A Nation (Almost) Unified

The Positive Side of Hip Hop

"Rappers are getting rich and starting businesses and corporations and once you get to that level you have nowhere else to go but politics."

— Wise Intelligent (of Poor Righteous Teachers)

For the last two years, my opinion of Kanye West has swung back and forth like a Cameo song. On the one hand, I found his public persona to be arrogant and his preoccupation with overpriced men's clothing counterintuitive to his often culturally-relevant lyrics. His production techniques and trademark high-speed R&B samples — while effective — had become somewhat predictable.

And while his flow was unique enough to propel his groundbreaking debut album College Dropout to multi-platinum sales, I wondered how well his self-deprecating humor would serve his long-awaited sophomore effort, Late Registration.

Apparently pretty well.

Then there's the whole diamond thing. I've read entire magazine articles dedicated to Kanye's diamond-encrusted Jesus piece. I've also read reviews of the popular "Diamonds (from Sierra Leone)" remix (where he sheds light on the perils of working in Africa's diamond mines); yet before I had a chance to hear the song I saw him on the cover of Complex Magazine, rocking diamond fronts on his lower teeth.

And, most recently, his unscripted criticism of the federal government's response to the predominantly poor, black survivors of Hurricane Katrina has re-ignited a national debate about the role that entertainers have — if any — in the process of national healing.

Kanye's remarks came during what some considered the pinnacle of his career. NBC's hurricane relief telethon aired several days following the release of Registration and on the heels of a Time magazine cover shot underscoring mainstream America's acceptance of Kanye as the "safe, intelligent rapper."

Were his telethon comments the ultimate sacrifice or, as some would suggest, the ultimate publicity stunt? Either way, in light of his comments, the tide in Hip Hop music will likely begin to shift toward political and social commentary. What saddens me, however, is that it would take a tragedy of this scale to get us there.

Now a number of artists from the South — including Mississippi's David Banner, New Orleans' Juvenile and Atlanta's Young Jeezy — have not only commented publicly on the national tragedy, but have also offered free concerts and other charitable donations aimed at providing relief for the Gulf region's hurricane victims.

KRS-One, dead prez and Ras Kass recently performed at a benefit concert in L.A. while Chuck D's appropriately-titled single, "Hell No We Ain't Alright," is making waves on the Internet. In Chicago, Twista spearheaded a benefit concert featuring Do or Die, Da Brat and Crucial Conflict.

In New York, Hip Hop journalist/activist Kevin Powell organized a food and clothing drive with the help of Kanye, Talib Kweli, Mos Def and Common while Jay-Z and Diddy donated a combined $1 million to the American Red Cross.

For once, Hip Hop — the world's most dominating cultural force — is being used for something other than meaningless gangster posturing and Kanye West appears to be the reluctant heir-apparent to the political/conscious Hip Hop movement.

Unfortunately, even in the face of tragedy, lines are quickly drawn in the sand. Most ultra-conservatives (including one Laura Bush) find Kanye's remarks despicable, but surprisingly, Master P (who lost his home and possibly several family members to Hurricane Katrina) criticized Kanye for the polarizing effect of his comments. Meanwhile Banner — known for imbedding scathing political commentary in his Southern Crunk-style music — and others are supporting, at the very minimum, Kanye's right to express his opinion in the face of the greatest natural disaster to strike American soil.

Now this is precisely the kind of Hip Hop beef that I would love to see escalate. It might continue to fester to the point where someone actually — who knows — runs for political office or something equally ambitious. Imagine a nationally televised debate between New York mayoral candidates Nasir Jones and Sean Carter. Laugh now, but remember: This is America — stranger things have happened.

Yet there are some who are more comfortable seeing the commonly-projected images of thugged-out rappers grinning and singing about their syzzurp, jewelry, SUVs and pimp games. When Hip Hop artists exceed the expectations of their critics by using their celebrity to mobilize the masses for a good cause, they've somehow suddenly overstepped their bounds.

KRS-One said it best. On his 1994 Return of the Boom Bap LP, he reminded/warned us that "we will be here forever." Indeed, we are witnessing real Hip Hop, live and direct. We know that sooner or later another big newsmaker will come along and the attention of much of the world will be directed elsewhere. But those who suffered or perished at the hands of Katrina should know that as long as real Hip Hop exists, their stories will never be forgotten.

And it only took one mic.

5 on theledge

· Chubb Rock, O.C. & Jeru the Damaja — "Return of the Crooklyn Dodgers" (Clockers soundtrack) Chubb Rock challenges the conventional wisdom surrounding the crack epidemic in this definitive mid-'90s, East Coast anthem.

· Little Brother — "Cheatin"(The Minstrel Show) This full-length slow jam (performed by the fictitious Percy Miracles) pokes fun at those corny, sound-alike ballads churned out by just about every R&B crooner on the scene.

· De La Soul — "Verbal Clap" (The Grind Date) The haunting synth chords and hypnotic loop inspired by Billy Squier's "The Big Beat" are the perfect match for the Plugs' unstoppable wordplay.

· Jean Grae — "Not Like Me" (This Week) Aka Hurricane Jean, Grae separates herself from all the rest with lyrics like, "I wear more clothes and let their eyes do the undressing."

· Jadakiss featuring Sheek Louch — "Real Hip Hop" (Kiss of Death) Get your neck brace and Advil ready — 'Kiss' gravelly, persistent flow over a retro-Soul track is a guaranteed head-nodding classic.

KEVIN BRITTON writes about Hip Hop music and its impact on popular culture. His column appears monthly in CityBeat.

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