One of the many ridiculous things that I run across in my day to day internet browsing is the melodramatic decree of “Hip Hop is dead.” This is really nothing new, I’ve been hearing people say that since roughly 1998. Let’s say for the sake of argument that Hip Hop is, in fact, dead.
Who is to blame? The businessmen who figured out how to pass off a parody of an entire culture as art? Should we blame the rappers who decided to embrace that parody and subsequently cash in on the watering-down of Hip Hop culture? Was Hip Hop’s death certificate signed when Biggie Smalls passed? Some people feel that “real rap” died along with him and Tupac Shakur. This can’t be the case; Sugarhill Gang rhymed stolen lyrics over a recycled disco beat long before Vanilla Ice rapped about ninja turtles and Sean “P.Diddy” Combs popularized outright plagiarism in the name of sampling.
Speculative “fanboy” chatter aside, how can Hip Hop be dead when there are artists like Killer Mike out there writing politically-charged songs like “Reagan”? Lyrics like that haven’t gotten that close to mainstream ears since Dead Prez released “Hip Hop” in 2000. While it is true that you won’t hear many intellectual or socially conscious rappers on the radio, Hip Hop has never really lived on a radio station. Rap music has been referred to as the actual “word on the street” because the lyrics describe what’s going on in neighborhoods across America without the spin you’d get from a news channel.
It’s often been a reflection of life in less-than-ideal conditions; no matter if the surroundings are a housing project in New York City or a trailer park in rural Alabama. People are getting beaten down by the abysmal job market and struggling economy. It’s not so far-fetched to think that people are choosing to live vicariously through rhymes about things they wish they could do. In increasingly intense and uncertain times, many people just want to live for the moment and party like there’s no tomorrow. Perhaps the popularity of the current crop of bottle-popping “swag rappers” is a more accurate reflection of what’s going on in the minds of today’s youth than we’d like to admit.
While the argument could be made that many mainstream rappers are promoting a superficial way of looking at things and should instead use their platform for more positive change, rapping about money, cars and sex is nothing new for any form of popular music. Whether or not the current trend of style over substance can be attributed to popular demand or corporate push, the lyrical standard has undoubtedly been lowered a great deal in mainstream rap music. 2Chainz recently earned a Grammy nomination because of club-friendly beats and lyrics like “She got a big booty, so I call her big booty.” Taking the popularity of elementary-level rhymes like that into consideration, it’s hard to blame people who think Hip Hop is dead. In spite of that, there are still times when even the most jaded rap fan can smile. When Nas responded to the J. Cole song “Let Nas Down” with “Made Nas Proud”, two generations of fans nodded in approval, a rarity in any genre.
Hip Hop is characterized by rapping, break-dancing, graffiti and DJing, so to say that Hip Hop is dead is to say that all these art forms are dead as well. While DJ equipment has gone mostly digital, as opposed to the standard setup of two turntables and a mixer, the musical compositions themselves are far from suffering. Listeners have come to expect a lot more than a looped James Brown drum break, so you can’t expect the other aspects of Hip Hop to not evolve as well. Graffiti artists are now considered just as legitimate as anyone with an exhibit in an art gallery, and dance is, of course, subjective. When it comes to expression, you can’t tell someone they’re dancing incorrectly any more than you can tell them that their name isn’t right.
Don’t let the occasional trend overshadow an entire culture and miss out on the plethora of exciting new artists in the world. Get out into your community and find the places where people have freestyle cyphers and still use cardboard boxes as dance floors. Start a place if you can’t find anywhere like that in your area. Hip Hop was started with some basic stereo equipment and people who wanted to see their culture grow. Hip Hop is by the people and it only dies by the will of the people.