Blues and Soul Music Magazine

Issue 1084

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B&S 1000: IS HIP HOP DEAD?

BODY POPPERS
BODY POPPERS

AN OPEN LETTER TO HIP-HOP

Dear Hip-Hop,

You̢۪re probably wondering why I̢۪m writing you this letter. After being such an influential part of my life for 25 years you̢۪re no doubt asking yourself why I̢۪d feel the need to put down something as formal as this when we interact on a daily basis. Damn, even when I brush my teeth in the morning you̢۪re there blasting out of the speakers to get me motivated for the day ahead. But it̢۪s precisely because of the bond we share that I felt it necessary to pen this letter. Sometimes you can be so close to something that it̢۪s hard to step back and look at the bigger picture, and with Blues & Soul celebrating its 1000th issue I thought now was as good a time as any to look back, look forward, and generally get some shit off my chest.

Do you remember when you first came into my life, hip-hop? I do. I can still recall it like it was yesterday. You entered my seven-year-old world in 1982 on a beat-up tape that a kid at school had snatched from his older brother. It had Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five’s ‘The Message’ on it. I remember not being able to pinpoint exactly what it was about that classic track’s hypnotic groove and commanding rhymes that attracted me, but I did know that what I was experiencing was different from any other music I’d heard before. You had me hooked from that moment, hip-hop. My life, like the lives of so many others who fell in love with you back then, became a journey of musical and cultural discovery, enriched by a burst of creativity full of gravity-defying b-boy moves, vibrant graffiti murals, turntable trickery, booming beats and raw rhymes. I often wonder if Kool Herc, in his wildest daydreams, ever thought you’d have such a profound global impact when he planted the first seeds of your existence in New York City during the early-’70s? Did the Jamaican-born DJ ever look out from behind his turntables during those sweaty old-school Bronx parties and comprehend that he was the spark for a cultural revolution that would shape the world around us in so many different ways, from music and art to fashion and media? I doubt it.

But that was your beauty during those early days, hip-hop. You were new, fresh and unpredictable. There were no rules to what you could or couldn̢۪t do because nobody had thought to set any. Everyone was learning as they went along, both artists and fans alike. You were larger-than life, but at that point in time still just a small dot on the pop culture landscape, yet to be recognised, repackaged and regurgitated by money-hungry corporations. Hindsight is a wonderful thing, but if you knew then what we know now, I wonder if you̢۪d have made the same decisions along the way. Would you have encouraged Run-DMC to take that Adidas endorsement deal in the mid-̢۪80s? Would you have let Vanilla Ice ever make a record? Would you have allowed a million-and-one gangsta rappers with minimal talent to gain major deals after the success of N.W.A.? Would you have stood by while the media fanned the flames of the East Coast / West Coast beef of the mid-̢۪90s that arguably contributed to the loss of both Biggie Smalls and Tupac Shakur? Pause.

Without you hip-hop, I wouldn’t be the person I am today. You helped mould and shape my mind and world view during the most impressionable stages of my life. That’s why when artists today who’re criticised for their lyrical content shirk off the influence their music has by claiming that you’re just entertainment, I smile sadly to myself. Because I know that you’re so much more powerful than that, and there’s a nation of millions out there who would agree. Those of us who came up during your golden-age were being taught lessons that we were never given in school. In the classroom I might’ve been learning about maths and English, but the real science was being dropped during lunch-break when my crew would debate the politics of the new Public Enemy record or the meaning behind the latest intricate maze of poetry constructed by the great Rakim. These were friends, I might add, who came into my life through our common bond with you, hip-hop. Friends I’m still tight with today some 20 years later, and, yes, we still argue about whether or not Big Daddy Kane sold out when he started wearing purple suits and recording with Barry White. But back then we were just kids, proud members of the Hip-Hop Nation. You influenced the way we thought, the way we dressed, the way we communicated with each other in both speech and body language. You were us and we were you, hip-hop. You showed us that it was okay to be an individual and to stand out from the crowd. I know you used to smile when at 15-years-old I’d drive my mother crazy by insisting I wore my PE ‘Welcome To The Terrordome’ t-shirt to church on Sunday.

