“Dollar bill done drive the whole world crazy.”
I am not the first music critic to decry the current state of hip-hop; the hyper-materialism, the exploitative sexuality, and the garish egotism. During the 1980s and early ‘90s, hip-hop retained some hopeful elements: conscious lyrics; interesting, technologically innovative DJing and production; and a pervasive flirtation with live instruments. Since then, hip-hop has conquered (or has it been conquered by?) the pop music business. The explosion in sales has been fueled by affluent white, middle-class dollars and a corporate music structure ready to again exploit African American culture for profit. We’ve seen it with the blues, with jazz, soul, R&B, and early rock. Same thing here. As a result, fly-by-night sell-outs and posers abound. The Dollar Ethos crowds out the Creative Ethos; money over music. Mediocrity is the order of the day. The conscious side of hip-hop is diluted in an all-consuming commodity-driven market. It is enough to drive even the most dedicated listener to new musical vistas.
“It’s time for a new day, an era in rap, conscious-style.”
And then along comes Blackalicious’s first full-length CD, Nia, which renews your faith in the power and potential of hip-hop. Lyricist Gift of Gab and DJ/Producer Xcel have put together an eclectic CD with positive, intelligent lyrics and funky, creative, old school beats. For instance, “Smithzonian Institute of Rhyme” is built around a field chant; DJ Shadow tweaks the gothic comic-book adventure story, “Cliff Hanger”; and Nikki Giovani recites her poem, “Ego Trip,” to drum and bass. Various other hooks and sounds subtly decorate the record. The duo’s lyrical wit and black nationalist orientation (what I call Afrocentric psychedelia) are reminiscent of George Clinton and Parliament/Funkadelic and more distantly of Sun Ra. More current, their sound also brings to mind Zap Mama and Digable Planets. Politically, Blackalicious is most critical of hip-hop artists themselves and seem to be making a signal shot for renewal. Whether a renaissance is upon us remains to be seen, but a few more devotees to the new conscious-style would be nice. In the mean time, I’ll be spinning Nia for nourishment.