C’mon baby light my fire
Everything you drop is so tired
Music is supposed to inspire
How come we ain’t gettin’ no higher?
Now tell me your philosophy
On exactly what an artist should be
Should they be someone with prosperity
And no concept of reality?
-Lauryn Hill, “Superstar”
There is no more frustrating, infuriating, upsetting musical genre than hip hop. I firmly believe this to be true. What started out as essentially street poetry has gone through a thousand iterations, become turned and twisted and spun around and knocked up and down, to finally reach the sad state of affairs it’s left in today. In truth, though it’s certainly had a shorter life than country music, there are many parallels. This may sound strange, especially for you country fans who have nothing but disdain for hip hop. But like country, what started out as basically poor people’s music evolved and changed over the decades. What used to be a movement, a message (to borrow a phrase), has become bastardized, drowned out by the commercial, the mindless mass of modern hip hop monsters.
It’s why it’s not uncommon for people to blatantly state, “I hate rap music,” or “all hip hop sucks.” In truth, if all you know is what you hear on the radio, well then based on your experience you’re probably correct in that assertion. It may sound like reactionary griping, like the old man who’s watching modern society pass him by, but the truth is that modern, commercial, radio-friendly hip hop, with a couple of exceptions, mostly iscrap. Amateurish, misogynistic, derivative, weakly produced crap. It’s developed on the equivalent of a musical assembly line, by predatory producers and executives who prowl cities and audition halls and neighborhoods, looking for someone with the basic abilities and a badass attitude. Those “artists” are paired with a producer or DJ capable of cranking out serviceable, uninspired beats and noise, and a couple of weeks later, the next Li’l Jon or Flo Rida is born.
Six months to a year from now, they will vanish into obscurity. But for six months, another brainless zombie album full of sex, drugs, and violence - bitches, money and guns, if you wish - will be foisted upon us. The music industry feeds on them like wild dogs, and they’ve somehow convinced people — everyone from urban school kids to suburban white kids to fraternity brothers to the average radio listener - that this is what urban music is about, and what’s worse, that this is the best hip hop has to offer. These are the people that foist the T.I.’s of the world upon us, or even worse, Asher Fucking Roth. That’s why it’s never surprising when we get comments from readers stating they hate hip hop, and based on what they’re hearing on the radio, who can blame them?
“Man, fuck that shit, I pay my taxes when I’m asked to
I’m not enthusiastic about it, but shit I make it happen
Yeah, it’s last minute, but goddammit they cash it
This is fiscal harassment! They keep touching my assets!
Now I imagine I might be feeling different about it
If it was given outright, witnessing it helping somebody
But it just so happens in life, the school district’s too crowded
There ain’t no teachers in sight, that’s why the kids are so rowdy”
-Lyrics Born, “Stop Complaining”
What you hear on the radio is an insult to hip-hop, a slap in the face to Run DMC and KRS-One and everyone who came before or after them. I’m not going to waste your time telling you to go back and find the old-school stuff, because actually much of that music hasn’t aged terribly well. Unless you’re a real hardcore hip-hop fan, much of it is going to be wasted on you. Hell, I love hip hop and I can’t tell you the last time I dusted off an old Eric B and Rakim album. But you don’t have to go back 20 years. There’s great, moving, intelligent, thought-provoking and fun hip hop coming out all the time. Music that still has something to say, that hasn’t been corrupted by fame and fortune, and that you can still shake your goddamn ass to. Good hip hop is sexy, it’s smart, it makes you want to dance — and sometimes it makes you want to revolt. It’s what we should be asking of all music. And sometimes…. sometimes, it can be so goddamn beautiful it’ll make you shiver a little, it’ll make your eyes wet, and it’ll make you question what you thought you knew about music.
Christian, Caspar and the rest of us have been screaming from the goddamn rooftops about Atmosphere, P.O.S., CunninLynguists, and other modern hip hop artists who are changing the game every year, bringing out more and more fresh beats, jaw-dropping production and smooth, brilliant lyrics. It’s out there. Trust me. You just have to look.
I’m leaving off the likes of Tupac and Biggie and Jay-Z and some others — those are guys who are still popular that actually do have a lot of talent — in favor of some perhaps lesser known, and less divisive, artists. Make no mistake, these folks are artists. Because of the sheer volume of crap out there, it’s often thought of as a lazy or simple genre. That couldn’t be further from the truth; as writer Ta-Nehisi Coates once wrote, “hip-hop is a lot more complicated than rhyming couplets and stolen drum riffs… I would not, from a mere sample of Kenny G or even John Coltrane, make any broad statements about jazz. Those of us who were shaped by hip-hop are only asking the same.”
So indulge me for a moment and let me throw together a quick and dirty playlist of modern hip hop that doesn’t, well… suck.
“I want to be free to live, able to have what I need to live
Bring the power back to the street, where the people live
We sick of workin’ for crumbs and fillin’ up the prisons
Dyin’ over money and relyin’ on religion for help
We do for self like ants in a colony
Organize the wealth into a socialist economy
A way of life based off the common need
And all my comrades is ready, we just spreadin’ the seed
-Dead Prez, “Police State”
Go ahead, tell me that’s not poetry.
This post (minus some minor edits) originally ran on The Music Is The Message on July 7th, 2008. Click here for a longer playlist.
TK writes about music for Pajiba. He likes dogs, raising the dead, and tacos. You can email him here.