Since writing the cathartic piece, “Why Hip-Hop Sucks Part 1” a few months ago, I have received a constant flurry of e-mails, phone calls, and letters from a wide range of hip-hop critics, fans, and artists who have responded in a variety of interesting ways to my lamentation. While many people, including prominent artists (shout out to Common and Nas!) shared my sense of sadness about the state of hip-hop, others criticized me for my pessimism, romanticism, and failure to acknowledge the extra-musical dimensions of hip-hop culture like b-boying and graffiti. Some, like the several members of the Zulu Nation who wrote angry rejoinders to the piece, even questioned the authenticity of my connection to hip-hop culture.
After a few months of reflection, I’ve come to some conclusions. First of all, hip-hop still sucks. Nonetheless, I am not pessimistic about its future. On the contrary, I am quite hopeful that we will be able to find our way. Am I admittedly and unavoidably romantic about the hip-hop of the past? Yes. But, like Chris Rock said after first listening to “Get Low” and “Move Bitch”, it’s getting hard to defend this new shit. Why do I focus on the music and not the other dimensions of hip-hop? Three reasons: 1) the other stuff doesn’t suck nearly as badly; 2) the other stuff matters largely because of the status of the music; and 3) no disrespect to the other elements, but hip-hop music is what I care about the most.
In part two of this recurring series, I provide further explication of my position by not only describing problematic trends in hip-hop, but also identifying the key figures in the culture who embody them. To be clear (both for journalistic purposes and as a disclaimer for desperate and crazed backpacker zealots), I am not suggesting that these individuals are the cause of hip-hop’s ills. Rather, they are but symptoms of much larger problems that demand serious attention.
Since its inception in 1988, The Source magazine has been the New York Times of the hip-hop community, updating its readers on the latest news, trends, and up-and-coming artists. No magazine in hip-hop history has had the ability to make or break a career like The Source, whose “mics” are the unit of measurement not only for its own rating system, but also the critical shorthand for the entire hip-hop community. While a five mic album can virtually certify an album’s success and assure legendary status for the artist, a low rating (below three mics) can end a career before it starts. In recent years, coinciding with co-owner Raymond “Benzino” Scott’s increasing public role with the magazine, The Source has come under considerable scrutiny for its questionable editorial practices. While there have always been questionable reviews and “money for mics” rumors surrounding The Source, as well as other music magazines, a series of events over the past five years have drastically and permanently tarnished its reputation.
Despite being commercial flops, Benzino and his untalented rap crew Made Men (formerly the Almighty RSO) have been given extraordinary attention from The Source. Despite selling only 14,000 copies of his Redemption album, Benzino has graced the cover of the magazine while Made Men, who received only scant media attention, have been nominated for the magazine’s annual awards. In 1999, editor-in-chief Selwyn Hinds resigned from his position after being forced to change the magazine’s Made Men rating from 3.5 (fairly average) to 4.5 (nearly classic) mics. More recently, in August 2005, Joshua “Fahiem” Ratcliffe resigned after being forced to lower Little Brother’s rating from 4.5 to 4.0 mics. Word on the street is that Lil Kim’s upcoming pre-jail LP, The Naked Truth, will receive 5 mics. This questionable call will do nothing to stop the rumors.
In addition to its questionable music criticism, The Source has become increasingly focused on courting commercial advertising dollars and disseminating hip-hop gossip. In doing this, The Source has essentially ignored many substantive political issues affecting the hip-hop generation and the larger black and Latino communities. The most notable exception to this has been The Source‘s crusade against Eminem in a series of articles, and through Benzino’s kamikaze rap battle with the white lyricist. In addition to critiquing his privileged industry position, The Source released a CD of Eminem’s disturbing and racist teenage rants against black women. Given their historic indifference to the treatment of black women, as evidenced by the magazine’s nearly pornographic ads and photo spreads, as well as its blind eye towards the remainder of hip-hop misogyny, it appears that Benzino and The Source were fighting for exclusive rights to call and treat black women like bitches and hos—no white man was gonna do it for ‘em.
