Falling on Def Earz

The Positive Side of Hip Hop

Jun 30, 2004 at 2:06 pm
Woodrow J. Hinton

"If skills sold, truth be told, I'd probably be lyrically, Talib Kweli ..."

— Jay-Z

I guess it's official: The latest issue of Complex Magazine (a relatively new Hip Hop/fashion monthly) declared that "conscious Hip Hop was making a comeback."

I suppose I should be thrilled. After all, isn't this what I've been campaigning for since I began my literary crusade to resurrect the sleeping giant that positive, socially relevant Hip Hop has become? But the magazine's declaration left me wondering whether the writer had watched Black Entertainment Tragedy (BET) or eMpTyV (as Chuck D. calls it) lately. With the exception of an occasional video by The Roots or Dilated Peoples, both networks regularly shuffle through a predictable playlist that includes the likes of Jay-Z, Lloyd Banks, Juvenile, 8Ball & MJG, Yin Yang Twins and Murphy Lee (not to mention MTV Cribs and BET's How I'm Living). I would hardly consider this a comeback.

The author cites the recent successes of Talib Kweli, dead prez and Kanye West as evidence of an uptick in culturally relevant Rap music. While these artists are certainly not as obscure as they were a year or so ago, they're far from being household names for your average mid-to-late-teen Hip Hop consumer.

Sadly, this is the very demographic that needs to hear their messages the most. Just this past Memorial Day weekend, a family member in her teens asked to see my latest column. That she was even interested enough to ask me was half the battle, I thought. After she skimmed it, she offered the well-intentioned suggestion that I write about Lil' Flip (or was it Lil' Wayne?) for my next column. Never one to dismiss an idea, I thought of possible titles: "Lil' Flip and the Globalization of Hip Hop Lyricism," perhaps. I'll have to get back to her on this.

Such conversations remind me that positive Rap artists such as Talib Kweli, dead prez and, to a significantly lesser extent, Kanye West (who had already forged an alliance with Roc-a-fella Records prior to his debut) are facing an uphill battle as they compete with their commercial counterparts. I also recognize that fans like me who are predisposed to having interests in politics, culture and history represent a built-in audience ready to actively embrace the messages offered by these and like-minded artists. Conversely, individuals who have not been exposed to dialogues about culture, spirituality, history, metaphysics and so on might shun the deeply layered subtexts embedded in many songs that might be categorized as "positive."

As a result, I foresee a widening Hip Hop "cultural gap" where more cerebral forms of music are marketed towards a different demographic than, well, all the other stuff. In fact, alternative Hip Hop fans — sometimes referred to as "backpackers" — have always been known as an elitist bunch due to their tendency to bypass commercially accessible Hip Hop for hard-to-find, obscure artists and mix-tapes while the "thugged out" or "crunk" crowds thrive on popular, mainstream Rap music. (In fact, when I saw Kweli perform at Covington's Madison Theatre a few months ago, I felt more like I was in the middle of a dimly lit college bookstore than at a Rap concert.)

I once speculated that the streetwise Nasir Jones might be the type of artist who could bridge commercially accessible Rap music with underground, alternative Hip Hop culture. Yet this divide seems to grow larger and larger as advertisers continue to highjack and exploit Hip Hop culture as a tool to promote mass consumerism. Half the kids are buying into it by passively absorbing what programming directors want them to hear, while the other half are walking around with iPods in a secluded world filled with obscure political and spiritual rhyme metaphors that will likely never see the light of day on commercial radio. It will be interesting to see where life leads these two divergent groups as the next 10 years unfold.

On "Moment of Clarity" from his magnum opus/alleged swan song, The Black Album, Jay-Z makes a reference to rhyming like Talib Kweli and Common. Perhaps we'll never know whether his hardcore fans would embrace lyrics about self-knowledge and culture. And, certainly, few record companies would risk spending the money it would take to find out. However, in some ways the magazine writer who suggested that conscious Hip Hop was making a comeback might have been right.

Those of us who crave music on a "higher level" can easily download countless independent and small-label releases from specialized Web sites, while the rest of the world receives their music through the filter of mainstream media and large chain music retailers. I've always said that if conscious Rap ever became as popular as it had been in the late '80s/early '90s, I would have little to write about. But that's a chance that I'm willing to take.

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