Like Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince said, hip-hop, parents just didn’t understand. But you were educating us through the many different voices that came from your soul. You took me, a white working-class British kid, and put me in Brooklyn, Compton, Houston’s Fifth Ward, Chicago’s Southside and beyond. You gave every one of us who pledged allegiance to you some common ground, regardless of race, location or cultural background. Stetsasonic told me about apartheid in South Africa, KRS-One schooled me on religion, Queen Latifah insisted I respected women, Kid-N-Play taught me how to dance, Chuck D opened my eyes to politics, and Ice Cube spoke-out against police brutality. You were all things, hip-hop, from the serious to the humorous, and your strength was in your diversity. But lately, hip-hop, you’ve changed. Nas even said you were dead. I bet that shocked you, right? The very same artist who so clearly had you running through his veins on his classic ‘Illmatic’ debut throwing dirt on your coffin? But I imagine you were probably even more surprised by the amount of people who agreed with the Queensbridge icon. Personally, I don’t think you’re dead, hip-hop, but I do wonder where you’re going.

Some say it was when Puffy started dancing in shiny suits? Others argue it was when gangsta rap rose to prominence? Many agree it was when major labels began to see the money that could be made from you. But whatever the reasons for the current state you find yourself in, hip-hop, one thing is certain - you̢۪ve become caught up in your own hype. You always talked about breaking into the mainstream and changing the world for the better, but now you̢۪ve hit the big time what happened to the radical politics, cultural analysis and revolutionary spirit that fuelled you back in the day? For the most part, all I see and hear when I turn on MTV or the radio now is money, sex and violence. Of course, all those elements could be found in you when you were younger to, as you were certainly no angel (remember 2 Live Crew and the Geto Boys?), but to most people now, both fans and detractors alike, that̢۪s all you are.

I have friends who don̢۪t even recognise you anymore, hip-hop. They grew-up with you and you provided the soundtrack to most of their lives, but now they say they can̢۪t relate to you. Don̢۪t you think that̢۪s sad? It̢۪s not that they̢۪ve outgrown you; it̢۪s that you haven̢۪t been allowed to grow with them. We listen to old albums, not in an attempt to recapture our youth, hip-hop, but because the late-̢۪80s music of a 20-something KRS-One still has more relevance to me as 31-year-old in 2007 than most of the product being released today by artists my own age.

The relationship you have with the mainstream entertainment industry becomes more self-destructive with every new generic thugged-out album that hits stores, every magazine cover that̢۪s paid for by a label, and every wack track that gets put on heavy radio rotation thanks to record company politics. You don̢۪t decide who̢۪s hot anymore, hip-hop, the same people who shitted all over you when you were trying to gain some recognition back in the day do. Labels aren̢۪t interested in signing artists who̢۪re prepared to show how positive and uplifting you can be, they just want the same old murder raps and crack tales. That̢۪s a part of who you are, but you have so much more to offer. Every now and then you give us the odd glimmer of hope, with a new Common album here, and an artist like a Lupe Fiasco there, but you need to be doing more to take back control of your own destiny, hip-hop, and bring some balance back into your life.

I worry about the kids, hip-hop. The kids who̢۪re looking to you for direction and meaning the same way I did as I was growing-up. The kids who you̢۪re influencing as much as you influenced me. The kids who̢۪re looking at 50 Cent as a superhero, the same way I was in awe of Melle Mel. I wonder what your lasting impact will be on those youngsters who̢۪re listening to you today, soaking up the relentless negativity that surrounds your mainstream voice. In my darkest moments of disillusionment, hip-hop, I even wonder if the increasing amount of youth crime on our streets has more to do with the detrimental messages in much of your music than both you or I would ever like to admit.

But every once in awhile I̢۪m reminded of the potential you still have to make a difference in people̢۪s lives. A new guy recently started working with me at my day-job. He̢۪s only just turned 21 and has a real zeal for you, hip-hop. We̢۪ve talked about you a lot. We̢۪ve even laughed about how a 30-something white dude originally from Milton Keynes and a young black kid from Hackney, London shouldn̢۪t have as much in common as we do, but, of course, that̢۪s thanks to you. When my new friend talks about hearing Big Pun̢۪s breath-taking flow for the first time, you can see the passion in his eyes. When he explains how listening to Nas helped him think twice about getting caught up in street drama, you can hear the sincerity in his voice. And when we argue about whether Jay-Z is a better MC than Biggie was, he earnestly recites intricate verses committed to memory to prove his point. All of which reminds me not only of the joy, excitement and positive influence you brought into my life, hip-hop, but also of the fact that you̢۪re still able to do that for others today.

And that̢۪s why, after all these years, I still love you.

Peace!
Words Ryan Proctor

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