Why Hip-Hop Sucks, Part 3
There's good hip-hop and there's mediocre hip-hop. The latter is outnumbering the former.
For the past year, I have been writing this recurring series about the current state of hip-hop music. While many have understood and shared my dismay at the current state of hip-hop culture, some have argued that my critiques are focused on rap music and not "real" hip-hop culture. To be clear, it's not that I deny or ignore the fundamental differences between, say, Dem Franchise Boys and Jurassic 5. Rather, I am unwilling to place them in completely different cultural categories. Why? Because I don't doubt that certain sectors of the hip-hop community have the capacity to produce good or progressive music, nor do I romanticize or overestimate hip-hop's highbrow sector, which has been largely co-opted by the same corporate forces that give us the stuff that sucks. So, instead of drawing an arbitrary and shaky modernist line between hip-hop and rap, I choose to distinguish between good hip-hop and mediocre hip-hop. In this installment, I provide more evidence that the latter is outnumbering the former.
Have you ever heard a song on the radio that was so bad that you couldn't imagine how it made to the airwaves? Even worse, have you heard it played so many times that you start to like it? For hip-hop fans, this has become an increasingly common occurrence in recent years. Such feelings led many fans and artists to believe that the rap industry's four major companies conspired with urban radio stations to funnel substandard music through the airwaves in exchange for cash. Earlier this year, these suspicions were confirmed when Universal Music Group, Sony BMG, Warner Music Group, and EMI agreed to pay a total of more than $30 million in settlement money as a result of New York State Attorney General Elliot Spitzer's probe of New York radio stations that were taking money in exchange for radio play.
Although the practice of payola is as old as radio itself, record labels and radio stations have grown increasingly sophisticated in such dealings in order to remain under the radar. As opposed to merely paying radio DJs cash in exchange for airplay, record companies have sponsored contests, purchased equipment, and funded vacations for cooperative radio programmers. In order to circumvent the legal barriers � payola is a state and federal crime � many record labels use independent promoters and other third-parties to provide the perquisites. The pay-to-play culture of urban radio is exacerbated by the government's indifference to the practice. Prior to the Spitzer investigation, only one fine, an $8,000 penalty given to ClearChannel in 2000 for accepting money for playing Brian Adams' music, had been issued for payola.
In addition to being a federal and state crime, payola practices disadvantage independent record labels and artists. Although independent albums comprise more than 20 percent of national hip-hop sales, songs from independent artists make up as little as three percent of playlists in many major radio markets. Due to the radio's role in constructing desire and manufacturing popularity � or did you think that D4L's inane "Laffy Taffy" just grew on you? � many of hip-hop's most gifted artists are removed from the public airwaves.
In the middle of the '90s, the southern region of America gave birth to a musical movement known as the "New South". From Cash Money's low budget album covers to Lil' Jon's Memphis-influenced crunk music, the movement put the bottom half of the Mason-Dixon line back on the map and placed the mainstream market in a stranglehold. In many ways, New South,an allusion to the post-Civil War United States, is a highly ironic name for the current cadre of southern rappers. Whereas the term originally signified progress, hope, and possibility, the current movement reflects a new low in hip-hop music.
Unlike the Old South, which featured a variety of commercially and critically successful artists from Geto Boys to OutKast, many New South artists appear unmoved by critical approval. As a result, the New South sound features on addictive but often-repetitive beats at the expense of complex lyrics or musical risk-taking. Even worse, rappers like Lil' Jon and Dem Franchize Boyz are caricatures of hip-hop's basest elements. Of course, the New South doesn't include every MC born south of Maryland. Groups like Little Brother have energized hip-hop with their sophisticated, innovative, and critically acclaimed LPs. Unfortunately, many of the South's most gifted MCs are obscured by the new millennium minstrel show.
Fall of New York
Much of the blame for the South's current sonic hegemony can be attributed to the current state of New York hip-hop. As always, there are countless underground artists making innovative and progressive music. With regard to the mainstream, however, New York is dropping the artistic ball. With Jay-Z still retired, 50 Cent opting to get rich and stop trying, and Jadakiss making songs with Paris Hilton, New York hip-hop is in a perilous cultural state. Still, rumors of New York's death are greatly exaggerated. As in the mid-'90s, when New York successfully recovered from the West Coast's reign, there is more than enough available talent to resurrect the five boroughs. Hopefully, the home of hip-hop will focus less on extra-curricular activities and internal beefing and return to its rightful position as the regional leader of the culture.
For the past 15 years, scholars have identified and analyzed the sharp division between the hip-hop generation and the civil rights generation. Now that hip-hop is in its 30s, a similarly vicious and divisive generational war is beginning to brew within the quarters of the culture itself. This rift not only compromises the quality of current hip-hop music, but also the long-term stability of the culture.
An excellent example of the growing generation divide came early in 2006 when Bow Wow dissed Will Smith (The Fresh Prince) during an interview with XXL magazine. In response to the reporter's comparison of Bow Wow to Smith, the teenage rapper arrogantly dismissed Smith as a "gimmick rapper" who was never as "real" as him. He went on to claim that Smith was a "cornball" whose pathway to television and movie stardom was greased by his "bubblegum" raps. Of course, Bow Wow's comments were ridiculously hypocritical � after all, he received his big break as Snoop Dogg's six-year-old "MiniMe", released countless pop songs, and only recently began writing his own lyrics. More importantly, however, Bow Wow's actions betray a growing disrespect for hip-hop's elders that extends beyond his own comments.
Not only are today's hip-hop artists failing to pay appropriate respect to previous black music traditions (no, sampling Nina Simone and James Brown isn't sufficient!), many aren't acknowledging the contributions of hip-hop's elders and architects to their success. For example, (Little) Bow Wow stands on the shoulders of everyone from Little Stevie Wonder to Mr. Magic, who managed and ghostwrote for Pookie Blow, the first child rapper. Even Will Smith's success as the Fresh Prince created room for Bow Wow to make hardcore hits like "Puppy Love" with Jagged Edge and serious films like Roll Bounce. Unfortunately, despite their trendy shout outs to particular veterans like Big Daddy Kane and Rakim, many of hip-hop's newest breed fail to acknowledge hip-hop's rich, dynamic, and complex history. Instead, the comments and music of many 21st century rappers reflect a belief that hip-hop began with baggy pants and Biggie.
Of course, the burden of intergenerational solidarity cannot be placed only on hip-hop's newest breed. Artists like KRS-One � whose "I am the living embodiment of hip-hop" remarks at Stanford University this past spring became an instant classic for all the wrong reasons � have alienated many new jack artists and fans with their comments about the new generation. To be certain, KRS-One and others are correct to stress the importance of acknowledging the invaluable and ongoing contributions of hip-hop's elders, as well as critique the current condition of the culture. It is important, however, not to reenact the same intergenerational antagonisms and cultural elitism that have plagued earlier cultural moments. While some have claimed that this series proves that I don't really love hip-hop, this couldn't be further from the truth. To paraphrase the old Christian adage, I love hip-hop just the way it is, but I love it too much to leave it that way.
To be continued...