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Why Hip-Hop Sucks, Part 1

Marc Lamont Hill

Hill's cut-up/trim-down, pedagogical debut on African American culture, or: The Good, The Bad and The Ugly In Need of a Shaving.

Hip-Hop sucks. There, I've said it. After years of ignoring my feelings and hoping that things would change with the next album, video, or artist, I have finally accepted the fact that hip-hop simply isn't good anymore. The swagger is gone. Hip-hop is still cool but it's no longer fly. It's still hot but it's no longer dope. Most important, hip-hop is no longer fun. I can't say for sure when it happened, but somewhere between Wu-Tang's grimy "Protect Ya Neck" and the Ying Yang Twins' disgusting "Whisper Song", hip-hop became boring and predictable.

To be sure, my disaffection is likely a natural response to having recently suffered the indignity of turning to the local urban radio station and discovering that one of the songs that I listened to in high school had been relegated to the "old school lunch hour". Consequently, like any newly made hip-hop "old head", I now invoke a degree of nostalgia in order to protect my most precious memories of the recent past from what Stuart Hall calls the "tyranny of the new". As such, I must hate a little on the new stuff in order to keep the old stuff fully relevant and valuable to me.

Nevertheless, I maintain that we have reached a low point in hip-hop culture. But unlike most of my friends who have elected for early retirement from hip-hop fandom, I am not content to simply walk away in a self-righteous huff. Instead, I am willing to put my issues on the table in the small hope that things can turn around. After all, unlike Common, I still love H.E.R. I just can't find H.E.R.

In this recurring series, I provide some of my explanations for hip-hop's decline. Moving beyond the more frequently discussed issues like wanton materialism, female objectification, or corporate co-optation, I point to some equally critical issues within hip-hop that have pushed me to this point. Here goes:

Where my girls at?
Although hip-hop has always been a hyper-masculine boys club, quality female representation has dipped to an all-time low. No one has picked up the baton once carried by MC Lyte, Queen Latifah, or Salt n' Pepa and successfully run with it. Even the sex driven (and often ghostwritten) acts of Lil' Kim and Foxy Brown have been reproduced as uninteresting caricatures like Khia and Trina. While Missy Elliot's creativity and old school flavor keep the music fun, her lyrical abilities are drastically sub-par. Artists like Bahamadia and Jean Grae keep the underground alive with their top shelf skills, but their lack of selling power makes it difficult for them to start a movement. Our brightest hope was Lauryn Hill before (she became) Unplugged, when she ranked among the illest MCs on the planet, male or female. Word on the street is that she's on the road to personal and lyrical recovery. We'll keep our fingers crossed.

They don't freestyle no mo'
Not so long ago, freestyling was a centerpiece of hip-hop culture. In order to be considered a complete MC, an individual had to be literally battle tested in the world of improvisational rhyming. Until the mid-'90s, the mixtape market, live shows, and local ciphers all served as fertile sites for freestyle raps from both seasoned veterans and hungry up-and-comers. Today, mixtape and live show "freestyles" are little more than album pre-releases and verses retrieved from the cutting room floor. Even worse, many underground and national rap venues (like BET's Freestyle Friday) privilege predictable one liners, insults, and clearly rehearsed verses over the raw, perfect imperfections of an authentic freestyle. There are exceptions, of course, like Toni Blackman's "Freestyle Union" movement, as well as rappers like Common who aren't scared to drop a verse from the dome in front of thousands. Nevertheless, the future of the freestyle is pretty grim.

Manufactured rap wars
Like the freestyle, MC battles have been the lifeblood of hip-hop culture since the '80s. LL Cool J vs. Kool Moe Dee, Roxanne Shante vs. Real Roxanne, KRS One vs. MC Shan, and most recently Nas vs. Jay-Z, have all marked highpoints in hip-hop history. While there is certainly no shortage of battles in today's rap world, there has been a dramatic shift in the quality, authenticity, and motivations for the latest rap wars. Since the overwhelming commercial success of the Nas vs. Jay-Z feud, it seems that every new MC must find someone to beef with in order to make his or her mark and boost record sales. Perhaps the most transparent example of this is 50 Cent, who managed to stir controversy with Nas, R. Kelly, Fat Joe, Jadakiss, and Game right around the time of his album release date. In addition to the WWF-esque feel of the battles, the lyrical quality of the latest feuds has waned considerably. Instead of engaging a spirited game of the dozens filled with personal and professional disses, most rappers use the songs as a space to make personal threats and air dirty laundry. For this reason, it is no surprise that so many of today's beefs have extended beyond the songs and into the streets.

The Superproducer
While hip-hop has always had its share of elite producers, the last 10 years have given birth to a new breed of "superproducers". Beginning with the ever-present P. Diddy (née Puff Daddy), this group of overexposed hit men has moved from behind the boards and into the videos and songs of their artists. Superproducers like the Neptunes (particularly Pharrell) and Kanye West have become so large and appear so frequently on the songs they produce that they almost always overshadow their artists. Furthermore, superproducers have created sounds so distinctive and, as of late, predictable that the hip-hop Top-40 sounds like one big remix album. For example, even Lil Jon' himself would have difficulty distinguishing between the beats for his 2004 mega-hits "Freek-a-leek" and "Yeah!" Another consequence of this sonic oligarchy has been the construction of barriers for many talented young producers to gain access to the big stage because of their lack of star power or failure to reproduce the sounds de jour. The only viable alternative for many is to serve as a ghostproducer for the giants of the day and patiently wait for a chance to get noticed. The only catch is that the role of ghostproducer requires them to constrain much of their own creativity in order to approximate the sounds of the superproducer. The rich get richer . . .

To Be Continued.

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