and all the songs in the world couldn’t end Vietnam. Even specific protest songs don’t work; “We Are the World” didn’t do much to limit the impact of the Ethiopian famine, and “Hurricane” didn’t free Rubin Carter. It seems unreasonable to expect such power out of hip-hop when no previous genre has been that successful.
Finally, hasn’t the way the hip-hop industry conducts itself been a social victory in itself? Every black music genre previous was subsumed and exploited by whites. While black artists continued to dominate jazz and soul, blues and rock eventually had significant, and in the latter case overwhelming, numbers of white artists. And with the single exception of Motown, the business side of things was uniformly white. Today, though, almost every successful rap artist is black, and many executives are too. Yes, there are folks like Lyor Cohen, but for every Rick Rubin there’s a Damon Dash or a Russell Simmons. Whereas in the past, white businessmen sold black music to white teens to line their own pockets, hip-hop has allowed black businessmen to do the same. It seems to me that the rap industry itself is social progress of the kind many critics demand it produce.