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The Recent Death of Hip Hop: An Original Theory Explaining the Decline of Hip Hop

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In December of 2006, legendary rapper Nasir Jones (Nas) released his eight album audaciously named Hip Hop is Dead. This sparked a great deal of publicity characterized by the complaints of fellow rap artists such as Ludacris, Lil Wayne, and Young Jeezy: it is likely that they were all stricken by the album title’s apparent resonance of truth. Though Nas was not the first to lament the death of Hip Hop , he was the first to bring the subject to light at a time when the influence of the genre on American culture appeared to be diminishing. 2006, like the two years prior, was a prime year for hip-hop albums with iconic rap artists T.I and Jay-Z going “platinum”: they each sold roughly two million copes of their respective albums worldwide. An additional fourteen big name artists like Snoop Dogg and Eminem went “gold” that year, grossing
between 500 thousand and 800 thousand dollars in total profits. This was the last year that true Hip Hop would thrive in the music industry. From then on, other genres would plague the original sounds of rap music, making it virtually indistinguishable from pop music, rock music, and even techno by 2008.

The fated year, 2007, deemed Nas’ message in Hip Hop is Dead as eerily prophetic. Kelefa Senneh, writer for the New York Times expressed in his December 2007 article that the long months of that year revealed: “The gleaming hip-hop machine—the one that minted a long string of big-name stars [had]…finally broken down… ” In the years since the publishing of the article, this so-called “machine,” a metaphor for the quality and substance in Hip Hop, has stayed broken. A question remains as to whether this machine is fixable or beyond repair. It could be fixable, leaving the possibility for a resurgence of classic Hip Hop as an influential genre, or it could be completely dead, forever sealing the glory days of Hip Hop in the history books. The best way to determine the status of Hip Hop today is to examine the history of the genre. Doing so reveals a disparity between classic, real Hip Hop and modern “hip hop” . If the discrepancy is too great, then America’s beloved genre is indeed dead. One could argue that Hip Hop’s decline has and will continue to pave the way for a new age of modern music that, though lacks substance, simply does just what music has always been intended to do—entertain.

In order to go as far as to discuss whether or not Hip Hop is dead, a concrete definition of the term “Hip Hop” needs to be established. In my personal opinion, music cannot be Hip Hop if it lacks substance. So what exactly is this “substance”? Afrika Bambataa, the grandfather of hip hop music, addressed this when he said, “hip hop in general dates all the way back to the motherland, where tribes would use call-and-response chants. In the 1930s and 1940s, you had…jazz rhyming. [In] the sixties you had the love style of rapping, with Isaac Hayes, Barry White, and the poetry style of rapping…and the militant style of rapping with brothers like Malcolm X and Minister Louis Farrakhan.” Other views on Hip Hop’s origins and definitions are considered equally legitimate: old school legend Grandmaster Caz “identified a distinct Jamaican lineage in early hip hop [marked by] tradition of roots of reggae… ‘it was just about your beats [at first]. Not every even had a mic…[it was about] who had the baddest beats.’” Both Bambattaa and Caz agree that the fundamental roots of Hip Hop lie the in the beats, which consist of firm repeating patterns, similar to that of “reggae,” that fit the musical measures of historical African “chants.” Bambataa’s definition goes a step beyond just the beat and emphasizes the importance of incorporating a specific style of vocal expression related, again, to the “call and response chants” of Africa. The vocal aspect of Hip Hop, as emphasized by Mr. Afrika, includes traces of “poetry” and “jazz.” His use of these two words denotes that rapping shares the same musical authenticity that touches the hearts of listeners when they listen to poetry and jazz. In other, more scientific pros, true Hip Hop, with its rhythmic placement of words given to a beat, triggers the same endorphins in a listener as jazz and poetry do.

These imperative virtues of rap, made clear by Afrika Bambataa and Grandmaster Caz are what I categorize as “substance.” But there’s more to it. As the decades crawled by, that “substance” began to include the very purpose of rap music. For the Negro, this music’s purpose was to provide a forum that accentuated his or her release of joy and agony. Hence, Hip Hop itself became a powerful medium appreciated by those who could identify with these feelings. For many years, a popular catalyst of the venting of these feelings was politics. Early rap music “[exerted] a powerful political and artistic influence on its youthful listeners…it [became] one of the principle vehicles by which young African Americans [could] express their views of the world.” This quote infers that rap in the 80s and early 90s was used as political expression, often taking the form of protest that focused on Black American issues. Listeners heard these lyrics, and often acted. As such, rap became a tool that perpetuated the liberation of blacks from economic oppression. For instance, in the song Vh1 calls the best Hip Hop song of all time, “Fight the Power” by Public Enemy , the artists call for their young listeners to “revolutionize and make a change…in order to fight the powers that be.” America’s black community deems this song as simply classic because it actually did encourage the young generation to leave their ghettos, drop their blunts and “make a change” by fighting whatever “powers” were causing their misery. Some did so by organizing small revolts like the character Buggin’ Out did in Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing” (which included Fight the Power in its soundtrack); interestingly enough, others acted by making their own music. One could argue that by the 90s to the early 2000s, the “power” that Public Enemy spoke of, whether social or economic, had been thoroughly defeated. This victory of sorts led to a refined Hip Hop that encompassed a more celebratory tone that mixed old undertones of protest with connotations of riches and glory in the form of money, drugs, and women in spite of the perils of gang life. As artists like Notorious BIG (aka Biggie Smalls), Tupac Shakur, and Snoop Dogg commercialized this newer type of rap, the heart of the genre remained. “Beats” had become more important than ever and famed rappers had become masters of “poetry.” Despite having become a more negative influence, Hip Hop remained a large part of American culture.