A relative once told me “Never eat watermelon in front of white people!” His advice was based on the belief that if white people saw black people doing stereotypical things, it would serve to reinforce racism and somehow justify continued unequal treatment. This same ideology causes me to look around for white people whenever I see Lil’ Jon on television, and internally cringe when my white colleagues ask me to explain his antics. Lil’ Jon’s image, which amounts to postmodern minstrelsy or what Jeff Chang calls “crunkface”. serves as a brutal reminder of the poverty of black representation in the mass media. While Lil’ Jon is certainly not the first Stepin Fetchit throwback that hip-hop has seen figures like Flava Flav and Ol’ Dirty Bastard can certainly claim OC (original coon) status Lil’ Jon somehow manages to strip his identity of any self awareness and complexity that his predecessors possessed. In place of Flav’s musical activism and ODB’s Five Percenter allusions is Lil’ Jon’s lyrically impoverished rants that are just plain “ign’ant”, even under hip-hop standards.
Bishop Don “Magic” Juan
For the past few years, the “reformed” pimp has been a fixture on the hip-hop scene, accompanying Snoop Dogg on videos, interviews, and award shows. While hip-hop has never been short on misogyny, the rise of the pimp marks a depressing downward shift in hip-hop’s gender politics. The term, which refers to the practice of manipulating and dehumanizing women through rape, beatings, and the use of their bodies for sexual commerce, has become a staple of both mainstream and underground hip-hop discourse. Consequently, the sex industry that largely exploits poor black and Latino women is, at best, an afterthought to suburban white MTV viewers who want their rides pimped, energy deprived urban professionals in desperate need of pimp juice, and pseudo-revolutionaries who follow “conscious” MCs like Dead Prez’s exhortations to pimp the system.
Some intellectuals have argued that “pimp” is merely a metaphor that has been appropriated by the hip-hop generation and given a new and redemptive meaning. This wouldn’t be outside the realm of possibility if the people historically designated as “hoes” were refashioning the pimp, as black people have done with “nigger”. But how can the very people who enable and benefit from the hateful practices that normalize pimping (in this case, the male-driven hip-hop industry) suddenly decide to separate it from its vicious history? That’s like George W. Bush saying, “Nigger, no longer means what it used to mean to blacks. Okay niggers?”
Given his recent courageous statements about the Bush Administration’s response to the Hurricane Katrina tragedy, I am willing to give Kanye a pass for the arrogant, childish, and narcissistic characteristics that have turned him into hip-hop’s first full-fledged diva. Nevertheless, every time that I listen to a track from Kanye West’s two “classic” albums, I find myself wondering “Am I the only person on the planet that realizes that this guy can’t rap?” While no one can doubt Kanye’s genius behind the boards, or his ambition and creativity on the mic, his lyrical frailty becomes apparent whenever he shares a track with real MCs like Common, Talib Kweli, Jay-Z, Nas, or even Cam’ron. Of course, hip-hop has always had its share of compelling but sub-par MCs like Chuck D, Eazy E, and Guru, but none of them were billed as top-flight lyricists. On the contrary, Kanye has been positioned as a hip-hop heavyweight in spite of his average skills.
More importantly, Kanye represents a disturbing trend in hip-hop lyricism. Complex rhyme schemes, clever allusions, and poetic flows are slowly falling to the wayside in favor of predictable punch lines, wack similes, and uninventive interpolations of earlier songs. At least part of the blame for this pattern goes to Jay-Z, who has often bragged that he never writes his lyrics down. This type of statement which is the equivalent of Michael Jordan confessing to a young hoopster that he never really practiced over the summer does an extraordinary disservice to the other 99.9% of the rappers who cannot create quality rhymes without the benefit of a pen.
Marion “Suge” Knight
Who said that I had a problem with Suge Knight? Somebody has a problem with Suge Knight? I ain’t got no problems with Suge Knight.
To Be Continued…