So then what happened? What I see as the key indicator of the fall of Hip Hop was its loss of a grip on American culture by the mid 2000s due to a lack of “substance.” Some would argue that the availability of illegal downloading is to blame for the apparent dip in Hip Hop’s overall success. Though I can see the validity of this argument, I mostly disagree. Rather, I think the music itself, and its lack of “substance,” is much more at fault than downloading technology. One aspect of “substance” that modernized music threw out the window was the concept of “beats.” The cadences birthed from “reggae” roots and “chants [of the] motherland” had become replaced by effortless, monotonous, auto-tuned backgrounds. Even when artists succeeded in creating beats that were somewhat reminiscent of the origins of Hip Hop, another important aspect was almost always sacrificed—lyrics. The beauty in rap lyrics that mirrored the beauty in “jazz” and “poetry” was lost, as it became a new millennium trend, by 2007, for rappers to rap about literally nothing beyond materialism. Rap lyrics had become rubbish and frankly, that’s the way people liked it.

Over the course of fifteen years, the rappers that topped the music charts had gone from delivering messages about how, “It’s time for us as [the African-American] people to start making some changes.” To “roll up, roll up whenever you call baby I roll up.” Wiz Khalifa, 2011’s most publicized rapper, and author of the second line, has never even hinted at any sort of political agenda for his listeners. To be fair, Tupac did occasionally speak of marijuana in his lyrics. Usually though, those references were in the context of a larger message that still embodied poetic gusto as these tracks positively influenced the lives of millions of listeners. A clearer illustration of the distinction between the notable aspects of the songs of rap’s golden age and that of today’s hip hop can be derived from Notorious BIG’s famous line, “birthdays were the worst days, now we sip champagne when we are thirstayy.” Here, Biggie Smalls is advocating for the same kind of luxurious everyday life that would make Wiz seethe with satisfaction by incorporating the phrase, “now we sip champagne when we are thirsty.” However, he adds extra elements by adding a meaningful phrase beforehand and establishing a timeline with the words “here” and “now.” Biggie is implying here that in past times, he suffered so much that even “birthdays” were days of prolonged agony. On the contrary, “now,” after all that he has accomplished, he has earned the right to live like a king, “sipping” expensive “champagne” at will. In short, even though Notorious BIG is indirectly advocating for alcoholism in that line, the more important message that he conveys is that anyone can go from dirty rags to lavish riches through hard work and determination. Today’s hip hop music, including that of Wiz Khalifa, is full of references to the hypothetical life of a rich black man; however, advice and messages that address how to reach the top are almost impossible to find in any modern rapper’s lyrics. Without a lingering trace of the original meaningful roots of Hip Hop, as brought to light by Afrika Bambataa and Grandmaster Caz, it is safe to say that Hip Hop is indeed dead.

To say that Hip Hop is Dead is not to say that what the media calls “hip hop” is a failure by any stretch of the imagination. In fact, hip-hop is doing just fine in the financial realm of the music industry, hardly affected by the harsh economy and downloading technology. Artists Eminem, Kanye West, Drake and Nicki Minaj each sold more than 300,000 albums in their first week of release in 2010. Also, Eminem’s latest album has sold more than 3.5 million copies to date while Lil Wayne continues to amass profits from his weekly track releases. The only problem is that the music topping the charts is simply not real Hip Hop, according the views of the grandfathers of the genre. Today’s rap music does a good job of entertaining American fans, but it does not raise any political concerns, provoke meaningful thoughts and discussion by listeners, or change people’s outlook on various life situations like the classics used to. The emptiness of new age hip-hop has caused the genre to lose its credibility. Rap lyrics that music fans accept as legitimate these days are so bland that Hip Hop is now seen as something anybody can do. This creates a ripple effect that negatively affects the biggest names in the business. Icons like P-Diddy and Dr. Dre are struggling to win back their brainwashed fans while others like Eminem are powerless to combat the repercussions caused by the genre’s loss of legitimacy. Eminem experienced a major effect of this faltering reputation when he did not win a single major Grammy award in 2011 despite being the most nominated artist of the evening. Spin Music editor Charles Aaron gave his take on the reason for Eminem’s loss, “voters…have a problem acknowledging hip hop.” These older voters found it difficult to advocate for an artist who was associated with this modern type of hip-hop. I would go as far as to say that if Snoop Dogg had come out with an album as good as Eminem’s Recovery, he would have undoubtedly won at least one significant Grammy due to the fact that he is closely linked to classic, real Hip Hop, which is more respected by the same generation of people that annually vote for the Grammy Awards.

When referring back to the origins of the genre, calling some of today’s music “hip hop” is as ludicrous as saying that Imogen Heap is Jazz music; however, the fact that the name “Hip Hop” is still mainstream adds greater significance to rap music’s disappearance by stressing the importance of the genre’s prior existence. A similar idea applies to the modern subsets of rock music that include Soft “Rock”, Hard “Rock,” Alternative “Rock,” Punk “Rock,” etc. These names include the word “Rock,” which reminds fans that what they are listening to is derived from the original Rock n’ Roll of the 1960s. Likewise, Hip Hop has given way to many subsets of rap music that in recent years have blended in Techno, Rock, and Pop. Basically, what is happening is that the alternative rocks and the punk rocks of the rap world are all taking on that one name—“hip hop.” This phenomenon of the differentiation of Hip Hop can be accredited for sparking the birth of a new kind of “substance” to replace the old. A great example of this is Kanye West’s most recent solo album, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. A representative of Def Jam records put it in a nutshell, “the year’s most ambitious record became the polarizing presence by which all others were judged. West…poured everything into My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, a thrill ride that dismantled hip hop while rearranging what defined a vanity project.” Def Jam points out that Kanye “poured everything” into the making of this album to acknowledge the artist’s musical prowess. That hard work paid off, as the quote implied: the album became “the polarizing presence by which all others were judged.” This quote is essentially saying that Kanye West’s album by the end of the year had emerged as simply the best. The use of “all” in this quote emphasizes the fact that this album reigns supreme even when being compared to those of other genres. This album is more than just a hip-hop album. It “dismantles” the tradition of rap music and “rearranges” it to compete with the likes of other popular genres by incorporating aspects of those other genres into it. The finished product has traces of pop, rock and even techno. Kanye’s album has appealed to a wider audience that includes millions who would never consider themselves hip-hop fans. Furthermore, the album brings back the lost credibility of Hip Hop as it “restores to hip hop some of its larger-than-life outrageousness, its nihilism, and its aura of indestructibility.” All in all, Hip Hop may be dead but its legacy has lived on honorably by giving rise to an equally admirable modern generation of music that may rightfully be referred to as “hip hop music.”
There still remains a glimmer of hope for classic, real Hip Hop as defined by grandfather Afrika Bambataa and old school hero Grandmaster Caz. Emerging artists such as Lupe Fiasco and Kid Cudi make sure to honor Hip Hop’s roots of “beats” by utilizing song backgrounds that are evocative of music history’s African chants and reggae. More importantly, they include lyrics that stimulate listeners’ minds. Sadly though, today’s music fans simply do not want to hear old school-like beats or deep lyrics, as evidenced by the numerous financial difficulties that Kid Cudi and Lupe Fiasco have faced in the music industry in recent years. Most recently, Lupe was forced to dumb down many of his lyrics in his 2011 album, “Lasers,” in order to appeal to the modern crowd. Rumor has it that he was also forced, under contract, to work with beats that he believed held no traces of Hip Hop . Even though these actions of Lupe Fiasco’s record company can easily be scorned upon, they are completely understandable. The fact of the matter is that true Hip Hop is beyond rejuvenation despite the fact that there is no shortage of the talent needed to revive it; therefore, the “machine” that Kelefa Senneh spoke about in his New York Times article is indeed broken, and beyond repair. Hopefully, in the near future, the new kinds of music that have sprouted from Hip Hop can carry on the genre’s legacy by reclaiming a meaningful grasp on America’s entertainment culture and inspiring, rather than simply entertaining, young listeners.





WORKS CITED:

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By Chuck D, Keith Shocklee, Eric "Vietnam" Sadler, and Hank Shocklee, Fight the Power, Public Enemy. Rec. 1989. Produced by the Bomb Squad, 1989. MP3.

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By Shakur, Tupac. Changes. Recorded under Artist Name "2Pac" Rec. 1992. Produced by Interscope Records, 1992. MP3.

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CroagunkThis teenager is a 'regular' and has contributed a lot of work, comments and/or forum posts, and has received many votes and high ratings over a long period of time. said...
today at 9:10 am
This is the best article I've read in Teen Ink so far.
 
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